"Tomorrow you're going to shit. Today is just a rehearsal."
Renat (name changed) is 43 years old. He is now in Moscow, earning a living as an unskilled worker. Renat is a delivery courier. He has no family and no his own place. His income is enough for food and a night in a hostel. From 2001 to 2003, he did his military service as a conscript and belonged to the first category of the reserve. After two detentions at demonstrations against the war and a third on the street, he tried to make his way to Europe through Belarus in order to get asylum there. Wandering for days through the woods, captivity, torture, deportation back to Russia - "Witnesses February 24" has a complete audio recording of his story. He opened his name, sent us photos, video and other evidence of his identity. We do not publish them for his safety. We present Renat's story almost verbatim:
- I was born in Krasnodar Region and grew up in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District. In 2005 I moved to St. Petersburg and lived there for 17 years. I don't have any relatives. I don't drink alcohol and haven't smoked in 17 years.
I have a rebellious nature. When I was young, I went to Russian marches in St. Petersburg, I shared and supported ultra-right-wing, nationalist views. That is all in the past now. I have grown up and wised up. Now I have an Uzbek friend. I believe that there are no bad nations, there are bad people.
I came to Moscow last September. I thought it would be a quick way to make some money here and then go back to St. Petersburg. But nothing is more permanent than the temporary.
On February 24, I participated in a rally against the war in Ukraine. I was detained and a trial was scheduled, to which I did not go. Without my participation a fine of 30,000 rubles was determined. Then I took part in a second rally on March 7.
And then I was walking along Tverskaya Street, two policemen came up to me and started asking for my passport. I said to them, 'On what grounds?' They said to me, 'We have leads'. I said to them, 'Show me these leads'. They told me: 'This is official information, we have no right to show it'. I continued to protest, they saw that it was useless to talk to me, so they put their hands behind my back and put me in a van. And they attributed it to my third participation in the rally against the war in Ukraine. So, sitting in the bus, I made a decision to flee to Europe, the sooner the better.
The next day I bought a bus ticket from Moscow to Minsk. Before that I had never been to Minsk or Belarus at all, I had heard that it was our friendly country, visa-free regime, that there were no problems for Russians to go there.
I bought a ticket and took the road. I didn't have much money with me. It was all in a rush. I had a small backpack with me, and I didn't have any camping equipment (clothes, tent, sleeping bag). I wore what I usually wear on the street in the city, and so I set off.
The bus arrives at 4 a.m. the next morning at the border with Belarus. There our border guards come in, start looking at the passports of everyone on the bus. Everyone is waving their Belarusian passports, and then I am the only one who pulls out a red Russian passport.
He [border guard] to me: "What is the purpose of your visit to Belarus? I was not ready for such a question, I was confused at first. Then the first thing that came into my head, I said: "Well, to my friends. He asked me: "What are you gonna do there?" I said, "Well, walking around, seeing the sights." He says, "No, that's no good. Get off the bus with your stuff."
March 9. It's cold outside, snowing. It's 4:00 in the morning. I look: no bus stop, nothing in the distance. Only a gas station can be seen in the opposite direction. The bus kept going. I was left on the street, in a terrible shock. I'm freezing. What should I do? I go back in the direction of Smolensk. I know that the nearest [settlement] is Smolensk, but it's far away. And then I remember that I heard about a bypass, that there are people, cab drivers, [who] somehow take people bypass routes. I opened the Yandex-map, began to look closely at the area. And I see that there is near the river (Dnieper). I think: 'Aha, it's winter now - so the Dnieper must be frozen. There is an option to circumvent'.
I see that on the Yandex-map the border line runs exactly in the middle of the river, i.e. it's enough to cross the river - and you're already in Belarus. I walked through the drifts to the river. I stepped on it - the ice rustled everywhere. I went back a hundred meters. I looked, the ice was already thicker there. I took small steps and crossed to the other side.
To [reach] the highway that goes to Minsk, you have to go a very long way to the nearest town (Lyady - ed.), there will only be a bridge over the Dnieper. I walked for 12 hours through villages and settlements on the way to Minsk.
I went out at 4 p.m. on the highway. A Belarusian picked me up right away and drove me to Minsk. From Minsk I drove to Malorita. I looked at the map: it was just the closest route to the Ukraine. My goal was to go through Belarus to Ukraine, from Ukraine to Poland, and then from Poland on to Europe.
I heard that at that time there was a green corridor for all refugees from Ukraine and all foreigners in Ukraine, including Russians, because they are also considered foreigners. So I decided to make my way to the Krakivets border crossing, and from there I would go with all the refugees.
I got to Malorita, walked all the way to Oltush. I saw a roadblock with soldiers in the distance ahead of me. It frightened me. I went into the bushes and continued through the bushes. Because I am a Russian, I am going towards Ukraine. I realized that they would ask me questions or, unlikely, they would arrest me or even turn me back and deport me. So I went through the bushes, through the woods. I came out to the border of Ukraine, crossed it. The whole time I was afraid, but I am a stubborn man: if I dared to do something, it would be easier to kill me than to stop me.
I went out to the village of Hrypsk. It's nighttime, it's dark. I was just walking down the street past the residential buildings, and I realized that now the residents might come out and ask who I was. No one wanders around here at night for no reason, they all live in their own homes. It's clear that it means I'm some kind of stray. So I think: they're probably even looking at me from the windows, watching me.
I followed the track to the road. There's a river, two bridges across the river. I walked up to the first bridge and looked: there were slabs on one side of it. The other side was dark, I couldn't see anything ahead. But I heard voices in the distance on the other bank. I sat down behind these slabs, began to look out, to peer into the darkness. As a result, I saw a small booth there, with a weak light and a shadow flickering in it. I thought the booth must be some kind of checkpoint.
I carefully, quietly, bending, crossed the river and turned left. I saw on the map that there was a forest, and I was going in the direction of the forest. I was walking and literally almost bumped my forehead into a tank. It was literally a meter and a half away, but it was so dark that I could only distinguish it a meter and a half away from me. I was frightened. I looked into the darkness: there was another one, two, three... five more [tanks] standing there. [Crawling] back in silent steps, I thought: "If there are tanks, then the military must be here somewhere. I went to the right, into the woods.
It was sunrise. I fell into the bushes. My boots were soaked, because when I was sneaking across the border, in the dark, in the woods, I stepped in puddles, fell into a swamp. The day came, I took off my boots in the bushes and tried to dry them, I put them in the sun - they wouldn't dry a thing because of the cold. I took out my phone to see where I should go next and saw that my phone was out of money. Roaming had "eaten up" all the money. Without the Internet, my Yandex-maps wouldn't work.
For five days I wandered through the woods. I understood that I was somewhere near the Polish border, but I did not understand which side. I saw soldiers and tanks on the roads. Soaked, cold, hungry, exhausted, dehydrated. Because I did not have a bottle of water with me, nothing to drink. I was tired and baffled, and I went to surrender.
I just went out on the road and thought, "Well, if they stop me, they'll stop me. If not, then fine, I'll follow the road to the border checkpoint. Naturally, they stopped me right away, they [addressed] me in Ukrainian: "Who are you, where are you going? I [answered them] in Russian. They: "Russian!? Come here, come here'.
Of course, they didn't beat me up. The AFU military 'took me in', put a balaclava on my head backwards, put me in a car, and took me to the headquarters. They took me inside and took the balaclava off my head. I was handcuffed behind my back. I saw that I was in a large room with a large table, where many military officers were sitting: all of them, [judging by] their shoulder straps, and in the center of the table there was one 'civilian' dressed, wearing only a military coat. I realised that he was the chief of staff, and the rest were his subordinates of all ages, young and old, over 60 years old. And everyone was looking at me.
I said hi to everyone. They: "Well, go on, tell us." I tell them that I didn't come here to fight, I'm not a military man, I'm a civilian, I'm just running away from Russia, I want to get to Europe. That I don't agree with Putin's policy, I don't agree with this war. I explained everything, I told them everything. Along the way they made me strip down to my underwear - I undressed. They looked at all my things and asked about my tattoos (I have regular tattoos, not skinhead ones). They looked through my backpack and went through everything. They said, 'Get dressed'. I told them everything in detail about my plans. In principle I had nothing to hide. As it was, I told them so.
They said, "Say, 'Putin is a f**k. "Putin is a f**k, yes, I agree," I said. We joked and laughed. They fed me, not like a criminal: they treated me like a human being. They ate what they ate (and the civilian women cooked for them) and they gave me the same food. They did not insult me, they tried to joke and encourage me.
They spoke to me in Ukrainian. And I don't know Ukrainian. Some words they had to repeat several times for me to understand what they meant.
The most interesting thing started the next day. Two people came, [dressed] 'in civilian clothes'. Then I asked the AFU soldiers who they were, and they [answered]: 'I don't know'. Maybe they were lying, or maybe they did not know. I think it was either the nationalists or the SBU, or maybe both at once. These two were torturing me in the basement. They spoke to me in Russian, beat me all day long, broke three of my ribs, and forced me to write out all my logins and passwords for everything they found in my phone. They started reading everything - the chats, the letters in the e-mails - and they started reading carefully, thoroughly, watching, asking questions. And after every question they beat me up.
They didn't hit me in the face, they didn't touch me. They only hit me in the body: they beat my kidneys and liver... and by the end of the day I was practically coughing up blood. My condition was very bad. At first, while they were torturing me for a day, my head just went blank. I was shocked and frightened only at the end, when it was all over. The understanding came to me, as late ignition, I started to shake, I got nervous trembling,my teeth chattered.
When the war started, a friend wrote me in Whatsapp, 'Imagine, Russia attacked Ukraine, and people are being killed there'. I was just shocked, I just refused to believe it. And when I had already accepted the fact, I wrote to this friend: 'Because of Putin, I am now ashamed in front of the Ukrainians'. And when those two men were torturing me in the basement, they found these words of mine in my correspondence with my friend. One of them came up to me and said, 'Our children are sitting in basements, and you're just ashamed?' - and he kicked me in the chest and I flew across the room into the corner.
While they were talking to me, I stuttered and couldn't speak properly. When they were beating me all day long, I realised that I wasn't going anywhere, I couldn't escape, and there was nowhere to go. I realised that that was it, as they say - my song was done. I just said goodbye to life and told them: 'Why torture? Just shoot me then, that's all'. They said 'No, wait, you still have 15 days. Tomorrow you're going to shit yourself. Today it's just a rehearsal'. It was very frightening.
In general, I was in the small room, where they put me to sleep on the floor, waiting for the next day and I don't know what time it is. All my things were taken away from me. I didn't know the time - there were no windows in this lockup. I am waiting for them to come to me again to torture me more.
I ended up being beaten there for two days. After that I just couldn't lie down or stand up. My ribs were broken, my liver was beaten up. I asked the military at the door to give me painkillers. After a while, the door opened, a young girl came in, also spoke to me in Ukrainian: I am, like, a medic. She gives me a good painkiller. I asked for a second one - she gave me one. The painkiller helped.
On the third day, the door opens. Two military men walk in with machine guns: 'Get up quickly.' I could barely stand up. They [put] the balaclava on my head backwards again, [took me] under my arms and took me outside. I heard the car doors open. I got in, my hands were handcuffed. And I realised that now they're probably going to take me to the woods and that's it.
It was a long drive, longer than when I gave up. The car stops, the door opens. They take me out of the car, take my balaclava off my head. I look: a forest, and it's night, just like I thought it would be. They took the handcuffs off me. These [soldiers] with machine guns are standing there, looking at me. And one of them even pulled the bolt. I looked back. There's an old trench behind me. I think now they're going to put me down with a machine gun - and I'm going to fall into this trench. They'll cover me with earth and that's the end.
And then one of them pointed a finger in my direction and said: 'Over there, behind this trench in the bushes you'll find an old road track that will lead you to the border.' The border? Whose border? With whom is the border? They wouldn't tell me, they just stood there looking at me, gave me my rucksack and passports (my foreign and Russian ones). I took them from the military man and put them in my pocket, into my jacket. I'm looking at them and I don't understand. I just don't believe them. I think: 'Are they joking, or what?' As I turn my back on them and they will shoot me. I looked at them - they were looking at me with serious faces. There was a pause for a minute. They said, 'What are you standing here for? Go.'
I turn my back, take a step. One of them 'Wait, wait.' I stop, turn around. One of the soldiers comes to the car, opens the door, takes out an ordinary store-bought, transparent bag, comes over and gives it to me. I glanced at it - there were canned food. I understand that if they give me food, it means that they will not shoot.
I turned around and got over the other side of the trench, saw the track in the bushes, and went where I was told. I did not turn back, even though I knew they were watching me. I was 300 metres away from them and only then did I hear the car doors slam, the car started up and set off. I followed this path to the border with barbed wire, climbed over it, my hands were all torn. But I hit a fishing line with my foot, I could not see it in the dark. I realised that if I hit the fishing line, it meant that the alarm siren of the border guards must have gone off. It meant that they had to come after me now.
I do not know where I am: Russia, Belarus, or Poland. I walked through the bushes, first I saw a big field, at the end of the field a house, with light in the windows. Behind it there was a road. To the left, where I crossed, I saw a clearing. I thought if I walk through the field, of course, I would be seen in the field. I followed the forest belt, and then I started sneaking through the bushes. It did not take me long to make my way through, and I heard the sound of a car behind me. I hear Russian speech: 'Come on, come on, guys! Quickly jump out, we're working!'
I thought, 'Did I cross Russian border?' I sat on the ground, leaned against a tree and sat with my back to it. Some [border guards] walked past me in one direction, others in the other direction, past me. And third ones, I hear, are coming right at me, branches crunching under their feet. I was sitting under a tree, with nowhere to go. I said to them: 'Guys, don't shoot, I surrender'.
I put my hands up and came out from behind the tree. They came at me: 'Get down!' They didn't hit me, they just threw me on the ground, put my hands behind my back again, and lifted me to my feet. In the darkness I could not see my uniform. They took me out under the streetlights, where I could already see that they were Belarusians.
They: 'What, who are you, where are you going, documents?' I told them that I was trying to get into Poland, everything except that I was in Ukraine. They: 'No fucking way? So Poland's the other way, what are you doing here?' I start telling them a story that I got lost, drowned my phone in a swamp, lost it, wandered through the woods. Of course, they didn't believe the story.
They bring me to their border guard unit, call the captain. And he starts interrogating me. When this [captain] was interrogating me, the warrant officer came in and started going through my things: he looked at my Russian passport, opened my foreign passport, flipped through the pages, - whoop!
'How do you know I'm from the Ukraine?' He says, 'And what's this?' I came over and looked, and there were two Ukrainian stamps on the page, entry and exit, with fresh dates, as if I arrived about a week ago, yesterday or the day before yesterday left there. And I did not see these stamps, did not know about them.
Now I'm telling them the truth: about how I was tortured there, and so on. They look at me in shock, "their jaws are on the floor," as if I were some kind of superhero. In general, [the Belarusians] gave me coffee and food and said: "Sorry, you crossed the border illegally, we will deport you here, we have no right to do otherwise. I said: 'Pretend that you haven't caught anyone, just let me go. I'll go my own way.' He [the captain]: 'No, you got the whole personnel up, you got caught. I can't do that. I'm going to take your passport away.'
At first I said: 'You have no right! On what grounds?' He says, 'Fool, I'm saving your life and health. Tomorrow we'll hand you over to your FSB. And if your FSB finds these two Ukrainian stamps with fresh dates in your passport, they'll have a lot of questions for you - and you'll get more broken ribs, and maybe something else,' he tore [the passport] in my presence, threw it in the trash can and said 'You can get a new one later.'
He put a stamp 'deportation for 8 years' in my Russian passport and said: 'If you try to enter Belarus again during this time, I'll personally put you in jail for 8 years', and wrote a fine of 10,000 rubles. I don't know whether it was Belarusian or Russian rubles.
The next day they took me to the border with Russia, handed me over to the FSB, and he [the captain] wrote everything in the report, just like I told him the first time: that [I] lost my phone in the swamp, got lost, was going to Poland. Did me a favour. And with this report I was handed over to our FSB.
They bring me to Smolensk, to a cell. I spend 24 hours there, and then they let me go. True, they also gave me a fine of 2,000 rubles for illegally crossing the border. I went back to Moscow. Now I'm thinking about getting out of Russia a second time. My dream is to get to the Mexican-American border, so that I can ask for political asylum in the States.
When I came back, I went to the hospital and they confirmed the broken ribs. They stopped bothering me after 2-3 months. Now my health is fine. Nothing hurts.
I have the same attitude to Ukraine as I had before and as I do now. There have been no changes in my attitude. I was well received by the AFU: they did not beat me, did not insult me, and addressed me formally. Only those two tortured me. And now because of two subhumans I have to hate all of Ukraine? No, of course not. It is because of one dwarf who thinks he is the ruler of the world that they hate all the Russians.