‘Genocide of Belarusian people’, episode of Yaraslau Stseshyk’s authorial show Global Question. Please turn English subtitles on
The memory of the bloody trials of the past, the war, is the best guarantor of peace and the existence of different peoples on our planet. This is what the prominent Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau said in his story Live Until Dawn. But do we remember? Have we been able to reflect on previous trials? Why haven’t we prevented today’s horrors?
We will try to look together for an answer to the questions: what is genocide? Is it happening now? And how to survive it? However, let’s start with the distant past. Physical destruction on national or religious grounds at the beginning of human history was ubiquitous, just like slavery. Historical events – the destruction or capture of entire nations – were closely intertwined with religion itself. The departure of Jews from Egyptian captivity is a story of escape from genocide.
The Jewish internecine wars introduced the word “shibboleth” into international linguistics: now it means “language password”.
It is about the war between the city of Gilead, which was led by the Israeli judge Iftach, and the Ephraimites who lived beyond the Jordan. After the victory, Iftach commanded the soldiers to occupy all the crossings of the river so that the Ephraimites would not return home alive.
“And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”
The Book of Judges (12: 5-6)
When Christianity appeared, the principle that we are all equal, there is no Greek or Jew, everyone has the right to life, first sounded in the European mass consciousness. But this didn’t put an end to wars.
“Genocide literally means “murder of the family”, and if you take history, Belarusians faced it, that is, when they were killed because they belong to the Belarusian people, the Belarusian ethnic group,” explains historian Aliaksandr Krautsevich.
He recalls the attacks of the Teutonic Order on Hrodna and the western regions of today’s Belarus. “The Teutonic Order chronicles say a lot about this: they came, burned, killed everyone, from women to children, on the grounds that they belonged to a group of pagans, not to Christianity,” says Kravtsevich.
Genocide came to us also from the East, during the Livonian War. Moscow Tsar Ivan the Terrible, capturing cities on the territory of modern Belarus, killed the townspeople on a generic or religious basis: for example, he ordered to drown all Polatsk Jews in the Dzvina. Historians agree that plundering captured cities in the Middle Ages was a common practice…
“But it was not considered possible to destroy entire groups of the population. They could be persecuted, they could be robbed, because they are rich. Ivan IV allowed it, and not only with regard to Belarusians, but also to Veliky Novgorod,” the expert emphasizes.
However, at school you won’t usually hear about the cruel treatment of our ancestors by Moscow.
“Belarusian state ideology, which was formed during the Lukashenka era, in the neo-Soviet format, does not provide a classical model of national identity. It is tied to what can be qualified as a supranational identity, the identity of the Soviet people or part of the Russian world,” explains Piotr Rudkouski, director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS).
Simply put, there are no Belarusians in the “Russian world”, there are “peoples of the BSSR”, so there are no Belarusian heroes who fought for independence. And there are Russian generals who drowned the liberation uprisings in blood.
“History is told in such a way that Muravyov or Suvorov function as supranational heroes,” says Piotr Rudkouski.
Our neighbours are different. Lithuania annually celebrates the Day of Sorrow and Hope in honour of the citizens who were massively and forcibly deported to Siberia after the occupation of 1940.
“At 4 am they started breaking down our door. My parents told my nanny to take me to our relatives. But they grabbed me by the hand and threw me into a wagon like a cat,” says Aldona Velotienė, who was deported to Siberia after the occupation.
“We were always hoping to come back. Most importantly, we knew we were not guilty of anything, we were innocent children. We could not understand the brutality of the authorities and those people who thought that something was wrong with us, that we should be destroyed,” says Gediminas Uogintas, who followed the same path from his native Lithuania.
It is a monument to the dead and tortured in the East, located in the heart of Warsaw. The railway platform on which the Catholic and Orthodox crosses stand; there is also a Jewish and a Muslim tombstone. Sleepers with inscriptions Pinsk, Baranavichy, Minsk, Chernihiv, Donetsk – these are the places of executions – and so on to Siberia. It commemorates the tragic events of 1939, when Hitler and Stalin divided Poland, and Polish soldiers, officers, intellectuals, priests were deported to the East, together with wealthy peasants, or just educated and conscious people. Everyone who lived in Eastern Poland or Western Belarus and posed a threat to the Stalinist regime – including our ancestors, our compatriots. They were taken out to be shot or put in a concentration camp.
There are no such monuments to the victims of Stalinist repressions of this scale in Belarus.
The most famous memorial to the repressed is the Kurapaty, through which the Minsk ring road passes. Here, NKVD shot up to a quarter of a million people, mostly Belarusians. Among those repressed were writers and poets – intellectuals who believed in the Bolsheviks’ delusion about the Belarusianization of the 1920s… and died in 1937.
“They believed that it was a Belarusian nation-state, returned from emigration, and then all of them were shot or destroyed in the Gulag,” Aliaksandr Krautsevich concludes.
The whole modern history of Kurapaty is a history of struggle between national-democratic activists who put up crosses and memorial signs – and officials loyal to Lukashenka, who carry out the order to break, hide these crosses, fence them, cover them with thujas.
“It is necessary to plant trees here in addition. Along the perimeter, thujas maybe. Think how you can finally improve Kurapaty… But it is unacceptable for someone to do something here without permission. This is a demonstration! Someone needs it. This is a political demonstration,” Lukashenka gave orders in 2019, after some crosses were torn down in Kurapaty and a perimeter fence was built.
We also have no monuments to the victims of the Holodomor, an artificial mass famine organized by Stalin. In the early 1930s, KGB confiscated crops from peasants to force them to go to collective farms. In Belarus, the scale of the crime was smaller than in Ukraine, where the Holodomor was officially recognized as an act of genocide.
“To what extent can the Holodomor in Belarus and Ukraine be called genocide? It is possible with certain precautions, as well as the extermination of the intelligentsia in these and other peoples of the Soviet Union… The point was to neutralize potential, not even actual, but potential political opponents, those who could challenge the Stalinist regime… If this extermination, these repressions led to the disappearance of entire nations, then for Stalin it would not be a problem. We know his mentality: the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic,” the BISS director explains.
Adolf Hitler had the same mentality. Only his ideology relied on the pseudo-supremacy of the Aryan nation over all others. By signing a peace treaty with Stalin, Hitler unleashed World War II – and did not attack the Soviet Union for 2 years, preparing for 1941.
Hitler built concentration camps and death camps, killed up to 6 million European Jews, launched a massacre of mass killings, inhumane experiments, deportations of captured peoples, and brutal repression against the local population. The burned village of Khatyn became a symbol of Hitler’s genocide in Belarus. The memorial in Khatyn is actively used by the state apparatus for ideological purposes. The less known is the memorial “Pit”, where 5,000 Jews, prisoners of the Minsk ghetto, were shot.
Of course, the commandment of Moses “do not kill” and the commandment of Christ “love your neighbour as yourself” did not stop the Crusades, the European wars on religious or even confessional grounds, or the atrocities of Christian rulers in foreign colonies, including those with multimillion victims. But the 20th century brought such a brutal catastrophe that people decided: enough! Never again!
After World War II, the United Nations emerged as an international mechanism against war and war crimes. And the European Union was built with the aim that the member states on our continent would never fight each other again, that genocide there would never be even attempted.
According to the Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, genocide is an act aimed at the total or partial destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Here are the types of genocides recorded there:
Every participant is responsible for the genocide, regardless of position or order, regardless of whether he violated international law in peacetime or in war.
Unfortunately, we must admit that the events in Belarus in recent years have shown signs of genocide.
“We have tens of thousands of arrests, almost 5,000 already registered tortures, probably more,” says Palina Prysmakova, an associate professor of public administration at the Atlantic University of Florida.
We even have a real concentration camp built near Slutsk; it is temporarily not used.
Raids on citizens, brutal beatings, torture after detentions, inhuman treatment and humiliation, mutilation and even murder – all this Lukashenka’s military-police system has brought down on citizens who wanted a real presidential election.
There were also cases when in August 2020 the security forces marked with paint and beat the most those who spoke Belarusian or had tattoos with the national emblem and flag.
“There is no more politics in Belarus. Those people who took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands were united by Belarusianness. And political ideas, goals, parties were of completely different colours and types,” the specialist explains.
Coronavirus cameras are a completely new way of Lukashenka’s genocide. The detainees, sick with Covid-19, are not taken to the hospital, but transferred from cell to cell so that as many detainees as disloyal to the authorities fall ill. The sick people are not helped, but tortured by the cold. Alena Amelina from Minsk died of coronavirus after the remand prison in Akrestsin Street.
“A lot of people got sick. There was a suspicion that it was a cold, but then alarms began to appear from various cells that people were losing their sense of smell,” Artsiom Liava, a journalist of Belsat, who fell ill with Covid under arrest in Baranavichy remand prison, said in November 2020 after his release.
If someone can be imprisoned, tortured or even killed for the slogan “Long Live Belarus!”, it is violent actions against the national group. It is genocide.
A legal conference on Belarus was held in Nuremberg to rehabilitate and compensate the victims of repression and bring the perpetrators to justice. It was a first step towards an international tribunal – in a German city, where after the war the top of the National Socialist Party of Hitler and ordinary executors of criminal inhuman orders were tried.
“During the Nuremberg Trials, some said phrases like “I was just ordered” to defend themselves. I believe that in the Belarusian case, these security officers will also say: “I was given an order and I carried it out.” But under today’s law, to say, “I was ordered, I was wrong” is impossible, you just shouldn’t follow those orders,” explains Mahaut Vançon, a lawyer at Bourdon & Associés (France).
Already now, according to the complaints of the victims of Lukashenka’s security forces, the European Union is under investigation to initiate criminal cases with the help of a legal instrument which is universal jurisdiction.
“The purpose of universal jurisdiction is to facilitate a state or international tribunal to prosecute alleged perpetrators for specific actions, regardless of where the crime was committed, regardless of the nationality of the victim and the nationality of the perpetrator,” explains Mahaut Vançon.
“We need to understand that the convention on genocide works at the country level. Therefore, when asked what to do to defend Belarus at the national level, Poland, Lithuania or the European Union should apply to the (international) tribunal for the genocide of the Belarusian nation at the level of intergovernmental association. To gather everything together, all the facts, all the information, unite all the human rights organizations, all the statistics and finally apply to the tribunal,” Palina Prysmakova emphasizes.
The most important thing in the Global Question: genocide is a crime that violates international law, the civilized world condemns it and organizes international cooperation to rid humanity of genocide and punish its participants. And anyone who commits genocide is subject to trial, regardless of whether he or she had an order or acted as an individual. The only way to get legal relief is to stop one’s involvement in the crime and help the investigation and the international court.
The episode was aired on Belsat TV on 24 October 2021.