Mariya Shakuro spent ten days in prison after protesting in Minsk

Meet the Belarus rugby captain fighting for democracy

After a long night with the lights on, you could expect an alarm call of the national anthem blaring out. If there was any relief during the imprisonment, the expected beating never came, but over ten long days Mariya Shakuro had cockroaches for cellmates, just two showers and only two walks at 20 minutes a stroll. Hardly a fitness regime fit for the captain of the Belarus women’s sevens and beach rugby sides. 

This was the punishment for daring to protest against president Alexander Lukashenko’s regime – often referred to as Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’. 

“I was arrested at a Sunday protest on 11 October (2020),” Shakuro tells Rugby World. “All protests are illegal in Belarus.

“It was peaceful by the protesters and the violence, as usual, was from the police side. But I took part in the protest because of the unbearable situation in our country. 

“Falsification of presidential elections. Thousands arrested, including in the time just before our elections. People going missing. People beaten. Even people killed just because of their political position. These are the reasons.

“It has lasted for 26 years already, but now due to the development of the internet, the whole world knows about it.

“A lot of friends were also beaten and arrested, a lot of them left the country. But I am still here. I just hope it cannot last too much longer. This system will destroy itself.”

There is currently a groundswell of calls for a democratic overhaul and big reform in Belarus. Exiled political opposition and Western figures have accused Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, of rigging recent elections and the nation’s police have clamped down on protests.

But Shakuro, 30, is an optimist. You have to be. The scrum-half last played some meaningful rugby in the snow rugby championship in Moscow in 2019 (as well as having a run out in the same sport in Zelenograd, with the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute), but with the world in the grip of a global pandemic, her and her friends still took the opportunity to make their voices heard. 

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In the aftermath of her time locked up, the Minsk native says the cold and stress has exacerbated “a chronic illness” and she struggles to sleep. However, she is keen to highlight what is happening in Belarus. 

“As I said, this system will fall and one day we will start a fundamentally new page in our history, as a country without a dictator,” she says. “We will have to do a lot and maybe cannot go too fast, but if everyone gives their all for that, if everyone is responsible for the job they’re good at, finally we will build a new country.”

As for the rugby, Shakuro says a lack of playing numbers has meant that beach rugby has taken precedence over 15s and even sevens in recent years – though they play sevens when they can. She is part of the RC Grazhdanochka club (it means ‘Citizen female’) and the amateurs make the most of things, with Shakuro also working for a furniture manufacturer.

Talking about the coming years on the field, the nine says: “In the future I hope we will have all the conditions to develop our lovely sport here. I hope we will finally have a rugby stadium, because right now we have to rent different sites with our own money. 

“I hope there will be rugby in children’s schools. And we won’t just think of how the game can survive, but how to develop it.”

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