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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 14:34 GMT 15:34 UK
Wives wait for Belarus' missing men
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC correspondent in Minsk

Zinaida Gonchar last saw her husband over four-and-a-half years ago.

Zinaida Gonchar
Mrs Gonchar has had no official explanation for her husband's disappearance

Viktor vanished with a friend one evening in September 1999.

The two men were last sighted leaving the local steam baths - then the trail goes cold.

But Zina clings to the hope he is still alive.

"I know so much time has passed, but I have to go on believing he's alive for the sake of my son," Zina says, flicking through a photo album filled with memories of her husband.

"The worst thing is just not knowing. I swing from hope to hopelessness."

No straight answers

Viktor was a high-profile opposition politician, one of four prominent men who disappeared in Minsk in 1999 and 2000.

Zina believes her husband was abducted because he represented a political threat to the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

"It was a time of mounting opposition," she says.

"People were no longer being deterred by beatings, searches and arrests.

People were no longer being deterred by beatings, searches and arrests - that's when the disappearances began
Zinaida Gonchar

"That's when the disappearances began."

But like all the relatives of the disappeared, Zina has been unable to get any straight answers or explanation from officials.

Uneasy sleep

Now the families feel they have been given fresh hope.

The Council of Europe has compiled a damning new report on the disappearances, accusing the Belarusian authorities of a cover-up.

Alexander Lukashenko
The report points fingers at President Lukashenko
Following forensic-style analysis of what little evidence is available, author Christos Pourgourides concludes that "steps were taken at the highest level" to conceal the truth.

Mr Pourgourides goes on to express grave suspicions about the role played by several senior officials, and by President Lukashenko himself.

Zinaida says the report only confirms on paper her own long-held conviction.

"I haven't slept properly in almost five years," she says.

"I think Mr Lukashenko must find it difficult too."

Holding on for a miracle

Official Belarus has dismissed the report, fuming that Mr Pourgourides has exceeded his mandate.

"The Council of Europe is not well equipped to make a conclusion like that," insists Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov.

Svetlana Zavadskaya
Sveta still dreams her husband will return one day
"We have a very impressive and effective law enforcement system which works full gear on those investigations. We are investing all the effort we can."

But the Council of Europe remains unconvinced.

Its report recommends urging member states to impose sanctions on Belarus until they see signs of improvement.

Across the town from Zina, Svetlana Zavadskaya says the language of pressure is the only one the Belarusian authorities understand.

Sveta's husband Dima vanished in July 2000. He once worked as the president's personal cameraman.

Sveta still dreams of the day her husband will return.

"The first year I was sure he was alive, then the second year it was 50-50," she says softly.

"Now I think maybe just 1% - and I'm holding on to that, for the chance of a miracle."

Agonising wait

Svetlana is still pushing the authorities for answers. But their chosen tactic is silence.

I want it all over as soon as possible, for me and for my child
Svetlana Zavadskaya
"We ask for information and they act as if we don't exist," she complains.

"But we are collecting all we can and I'm sure the courts and those officials will have to answer for this in the end."

Svetlana believes the families are powerless on their own, so she welcomes the hard line taken in the Council of Europe report.

"There have been so many resolutions and bills passed on Belarus, but this is the only one that's really tough," she says.

"I'm pleased Europe is trying to draw a line under this affair."

Now Svetlana wants the international community to adopt concrete measures on Belarus - more than just words - to help bring the families' agonising wait for answers to a close.

"I want it all over as soon as possible, for me and for my child," she says.

"I love this country, and I want to bring forward the moment when our people can live freely - the life they deserve."

Belarus leader sacks PM
10 Jul 03  |  Europe
EU imposes Belarus travel ban
19 Nov 02  |  Europe
Country profile: Belarus
08 Mar 02  |  Country profiles

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