Featured, Local News

Killington family is stranded in Belarus

By Polly Mikula

Andrew Gieda, a Killington resident and business owner, was desperate to hear from his wife, Maria, on Monday to know that she and their 2-year-old son Robert were safe after violent protests erupted in Belarus, Sunday. Internet and phone access was cut off throughout Belarus during and after a contentious election. But Andrew got a call mid-day Monday after Maria was able to secure a “code” to call through one of the government lines, he said.

Maria said she and Robert were safe, but separated. Maria was at their apartment in downtown Grodno and Robert in the country at his grandparents’ house.

Maria could see and hear the loud protest from her window. Her reports confirm what international reports and videos show — rubber bullets on Sunday gave way to more heavily armed guards Monday.

“Today they all have guns, I’m afraid many more people will die today,” Andrew said during an interview Monday. “It is not safe to go out onto the streets, there is a strict curfew at 6 p.m.” he added.

“She said she can hear rounds being fired… the government started to shoot people,” he said after speaking with Maria a second time on Monday.

When it will be safe for Maria to rejoin her son or when Andrew will be able to see either of them, is unknown.

Andrew had planned to fly there this Friday, Aug. 14, to join them for two weeks.

Maria and Andrew hold dual citizenship (American and Belarusian) but Robert only holds an American passport. Both parents must be there to get him a Belarusian passport and he’ll need one to leave the country, as he came in with  provisionary documents (Americans are not allowed due to Coronavirus travel restrictions throughout Europe.)

International flights have not been canceled, Andrew said, “but will I be arrested when I show up in Minsk [the capital]? Will I be blocked from entry? Will they take my passport? Will they let me come back home to America? Will they let Robert get passport so he can leave the country? I don’t know. Will I go? I don’t know.”

Andrew and Maria Gieda were both born in Belarus and nearly all of their family still live there. They travel back to see family frequently, but are thankful to call the U.S. home.

“When I hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ every time I hear those words, I get goosebumps, I love this country,” Andrew said. “Here, we are so lucky, we take so many freedoms for granted.”

Andrew Gieda is the owner of InStone Design and InStone Spas in Killington. He started the businesses 13 years ago. Prior to that he studied political science and business management at the then Castleton State College (now University), and trained under Chris Audsley of Audsley Masonry in Florence, Vermont.

In addition to the Gieda family, the co-owners of iPie Pizzaria in Killington Oleg Hrynko and Mike Kazatski are also dual citizens of America and Belarus.

Hrymnko’s sister works as a nurse in Minsk, Andrew said. “I’m not sure how she’s going to get to the hospital as all transportation is shutdown. But the rest of their families live in the rural areas so I don’t think they’re too worried about safety.”

Hrymnko and  Kazatski could not be reached prior to publication.

The protests

Belarus held its presidential elections Sunday, Aug. 9. The Incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, was said to be re-elected to a sixth term of five years. Lukashenko has won every presidential election since 1994—all but the first being labelled by some as neither free nor fair.

Sunday, he claimed that he won 80% of the vote, but forbade any independent count and shut down the internet and phone lines throughout the country as reports of fraud surfaced and protests began.

NetBlocks, an NGO that tracks internet shutdowns worldwide, said in a tweet Monday: “It has been almost 24 hours since Belarus fell largely offline after a series of worsening internet disruptions during Sunday’s elections. Real-time network data confirm the incident is ongoing, limiting freedom of expression and assembly.”

Voters lined up for hours to vote and some foreign polling stations have reported that Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya should have won.

“Everyone I know voted and everyone I know voted for Tikhanovskaya,” said Andrew. “It’s an assault, every one knows it’s impossible that he won 80%, that’s why they’re rioting.… it’s been 26 years, Belarusians are sick and tired of being suppressed, many have nothing left to lose.”

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was the main opposition candidate. She became the front-runner when her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested two days after announcing he planned to run for president in May.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya initially rejected the election results as have many residents who have taken to the streets in nearly every major city.

“I believe my own eyes, the majority was for us,” Tikhanovskaya said in a news conference on Monday, according to multiple local media reports. But after fleeing the country, she posted a scripted video message calling for the end of protests. Many claim she had no choice but to do so as threats to her life increased.

Lukashenko has responded to protests with increasing police force. The 65-year-old president is a former Soviet official and is often called “Europe’s last dictator.” He has long been known for intolerance toward political dissent.

Lukashenko contracted Covid-19 last month after claiming saunas and vodka could defeat the virus.

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