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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Misery Demands Publicity

Days after arriving in Moscow in August 1991 to champion human rights issues, Fernand Dhondt found himself up on the barricades that surrounded the White House, fighting for democracy. Getting swept up in worthy causes is not new to the Belgian-born Dhondt, who in 1966 smuggled literature out of the Soviet Union so it could be published in the West. These days, Dhondt, head of the permanent mission of the International Society for Human Rights, works to draw attention to human rights abuses and to help adults and children suffering as a result of the legacy of the Soviet Union. From a donated office in the Social Security Ministry, he coordinates the Germany-based organization's efforts to bring about reform in the treatment of political prisoners, children in orphanages and prisons, and victims of discrimination based on nationality. The society also seeks to call attention to the armed forces practice of dedovshchina, or hazing, which the non-governmental group's data show killed 5,400 soldiers in 1993. Given the enormity of problems in post-Communist Russia, Dhondt, 50, admits that his work has been trying. His biggest frustration, he says, is seeing "the desperateness, the misery, and the tragedies of the people who appeal to us for help, and (realizing) our inability to help" in every case. That said, Dhondt and his three Russian staff members have covered a lot of ground since the 23-year-old International Society for Human Rights opened a permanent mission in Moscow in 1991. One of the group's primary aims is to collect and publish information on the current status of political prisoners and victims of human rights. The publicity campaigns are based on the ISHR's and Dhont's premise that "the only way to help people, to set people free, is through publicity." Staff members also visit prisons and orphanages, provide humanitarian assistance to the needy throughout the CIS, and help match existing assistance projects with funds. With a 1993 budget of 550,000 Deutsche marks -- the bulk of it from Western donations -- the office works to humanize conditions in prisons and investigation cells, where adults and children still are regularly beaten. They also endeavor to draw attention to mounting anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and to match Western donors with 500 large families in what Dhondt calls "personalized humanitarian aid from family to family." Through it all, Dhondt says, his feelings of hope have waxed and waned. The human rights situation in the former Soviet Union over the past three years has turned, he says, "less optimistic than we in the West tend to believe." This is largely due to the persistence of the old nomenclatura in positions of power and the removal and isolation of reformers with democratic ideas. Nonetheless, Dhondt and his colleagues keep at their task, fighting to make their cases heard. "What keeps me going is the belief, against all the odds, that in the end, the good is going to win," says Dhondt in English that is slightly accented with his native Flemish, one of seven language he speaks fluently. "Historically, it is naive to believe that in '91 democracy won, that the totalitarian system which existed for 70 years was defeated." Characterizing the Soviet system as totalitarian is correct, he says, "because the impact -- not only on the country, economy, nature, ecological destruction, but on the people -- is much bigger than we realized." Given the region's history, "if you look at the resistance (to totalitarianism) one can be optimistic about the ends," says Dhondt. "But it will take much more time. I think one generation at least, because the destruction is very big." Dhondt's job with ISHR in Russia will end in August, when he plans to return to Belgium to rejoin his wife and four children. He clearly has mixed feelings about leaving. "Memory is short, especially here. It has to do with falsified history," he says. Many Russians today blame democracy, says Dhondt, for the ills of society -- drug abuse, crime, homelessness. "Under the Soviet system, all this was silenced. We have no statistics. They had to show it was heaven on earth." Then he smiles. "At least we can talk about it now. That is the positive side of the matter."