MINSK — The welcoming committee waiting for Angelina Serzhan when she was released from prison on Feb. 14 was limited to her parents, who were happy ... and worried. The hour of Serzhan's release had been postponed at the last moment. An argument soon broke out between the reunited family. "My father told me that I was responsible because I had worn politically incorrect socks," says the 20-year-old. She had taken part in the demonstrations demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who was re-elected on Aug. 9, 2020. She had expected to be arrested one day by the special riot police (OMON), but certainly not because of her socks.

On Jan. 30, police officers put her in a van while she was crossing a park in the capital. The reason? Serzhan, who studies fine arts in Minsk, was wearing white and red socks, the colors of the former flag of the Belarusian People's Republic. This flag became the symbol of the protest movement. At the verdict of her trial, on Skype, she was sentenced to 15 days of detention for "participation in a mass event not authorized by the authorities."

In prison, Angelina did not receive letters from her friends or any news from the outside. She was only allowed to have medicine, sent by her parents. But she quickly befriended her fellow inmates. "I met a lot of interesting people," says the girl. "I exchanged my Instagram account with girls my age and my phone number with older women."

While mass protests have ceased since the fall, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the opposition figurehead in exile in Lithuania, called on Belarusians to take to the streets again on March 25 for Freedom Day. But the regime has stepped up the pressure on the country and is now hunting down opposition figures. Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian freelance journalist, describes a "toughening of prison sentences" including an increase from 15 to 30 days in prison.

Prison strengthens the determination of the protesters.

With more than 33,000 arrests of protesters since Aug. 9, stays in detention centers have become an important facet of the protest movement. As of March 19, the human rights organization Viasna counted 288 political prisoners. This number keeps growing. "Recently, the Minister of the Interior spoke of more than 2,300 cases of politically motivated detentions," says Liubakova. "If these protesters are sentenced to years in prison, the number of political prisoners will increase."

Igor, 36, has also served time in prison. Igor works at an independent cultural institution and was arrested on his way to join a "solidarity chain" during his lunch break. In the fall, he was held for three days in Minsk's Okrestina prison. This did not deter him from demonstrating again. "People like me who have spent time in Okrestina or other prisons cannot change our minds. It's impossible to give up the fight."

Today, Igor supports those who have been detained, like Anastasia, a colleague who was arrested at her home on the morning of Feb. 18. "Apparently, it was because of the revolutionary flag in her window," he says. "We already knew what was in store for her. In recent weeks, all people arrested for white and red decorations are being detained for 15 days." Anastasia was sentenced to two weeks in prison in Okrestina.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania — Photo: Imago via ZUMA Press

The conditions of detention there are said to be much harsher than elsewhere. One of Igor's neighbors, arrested in early February and sentenced to two weeks in prison, spent her first week "in a cell for six occupied by 24 people," he says. "At one point, the guards washed the floor with chlorine; two girls felt sick and were taken to the hospital. The others could not lie down to sleep."

In Minsk, the residents of the neighborhoods have set up a fund to pay fines. When one of them gets arrested, "calls are immediately made via dozens of chats on Telegram [an encrypted messaging application] to collect money," says Igor. The neighborhood also organizes to give gifts, send letters or be present when protestors are released. The day Igor's neighbor was released from Jodzina prison, 30 neighbors went to pick her up at the exit with flowers.

The silence of the administration on the arrivals and transfers of prisoners has prompted Belarusians to obtain this information themselves. Volunteers are stationed outside police stations or detention centers. "They put pressure on people they know in police departments and do as much as possible to share information on Telegram. In fact, they are doing the job that police officers are supposed to do," says Igor. The volunteers also advise the families of the detainees. If you are bringing packages, and the guards accept them, the sausage must be pre-cut; the toothpaste taken out of the tube.

While the crackdown spares no one, it is "especially hard" on former members of the security forces, says Sergei. This man, in his 40s, worked "19 years and three months" in a police department in Minsk. On Aug. 11, he submitted his resignation and joined the protest movement. Arrested on Dec. 13, he spent not 15 days in prison, but 37. "I know very well why they gave me such a long sentence; they were trying to build a criminal case against me," says Sergei. However, according to him, prison strengthens the determination of the protesters. "Inside, people are becoming more mature," he says.

See more from World Affairs here