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Focus on Safety




"I need to get some gas," Vladimir says as he picks me up the next morning. That doesn't surprise me as we put down some serious miles the day before.

There aren't many gas stations in Minsk, which is amazing given its large population. After some searching, we spot one--but Vladimir drove right by it! I throw him a quizzical look.

"For tourists and Russians," he says. "This station is on the main highway to Moscow so the petrol costs five times more than what we will pay just down the road."

Vladimir knows what he is doing. He pulls off the freeway onto a tiny, rutted road, bumps across it for a while, then doubles back somehow across the freeway and pulls into a dilapidated service station. Two lonely, grease-stained white pumps stand sentinel. The ground is covered with a heavy film of diesel fuel. The air hangs thick with its overpowering scent. If someone were to light a cigarette.

Belorussian gasoline is extremely inexpensive (about twenty-five cents a gallon) but pumping the gas takes forever due to the slowness of the pumping mechanism. In the west, we're used to hearing the rush of fuel being forced into our gas tanks; we can feel the pressure of the fuel as it surges through the pump.

But not in Belarus. The pumping mechanism wheezes and coughs, starting and stopping fitfully, as a bit of fuel dribbles out. The dial on the pump, which indicates the price in roubles, whirls madly, then slows fitfully, catches new life, and whirs rapidly again. There is an amazing amount of sound involved: the gears (and probably belts and pulleys) in the pump, the coughing and wheezing of the nozzle, that high-pitched tone to their voices that old Russian women seem to have been born with--this one, seated in the kiosk seemingly screeches at Vladimir that he's pumping the gas wrong.

A long, long time later we pull out. We were the only customers. It's nice to pump gas in the middle of a forest at the side of a nation's principal highway and only have ten cars drive by. I love that about Belarus. You can hear the birds. The wind in the trees.

And, as always, it doesn't take long to get back to open country after leaving a large city. We drive back along the bumpy road and back onto the primarily deserted freeway. Soon, we are surrounded by farmland, trees, rivers.

Ten kilometers later Vladimir pulls off the bumpy and potholed freeway and takes a bumpy and potholed secondary road, which shortly turns into a bumpy and potholed dirt road.

The road dips sharply to the right, drops in elevation, and then we drive into the most picturesque of villages. It's a vision straight out of the 17th century!

It's magical. I love it. A lazy, brown river splits the tiny village, boasting fifty houses at best. Each house has a weathered wood exterior, the paint long faded to a soft background hue; silver and hoary. Looking closely I can vaguely make out the bright pastel shades the houses were once painted with: yellows and blues, soft mauves.

We drop down to the river, trailing a cloud of dust Several wild swans float on its soft flow, groups of ducks giving way respectfully to the swans.

And then we spot the abandoned cathedral on a promontory overlooking the river. It's so beautiful that it takes my breath away.

Great chunks of stucco have fallen out of its walls. The iron bells can still be seen, motionless, in their darkened tower.

I beg Vladimir to stop, and wonder of wonders, he complies. A quick glance his way confirms he is as enraptured by its beauty as I am.

We park the car and walk back the road to the cathedral, and wander along its walls. How many years has it been here? Was it damaged during the revolution? The war?

And why was such a large cathedral built in the middle of the lonely countryside? The village it overlooks couldn't provide more than a few hundred parishioners. It makes no sense.

Frustratingly, our appointment at the factory we're driving toward doesn't allow us much time to admire the cathedral, much as we want to do so. So we must leave.

And equally frustrating, our meeting doesn't pan out. It's a waste of time, another state factory with poor quality products and inflated prices.

"What do you want to do now?" Vladimir asks. Our visit to the factory had been cut short and we had plenty of time to kill.

"How about there?" I asked, pointing to an old graveyard sited under the pines on a knoll adjacent to the factory. Blue iron posts within had caught my eye as we drove past earlier. Vladimir considered for a moment, then nodded his agreement.

The cemetery itself wasn't' large, at most thirty yards square. But it was set in a pretty pine grove with an equally picturesque village in the draw below. As we walked to it, Vladimir explained that every village in Belarus has its own graveyard on the outskirts of town.

We enter the gate. It is peaceful here. Sunlight filters down through gaps in the trees. All is quiet.

As we walk along the pine needle strewn path I consider that the Belorussian way of taking care of their death is so much more elegant than ours. Our loved ones are packed away in tract housing like plots in easily cared for (just run a lawnmower over it) expanses of lawn. Headstones are discouraged. No wonder I want to be cremated when I die.

I immediately notice that few of the graves spot any form of identification. And most are not kept up; they lie vaguely hidden under piles of pine needles, the grave's sides rounding off and settling with the years. No headstone, no blue painted iron post like some of the others. These must be the graves of poor village people.

Every now and then we come across graves of wealthier people, their grave plots marked by a cobalt blue iron post. Attached to each is a plaque with a photo of the deceased. The plaque has a glass covering to protect the image inside from the elements. Formal faces, frozen in black and white, stare at me through the passing of the generations.

Then a rustling to the left and, did I hear right?, honking?, catches my attention. Seven snow white geese amble amicably among the graves, periodically jabbing their bills into the pine needles for food. Their snowy feathers gleam in the dappled light. They are just gorgeous, picture perfect geese.

But what I see as a thing of beauty, Vladimir sees as sacrilege. "This is not correct," he says, glaring at the village, faintly discernable through the trees. "The people should not let their geese run wild like this. It is disrespectful.

We walk on. And then I become aware of something. Scattered throughout the graveyard, stunning in their vast number, are other graves. But smaller. So much smaller. Unmarked. Unkept. Forgotten.

They are the graves of children. There will be no headstone, much less a bright blue post, for them.

I find it depressing. Death doesn't' trouble me, but the suffering of innocents always does.

Vladimir and I continue silently, followed by the gaggle of geese, continuing noisily as before. On the way out, something out of the ordinary catches my eye again. A large rectangular plot, lined only by small stones, lies to our left. We step it off. It is at least fifty feet long and about twelve feet wide. What is odd is that there is no mound to the grave. It is perfectly flat.

"What do you think it is?" I ask. Vladimir shrugs his shoulders. "A giant?" he jokes.

I give him dismissive wave. It's intriguing. I ponder it in silence, walk along it, try to make some sense of it. And then it comes to me.

It is a mass grave. From the second world war.

There was no time then for the making of a proper grave. No time for anything beyond the lining of stones along its border. It was a time of tractors and haste.

And it's time to leave. As Vladimir and I wordlessly walk back to the car, I wonder why it is that some nations seem to do a disproportionate amount of suffering.

But the beauty of Belarus overshadows its darkness. As we drive back through the beautiful countryside, and see children at play along the way, I realize it always does.