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Focus on Safety

Youri stands on the banks of the Berizini River, gazing at the far side. Ivan finishes another cigarette and grinds it into the ground. We turn around and walk slowly up the hill to where our bodyguards still stand in the middle of the road. Not a single car passed by the entire time we toured the battlefield.

The drive back to the factory doesn't take long. I notice that the black Lada follows along behind us none too discreetly. I have to smile as I glance back at "my friends," as Youri called them. Their car is so small, and they so large, that their shoulders rub. I wonder how the driver manages to shift.

Ivan places his empty cans of beer into a paper bag as we pull up to the factory (does he think noone notices?), shakes my hand warmly and wobbles toward the front door unsteadily. A woman notices him coming and rushes to open the door for him. Ivan does not acknowledge her presence and walks imperially by.

Youri had previously told me that Ivan was a very nice with a strong streak of melancholy, but that he was also a hard taskmaster. "If a fax comes in at night, or on the weekend, he will call the secretary at home and tell her to find me," he confided one day. "She calls my parents because they have a telephone. Ivan will tell my parents that they must tell him where I am because he needs me."

"Even at night. Even at weekend. Even at holiday," Youri said and sighed. "My parents will tell him they do not know where I am, but Ivan does not accept this. He tells them he will send the company car to their house so they can help him find me."

He paused a long time. "It is a very difficult situation."

Youri shrugs as he gives Ivan one last look. This seems to be a national reaction to the ying and yang of Belorussian life. Mostly yang, I'm sure. He informs me that he wants to show me the Museum of Folklore and Culture in town. This sounds great.

We pull up minutes later to a nondescript building. A cannon, recovered from the battlefield we have just visited, stands in front. We walk inside...

Folklore and Culture Museum? The entire museum is devoted to the Second World War! I am led along room after room filled with displays of guns, medals, photos of martyrs and other artifacts.

But the primary artifacts in this ossuary are devoted to the victims; and there have been so many of them in this poor, sad land. I see photo after photo of German atrocities. They are heartrendering, agonizing to view. One in particular catches my attention; it's a photo I've seen before; one you've surely seen before.

The photo is included in almost every book ever written about the war. Two young Belorussians are surrounded by German soldiers. The Germans have determined, business-like expressions on their faces as they go about the act of hanging these two young resistance fighters.

My soul just crumbles. The young man wears a European cap, what we call a "klak" in Belgium. He looks so fragile, so tender, as he gazes away to the right. A noose (such a thin rope!) cradles his neck.

Behind him, his young companion, a woman, has been hoisted into the air. Her hair has just been caught by the wind and holds in the air. The look on her face is haunting. She seems surprised.

So they were Belorussians. And from Minsk, where one in four people were killed during the war. I stand in front of the photo, utterly depressed. Youri gauges my reaction closely.

When he suggests we leave for dinner I accept eagerly. Anything to get out of here. Stepping outside reminds me of the feeling I had upon leaving a concentration camp my wife and I had visited in Belgium. The air is so much brighter, so much cleaner when you leave the darkness inside.

Scant minutes later our driver deposits us at the factory canteen where we will have dinner. The wind blows in great gusts. It is biting cold. Youri and I rush inside.

I follow Youri as he leads me through the catacombs of the inactive canteen. Vast dining areas are empty and dark as we work our way to what I call the "chamber of horrors:" the place where I had what is undeniably the worst meal in my life (see an earlier installment for the gory details).

Michael Shabluck, the company's chief engineer, awaits us. Shabluk is a stiff, formal man in his middle fifties who is remarkably charming when he relaxes. I like him very much.

It is so cold in the dining room that Shabluk keeps his hat and coat on as he sits at the table awaiting us. He stands as I enter, smiles, and says "Shall we eat?" in practiced English.

Michael then takes off his Russian fur hat. Right away I see why this style hat never caught on in the West--his hair stands straight up. As a matter of long practice, Michael wets his fingers with saliva and runs them through his hair. A few strands of hair accept the suggestion and lie down temporarily. Most others, however, resist fiercely.

A card table has been set for us, graced by a crisply starched, white tablecloth. Dismayed, I see that there is a bottle of vodka set out for them and several bottles of toxic mineral water for me. This is definitely a case of killing me with kindness.

The same woman who has served us for years enters and places salad bowls on the table. She smiles warmly. I thank her in Russian.

Youri apologizes for having only beets and cabbage as a salad. I tell him I love both, which is true. I notice, as we eat, that both Michael and Youri have kept their coats and shawls on. It is unbelievably cold in the dining room.

The second course is a delicate dish of julliened potatoes cooked in butter. It is simply delicious. Youri again apologizes for not having any meat to share with me. I tell him I love potatoes, which again is true, and (having had to choke down what passes for meat in Belarus in the past) offer a quick "thank you" to whatever patron saint is watching out for me above.

Michael notices I have not had any mineral water to drink. He gives Youri a nudge and says something. Youri hastens to pop the cap off the bottle and pour a glassful. It fizzes and bubbles malcontentedly. Youri apologizes a third time. To make him feel better I drink heartily and offer my thanks.

The rest of the dinner passes wonderfully. We spend a wonderful time together comparing our two nations, talking about life, children and love. I enjoy myself immensely. Finally, the dinner over, Ivan makes an appearance. It surprises me to note that he has never once broken bread with me. He follows us as we walk through the snow in the darkness to the factory apartments nearby.

Getting the key from the xenophobic matron in charge of the building takes a certain amount of wrangling. She seems to be the only match for Ivan in Belarus. He demands the keys. She responds with a scowl, jerks her head toward me and responds with another volley of questions. Ivan answers, Youri adds his viewpoint. Still the keys are not turned over. Ivan is becoming angry. He responds with a flurry of Russian, some of which, no doubt, are choice curse words. With a final scowl (and a glare for me) the old sow hands over the precious key.

I follow my hosts down the tenement building-like hallway and observe the peeling paint, strong odor of urine in the stairwell and the dim, almost nonexistent lighting. This is where many of the factory's workers are housed.

We enter and sit on the bed and chat for a few minutes. Youri explains that he will pick me up at seven in the morning for breakfast, and then another meeting. The conversation begins to lag.

"Great," I say, "Why don''t you two go home to your families? I'll get settled and go out for a run."

Youri is shocked, noticeably shocked. He translates for Ivan, who is also taken aback. They look at each other in horror. "No, please, do not go anywhere," Youri says. "It is not safe. Stay here and do not open the door for anyone until it is me in the morning."

I promise them I will, and they leave. I glance at my watch: 6:15 p.m. Time drags as I walk around the tiny apartment. I try the TV, which only has two channels, one Russian, one Belorussian. The Belorussian station has young people performing a folklorish dance. They are young, active, and smile a lot.

I turn to the Russian channel, which features the news. Stereotypically, classical music plays in the background as each story is brought to the fore. I see great fields of wheat. Then there is a story about a factory. People stand around stiffly. People shake hands. Finally, a news story having to deal with politics comes on. Men in suits stand in rows, one ostentatiously making place for another. Protocol is being observed. Something has been agreed upon.

I flip back to the Belorussian station. The people are still dancing, still smiling. This is too much for me. I catch up on the day's work by entering notes in my laptop, then decide to go to sleep early. It is bitterly cold, and I wonder why I haven't noticed it before. I put on as many layers as I can (long underwear and sweat pants below, every t-shirt I have on top) and go to bed.

Noises begin to penetrate the darkness. I hear a television (happy dancing Belorussians, of course) from the apartment next door. Upstairs I hear a man shout angrily. A child cries. More shouts follow. There is a sound of a brutal slap and the child wails pitifully..

I step out of bed and gaze outside at the snow falling down hard around the amber lightpost at the front of the apartment block. I want to go home...