Maria Kolesnikova, along with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Veronika Tsepkala, led the Belarusian opposition movement against the electoral fraud of ruler Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020. She was the only one of the trio not to flee the country. In September 2020, the trained flautist was arrested and sentenced to eleven years in prison for “riot”. WELT spoke to her sister Tatsiana Khomich on the phone.
WORLD: Where are you right now, Mrs. Khomich?
Tatsiana Khomich: In a big European city outside of Belarus. Exactly where is not important.
WORLD: Are you in contact with your sister Maria?
Khomich: Yes, I can reach them in the penal colony in Gomel, 300 kilometers from Minsk – by phone or video call. I spoke to her for the last time on June 22nd, for about six minutes. This was my fifth call since they moved there in January 2022.
WORLD: Are these calls monitored?
Khomich: Yes. There is always someone at Maria’s side. But I can’t see him. We are not allowed to talk about political affairs in Belarus or about the war in Ukraine.
WORLD: What is your impression of Maria?
Khomich: In March she was very pale. She was held in solitary confinement for 16 months during pre-trial detention in Minsk and was only able to leave her cell for an hour once a day. In the penal colony, her life has now changed completely. More than 1,000 women are there, including around 40 political prisoners. She now shares a large dorm with 14 other women. They belong to their group. The camp management divided all the women into groups of 80 to 100 people. Each group has specific tasks to perform. Maria has to sew clothes – for medical staff, but also uniforms for police officers and soldiers.
WORLD: How is your mood?
Khomich: Maria is in a good mood. Sometimes she even jokes during our conversations. Then we both laugh. That may come as a surprise to hear. But that shows how strong she is.
WORLD: Does she get enough food and hygiene items?
Khomich: Yes. She can also buy something in a shop in the colony.
WORLD: So you get a wage?
Khomich: Yes, but it’s very low. Maria’s first wage was less than one euro a month. But we can send her some money.
WORLD: What does it mean to be a political prisoner?
Khomich: The political prisoners wear a yellow marking on their clothing. It shows everyone that they are imprisoned in the colony for “extremism”. They have to undergo several extra checks every day. In the penultimate week of May, Maria – along with 65 other representatives of the opposition – was also put on a list of terrorists by the Belarusian secret service. We don’t yet know what that will mean specifically for them in the camp.
WORLD: Is your sister tortured?
Khomich: I would say the political prisoners are mentally tortured. They can recognize each other by the yellow mark and are not allowed to talk to each other under any circumstances. Maria also has few conversations with regular prisoners – they avoid conversation to protect themselves. And Maria doesn’t want to harm them and therefore doesn’t seek dialogue. They try to isolate my sister even though she’s always around people.
WORLD: Can Maria receive visitors?
Khomich: In principle, visits from relatives are allowed several times a year. There is the possibility of short visits, four times a year for four hours. You then sit across from each other, separated by a pane of glass. But there are also visits that can last three days. Then the detainees can spend the night with relatives in an extra room or cook together.
WORLD: Has your sister ever done that?
Khomich: Maria turned 40 on April 24th. At some point during this time – not necessarily on her birthday – she would have been happy to see my father. But then the appointments for a longer visit and a short visit during this period were canceled at short notice, allegedly because Maria had behaved improperly towards an overseer. My father last saw her for an hour in December, in the Minsk detention center.
WORLD: Do you think Maria regrets not having left the country?
WORLD: Does your sister have dreams in prison?
Khomich: Your greatest dream is that Belarus will become a free and democratic country. And she wants to see us all again: our family, her friends who had to flee or were imprisoned. She is sure that day will come at some point.
WORLD: What are your expectations of the federal government?
Khomich: Please don’t forget what happened in Belarus and how people fought for their freedom!