16 February 1999
where sullen border guards routinely took hours or even days just to check visitors’ documents, they found a queue snaking back several kilometres. An enterprising vendor had set up a roadside stall selling hot soup to the delayed drivers and a few equally enterprising prostitutes, wearing mini-skirts and low- cut tops despite the bitter cold, could be seen climbing into the cabs of some of the trucks. They were said to have bribed the border guards to keep the delays long enough to make the drivers more receptive to their approaches.
However, with the local police chief acting as a ‘fixer’, the convoy of buses swept past the queue and cut in right at its head. He distributed packs of Western cigarettes to the guards and customs officials, but increasingly dog-eared forms still had to be inspected and stamped at every stage of the process. By the time they cleared the final hurdle, the forms carried a dozen stamps, but after a mere 65-minute delay, the buses were waved through. Even so, as one of the reporters cynically remarked, it had taken them longer to cross the frontier than the German Army in 1941.
The previous night the British party had stayed in the relative luxury of a four-star hotel in Warsaw, but on their first night in Belarus they had to settle for the rather less salubrious Intourist Hotel in Brest-Litovsk, ‘a hostelry,’ said The Times, ‘exuding all the charm of a tax office’. It was rumoured to have undergone an urgent refurbishment before their arrival, but there was little sign of it in the drab, spartan and frigid interior. Some of the bedroom windows were broken, there were no plugs in the sinks or the bathroom down the hall, and if guests ran out of toilet paper, they had to take the empty cardboard tube to the reception desk before being issued with another roll.
Detectives from Scotland Yard’s War Crimes Unit had already made several trips to Belarus to interview potential witnesses, and had learned to take food, heaters and even gaffer tape with them to cover the cracks in the windows, but the