“They should have shot me instead”: The stories of death row inmates’ family members
In Belarus, you cannot sentence a woman to death — this is the law. But it is women who suffer most from death sentences. It is them who bring parcels to Valadarka (detention center #1 located in Valadarski Street in Minsk) with the last of their money. They take loans to pay the lawyer. They make graves in the cemetery in which no one lays — the bodies are never given to the relatives. They protect children who are told that their fathers are murderers. It is them who believe to the last that capital punishment can be commuted to life imprisonment. And even after the execution, no matter how terrible the crime is, they try to justify their sons or fathers. Over the 27 years of Belarus’s independence, more than 400 men have been shot in Belarus. Behind each of them, there is the ruined life of at least one woman. We collected the stories of five of them.
“Our lives will never be the same again”
Profile. In 2013, 23-year-old Pavel Sialiun was found guilty of the brutal murder of his wife and a friend. The motive for the crime was jealousy. Sialiun dismembered the corpse of his wife’s lover and threw it into a garbage container, taking the head with him in a bag, which was found during his arrest. He was executed in 2014.
I first met Tamara Sialiun in the spring of 2014. We agreed to meet outside Valadarka, where her son Pavel was then on death row awaiting execution. Loaded with huge bags, one woman after another entered the prison: young, elderly, pregnant, with children, poor, rich, all the differences were erased. Here all are equal. Here the most valuable thing is information. On a tiny pitch with three small benches forming a large U, the relatives, just like experienced attorneys, were discussing every detail of the criminal cases. The air was so smoky that it seemed that the only tree growing in the prison yard would not last long. A small, energetic woman was coming towards me. She had bags in her hands. She broke out in laughter, then in tears, and said that she did not know whether her Paulusha was still alive, as they did not allow her to see him.
“They told me to go to the Supreme Court,” she said. “Can you come with me?”
We were unexpectedly quickly allowed to see the first deputy chairman. Valery Kalinkovich was sitting at the table, sorting through the papers, and then he asked casually: “What’s your subject?”
“My son is Pavel Sialiun. He was sentenced to death. I want to know if he’s fine?”
“Fine? Of course, he’s dead,” the judge said calmly.
I remember how Tamara trembled. I absolutely did not know what to do. And I was afraid that she would just collapse in that huge room.
“Tamara, do you understand what you were told?” I asked her.
“I understand,” she answered mechanically.
When we met four years later, and I asked if she remembered that moment, she said she didn’t — “it was as in a fog.”
“People who know me say they can’t believe I can bear that,” continues Tamara. “Every day I live everything connected with my son. I still do not believe that this really happened. He fell into the clutches of the investigators, they can force you sign anything. There was not a single person who heard or saw something.”
She starts to shake again, her voice grows louder: “At first I did not show up in public. But then I had to go out and buy some bread. Our town is small, everyone knew my parents, me and my kids. And now I notice two women talking, they saw me and I heard: “You know, this is the one whose son...” I got a grip of myself and swore at them. And I couldn’t do differently. I shouted at them: “Do you know what happened? I am his mother and don’t know, but you know it! Did I borrow any money from you? No! Well, then go!” I had to become impudent, although I was raised in a different way. Some people turned their backs on me. They said to my friends: “How can you talk to her? She's a leper!” Now I’m so steamed-up. Who knows me, they notice: “Tamara, you have changed.” Yes, I have changed a lot. I used to be open. And now I’m not. I say: “Go through what I’ve gone through and then you will understand.” My friend’s husband once told me: “Tamara, don’t worry, it was rubbish in your life. If those were people, they would have understood.” Many people came to me, supported me and brought money. I did not understand it back then, but they said: “Tamarachka, take it, you will need it later, you will have a lot of expenses.” They were right.”
There are old Soviet books in the room where we are sitting. Tamara remembers that she used to read the chapter once, and the kids instantly grasped everything. She recalls how they listened together to the Deutsche Welle. The kids are twins, Pavel and Andrei. Tamara says reluctantly about the other son, as if she wants to protect him. He also came in for a lot of trouble after his brother was sentenced — there were health problems, and he had to drop out of university. “He took the first blow, he was the first to learn everything. Apparently, Paulusha tried so hard to protect me,” his mother says through tears. “Do you see these books? They were everything for my son. Even there, in prison, he asked me to send books on history and philosophy. Thanks to our library, they helped me. I bought a lot, the last time eight books, he never read them. It was already late. In Valadarka, I remember the chiefs were saying: “We haven’t had such a bookworm before!” I asked them to leave these books in the detention center. They will need them.”
Tamara does not know how the murder happened. She refuses to believe that her son, who learned foreign languages, played several instruments and studied History at University, could commit such a terrible crime. The mother did not know either his wife or his friend, whom Pavel found together. “In recent years, he was very closed. He did not tell me much, did not want to upset me. I learned that he was married after the tragedy happened. It was a shock. I never saw the girl or her parents.”
Tamara remembers every meeting with her son, there were several of them — in Hrodna, where he was held before the announcement of the first verdict, and in Minsk, where he was waiting for death. “Do you really think we could talk?” said she at shouting pitch. “He was brought in by ten men. Once I said indignantly: “Do you want me to send for help if you cannot cope with this baby!” They were dragging him in the horizontal position. When I saw those bruises on his hands... They do not even remove the handcuffs! I did not know how it’s done. I thought I could hold his hand, touch him. And he looked at me and said: “Mom, it’s fine.” I was warned every time I was in Valadarka that I shouldn’t even try to ask him anything. There, I looked at him: “We are doing well, you are doing well”. And that’s all. They looked into his mouth so that he did not tell how he was treated, or what he was forced to sign. And each time I came there, more and more people were telling me: “Just look.” Of course, I could not admit that I would not see him. It’s horrible.”
Wrapped in a newspaper, Tamara keeps several letters from her son and some of his photographs. He wrote to her in Belarusian. Very short: “I'm fine, Mom. Don’t worry.”
We go out of the house, the mother shows us a small island where Pavel liked playing with his brother when they were kids. Now there are sheltered sheds there. Tamara often comes here — to remember and to think:
“One day I got a parcel — a box with no return address. I thought maybe it was some kind of humanitarian aid. I opened it and there was this prison uniform. They returned to me my son’s things. I quickly packed it and burned it. Don’t even want to remember it. I don’t understand why they sent me that horror. I heard some mothers whose sons were shot make graves in the cemetery where their relatives were buried. It’s the most stupid thing I can think of! They said I’d never find him. But others can find him, I believe in it. They should have shot me instead, I think so. I think about Paulusha every day. Our lives will never be the same again.”
“I’ve cried for two years and now I’m nearly blind”
Profile. In 2016, Kiryl Kazachok was found guilty of the murder of his two children. The motive is jealousy. After the murder, he got drunk and came to his wife, who was living with another man. He told her everything, called the police and jumped from a fourth-floor balcony, but survived. Kazachok was executed in 2018.
Liubou Kazachok spent almost a year in the hospital when her son was on trial. “I couldn’t stop crying for two years, my eyes were dry, I almost went blind. The doctors told me to calm down. But I could not soothe my soul. My kids are dead. And all I want is to die as soon as possible,” she says hastily.
With its 1970s design, her small apartment looks as if it is frozen in time. The big TV screen is the only thing that takes us back to 2018. “That’s all I have left from Kiryl,” says his mother. “Letters, things — I burned everything because when I saw them I started crying. And I’m not supposed to cry anymore. I had four sons, all are dead. I have the youngest one, he’s disabled. I have to feed him.”
Liubou has been busy raising kids all her life. First her own ones, then her grandkids. When there was a third kid in Kiryl’s family, she saved money for the down payment to buy a new apartment. His wife, whom he met quite early, by the time had already left the house several times. “I told him, “You have kids, you have your apartment, so find yourself another woman!” And he told me, “Mom, how could you say such a thing! When I fall asleep, I see Nastsia.”
In his last word, Kiryl did not ask for mercy, he turned to his wife and said: “You are the best woman in the world, take care of yourself.”
“He wrote to me in his letter: “Mom, come to live with Nastsia, you are the family. I do not know if he had time to read the last letter that I sent to him, but I wrote: “Son, how can you call her our family? She’s expecting a child. The trial was not over yet, but she was already pregnant. How can I go to her?” Nastsia told me she was sorry that she did it, that she could have had a normal life with Kiryl. I told her: “Shut up! My pain, my hurt — it’s inside me. I do not want to talk, but I will not listen to this, too. After the tragedy, two of our kids are dead, Kiryl was executed, then her mother died, my husband went mad and died — she gave five lives as a sacrifice to her love. I’m blind. The eldest grandson is very reserved, he does not want to talk to anybody, he went to university, but refused to study. And recently he told me: “I will never marry.”
The hardest thing is talking about the dead grandkids. “They used to come to me on Saturday and left on Sunday. I thought that they were my kids — and I treated them accordingly. They lived with Kiryl, did not want to go to their mother and her new husband. Uladzik and Kira did well at school. Ulad already said which university he was going to choose. He was afraid he could not get free tuition. And I said: “Grandson, me and Grandfather will do all we can to see you get it!” And now I have no one. And there is no reason for me to live, I see no point. I’ve ordered a grave-stone. I’ve signed my apartment over to the eldest grandson. I want to go there (pointing upwards — Ed.), to my kids. I can’t do it myself — it’s a sin. I wait for God to have mercy on me.”
Liubou sits down on her bed, across the room there is an old Soviet cabinet with a bear sticker. “Kiryl made it, and I can’t throw it away. I often see him in my dreams, I then spring to my feet and sob. How could he do such a thing? To his kids? I keep thinking maybe it’s not him. I just cannot believe it’s him. During the trial, my son asked to be shot. He said that life without his kids was not life at all. I sent him parcels till his last days: I did not eat or drink to collect these kilograms. Last time I saw him he was twisted, handcuffed and dragged in court. That’s it. And no one will ever write or call me again. I even have no one to get me to the dentist, cause I’m blind. I said to the doctor: “Then I will be without teeth. In the afterlife, I don’t need any teeth, I need to see my kids.”
“I wanted to marry him, but never got a chance — he was shot”
Profile. In 1989, Henadz Yakavitski was found guilty of murdering a neighbor, raping and murdering a girl by a group of people. The death sentence was replaced by 15 years imprisonment — the maximum one could get at the time. In 2015, he was found guilty of the brutal murder of his female partner. Yakavitski was executed in 2016.
I first met Natallia Bulanava in the winter of 2016. Her ex-husband was sentenced to death in Viliejka. Few knew about the case before the verdict was announced. A short message on a local website reported that the man had earlier been sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court commuted the punishment to 15 years in prison.
“I hope I can marry him,” Natallia said at the time.
“Are you kidding?” I asked.
“Kidding?! I want to see him, only a legitimate wife will be allowed into prison.”
Natallia never saw him. In October, Henadz had his ID re-issued; on November 5, his daughter brought him a parcel. A month later they found out that on the very day he was shot. Nobody knows why the jailers accept parcels ahead or immediately after the shooting. And why the convicts’ personal things are never returned to the families.
“I took the second verdict in a calmer spirit,” Natalya says. “After all, I was older, and Sasha was already grown up. And back then, in 1989... I remember his parents returning from the court. They said it was execution. That day I got really drunk, I thought my mother would kill me. The following day we went to see his transfer to Minsk. He went out, looked at me and said: “Ginger, do not worry!” The lawyers said: “No hope, he’s a dead man.” I don’t remember my way back home. A friend of mine told me: “Natasha, want a drink? Natasha, a smoke? Natasha, do not be silent. Natasha, say something!” I was staring straight before me, and then I suddenly started shouting, and all the neighbors came to see what happened. He loved Sanka so much. I think: “Here, I gave birth to his daughter, and he’s like that, she will be left without her dad?” Could you press pause?”
Natallia goes to the bathroom, in tears, says to herself: “Come on, Natasha, calm down! Holy crap, get a grip!”
The Supreme Court gave Yakavitski a second chance. Natallia immediately filed for divorce: “I was young, my mother was dying. Maybe someone will think it’s ridiculous, but I wanted to give her one more grandkid.”
And although they were not married, they corresponded all the time. From the age of seven, Sasha started visiting her father:
“For me, it was like an adventure. No one was bullying me. They were afraid of my father. He was like a local crime boss. We never discussed why he was in prison. It was just a closed topic. He always treated us well.”
Henadz Yakavitski came from a good family: his mother was a nurse, the father was a test pilot. At the age of 16, he was sent to prison for the first time, it was all by stupidity. He never got used to life on the outside. He didn’t want to work, his friends either drank themselves to death or were in prison. In recent years, he threw himself into drinking bouts. His home turned into a hellhole, the daughter did not speak to him for three years.
“I didn’t see him before the trial. But then there was no time for hard feelings. Who else could support him? He never complained. Tea and cigarettes — that was all he asked to send,” recalls Aliaksandra. “He was almost 50, but in his heart, he was still a kid. He wanted adventure. No one could influence him. He did not listen to anyone at all — he only did what he wanted.”
No one expected a second death sentence. The lawyer told the family: “25 years at most. According to the family and the lawyer, there was no direct evidence. It’s still unknown what really happened at the site of the tragedy: the company, including the victim, had been drinking hard for three days in a row.
“They were executing him for 10 months,” Sasha says. “Every month, there were people who said: “This is it. Your Henka is dead, they said it on TV / wrote in the newspaper / a jailer I know told me / a criminal friend told me. It was a real show — “Let Them Talk” (a Russian talk show – Ed.). My mother reacted every time, I tried not to listen to that nonsense. One day my sister called, her friend works in the registry office, and she told me that a letter had come, they said they shot Hena. I answered: “I don’t even want to listen! What letter? First of all, they should tell me, his daughter.” Mom called, she had hysterics. I told her: “What are you doing, like it’s for the first time?! When they tell us personally, then we will panic.” As a result, on the same day, a paper came saying the verdict was executed.”
“We knew that after the execution some families received prison uniform with the letters IMN on the back (“isklyuchitel'naya mera nakazaniya” — exceptional measure of punishment),” Natalya says. “We knew that Hena’s personal belongings — the photos and the letters we sent him — would never be returned to us. And we were very afraid of getting that terrible uniform.”
Natallia again says that she wanted to marry him. And, once again, I ask: “How is this even possible, after he was sentenced to death?”
“I’m probably a very stupid woman, but I’m very grateful to him for my daughter, for my girl. And we loved each other. He never raised his voice against us, he never raised his hand. Maybe this was an extraterrestrial attraction? It’s hard to explain.”
The family was offered to buy information where Yakavitski was buried. They refused.
“We have a place in the cemetery where all our relatives are buried. We’ll put a monument to our father there,” Sasha says. “Of course, he’s gone for good. But we, the family, still suffer. You know, it was very hard to read the comments on the Internet. They wrote that once my father is a murderer, then I am also a murderer, my kid is a murderer, because we have one blood, and we, too, must be shot. Most of all, I fear for the little daughter. She still thinks her Grandpa had gone fishing.”
“The investigator told us: don’t even try, he’s a dead man”
Profile. In 2017, Ihar Hershankou was found guilty of the brutal murder of six people and one more attempted murder. Hershankou, together with his wife Tatsiana and two friends, killed alcoholics to take their apartments. Some of them were buried alive. Ihar and his accomplice Siamion Berazhnoy were sentenced to death. Both are awaiting execution on death row in detention center #1 in Minsk.
The trial of the four persons dubbed by the media as “black real estate agents” was nervous. The defendants asked to expel the journalists. One of the accused threatened to cut his veins if the media published at least a word about him. Ihar Hershankou — the key figure in the trial — remained calm throughout the hearing. He answered questions quietly, began his sentences with introductory words, his speech was so confused that the experienced judge and the prosecutor were angry and sometimes broke into emotions. Neither the cries of the other defendants nor the horrible details of the case could knock Ihar off-balance. He brought notebooks to the hearings, where every step was recorded in scrawled handwriting. There were two women on the last row. When I asked if they were the defendants’ relatives, they instantly denied this: “No, and we will not say anything.”
After several hearings, the women relented. And I learned that one of them was Liudmila Hershankova, Ihar’s mother.
We met again after the verdict was announced. Liudmila asks not to photograph her face. She is afraid that she may be recognized in her home city and humiliated. Every month she and her husband come to Valadarka — to bring foodstuffs to her son, to see him. Ihar says that he has been on hunger strike for a month (at the time of publication, Hershankou stopped the hunger strike — Ed.), because his appeals against the verdict never leave the prison walls.
“The investigator immediately told us: do not even try, he’s a dead man. It was in the first days after they arrested him, and everything was already decided! The prosecutor called them fascists during the trial. But who are them, if not fascists? If you could see what they did to my son. His arms and legs are thin, his head dangling. I say: “Son, what’s the matter with you?” And he says that they put him on a drip, although he signed a paper to refuse assistance. He is alone in the cell. People in helmets use truncheons to overcome resistance. And one of the prison chiefs told him: “Why are you complaining? You are dead!” says his mother.
In his letters, Ihar keeps writing that he is innocent. One can easily recognize his scrawled handwriting. He tells how the testimony was knocked out of him. And the tone of his messages suggests that he is the only person on death row who really wants to live.
Meanwhile, his wife Tatsiana, who was pregnant at the time of the terrible crimes, is serving her sentence in a women's prison. The husband and his wife cannot correspond. These are the rules. But there is no family anymore, it became clear in court. The defendants were sitting one by one in a row, seeing only the backs of each other. So Tanya, most likely, did not see her husband’s face when it became known that she had a close relationship with another accomplice, Siamion. Both men asked the court to spare the woman. Ihar and Tatsiana’s kids are now brought up by her relatives.
“My grandson was told at school that his parents were murderers. Grandmother went to the teacher, asked for help,” says Liudmila. “But this rarely happens. In our house, for example, all the neighbors support us. They say they don’t believe that Ihar could have done this! Such a quiet, calm and easy-going person. There are long terms, 25 years is a lot, you can go crazy. But to kill a man?”
“But Ihar...” I try to ask.
“Ihar did not kill anyone,” says the mother. “You do not understand, he’s a quiet and calm boy. He did not even smoke. I do not believe, I will never believe.”
In Belarus, there are no psychological support programs for people whose relatives were sentenced to death. However, there are no such programs for the relatives of the victims, either. One man kills another. Then the state kills the man. Looks like the question is resolved. But the relatives of the slain bear this pain all their lives, and often it’s a one-on-one struggle.
The publication was prepared with the support of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus” and the company Internews.
Text: Adaria Gushtyn, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Siarhei Balay, email@example.com
Reprinting of the material is possible only with the written permission of the authors