The recent high school graduate chose her outfit carefully when she went to a summer folk festival.
She was dressed all in white, as was the custom for the occasion, and wore a large wreath in her golden hair. But when it came to choosing a sash for her skirt, she opted for brown leather bands, avoiding red.
In Belarus, red and white are the colors of the protest movement against the country's authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. And even the smallest sign of protest can land a person in prison. “I'm worried about attracting the wrong attention from the authorities,” said the young woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity so she would not attract attention.
After claiming victory in a widely disputed presidential election three years ago – and violently crushing the protests that raged in its aftermath – Lukashenko has ushered in an era of horrific repression.
He has drawn ever closer to his patron, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, positioning himself as an invaluable military ally to Russia in its war against Ukraine, but also cracking down on dissent in ways invisible to most of the world but rivaling Mr Putin's punitive regime.
Belarusian security forces rounded up opposition figures, journalists, lawyers and even people who committed offenses such as commenting on social media memes or insulting Mr Lukashenko on social media. private conversation with acquaintances heard and reported.
In particular, say activists and rights groups, the country's security forces intend to find and punish people who participated in the 2020 protests. Belarusians were arrested for wearing red and white, sporting a fist tattoo – also a symbol of the protest movement – or simply being seen in photographs of a three-year-old anti-government demonstration.
“In the last three years, we went from a soft autocracy to neo-totalitarianism,” said Igor Ilyash, a journalist who opposes the Lukashenko government. “They criminalize the past.”
Belarusians interviewed by The New York Times over three days this month echoed that sentiment, expressing fear that even the slightest perceived offense linked to the revolution could lead to prison terms.
The crackdown has made people more careful about publicly showing their anger at the government, said Ilyash. That, in turn, prompted authorities to focus on participating in long-standing protests in a bid to intimidate and stifle dissent.
Monitoring of Lukashenko's repressive government has increased since Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year, and particularly in recent months.
Belarus let the Kremlin invade Ukraine from its territory last year. In March, Russia announced it would deploy tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. Video evidence shows Belarus now hosting troops from Russia's Wagner paramilitary group, and on Thursday, the government said Wagner troops were training a Belarusian special operations unit just miles from the border with Poland.
The security crackdown has thinned the ranks of lawyers: More than 500 have stripped of their legal license or leave the profession or the country.
And Belarus has become very dangerous for journalists. Now there are 36 in jail, according to Belarusian Association of Journalists, following the arrest of Ihar Karnei, 55, on Monday. He has written for the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Belarus bans as an “extremist” organization. People can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison for simply sharing the content.
According to Viasna, a human rights group that shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, security forces raided Karnei's home and confiscated his electronic devices. He is in the notorious Okrestina Belarus detention center, the group said, and neither his family nor lawyers have access to him.
Belarus has criminalized most independent news outlets and journalist associations as “extremists”, making following them on social media a crime.
Mr. Ilyash's wife, award-winning journalist Katsiaryna Andreyevawas sentenced to eight years in prison in two separate cases and now working in a penal colony as a seamstress, she earned less than $4 a month, said her husband.
In jail, he forced to wear a yellow badge on his chest identified him as a political prisoner. When he is released in 2028, if the same government is still in power, he will still be considered an “extremist” and banned from certain activities, including journalism.
Mr Ilyash himself spent 25 days in jail, and with one criminal case against him still open, he is barred from leaving the country. He doesn't leave his apartment without a small backpack filled with prison essentials, in case he gets arrested: a toothbrush, toothpaste, spare underwear, and socks.
Activists and opposition figures have also been targeted. This month, artist Ales Pushkin died in a penal colony at the age of 57. He is believed to be the third political prisoner to die in Belarusian custody since protests began in 2020.
Some of the country's most high-profile political prisoners, such as prominent opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova, have never been seen by family members or their lawyers, nor have they been allowed to write letters, meaning they have been arrested. out of range for months.
Viasna, the rights group, has identified nearly 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus today, and another 1,900 people were convicted in what the group calls “politically motivated criminal trials.”
“Security services are still watching videos of people, scouring social media and photos of protests years later,” said Evgeniia Babayeva, a Viasna staff member who cataloged politically motivated detentions in Belarus from exile in Lithuania.
Babayeva's mother was arrested in July 2021, the same day as the group's founder, Ales Bialiatski, along with several other associates. He was released only because he signed an agreement to cooperate with the security services, but he says he fled Belarus the same day.
In March, Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “money smuggling” and “financing acts and groups that grossly violate public order,” charges widely viewed by watchdog groups as bogus and meant to discredit the organization.
On the surface, visitors to the nation's capital should look closely for any signs that the 2020 protests are actually happening. Minsk, which prides itself on cleanliness, is neatly arranged with a modern city center. Billboards chant 2023 as “the year of peace and creation”, and roadside public parks are manicured with Belarusian national motifs.
But residents say a more ominous sensibility looms over the city and countryside. Cameras with facial recognition capabilities keep tabs on public spaces and residential elevators, keeping an eye on ordinary Belarusians going about their daily activities.
One June evening, a Minsk resident was out walking when he was approached by police, who reprimanded him for a simple administrative offense, not as serious as a walk.
Officers searched his name in police databases, finding evidence of his previous detention for participating in the 2020 protests. Police officers immediately brought forward allegations that he had cursed in their office – which he denied – and he was put in the Okrestina detention center for 10 days on charges of “hooliganism”.
She shared a small cell with 12 other women, she said. There are no mattresses or pillows, and the lights are on 24 hours a day. Even though everyone else got sick – he caught a bad case of Covid – they had to share toothbrushes. There are no showers, and if a woman gets her period she is given cotton balls rather than pads or tampons.
(The woman's name and offense were withheld at her request because the information could identify her and lead to retaliation. Her identity was confirmed by The Times, and friends confirmed she had provided them with similar accounts.)
The repressive environment stifled people and pushed many to leave. High school graduate who went to the summer solstice celebrations and Belarusian poet Yanka Kupala said she had been attending because of a dearth of public events since 2020.
“We have nowhere else to go,” he said, complaining of such tight controls that even traditional songs have been pre-approved by the authorities. He said most of the good musicians were given “extremist” names and fled the country.
The girl said she plans to follow them, hoping to continue her studies in Cyprus or Austria. At least half of his classmates have already left Belarus.
Another festival goer, Vadim, 37, said he was under the impression that at least half of his friends had spent time in prison for their political views.
He said his wife had already emigrated, and he was considering joining her.
“The war became a trigger for many people to leave,” he said.
“Before, we thought this situation would eventually end,” says Vadim, “but once the war started, we knew it would only get worse.”