Tag Archive: human rights


Vilnius Museum of Occupation

So… Vilnius. Capital of Lithuania. I ended up spending a week here as I was heading to Minsk on June 9 and didn’t have time/couldn’t be bothered going down to Poland. I had intended to use Vilnius as a base of operations and doing short day trips around, but the weather was so crappy for most of the trip that I couldn’t be bothered. Plus, thanks to an anonymous generous benefactor (AGB), I had a free place to stay and someone to hang out with on occasion.

Anyway, my first night in Vilnius, the weather was decidedly shitty and cold, but I spent it drinking a bottle of wine and eating olives with aforementioned travel buddy from the previous post. I enjoyed the evening, though I think that may be because I was fairly insulting and rude, which I hadn’t had the pleasure of being for a while (sorry Eric, really bad habit, though you did deserve some of it :P).

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t clear up the next day, which was a real shame, because AGB was going to surprise me/try to kill me by taking me skydiving! I think he just wanted to see me scream for my life and wet myself. Anyway, we went to the skydiving centre and they said sorry, we aren’t going up today because the weather isn’t cooperating and as they only do weekends I never got the opportunity. AGB was busy the next day and couldn’t do the following Saturday before I left for Belarus. Oh well, next time.

The rest of the week was spent in rather blissful relaxation. Though I think I should have gotten a mani/pedi with the money I saved on not paying for accommodation for the week. I actually ended up spending the week randomly sightseeing (aka wandering aimlessly) and drinking in pubs, café’s and chocolate bars while people watching. Not a bad week overall. I did go to the occupation museum, which was actually quite different from the other occupation museums that I had been to. While the other occupation museums covered the Nazi occupation as well as Soviet occupation (Nazi occupation only lasted a couple of years, compared to the decades of Soviet occupation), this museum really didn’t say anything about Nazi occupation and gave very vague directions on how to get to a Jewish museum which explained more about Nazi occupation. After further research and visiting these museums I have come to the conclusion that Lithuania is either very embarrassed about its role in Nazi eradication of Jews or is still anti-Semitic (or would be there were enough Jews left to be anti-Semitic).

While Estonians and Latvians for the most part tried to have very little to do with Jewish massacres (obviously there were anti-Semites who took part, but it wasn’t a majority), Lithuanians were fairly more anti-Semitic and played a much more willing (and successful) role in eradicating the Jews in the area. Unfortunately, I never was able to find that Jewish Holocaust/Nazi occupation museum, because I think it would have been extremely interesting (and sobering) to see it.

Anyway, back to the Vilnius Occupation Museum. I ended up spending a good two hours in this museum. It was rather large and had a very detailed and excellent exhibit. The exhibits (as far as I could tell) were in Lithuanian, Russian and English. They had detailed exhibits on the occupation, they had an entire floor of the building (previously used as Cheka, Nazi and KGB headquarters) as an exhibit of the prison in the basement (not sure they had to refurbish most of it, I think a lot of it was original) and access to the exercise yard and execution room.

I’m going to do a comparison here. Might be a bit unfair, but it’s my blog, so if you don’t like it, comment. I visited the KGB museum in Tartu, Estonia, which was in the basement of the building used as KGB headquarters during Soviet occupation. The bottom floor in Tartu was used as a prison and was an extremely sobering experience. It was disturbing to see where these prisoners slept, were kept in isolation, were punished, etc. Frankly, it was nothing compared to the prison I saw in Vilnius. As I said, this may be unfair as Vilnius is at least 4 times larger than Tartu and presumably has always been larger. I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the one in Vilnius unfortunately, so I can’t show you what I’m talking about. It was sobering. It was shocking. I found my mind wandering to thinking about other things to try to block out what I was seeing. You can’t block it out though.

It was about 20 degrees Celsius outside but this basement was freezing. I was cold wearing a jacket and scarf. There were interrogation rooms, which weren’t much different from the rooms prisoners slept in except there was a table and stools. I imagine when it was a working prison there were probably also items used for torture in there. The solitary confinement rooms were small, though decidedly larger than the ones in Tartu. There was at least room for a person to lie down (assuming they could stomach the cold as they were stripped down to their underclothes) and a place for them to relieve themselves but it could not have been enjoyable, being stuck in a small, cold room with no opportunity for exercise whatsoever. At least the regular prisoners were allowed 15 minutes or so a day to walk outside and see the sun.

There were also rooms where prisoners who misbehaved were punished. Not punished via whipping or solitary confinement (though I suppose they were alone so maybe that counts?) but they were forced to stand on a small metal stand about as big around as a bar stool. This metal stand was raised about a foot off the ground, but it was in a dip in the floor that apparently during the summer was filled with cold water and during the winter was ice. If the person lost balance or fell asleep they fell into the water or onto the ice. It’s a type of torture I’d never actually heard before. The display didn’t say how long prisoners were stuck there for, but I imagine it was long enough to be sufficiently painful.

You can also go into a separate basement room which was used to execute people. An American/Lithuanian charity helped to pay to have it excavated and refurbished so that people could see it. I should probably get the name of the group. Anyway, the entire (seemingly soundproofed) area made up of a couple of rooms was redesigned so that you walked on plexiglass and saw sand underneath with stuff found in mass graves and in the room. I was grateful for this. I had a hard enough time coping in the room as it was, I don’t know how well I would have coped knowing I was walking on the same floor that had seen hundreds of people murdered, knowing those people had been thrown in the back of a truck and then tossed into a mass grave a few kilometres away. Needless to say, I didn’t stay there long.

I’m not really sure how to wind up this blog, or even if I should really post what I’m thinking before I leave Belarus (welcome to the Iron Curtain). I’ve learned about the Holocaust in school, not so much about Soviet occupation, but I learned plenty about that here in the Baltics where they were most affected by it in Europe. You look at the number of deaths by both regimes, the type of control they asserted, the atrocities they committed and you can’t help but wonder, “which was the lesser of the two evils?” I suppose it depends on your economic position, whether or not you were Jewish, whether or not you agreed with the basic ideologies of either of the regimes (for instance, a Latvian man disagreed with killing Jews but otherwise agreed with Nazi ideas), and how secure you were in the knowledge that you were going to die of natural causes.

I wasn’t brought up to hate people. The church I grew up in didn’t say I was better than anyone else, didn’t preach against gays, I was never taught to be racist or disagree with bi-racial marriages or told that socio-economic problems are the fault of the Native Americans or Mexicans or African Americans who may be in the majority of lower socio-economic areas for whatever reason. I may not really like people that much but I could never imagine persecuting, torturing or killing anyone because they disagree with me, or because they have more money than myself or because they are from a certain background.

I was asked by someone, who shall remain unnamed,  in discussing my opinion that people are to be treated equally “if some known neo-Nazi’s walked into a restaurant that you owned, would you let them eat there?” Yes I would. I disagree with their beliefs, I think their beliefs are vile and repulsive, but if they haven’t committed any crimes, if they are out and about walking free and have the same rights as everyone else and they are going to pay their bill then I have no right to deny them at my restaurant just because of their beliefs. What kind of person would that make me? No better than them, that’s for sure.

Basically, I just can’t imagine how people could have committed the atrocities that they did. Throw someone in jail for murder or robbery or assault. But for disagreeing with communist ideas, or the government or for not hating someone? I just can’t understand it. I understand WHY, but I don’t understand HOW governments could have instituted these policies or how people could have sat by and watched or actively participated in murder and torture. I don’t understand how they STILL can, because let’s face it, it obviously happens.

I think it’s important that people learn that these things happened, that these things STILL happen. It’s important that we educate ourselves on these topics because it’s through education that we learn what really matters and what needs to be changed.

Our last day of the trip in Istanbul was a rather interesting day, to say the least. We woke up and had our usual semi-Turkish breakfast where I had a small bowl of olives to myself. I couldn’t get enough of the olives. Olives in Australia aren’t very good, so I was getting as much in as I could. Anyway, today we had a briefing with Today’s Zaman, an English newspaper, visited the Spice Market, went to a cooking class and then spent our night out on the town.

PROPAGANDA

Let’s start with “Propaganda”. Today’s Zaman, as I previously stated, is an English newspaper. They are a subsidiary of “Zaman”, which is a Turkish newspaper that is notorious for their very conservative, religious views. I was interested to see what the editor we were speaking to had to say on topics such as the government, freedom of speech and civil rights in Turkey. The presentation was very…illuminating. The editor we spoke to gave his spiel about how wonderful Zaman and Today’s Zaman is, giving us the number of people that take the papers, the rankings of the paper since inception (900,000 subscribers to Today’s Zaman, making them the top English paper in Turkey…out of 2). He gave us the spiel about how they have so many contacts in the world of journalism, being that they are affiliated with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, etc. Woop de do. I wanted to get onto the good stuff. They claim to be so successful because they seperate opinions from the news. But somehow, they manage to do this while sticking with their very conservative, religious values. They CLAIM that they don’t sensationalise the news. So basically, they don’t print something if it’s pointless and is only used to sell papers to say…celeb addicted idiots or people who freak out when they hear a rapist is in court despite the fact that they are already in prison.

One of my big questions was “How does Turkish journalism  affect Europe’s perception and how does it affect entrance into the European Union?” OH THE DIPLOMACY! I heard so many answers to the question of how does ____ in Turkey affect entrace into the EU. It was always the conservative’s who are very much in line with government policy and give very diplomatic answers, and Today’s Zaman was no exception. They also like to put the blame on other countries that they don’t get along with. When I asked my question the response was that Greece is blocking Turkey’s negotiations because they are very close with parts of Europe with a significant weapons dealer presence. The EU, the editor claimed, is essentially a peace project  and major corporations don’t want peace, because it’s bad for business. They don’t want people from Turkey coming in either because they feel that there is an “Asian problem” in European countries. The issue of freedom of speech as a basic human right and the questionable actions of Turkey in regards to derogating from this human right did not seem to be an issue for Today’s Zaman. They claim that there are very few journalist communication issues with Europe and Greece is simply using the derogation of free speech as an excuse.

Well that was interesting. We then arrived at the topic of a government referendum on the constitution when elections are held in June. There is an interesting thing most people don’t know about Turkey. The Government and the State are 2 completely different things. At this point in time I’m not entirely sure how it works, but I fully intend on looking into it over the uni holiday when I have the chance and may or may not update this blog to explain it.

Supposedly the government is beginning to hold the state accountable on this issue. I’m not entirely sure this is the case. Today’s Zaman claimed that journalistic integrity in Turkey was previously an issue and journalists were products of the State, however there are now over 10 papers in Turkey that are “pro-democracy”. Interesting, considering Turkey is already democratic as per the principles of Ataturk, who essentially handed the Turkish people democracy. Our tour guide, Özçan, thinks that the reason “democracy” in Turkey is so all over the shop is because the people were literally just handed it and so don’t really know what to do with it or what it’s like to fight for it. Anyway, Today’s Zaman claimed that they were really big into investigative journalism because they believe in justice, despite the fact that journalists can be jailed for exposing state “circumstances (whatever those are) and secrets”. All this, but they don’t lend legal support to their journalists who face the courts. Hmmmm….

Here’s the one we were all dying to know about. Insulting Turkishness. It is actually illegal to insult “Turkishness” in Turkey. You can go to jail for 3 years for it. When we asked the editor about this he basically said that it was up to the journalist to “carefully word” what they are writing and to not criticise Ataturk. They said that things are much better than they used to be, so people should stop complaining, for the most part. I find this very interesting as there is a case at the moment where 3 journalists are facing trial and it’s being heavily debated whether they are facing trial for things they have written (which haven’t even been printed or published anywhere yet) or if it’s because of alleged links to a terrorist group. The indictment’s haven’t even been released yet while these journalists are in jail. I have also noticed after browsing through Today’s Zaman that they are a major fan of the current government. I don’t think I’ve seen a single positive article on any other political party regarding the coming election. The Editor himself stated that everyone who works at Today’s Zaman is very pious and favours a religious state. But they are pro-democracy. Bit of an oxymoron if you ask me. Needless to say, I was not impressed with Today’s Zaman.

PANDERING

Oh the Spice Market. It was awesome. I love the markets. In Turkey they are called bazaar’s. In the Arab countries they are called souks. Regardless, I love them. The markets the tourists all go to, mainly the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, contain much of the same thing. I didn’t buy anything except sunflower seeds to eat at the Spice Market, but it was a fun experience anyway. I happened to have my usual red bull in my hand due to the fact that there are no bins inside the Spice Market and I refuse to litter, even if it is common practice in Turkey.Waiting to toss my empty can aside seemed to be a mistake though. Every single shop I passed I heard “red bull girl! Hey, red bull girl!” followed by some reason to come look at what they were selling. So where does the pandering come in? The number of times I was told that I was “so beautiful” and “gorgeous” and “most lovely woman I have ever seen” was enough to make me skeptical whenever anyone says that to me in the future. The shopkeepers would say “hello” to me in whichever language they thought I spoke. I was spoken to in Italian, Spanish, German, English, French and Turkish. Turkish was a common one. Apparently I look Turkish. But these men would use any means of flattery they could think of to try and get me to make a purchase. I looked at a pashmina and one man said to me “Normally 35 Turkish Lira, but because you are so beautiful, for you I make it 25 Turkish Lira”. 25 Turkish Lira is INSANELY overpriced for a pashmina. That’s about $20 US and Australia. While it’s about a quarter of the cost of what they are in those countries (for the exact same thing), it’s still at least twice as much as you should be paying in Turkey.

There was so much to see in the market. There were stalls of tea and spices where you could buy not only ground spices and traditional Turkish Black çay (tea) or elma çay (apple tea), but you could buy whole spices to grind yourself and tea sets containing dried spices that you could grind for fresh tea. You could buy little ceramic bowls with beautiful (though mass produced) paintings of tulips and swirls and evil eyes and flowers to put the spices in. In Turkey, at every meal, rather than a salt and pepper shaker or grinder they have little bowls of spices, which often contain sea salt, paprika, oregano and chilli. There were Turkish tea sets with all sorts of designs and colours. When in Turkey, unless you go to a tourist area and are obviously a tourist, it is common courtesy to offer tea. Every time we entered a shop we were offered tea served in a beautiful little glass that is (in my opinion) shaped similar to an hourglass, is served on a matching glass plate with a tiny spoon and two sugar cubes. Even elma çay was served with 2 sugar cubes, though I don’t know why as it was certainly sweet enough. I saw so many tea sets that I would have loved to own. I wanted one that had little evil eyes on it, one with silver designs, one with tulip designs. Ah well, maybe one day.

Following on the mosaic tile motif that is EVERYWHERE in Turkey there are also stalls of candle holders that have beautiful patterns of coloured glass tiles covering them that reflect wonderfully. These were often sold alongside the most beautiful lantern/chandelier type hanging things. These hanging lanterns also had beautiful glass tile patterns in numerous colours and designs. You could buy them as a single hanging light cover or several smaller ones all attached to make a lovely stepping pattern. I REALLY REALLY REALLY wanted one of those, but unfortunately I rent and probably couldn’t have gotten back even if I did have a place to put it. Next time.

While I’m aware it is called the Spice Market it is becoming increasingly obvious that they sell more than spices. They also sell jewelry. Jewelry in Turkey, much like everything else, is much cheaper than it is in Australia and the US. Sterling silver necklance chain? $15 maximum. At one point I bought a sterling silver pendant and a pair of sterling silver earrings and I spent about $15. Love it. I wasn’t terribly interested in the jewelry other than the evil eyes though and was much more interested in the pashmina’s. I ADORE pashmina’s. They are the most comfortable scarves and have some of the most beautiful patterns. I love walking in to look at them and just running my hands along them while admiring the colours and patterns. If I could have afforded to I probably would have come home with an entire suitcase full of scarves. I think I only came back with 5 or 6 though.

Between all these stalls were stalls filled with random touristy knick knacks and items like snow globes and magnets and hanging ornaments and jewelry boxes and nargilahs (or hookahs). Outside the Spice Market there was a makeshift food market where you could buy all sorts of nuts, fish, fruit and veggies or olives. I really wanted to buy olives, but didn’t want to carry them with me from town to town so just bought sunflower seeds (1 pound of sunflower seeds for about $1!). The Australian’s thought it was funny that I ate them because they don’t eat them here, but for my American friends who know me well, you’ll understand how excited I was about this as we don’t have sunflower seeds (in the shell) here in Australia.

PETULANCE

From the Spice Market we went back to Sultanahmet for a cooking class at Cooking A La Turka Cooking School and Restaurant. I wasn’t really looking forward to this much as I don’t like cooking and believe there are other things I could be doing with my time, but the one thing that really turned me off from this class is the fact that the woman who runs it isn’t Turkish. She’s actually Dutch and has been living in Turkey for 8 years. Her employees were Turkish, but she wasn’t. It started out nicely enough, with everyone having fun (and everyone had fun throughout the entire experience) and you will have to excuse my language here but the woman who owned and ran the place was a wretched bitch. She was a horrible, two faced woman who acted like a petulant, bitter old hag. She was nice to us as she sort of had to be, and everything she said in English was perfectly polite and friendly, but whenever she spoke to her chefs who pretty much only spoke Turkish she was yelling at them, cursing at them, calling the names, saying they were idiots and stupid. I didn’t even have to speak Turkish to understand this because you could tell just by the tone of her voice. I asked Sara, my roommate who is Australian-Turk and speaks Turkish, what the woman was saying and she confirmed what I had thought she’d been saying. Not only was she being horrible to her employees, she was also bad-mouthing us while we were there saying how we were loud and annoying and ruining the meals and what not. It was a bit of a nasty shock for her when she found out at the end of the night that Sara understood everything she had been saying.

Personally, I was not a fan and I would definitely recommend people NOT go to that particular cooking school. I would recommend finding a lovely Turkish woman who runs cooking schools locally and speaks some English and go there because from what I understand those make for a lovely experience.

This was our last night in Istanbul and as such, we went out to a little street off of Istiklal caddessi that is lined with bars. It’s a very narrow street that always seems to be busy, no matter what time of day or night it is. We ended up in a little bar called “Lala” to sit and watch one of the European league matches. I was planning on having a quiet one, but somehow one shot turned into another, which turned into a beer or two or three or four. We got back to the hotel around 4 am and I still wasn’t packed and passed out. It made for an exciting next morning.

Pictures of our last day in Istanbul can be found in this album here. It also contains photos from Ankara, but that will come in another blog.