The man below is a British citizen. He is standing trial as a war criminal. The jury is now in Belarus, tracing the path he is alleged to have taken to the forest where 2,700 Jews were slaughtered. Leading them there is a man who says he saw the shooting

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The Independent Culture
Into Domachevo's valley of death trudged the British jurors. The eight men and four women, dressed in brightly coloured, warm winter gear, were accompanied by Mr Justice Potts in a red skateboarder's hat. They walked in single file through the snow down a forest path in western Belarus that led towards a cemetery where 2,800 Jews lie buried in mass graves.

The jurors' guide was an elderly Belarussian man named Fedor Zan - still ramrod straight at 75 - who was dressed in a Soviet-era brown plastic coat, a fur hat perched on his head. Mr Zan is a man seeking justice for the alleged crimes of 57 years ago in the summer and autumn of 1942 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and overran this border village, wiping out its Jewish population - with the help of locally recruited policemen.

Mr Zan is a former school friend of Anthony Sawoniuk, the defendant in Britain's first Nazi war crimes trial. He led the jurors, judge and legal officials through the snow-covered forest, with the freezing wind blowing on their faces, to the scene of the alleged crimes.

But this was more than a trudge through Belarus snowdrifts, it was a journey into the past and the horrors of the Holocaust. To witness this journey, a British court has been moved from the Old Bailey to this border town.

Mr Sawoniuk, a retired British Rail ticket collector aged 77 and from south London, is charged with four counts of murder during the Holocaust, although the prosecution alleges that he murdered 20 Jews between 19 September and 31 December 1942. He is the first person to come to trial for war crimes since Parliament passed legislation in 1991 that allowed police to start murder investigations for crimes allegedly committed during the Second World War by people who are now British citizens.

At the opening of the trial last Wednesday, John Nutting QC, for the prosecution, said that Mr Sawoniuk was one of the first volunteers for the town's German-run police force, the Schutzmannschaft, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.

"This defendant executed Jewish men and women whose only crime was to be Jewish," he said. "The evidence indicates that the defendant was not only prepared to do the Nazi bidding but carried out their genocidal policy with enthusiasm."

Mr Sawoniuk has admitted that he was a volunteer policeman in the German auxiliary police force but has denied all charges of murder. Last week, his lawyer, William Clegg, told the court that he may have had no choice but to join the police force.

"There were lots of offers that couldn't be refused in Belarus after the German invasion," he said. "And one possibility is an invitation to join the local police." Mr Clegg pointed to the fact that the Germans executed two people in the Domachevo police force as evidence that membership may not have been voluntary.

Fedor Zan was sworn in as a witness last week at court number 12 in the Old Bailey. Yesterday he, the 12 jurors, counsels for the defence and prosecution and Mr Justice Potts made legal history. This visit to the Holocaust killing fields by the cemetery in Domachevo was the first time a British jury has travelled abroad to the scene of the crime.

Jurors have been given a potted history of the Holocaust and been supplied with maps and photographs of the area where the crimes occurred, in the western border region of the former Soviet republic of Belarus.

The tightly organised visit has been sanctioned at the highest level in the capital Minsk, with which Britain and other EU member states only recently re-established diplomatic relations.

The three-coach party of jurors, court officials and the accompanying press, has been provided with police escorts at every stage of their journey, while militiamen bark orders at local inhabitants through megaphones, not to impede the progress of the party. Even the crossing at the notoriously slow Polish border was speeded up as our coaches were put through the diplomatic channel.

In its heyday before the war Domachevo was a popular spa town, where guests swam in the nearby river Bug and enjoyed taking the waters, while staying at one of the many formerly Jewish-run guesthouses. Like many towns and villages in these long-contested border regions of Eastern Europe, Domachevo bears the marks of the many competing empires that have ruled here. Some elderly inhabitants grew up in tsarist Russia, spent part of their childhoods in independent Poland, suffered under the rule of the Nazis, survived for decades under the Soviets, and are now living as citizens of an independent Belarus.

But much remains here of Soviet rule. Red stars and war memorials to the millions of Soviet soldiers who lost their lives fighting against the Nazis are commonplace. Local shops are meagrely stocked and many of the inhabitants of Domachevo's attractive, peasant-style wooden-framed houses still draw their water from nearby wells.

Remnants of the Soviet era remain, but the Jews are gone, buried in the mass grave at the town cemetery. Most were killed on the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, in September 1942. Their deaths are commemorated by a Soviet era memorial, an obelisk topped with a red star that says: "In memory of the victims of the German Fascist terror 1941-45."

As was the Soviet practice, the memorial makes no mention of the fact that those who lie in the mass graves under concrete plinths lived as Jews and died for their religion. This omission was commonly made for fear that sympathy for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust might lead to support for Zionism and the state of Israel. While there are plenty of Orthodox crosses at the cemetery, there is not a single Star of David in sight.

Immediately after the invasion in September 1942, Fedor Zan says he saw Mr Sawoniuk - at the time a member of the German volunteer police force - shoot 15 Jewish girls and women in the forest.

While hiding in the bushes, Mr Zan saw "about 15 Jewish women of mixed ages with yellow badges on their clothing, standing in front of an open grave", John Nutting QC said. "He [Mr Sawoniuk] ordered the women to remove their clothes then shot them with the weapon."

Yesterday in the pine forests beside the Domachevo cemetery in the freezing wind, flurries of snow whipping around him, Fedor Zan stood in the same thicket where he hid 57 years ago. He had hidden there, he told the judge and jury, while his former schoolfriend shot those 15 Jewish girls and women. The jurors' journey through Domachevo took them back to the horrifying events of the Holocaust as it unfolded on the same doorsteps, and beside the same snow-covered pine trees, past which those girls and women had walked.

Jurors saw the house of number six Sverdlov Street, where Anthony Sawoniuk spent his childhood. A curious child peered from the window at the scrum of onlookers and television cameras, while gold-toothed babushkas gossiped in the snow-lined streets about the legions of unaccustomed visitors and the militia cars escorting them across the town.

From Sverdlov Street the jurors moved on to several key sites of the trial, including the site of the former police station where, during the war, Sawoniuk's first wife was caught in crossfire and killed in a partisan attack. The building now houses the city council.

Jurors were also shown the spot where Fedor Zan saw his aunt and her family being led away from the police station before they were executed. They saw Lenin Street, the road that marks the perimeter of the former ghetto. But it was the walk into the forest, where the Jewish girls and women were shot, that was most harrowing for the jurors.

One by one each juror, as well as the judge and accompanying lawyers, walked into the thicket from where Fedor Zan said he witnessed the shootings in the nearby cemetery.

Domachevo's cemetery was still and quiet after the British legal party departed yesterday afternoon. Like Auschwitz and Birkenau, Belzec and Dachau, it is a haunted place, and it's not hard to imagine that the freezing winter air somehow still carries echoes of the screams of those who died there, naked and terrified. For the ghosts of Domachevo's cemetery still haunt not only Belarus but Britain too, and other countries that fought the Germans but readily took in alleged Nazi war criminals, giving them the sanctuary they had denied to the Jews under Nazi rule.