Ales Bialiatski : “Paris, Paris… but I return home”


Excerpts of letters from the political prisoner Ales Bialiatski, head of the Belarusian Human Rights Center Viasna and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

2 December 2012, Babruysk

The International Executive Board of FIDH was due to hold one of its three annual regular sessions in late June 2011. Vice-presidents and deputy secretaries general of the Federation came from all over the world to attend this meeting, which focused on tactical issues related to the Federation’s current activities in hot spots throughout the world, where our colleagues sometimes put their own lives at risk as they work tirelessly to protect the rights of civilian populations. We also heard and discussed regional surveys on the situation with human rights in Latin American, Africa, and Eastern Europe and debated the strategic directions that FIDH, which is comprised of almost 200 human rights organizations from all over the world, should take. And to ensure that our activity would be valuable and effective, we developed the far-reaching program “FIDH in 10 Years,” which was conceived of and driven by FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen, the Tunisian human rights defender.

The main focus of this meeting, though, was the events in Arab countries in North Africa, including Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and particularly Tunisia, whose Jasmine Revolution was the peaceful event of the year.

Our meeting took place in a historic hall of Paris’s City Hall. The walls of this enormous hall, which was divided by voluminous columns, were decorated with colorful frescoes and large, dark paintings with historical subjects. The arched windows with their antique patterned sashes stretched all the way from the floor to the ceiling. One window sparkled with stained glass. The molding and paintings on the ceiling domes looked like a holiday cake hanging over our heads.

Amongst all this baroque finery, waiters flitted about placing pots of tea and coffee on side tables, while members of our multinational, multilingual group took their seats at tables grouped into an oval and interpreters settled into their booths. Then our work began. The faces of ancient Parisian politicians gazed at us in surprise from their portraits. Could they really have thought as they adopted a declaration on human rights stating that all French citizens were free, equal, and responsible just two or three years after the abolition of serfdom that this “disease” of freethinking would spread throughout the world? Or that the fight for freedom and rights would become one of the main social goals for society over the next 200 years?  Or that everyone—Vietnamese, Egyptians, Columbians—would want this freedom, this intangible freedom that, when diffused in the air, inebriates the mind?

The Belarusians, who entered this era of enlightenment on the heels of French thinkers and social and political transformations, ended up as part of the Russian Empire as a result of the catastrophe that was the division and occupation of their state. We were cast aside and frozen in our development for a century in some ways and two centuries in other ways. We bore enormous losses and in the end we were never able to achieve more tolerable living conditions. Why did things turn out this way? I believe that this is the question whose answer we must be constantly striving to find. Perhaps by taking a closer look at the pages of our past lives, we will be able to hold ourselves more accountable for our present and future lives.

The Tunisian human rights defenders, who had been specially invited to our meeting, gave speeches that were filled with pride for their people. Every last one of them noted that they had not expected events to develop so rapidly. The authoritarian government, which had been in place for decades, ran a powerful and repressive machine that controlled the mass media and seemingly kept a tight hold on people to keep them submissive and living in fear, yet it fell in the blink of an eye as it found itself unable to withstand a wave of pressure from the people.

But along with pride, our Tunisian colleagues also expressed apprehension. They were alarmed by the increasing influence of Islam and by society’s growing impatience. And there were many other problems that cropped up as Tunisian society changed structurally and the raw spots that the previous government had driven inward through violence and coercion came up to the surface.

Nonetheless, I still envied them as I watched the energy in their inspired faces.

I found a speech made by a Libyan human rights defender particularly interesting. At that time civil war was raging throughout the country, and this person’s speech was even more emotional than the speech of our colleague from Tunisia. He spoke about the monstrous reign of terror of Gaddafi, who used torture and murder to turn his people into a mute, terrified mass. And then all the hatred and loathing that had been building up for decades suddenly broke free and erupted into a bloody armed battle for democracy and human rights. And now the Libyan opposition was counting on international assistance.

This speech received a mixed reaction. Human rights defenders from Arab countries supported their colleague, but the Europeans remained tactfully silent or spoke about the need for European allies of the Libyan opposition to be extremely careful about using weapons. It had already been reported that people from the civilian population had died as the result of bombs dropped by European aircraft that were aimed at soldiers in the Libyan army but instead fell on women and children. Representatives from Latin America unanimously condemned the military assistance, calling it interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. For example, in his speech, Luis (Luis Guillermo Perez, a secretary general of FIDH – ed.) stated that if Columbia found itself in such a situation, he would prefer to be killed than to have the occupiers bomb his people. And his speech was no less impassioned than the Libyan’s.

No, I thought, this is not our path. There was a good reason why Napoleon was met with bread and salt when he arrived in Minsk. At that point it seemed like Russian tyranny was gone forever and in its place came, along with Napoleon, liberty, equality, and fraternity. And incidentally, at that time almost all of Latin America, all the Spanish colonies, had managed to break away from their mother country and become independent. They took advantage of Napoleon’s victory over Spain and the subsequent replacement of the royal dynasty. Soon thereafter, Brazil, the Portuguese colony in Latin America, also selected its own king.

But could we really support the bombing of Libya, which is essentially what our Libyan colleague was calling on us to do? This was a problem without a clear solution or answer. Was the freedom of six million people worth several dozen, hundred, or thousand accidental deaths? And should we really make such a choice to begin with? We, human rights defenders, who consider the value of human life to be one of the main principles behind our ideology and all our activities? We are all personally prepared to sacrifice our well-being, our places in life, our health, our freedom, and, for some of us, even our lives. But put us in a situation where we have to sacrifice the few to save the many, and I think that we will not make a choice, and if we do, then that choice will already be outside the realm of defending human rights.

For some reason I am reminded of a story my mother used to tell about what happened to her aunt during the war. At that time my great aunt was 25 years old and she had to hide with other villagers in the rye from Magyars, who had just burnt down her village. A policeman they knew ran over to them and warned them that the Magyars would hear her year-old son crying from fear. “Suffocate him, or we’ll all die,” her neighbors cried, but she didn’t dare commit this sin, she just couldn’t. And it all turned out just fine. The Magyars never heard the baby crying. But what if they had?

This problem also comes up in the Bible. During the time I’ve been writing this letter, I had the chance to reread a little bit of Gospel According to John while I was at work in the sewing shop (someone had left a copy of the New Testament behind), and I remembered an episode from the persecution of Christ that I had almost forgotten. According to John, the main reason why high priests and Pharisees wished to kill Christ was as follows: “Then gathered the high priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.  If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. (John, 11:47-50).” But the high priests and Pharisees “took counsel together for to put him to death” (John, 11:53). So were they right to take this fateful political decision for the Jewish people, for the whole world?

Two thousand years ago, Caiaphas, taking Christ for a human being, posed the question that has been troubling the world since that time. Actually, I guess it has troubled some people and not others.

But to return to City Hall in Paris. Twenty years ago I probably would have made this choice, but not now.

Our Libyan colleague was not satisfied with the results of our discussion or with the text of the resolution relating to the situation in Libya that was adopted by the International Board.

During a break, I went up to Souhayr, who, as a Tunisian, had a better grasp of the situation there, and asked her if there had been human rights defenders in Libya before the war. She raised one finger on one hand as if to say: Few, very few. “We know of two or three families,” she responded, “and a few more that have emigrated.” That’s much worse than in my country, I thought.

After the official meeting, I informed FIDH leadership about my problem with the tax inspectorate and about how things were likely to end. That evening at City Hall, a reception was held to honor Tunisian human rights defenders. All the women were dressed in beautiful outfits, the mayor gave a speech, and we drank champagne.

Our meeting ended at lunchtime the next day. Sasha (Alexandra Koulaeva, who works at the FIDH office in Paris) decided to show my friend Artak (an FIDH deputy secretary general from Armenia) and I around town.

And that’s where I’ll stop for now. I’ll continue this story in my next letter.

Photo : International Executive Board of FIDH. Paris. June 2011

4 December 2012, Babruysk

I’ll continue my story about my trip to Paris.

City Hall is located in the center of Paris, although the concept of “center” in a city of 15 million has absolutely nothing in common with the center of, say, Minsk or Babruysk. So we left City Hall and walked off in the direction of Notre Dame, the very same cathedral that played a central role in the events of Victor Hugo’s novel. To tell you the truth, I was a little disappointed when I saw this cathedral for the first time five years ago. The area around it had been covered with light-colored gravel, the cathedral itself had been washed free of centuries of soot, and the whole place had become a tourist site. Something similar happens during restorations in Belarus, for example when double-glazing panels were installed in Brest Fortress and modern paving slabs were laid around the Mirsky Castle Complex. The urge to modernize the past is universal. But the spirit of centuries disappears with repairs and renovations.

We approached the cathedral from behind. These were the streets where the Parisian homeless slept. Although they looked cleaner and better-dressed than our homeless people and usually slept in sleeping bars, still the same smell of human excrement carried out from their cubbyholes near the wrought, cast-iron fence. We hadn’t reached the cathedral yet, but we had come up to the zoo entrance.

Sasha warned us that the Paris Zoo is not as big as the Berlin Zoo. But we didn’t care, we just wanted to see wild animals. There weren’t very many of us waiting to get in: just the three of us and another pair of out-of-towners. We were warned that the zoo would be closing in an hour.

Sasha looked questioningly at us, and we decided to go in. “Let me show you the orangutan family,” she said. “They are very popular here.” We walked past an enclosure for some goats and an aviary up to a separate pavilion. We went inside and saw three large orangutan nests made of branches and leaves suspended from ropes like hammocks. Apparently the ropes were supposed to take the place of forest vines. Each one held one orangutan. This was a family of human-like monkeys made up of pot-bellied, chestnut-colored sisters and two sons who looked just like them. Papa orangutan took turns holding them separately. The mother had rejected one of them, the smallest, about the size of a three-year-old human child, bright red, with a funny curl on his egg-shaped head. Many Parisians felt sorry for this abandoned little one. He was fed from a bottle, and, when he grew up a bit, his aunt started taking care of him.

The orangutans swung slowly in their nests and then crawled out one at a time. Each one ate a banana and chewed on some green plants, then they all crawled through a hole leading to an outdoor enclosure. We also went outside and walked around the pavilion to see what the orangutans would do. They were playing lazily, with a deep sense of dignity, glancing over at us only from time to time. We waved at them and even jumped a little like children, wanting to somehow stir up this easygoing family. The aunt in particular showed no reaction to us, but the little one decided to show off a little for us. He crawled along the net, a little closer to us, swung from his hand, and then from his foot, which had the same little fingers as his hand. He glanced at us from time to time as if to say: See what I can do? Then he fastened himself onto the net using all his arms and legs and lay flat against it. It was amusing and interesting, and we encouraged him with our carefree laughter.

We spent almost the entire hour we had with the orangutans, as if we were in a museum with only one item on display. And that reminds me of an excursion Artak and I took the previous year. After lunch, after we had finished our work, he and I had just enough time to take the metro to the Louvre and take a quick look inside before it closed. This was a day when entrance was free. The entrances to all the halls of different exhibits were already closed, and we only had time to slip into the halls where marble statues are on display. During the 40 minutes it took for the museum to empty out, we managed to view amazing relief sculptures and statues made from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and France. And then we stopped in front of Venus de Milo and stood near her for a long time amidst a group of small Japanese tourists.

So that’s how I remember our visit to the Louvre—as a visit to Venus. And the visit to the zoo was a visit to the orangutans. And we didn’t regret this one little bit.

Finally we were told it was time to leave, and we strolled off somewhere to our right and wandered down unfamiliar Parisian streets.

I have been to Paris many times on FIDH business, as a vice-president. It seems to me, and not just to me, that a large part of the old city is made up of very large buildings from the 19th – early 20th centuries. It’s an endless chain of blocks flung out along green boulevards, interspersed with places and squares. As Sasha explained, one of the emperors from the 19th century, fearing uprisings and rebels, destroyed the narrow, winding back streets of Paris and laid out a new city with wide, even streets and boulevards. So that it would be possible to fire at rebels from the artillery. That’s why so little of medieval Paris remains. You have to know where to find it.

This time Sasha told us that she had decided to show us Roman Paris, that is, if we did not object. Naturally we did not. We walked several blocks and then Sasha pointed along a street where the thick, dark, brick walls of a ruin were coming into view. These were the remains of Roman thermae and baths. We were all eyes as we gazed at this incredible building, at least, at what was left of it. It had clearly been an enormous structure. And naturally so, since for Romans the baths served as something of a city club. People came here not just to wash, but to solve life’s problems. “Here, in the first half, was the cold, summer water, and here were the hot baths,” said Sasha, pointing at the remains of some cupels.

I found it strange to look at these enormous thermae, at the remains of the life and culture of the powerful Roman civilization that existed during the time when our ancestors, the Slavic proto-Belarusians, had not yet arrived in Belarus but still lived further south, below Pripyat. At that time Baltic proto-Belarusians lived almost everywhere throughout Belarus, while our Slavic ancestors lived in small village houses dug one meter into the ground. And the tradition has come down from these half-dugouts to our time of covering the first joints in a house with sand from the outside to support the earthen walls with planks. And after that came the time when Slavic and Baltic blood mixed to form the national composition known as the Belarusians.

And these thermae survived and stood through the birth of our people and many other peoples. Not even the ashes of the people who baked and laid these bricks remain. And Belarus was born, lived its Golden Age, and perhaps may disappear while these thermae continue to stand.

But who knows, I thought. I have spent my whole life doing something so that this doesn’t happen, so that Belarus doesn’t disappear. And, thank God, I am not the first or the last—I am not alone.

Then we continued on. We turned off the street and walked through courtyards until we reached an open space. Houses on one side of the square stood with their backs to it. And in the middle of the square, slightly collapsed into a depression, stood an ancient Roman arena! This was the first arena that I had ever seen in my life. So I can’t say if it was large or small. It was most likely small. After all, at that time Paris was a remote province on the margins of the Roman Empire and had a relatively small population. But still it looked to me like two to three thousand people could fit in the arena. The tribunes, the animal enclosures, the areas for the gladiators, and the walls of the round arena were laid in white stone blocks of hard sandstone that had turned grey with the ages. I found it difficult to believe that all of this could have been preserved with such high quality.

“After the Romans left, there was an enormous dump here,” Sasha told us, “and in ancient times trash was simply piled into the arena and the structures surrounding it. Houses were built next to it, so they can’t perform any excavations from that side of the arena, which means that a part of the complex is still hidden to this day. The arena was only dug out 50 years ago, after the war. They were planning to build something here and they uncovered the arena.”

 I walked around the perimeter of the arena, glanced into the enclosures where animals were kept before they were released into the arena, and took a close look at the small changing rooms for the gladiators as shivers ran down my spine. It was from these changing rooms that the gladiators walked out into the arena under the roar of the audience to be victorious or to die. I studied the wide entrance to the area, through which chariots and horsemen entered. I couldn’t help touching the rough stones of the arena several times, as if I was hoping that they would transfer the energy of those times to me.

Now the arena was covered with light-colored gravel. Goalposts stood on it, and children were playing soccer. The multicolored youth of France sat on the stone benches and steps, gaily chattering about something. The sun was setting, casting its tender light and warmth over the earth. I walked out into the center of the arena and threw a clenched fist into the air. But no, there was no way to return to past times. “Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant!” (Hail Emperor Caesar! Those who are about to die salute you!). Sasha took a picture of me, the Belarusian uncle, who was getting ready to return to his native country, where he was awaited not by a grand duke or an inquisition, but just by the tax inspectorate of Pervomaysky District. And the agency that stood behind her hoped very much that I would remain in Vilnius, or Warsaw, or Paris, and fade away into the modest and humble watercolors of the Belarusian horizon.

I went jogging every morning of my stay in Paris. During previous trips I used to run in the direction of Place de la Bastille along Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine out onto a large, round square with its magnificent July Column and golden Apollo. I would run over the foundations of the Bastille, which were covered with asphalt (and can now be seen from the metro that runs under the square), and along the canal that cuts across the square, but this time Sasha showed me a different route. “Ales,” she said, “if you go a kilometer along the street that runs perpendicular to the street your hotel is on, you’ll reach a former railway viaduct. There have been no trains there for a long time, but there’s a great path along the viaduct. Once my husband and I pushed our daughter along there in her stroller. It goes on forever, and we covered about 10 kilometers. Take a look. Maybe it will be good for your jogs.”

So the first morning of this last visit, I jogged over to the viaduct to marvel at it. The morning streets of Paris were quiet and sleepy. Water was flowing and gurgling from low hydrants near the curb. Street cleaners were attaching hoses to them and washing the sidewalks that had become littered with trash overnight. These sidewalks with their small cafes, their microscopic bars, and their tiny restaurants seethed with life all night long. It was as though Paris literally thrummed through them. There were special places for rockers, gays, literary types, Vietnamese, Algerians, Italians, you name it. And people left these places only at dawn.

I run along the narrow sidewalks, passing a sleepy black woman who was apparently lingering after work and children heading off to school with their backpacks, finally reaching the red-brick viaduct. It is fairly massive and soundly-built, about two to three stories high. Various stores and showrooms for furniture, paintings, frames, and mirrors are tucked into its semicircular niches. I look for a way to get up on top of it, and as I run alongside the viaduct, I notice a staircase, which I run up. The viaduct’s smooth surface has a paved path in the middle with flowers planted along the sides. Late-blooming tulips of various colors, yellow and white narcissus with light-red stripes, bushes of various shades of green with fleshy leaves ranging in color from light green to a shimmering dark green to black. Trees have also been planted here, which are apparently dug up when they grew too tall and replaced with new younger and smaller ones.

The oily residue left from wheels, the engine soot, and the trash on the tracks are long gone. Now it’s all flowers, bushes, trees, and birds fluttering about in the thicket. These “hanging gardens” stretch up to the second or third floors of houses. But it is still very early and the windows remain shuttered.

I run on ahead, sometimes meeting other joggers like me. We smile at each other in the way that people smile when they have a secret that is known only to them. The morning sunlight lets down its gentle braids from beyond the roofs of the houses. I look in that direction, to the east, where lies the scrap of boundless open space that is my native land, that is the place where I am fated to return after every trip.

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