She’s busy every minute: this way time flies faster. How Belsat TV journo Darya Chultsova is getting along in penal colony

Our colleague, Belsat journalist Darya Chultsova, has been in prison for almost a year.

After being detained on November 15, 2020, together with Katsyaryna Andreyeva during the coverage of the rally in the so called Square of Change, a 24-year-old girl went through the pre-trial detention centre on Valadarski street and the prison in Zhodzina. She is currently serving her sentence in the Homiel women’s colony. On October 26, Darya was allowed to have a long meeting with her family for the first time: her mother and older sister came to see her. After the meeting, we talked to Natallya, Darya’s mother.

Natallya Tserabilenka, mother of Belsat journalist Darya Chultsova. Photo: PB / Belsat

“Mom, I do my best not to succumb to depression”

Mrs. Natallya and her eldest daughter arrived at the colony on the appointed day, October 26, at 8 am, gave the duty officer the necessary documents and waited. There were a lot of people, the woman notes, eight or nine. They all went to visit their relatives for two days. Darya’s relatives were given only one day.

“I think it’s because Dasha is ‘political’,” says Ms. Natallya. “I have not heard that “political” people were given more than a day to meet. But thanks for at least that.”

Darya’s mother and sister were taken to the room at 9:30. Then Darya came.

“We rushed to each other, could not stop hugging and kissing and crying,” says the mother of our colleague. – Dasha’s older sister did not see her at all from the court in February, I came for short meetings in Minsk to the pre-trial detention centre after the verdict, then to Zhodzina, and on August 25 here in the colony. And now at last they gave us a long meeting.”

Darya’s mother and sister brought her home clothes.

“We took her favourite things, something she always wore at home. We wanted to please her at least with such little things,” says Ms. Natallya. “Dasha was really very happy. She immediately changed clothes. We sat down to share our impressions and news. Dasha looks very good and beautiful, despite the fact that she was ill with covid. Now she is feeling fine. She is in a very good mood. She told me that she does everything not to succumb to depression: works, goes to the gym, tries to spend time with benefit.”

Salary: 41 roubles per month

Darya’s day in the colony starts at 6:00. If the first shift is on the schedule, the journalist goes to work in the sewing factory. In prison Darya learned to be a pattern maker and now she draws patterns with chalk on fabric. According to Ms. Natallya, her daughter likes it, but not so much the work as the fact that there is some kind of occupation.

Illustrative photo. Women’s penal colony in Homiel. Photo: Belsat

“Dasha likes that she is constantly on the move, not sitting at a sewing machine,” says her mother. “She is tall, she has some problems with her spine, and it would be difficult to sit at a sewing machine all the time. Besides, Dasha loves to draw, that’s why she says that her work is just right for her – it’s not too stressful.”

However, this work is almost unpaid. According to Ms. Natallya, when Darya was still learning, her salary was 41 roubles a month.

“There is also a sum which is deducted to pay for uniforms, food and accommodation,” says the mother of the political prisoner. “But we support Dasha, we always send money. They have a store there where they go on schedule. We try to make sure she can buy herself something. We always send something tasty, too. Once a month you can send a vitamin parcel: we send onions, garlic, oranges, lemons, apples.

When there is a second shift at the factory, prisoners often have to peel potatoes in the morning: a bag and a half needs to be peeled,” says Darya’s mother.

“There you have a more acute sense of what’s really valuable”

In addition to her work, Darya takes part in the cultural and sports activities of the colony: she tries to fill every minute so that time flies faster.

“Dasha draws various posters for the colony, participates in some competitions,” says Ms. Natallya. “Although she has never been a sportswoman, she goes to sports events. They had long jumps there. She jumped the worst, but still participated in it. She took part in “Miss Autumn”, read a poem by Karatkevich in Belarusian. Also she’s going to be a presenter at some event. She tries to be busy every minute, this way time flies faster.”

Every day is fully planned out, so Darya does not always have time to write a letter or read a book.

“They take turns on duty, clean the territory. Dasha also goes to rehearsals for various competitions, draws posters: there’s a lot of work,” says Ms. Natallya. “She goes to sleep at 10 pm: returns from work, washes herself and falls on the bed. In the rare free time, she writes letters and reads books.”

According to her mother, Darya is cheerful and smiling.

“I was shocked how my daughter grew up, she became wise, learned to appreciate the little things,” says the woman. “Being free, we often do not understand what is really valuable, and there they feel it more acutely. Dasha managed to get together and live in the rhythm of the colony, so that there were no unnecessary problems. To save her health, to preserve her humanity, to not get embittered. So I think she’s doing great. She doesn’t complain about anything. At least I didn’t hear any complain from her. She said that everything was fine, she was healthy, and tried to make everything the best she could.”

“We had much fun, at some point we forgot we were in the colony”

Darya is a very friendly person, says Ms. Natallya. In the colony the girl tries not to provoke conflicts. She was never penalised, never ended up in a punishment cell.

Natallya Tserabilenka, mother of Belsat journalist Darya Chultsova. Photo: PB / Belsat

“I begged her after the verdict, when we met, to behave well,” says Darya’s mother. “She then smiled and said that no one takes away the right to write complaints. I asked her to behave well, to keep her health. After all, no one needs it except her and us. So I begged her not to harm herself. I think she heard me.”

Darya cannot talk to other political prisoners. Ms. Natallya says that they try to distribute them to different detachments and forbid them to communicate in any way. Darya sometimes sees Katsyaryna Andreyeva, but cannot talk to her.

The conversations and stories made the 24-hour meeting fly by quickly.

“We tried not to show Dasha what we were going through, we tried to support her all day, to talk,” says Natallya. “After lunch, closer to the evening, we remembered some moments from childhood, I told interesting stories with her nephews, and we had a very good time. We laughed out loud. At some point we even forgot that we were in the colony, that we had a net overhead. There were cats walking on this net.”

Darya Chultsova in Frunzenski district court. Minsk, 9 February 2021. Photo: Belsat

The night was the hardest, Darya’s mother recalls.

“We went to bed, I was near Dasha. She closed her eyes and seemed to be asleep. And I started crying. I realized I can’t take my baby home, and it was so sad and scary. Dasha probably felt or heard me crying, turned to me, hugged me and also began to cry. Dasha’s sister heard us crying and cried too. In short, we spent half the night weeping and talking, and fell asleep only in the morning.”

No hope for earlier release

When they said goodbye, Darya took a word from her and her sister that they would not cry.

“It was very difficult. We tried to hold on, but we still cried a little,” the woman recalls. “Then she was called, we kissed, hugged, and at 9 o’clock in the morning she left. And from 6 o’clock in the morning, when we woke up, and until 9 o’clock we were still talking, kissing, hugging. I wanted to look at her as much as possible, because we have ten months ahead. Although Dasha says – only ten months.

People applaud the winners of the Prize for Freedom and the Future of the Media, Belsat journalists Katsyaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalava) and Darya Chultsova, during the ceremony. Leipzig, Germany. 8 October 2021. Photo: VO / Belsat

“Hope is a very ungrateful thing,” says our colleague’s mother. “Dasha hoped for an appeal, an amnesty, but then there was disappointment, so there are no hopes yet. We are setting up for September 5, and come what may.”

When saying goodbye, Darya asked to convey words of gratitude and greetings to colleagues and all the good people who support her.

Darya Chultsova is a Belsat journalist. She was born on February 20, 1997 in Shklou. She studied at Mahiliou University at the Faculty of Journalism.

The journalist was detained on November 15, 2020. Judge Natallia Buhuk found her guilty under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (“Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them”) and sentenced to two years in a penal colony.

Address for letters: Penal Colony Nr 4, Antoshkin Street 3, Homiel, Belarus.

Hanna Hanchar,