Heroes Never Die: 21 May, anniversary of death of Vitold Ashurak
"Hello, friends! I am Vitold Ashurak, I am 49. I am the coordinator of the "For Freedom" Movement for the Grodno Region and a member of the Seim (Assembly) of the Belarusian People’s Front Party (the BNF). For many years, I have been involved in the handling of the problems of the region," this is how a man described himself in his TV message during the 2019 deputy elections. He repeatedly ran for a seat on the municipal council and the parliament and, taking part in the elections for Berezovka town council in 2018, obtained 15.9% of votes in spite of gross falsifications. He wished to make a difference in the life of Belarusians and used election campaigns to talk to people.
Vitold Ashurak was a Belarusian political prisoner coming from Berezovka, Lida Region. He was first detained on 9 August 2020 and sentenced to 20 days of administrative arrest, including 15 days for the participation in the event and another 5 days for the contempt of court, because he did not rise when the judge entered the court room. Vitold was released 5 days later, but he continued visiting Lida to join "solidarity chains".
He did not try to hide away because he did not consider himself guilty. On 19 September, he was detained and, having spent a month behind bars as an administrative detainee, faced criminal charges. Judge Maksim Filatau sentenced him to five years in a penal colony for participation in the protests following the 2020 elections. In May 2021, Vitold died at the Shklov colony under unclear circumstances.
Vitold was strong-willed and uncompromising. His activism started off with Ploshchad 2010. He was sentenced to 12-day imprisonment for taking part in that event, two days being added to the term after he claimed that he had been among the protesters "for a great cause". His next step was to join the BNF, though he had said he would never be a member of any party. He was ready to work hard to improve himself – when in 2010 he switched to the Belarusian language, he asked his wife to dictate texts to him.
Who is Vitold Ashurak?
Vitold was a graduate of the Berezovka ten-year secondary school, but his friends always knew him as a man of considerable knowledge who was well-read and well versed in Belarusian and world history. He worked as a glass blower at a glass factory for a long time, then took up building and renovation works. Apar from that, he went in for tattooing. He practised by tattooing himself and then got rid of the tattoos he didn’t like. His brother Andrey considers him the best tattoo artist in Berezovka. In addition, Vitold painted pictures, only few of them being left, including a picture named Prostyia Rechy (Simple Things). He was also a good chess player.
Since 1988, Vitold did rafting down the Neman, a river he loved very much. He set off on his first trip together with Dmitry Voytushkevich when they both were still schoolboys. Since that time, he rafted down the Neman every year and built a new vessel for each trip using his own drawings. In summer 2021, his friends had a traditional rafting trip to commemorate Vitold.
"I miss him, we have been side by side throughout our lives," his brother Andrey Ashurak said. "He was always smart, a generator of ideas. He once read somewhere about digging an artesian well; we found an awful sandy spot and dug a hole three meters deep with children’s trowels, all kids of the neighborhood did the digging. Everyone wanted to see how soon we would strike water".
He had respect for and was expert in the history of Belarus. When a monument to Gedymin was unveiled in Lida in 2019, Ashurak was inspired by the atmosphere and numerous white-red-white flags and at the end of that day he felt sure that the future belonged to us! Vitold was also among those who promoted patriotic song festivals held in the vicinity of Berezovka.
The political prisoner took part in numerous events drawing people’s attention to the problems which affected Belarus, including environmental issues. Thus, on 26 April 2020, he held a single-person protest action against the construction of a new glass wool workshop in his native town of Berezovka. Vitold called that action a line drawn under his illusions. "Today, it makes no sense to send letters, appeal to the supreme authorities or to Lukashenko as it was him who ordered to build this workshop," he said then. Together with his associates he sued the plant for the violation of the Aarhus Convention and succeeded in having public hearings. As a result, the plant built a safer high-temperature furnace for hazardous waste combustion. Furthermore, in 2019, Vitold raised an issue of fish pestilence in the Ditva river, upon which Lida waste treatment facilities started to be expanded. On the eve of 7 November 2017, his friends and he came to Lenin monument to put a wreath saying Burn in Hell, executioner.
Vitold’s efforts made it possible to create a memorial to honour the freedom fighters of 1863-1864 on the actual site of battles waged by the Novogrudok squad. The owner of the mansion which then stood nearby collected the bodies of about 30 men killed there and buried them on the outskirts of his estate. In 2016-2017, Vitold, together with his friends, renovated the crosses erected in 1990s. He dreamed to make that place some sort of a Belarusian Pantheon. Ashurak believed it to embody a generational bridge connecting the bygone ages with the posterity. He also visited the reburial of the remains of freedom fighters in Vilnius. Today, more and more Belarusians come to the memorial.
"It has already been three months since I was put in prison. I have been keeping a watchful eye on what I feel and whether my sense of freedom has diminished in the presence of thick walls and a steel door with a food hatch in it. Has the building of the former Jesuit college deprived me of the freedom of thought? My enemies prevent me from seeing my family members, my wife and friends, but they have no power to place my thoughts under police control! I am still free to distinguish between black and white and to love my Motherland, Belarus," Vitold wrote in his letter to the editors of Novy Chas newspaper after several months of imprisonment.
How do people pay tribute to the activist?
The name of Vitold Ashurak is commemorated on the Memorials of a Belarussian church in London, a Belarusian church in Antwerp has erected and consecrated a memorial sign in honour of Vitold Ashurak, his portrait was brought to Kuropaty, memorial events to commemorate Ashurak have been held in many cities and countries. In winter 2021, artist Evgeny Lukashevich created a piece of sculpture in Berezovka named "Big-hearted Berezovka Auroch" and dedicated it to Vitold Ashurak.
The Belarusian activist was awarded, after his death, with the Cross For Dignity in Captivity which is is awarded to citizens of Ukraine and foreign citizens who, upon being taken prisoners, demonstrate courage and unbending spirit.
"It is time to accept responsibility for the Motherland. We should shape our own destiny and take care of our own future. In the circumstance of massive falsifications, I have no right to call you to come and vote at polling stations. But this will not always be the case. The darkest of nights is always followed by a day, and we should be ready for that day. Get ready, my friends!
Be active, be brave in having your own civic position and stand upon dignity. Remember that the patriots of Belarus outnumber fence-sitters. Never forget that you have power, and that Belarus is above all!" he said in the TV address during the deputy elections campaign".
In a letter to his friend Olga Bykouskaya he wrote, "I am so envious of those of us for whom the times of imprisonments and assaults against the nation will become a thing of the past. Such times are certain to come!"
The publication is based on the materials provided by Vitold Ashurak community, I am Vitold Ashurak film by Radyie Svaboda and other materials from Radyie Svaboda. Find here frames for profile pictures in honour of Vitold Ashurak. The title of the publication cites a line from the Heroes Never Die song by Lyavon Volsky.