Sergei stood on a small sheet of ice in the Dnieper River and breathed in the icy air hard. He had escaped, but that relief was overwhelmed by both the pain of leaving his homeland and the fear he might not survive the rest of his perilous journey.
He was wanted, again, by Belarusian police. He had already been detained last summer and was beaten in custody, all for protesting against the election victory declared by President Alexander Lukashenko. Fellow protesters he’d spent time in detention with had just been arrested, and it was clear the police would soon come for him again. Reluctantly, he knew he had to flee. His was a particularly remarkable run to freedom. He crossed the border into Ukraine illegally, and was not able to walk through the forest and across sheet ice, like many before him had done.
In a hurry, and surrounded by melting ice, Sergei put on a wetsuit and flippers he had bought — and swam. In a video he filmed on his phone half-way through his two-hour journey, on New Year’s Eve, he recorded part of his escape, which involved not only swimming in freezing temperatures and through dense reed, but stumbling over sheet ice and crawling through thick sludge. Such was his desperation to leave.