The perspective from Belarus

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Last week at this time I was in Minsk, Belarus, the capital city of a former Soviet republic bordering Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and the Ukraine. At the heart of one of the city's centers is a stunning memorial to the Belarusian soldiers who fell in the Soviet war on Afghanistan. It stands alone on the Island of Tears in the middle of the river that snakes through Minsk.

Belarusians follow closely the news from America with deep sympathy. In some ways, they also see the terrorist attacks as a wake-up call to Americans who criticized Russia for its heavy-handed attempts to quell the independence movement in Chechnya, where Moslem extremists who were trained in Osama bin Laden's camps continue to fight. Because of that conflict, bin Laden operatives detonated explosives around Moscow for several months as a precursor to the type of indiscriminate killing of civilians we are suffering here.

Nearly all I spoke with viewed President Bush as a good leader and a friend to the area. Few urban Belarusians like their own autocratic president, but they respect the burgeoning relationship between Bush and Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. If there was criticism, it was that an American offer to hire Russian officers and specialists with experience in the Soviet War in Afghanistan wasn't also extended to Belarusian special-ops veterans. In a place where the average monthly salary is below $100, the American offer of $5,000 a month is compelling, even if it means returning to Afghanistan. (Note: I did not actually see or read about this report, but it was told to me by a group of Belarusians.)

While I was in Minsk, Russia's Putin announced that he would be sending 40 tanks to the region to take part in a ground campaign. While those I talked to in Belarus don't feel threatened by the anthrax attacks they see on television taking place in America, the common sentiment was that this matter -- and terrorism around the world -- would become worse before it becomes better.

I have many good tales to share about my brief time abroad in a magnificent country. They can wait until later. One lesson that stands clear, however, is how important it is for Americans to increase their awareness of the rest of the world. The number of Americans studying Arabic, for example, can easier be counted in hundreds than thousands. The number who study Pashtu, the language of the Taliban, is virtually nil. In Minsk in my hotel, I ran into some Americans, but most spoke only a smattering of Russian -- just enough, sadly, to pick up a prostitute.

Flying internationally was a different experience this time. On each leg of my journey -- domestic and international -- I was pulled aside for extensive questioning, and my bags were hand-searched. Not once. Not twice. But five times. The only unsearched trips were from Warsaw, Poland, to Minsk and vice versa. In general, most men traveling alone were pulled aside, as were most people with Arabic-sounding names or extensive travel to the Middle East.

The questions to me were similar at each airport:

Where are you coming from? Why were you here? What other places have you visited? What do you do? Do you have a business card?

Show me all your money. Are you carrying any other money on you or in your bags? Did you pack everything yourself? Have all your bags been under your control since you packed them?

Did you receive any gifts? (In my case, I received chocolates, vodka and cognac.) Did you try the chocolates? Why not? Do you know for sure they are chocolates? Who gave you each gift of chocolate? Do you know the people well who gave them to you? Do you trust the people who gave them to you?

In Detroit, where I went through customs upon my return, I was pulled aside and my bags searched again. Next to me a middle-aged man from Algeria, an Islamic nation, was being reprimanded by a testy guard for having food and seeds in his carry-on bags. Neither had been declared on his customs form. The Algerian was told curtly that the seeds and food would be confiscated.

"Why did you not declare them?" the guard kept repeating as the man swayed from one foot to the other.

"You see that these items are specifically identified in the customs form? Why did you not declare them? Do you have anything else on you that hasn't been declared?"

Five minutes later after the officials were done with me, two guards were still going through the Algerian's bags item by item while another watched from a distance.

Not once did I feel threatened during my trip, however. More worrisome was following the news late at night on MSNBC and BBC, which were available on my hotel TV. All of the United States appeared to be under attack from anthrax, and the criticism of Bush, Tommy Thompson and John Ashcroft had begun. The news was similar on Belarusian television, and my friends asked if I would prefer to stay with them.

No, I said, I have faith in our leaders. This will be a long battle, and I too believe it will get worse before it becomes better. But most Americans are rallying together in the understanding that policy will be reactive to terrorists for a while, and, unfortunately, not all-powerful or perfect. The enemy will score more short-term victories, but Americans by standing together will make sure we win the war. The Belarusians nodded in agreement.

Jon K. Rust is co-president of Rust Communications.

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