I visit Minsk in May 2006 on a university excursion. We focus on social projects and spend only limited time exploring the city. The evenings are great fun. A few years ago, I had spoken with a recent visitor to Minsk who compared its charm to a freshly raked cemetery. The city is still fairly bland, somehow subdued, but a few bars have by now appeared on the scene.

One day, we head outside town to the Khatyn Memorial. On the 22nd of March 1943, Nazi units entered the village and drove the inhabitants from their houses and into a shed, which was then covered with straw and set on fire. The trapped people managed to break down the front doors, but in trying to escape, were killed by machine gun fire. 147 people, including 75 children under 16 years of age, were killed – burned, shot or suffocated in the fire. The village was then looted and burned to the ground. One adult and five children survived, everybody else was murdered.

We enter and leave Belarus by train. At the Polish-Belarus border the gauge changes, the carriages are lifted up and all the wheels changed. The process takes a few hours.