In preparing my visit to Belarus, I decided it as a must to visit Khatyn. It was here that, on 22 March 1943, the Germans took revenge on a village for the partisans that were fighting them. Belarus suffered greatly in the war, and there were more Khatyns, but the village has become a symbol for the atrocities committed against the Belorussians. Khatyn is virtually impossible to reach on public transport, so I had decided to rent a car. The drive turns out to be easy and fast, and when I drive on the final stretch towards the site from the highway, I feel sorrow coming up in my body. I know that the next hours will not be easy. There is a small museum, unfortunately mostly only with (Belo)Russian explanations, but the pictures probably tell more than words could do. What happened on that fateful day: the Germans forced everyone into a barn, closed it, doused it in petrol, and set it on fire, while surrounding it on all sides. Those who tried to escape the inferno inside, were shot. Only one person miraculously survived to tell the tale; 149 people, among which 75 children, perished. The village was never rebuilt. It had just disappeared from the face of the earth, together with its inhabitants.
When I walk towards the open space in the woods, I first find a rectangular stone with numbers on it. Here, too, the explanation in English is missing. I recognize the numbers and the date of the massacre. Flowers adorn two sides of the concrete block. A broad concrete path leads down from here, with a stretch of earth in between where red flowers grow - a stream of blood. At the end, I see a huge statue of the Unconquered Man: a solemn looking man with a dead kid in his arms. Is it the only survivor of Khatyn? I walk down the path, until the statue with its powerful message of helplessness and determination towers high above me. To the right of the statue, I find a monument of two pieces of black stone, forming a roof - they symbolize the shed in which the inhabitants were driven and butchered by the Nazis. Here, too: flowers. On the other side of the statue, a rectangular, grey monument marks the spot where the barn was located. It has an inscription, a message from the villagers, to all of us: live in peace, turn grief and sorrow into courage and strength. From here, concrete paths continue. Where houses once stood, you can now find the foundations, with open doors to symbolize the hospitality of the Belorussian people. Plaques mention the people living in each house; all the kids under 16 are mentioned with their age. A shocking number of children were killed in the savage act. Every "house" has a small tower with a bell; they ring every 30 seconds. Wherever you walk in this opening in the woods, you can hear the bells ring, reminding you all the time of the cruel truth of the place.
A little further on, there is a cemetery for all the 185 other villages in Belarus that were obliterated from the face of the earth, just like Khatyn itself. Their names are mentioned, there is a little bit of their soil on the tomb. Then, there is a pedestal with an eternal flame. Three openings have trees growing, one is empty: it symbolizes the fact that one in four Belorussians died in the Great Patriotic War. Behind it, there is the Memory Wall, for the 260 death camps that existed around Belarus, mentioning the number of people who died in them. Then, there is another monument, shaped like a tree, with all the 433 villages that were also destroyed, but that were rebuilt after the war was over. After exploring all these sites, I walk to one of the "houses" a little further away, sit down, and try to comprehend what I have just seen. It is overwhelming: so much misery, the suffering, scenes that I cannot even visualize, small kids burnt alive with their parents, soldiers waiting outside to make sure no one escapes the inferno inside. And that for hundreds of villages in this country. Meanwhile, the bells around me continue to ring, relentlessly, adding to the sad atmosphere in these friendly woods. There are so many monuments for the war to be found all over Belarus, but it is here, in Khatyn, that the brutal facts come to life, right in your face, and remind you of the immensely ugly things that man is capable of. When I drive back to Minsk, the sun is still shining, but the memory of what I have seen sticks.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Khatyn (Belarus). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Khatyn. Read more about this site.