“I hope my bold tone will outrage you”

Writer Sasha Filipenko addressed the head of the Red Cross

14 February 2021, 14:27 | The Village Belarus
Sasha Filipenko.
Source: Lukas Lienhard, SZ.de

Belarusian writer Sasha Filipenko appealed to the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, with a request to help stop torture in Belarus. His letter was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a major Swiss German-language newspaper.

Here is the content of his appeal:

Dear Mr. President!

During your visit to Russia, you expressed your desire to meet with me to discuss my book, The Red Cross, which had been recommended to you by the President of Switzerland. As you said, you enjoyed the book very much. You had to postpone our meeting several times, explaining that first you needed to meet with Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Mishustsin, whose names and positions, probably, should have made a great impression on me – but they did not.

Sorry, but our meeting didn’t make a positive impression on me either. Then, in the fall, I immediately told you that I was not at all interested in conducting lengthy conversations about literature, but I would much rather talk about the situation in Belarus and especially about the work of the International Red Cross in my native country. But, as it seemed to me, this conversation did not particularly interest you. I really hope that I will stand corrected and, in the shortest time possible, you will demonstrate a real interest in overcoming the humanitarian catastrophe which began in Belarus last year and continues to this day.

I suggested that you inspect Belarusian prisons, where women sleep on concrete floors and metal nets without mattresses, where bread is placed under their heads instead of pillows, where toilets are holes in the floors, not even separated by curtains, and where warders do not allow them to receive tooth brushes or sanitary napkins.

Then, in the fall, you replied that the ICRC does not have such a mandate.

Assuming such an answer in advance, I reminded you of the Brazilian favelas, regarding which the ICRC takes a much more active position. Just as I did then, during our lunch in Moscow, I now declare with full responsibility that Brazilian favelas, in comparison with modern “prison Minsk”, look like resorts with increased security and secure parking.

One of the main arguments you used to explain the inability to intervene in Belarusian events is the alleged neutrality of the International Red Cross. I allow myself to use the word “alleged” because in the case of Belarus, your organization actually does not observe any neutrality. Dzmitry Pinevich, the Minister of Health of the Republic of Belarus, holds the position of the Chairman of the Presidium of the Belarusian Red Cross Society. That means the public organization is headed by a government official appointed and directly subordinate to the dictator Lukashenko! (By the way, Lukashenko appointed himself the president of the Olympic Committee of Belarus. I hope you, a citizen of a country with long-standing democratic traditions, will find this fact ridiculous, at the very least.)

It is under Pinevich, who is allegedly responsible for maintaining the neutrality of the International Red Cross, that an unprecedented attack on doctors has been launched in Belarus. Several dozen medical workers, including the heads of the largest medical centers and universities, have been dismissed from their jobs for their civic position. Despite being a leading specialist in his hospital, renowned oncologist Aliaksandr Minich received 13 days of detention for participating in a peaceful protest. Artsiom Sarokin, the doctor who provided the details of the diagnosis of the murdered artist, Raman Bandarenka, is in prison and will soon be brought to trial for allegedly violating medical confidentiality. The relatives of the deceased have no complaints against Sarokin, but the authorities are taking revenge on him for refuting the lies of the murderers protected by the state. The director of the Cardiology scientific center, Aliaksandr Mrochak, was dismissed because he did not oppose his subordinates going to protests. Under the leadership of Mrochak, heart transplant operations unique to the country were performed in the center. Mrochak received threats, his dacha [vacation house – Translator’s note] was burned. Andrei Vitushka, an intensivist, was detained because he went to a police station to try to find his son, a minor (!) who had been detained. One article isn’t big enough to fit all the examples!

Many ordinary doctors are not getting their contracts renewed because of their social media posts. During the tragic days of August, unmarked armed abusers, with the apparent complicity of the Ministry of Health, used ambulances to move around the city. They took advantage of the fact that crowds of protesting citizens would part to let cars with a red cross pass through. Is there a need for a more vivid metaphor for the treachery and inhuman essence of the regime?!

Detention of a protester in Minsk on 13 September 2020.
Source: Neue Zürcher Zeitung

More than two hundred doctors and nurses have been detained during peaceful protests. Some were beaten, many were fined and given up to 45 days of detention. Under the neutrality of Mr. Pinevich, doctors are fleeing Belarus. About two hundred Belarusian doctors have already moved to work in neighboring Poland. After that, the dictator Lukashenko decided to close the borders and warned that he would not let the doctors who had left back into the country. Once again, he violates the Constitution – no one has the right to prohibit a citizen of the Republic of Belarus from returning to their own country.

We know that in addition to thousands of pages of wonderful and respectable deeds, the history of the ICRC also contains sad chapters. Paradoxically, during the inspections of fascist concentration camps by the Red Cross, neither gas chambers nor operating rooms for human experiments were noticed. However, it could be explained by the fact that the staff of the ICRC then was much smaller than it is now.

I do not mention the camps just for the sake of a catchy comparison or offensive reproach. The ICRC is cooperating with a criminal regime that is building a concentration camp for political prisoners in the center of Europe in 2020. By direct order of the president, they are going to put the most active fighters against the regime in this camp. Moreover, as the current Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs put it, prisoners will stay there for a period “until everything calms down”.

Don’t you think, Mr. President, that we live in a time when it is no longer possible to ignore the concentration camps? The ICRC, one of the most influential humanitarian organizations in the world, must finally stop communicating and cooperating with dishonest politicians and hear the voices of ordinary people who are crying for help.

I am not asking you to do more than you can. I am asking you to do only what you must, only what the ICRC exists for in the civilized world. I am firmly convinced that it is the duty of the International Red Cross to inspect the overcrowded Belarusian prisons, where peaceful civilians are held for weeks in punishment cells, where they have neither hot water nor hygiene products, where detainees are subjected to torture and psychological and physical pressure, as soon as possible.

The ICRC is obliged to demand an end to the practice of abduction and beating of citizens by people without identification marks as well as an end to torture since these practices are in direct violation of international conventions signed by Belarus.

It is a shame the website of your respected organization’s Belarusian subdivision made its last entry in early August. A lot has happened since then, hasn’t it? True, there is a record on the Facebook page of the Belarusian ICRC that its employees delivered water to temporary detention facilities. I am sure that the International Red Cross certainly can and MUST do much more. The International Red Cross is obliged to provide assistance rather than portray assistance. Otherwise, the useless office of the Red Cross in Belarus should be closed for being deemed unnecessary.

Dear Mr. President, we can see that the moment we turn a blind eye to the atrocities of the police forces in one country, their crimes are immediately repeated in a neighboring one. We are already recording cases of torture and violence against detained peaceful protesters in Russia. I am sure I don’t need to explain to you that if all of us continue to be inactive, or if we calm ourselves down by pretending to be fighting injustice, this cancerous tumor will spread and certainly appear in some of the European countries. Hungary, for example, in my personal opinion, is already quite ready for this.

Dear Mr. President, I very much hope that the defiant and impudent tone of this letter will outrage you. However, I also hope that you, being a wise man, will suppress this indignation and begin to demonstrate with your deeds that I am wrong. I very much hope that I will be heard by you because I speak not for myself but for many Belarusians who need your help, both in prisons and on the streets of their own cities.

When, together with you, we will achieve the absence of political prisoners in the very center of Europe, when weapons will no longer be used against peaceful citizens, when people in Belarus will cease to be abducted, killed, and tortured, I propose to return to the subject of literature.