Zhan Beleniuk:A beacon of hope in a tragic circumstance.
“As its battle against Russia enters its eighth month following Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February, Ukraine’s military appears to have conquered Twitter with an effective mix if posts that blend humour and tragedy” writes journalists of the financial times, Mehul Srivastava, Christopher Miller and Roman Olearchyk.
On the 24th of February 2022 Russian President, Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine. Putin announced and claimed that Ukraine’s ideologies were of a suppressive state towards the minorities in Russia, labeling the governance of Ukraine as neo-Nazi and therefore justifying the challenge to Ukraine’s right to Statehood.
Within minutes of this announcement, missiles hit the capital city of Ukraine, Kyiv and immediately initiated a ground invasion, immobilizing Ukraine.
Eight months down the line, according to Reuters, an estimated number of 29 916 deaths have been reported, 53 616 injuries reported, 140 000 buildings destroyed resulting in a total damage of 350 billion US dollars.
The war dates to February 2014 and was a result of territorial conflict. According to Max Fischer, “this all began as an internal Ukrainian crisis in November 2013 when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal for greater integration with the European Union, sparking mass protest. Russia backed Yanukovych in the crisis”.
He continues to explain that Yanukovych was ousted and banned from the country when Russia used that very vulnerable opportunity to invade and annex Crimea, which is still recognized as a part of Ukraine.
Looking into history, it always comes full circle and always reinvents itself. From October 1990 until July 1994 Rwanda faced a civil war which resulted in the infamous Rwanda Genocide.
Zhan Beleniuk is a testament to the repetition of history as he is of Rwandan descent with his father being born in Rwanda and being killed in the Rwanda Genocide.
Beleniuk is a Ukrainian Greco-Roman wrestler, and he started his wrestling career at the age of 9. He is a four gold, two silver and one bronze medalist winner, his latest gold being in the 2020 Summer Olympic games in Tokyo.
We had the honor of sitting down with Beleniuk and asked him about his appointment as a member of parliament, the first black member at that as well as hear how the ongoing war has affected him and his fellow colleagues. Beleniuk came to an IPU assembly with other members of parliament and was then invited to South Africa by Ukraine’s ambassador, Liubov Abravitova.
They went on to meet with the president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC). To discuss sports opportunities across the two countries as well as attempt to provide clarity on the situation in Ukraine and debunk the propaganda spread by Russia.
Can you tell us about yourself and your origin:
My name is Zhan Beleniuk, I am a Greco- Roman wrestler and I am an MP (member of parliament). I was born in 1991 in Ukraine. My mother is from Ukraine and my father is from Rwanda.
You started your wrestling career at the age of 9, what inspired that?
My love for Greco wrestling was completely random. We had it at my school, but I was never really interested but my friend took part in it. One day he invited me to try it out and I did. After a few years, he quit, and I stayed on until today. My first few years of competing were bad, I would lose all the time. My first Olympic game was in Rio in 2016 where I won a silver medal, and I was determined to come back stronger and get a gold medal. In the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, I won a gold medal.
Being an Afro-Ukrainian (minority), how was it living in Ukraine as a child?
My childhood was great because as a child you are oblivious to the problems and worries of the world around you. It is only when you grow up that you became aware of what is happening. I remember my childhood with warm memories with the love and care I got from my mom and my grandmother.
What sparked your interest in politics?
Once again, it was by a random chance. As a professional athlete one does require a lot of discipline and a sense of responsibility. The President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy approached me, and we spoke about the problems of the country. He believed that I could contribute to coming up with solutions and asked me to become a member of his parliament. I had not really thought about being a politician if anything I wanted to get into social work. There are not a lot of well-known Ukrainians with my skin color, and I wanted to help people.
How has the war affected your day-day life and how are you coping?
You know, Greco-Roman wrestling has taught me how to be resilient but when I think of those who are not so resilient and are getting affected, that motivates me to help such people. I have become a beacon of hope for many, particularly refugees and students from foreign countries like Africa who resonate with me and look to me for help.
The war has affected our country in a way that we are walking on eggshells and are constantly on the edge. There is a list of targeted MPs whose lives have been threatened. It is nerve wrecking as I need to protect my country but most importantly, protect myself. We had a lot of plans and visions for the country but now, all we can focus on is getting to a point where the war is over. If Russia surrenders, the war will be over and if we surrender, that is the end of Ukraine as you know it.
As a member of Parliament, what do you think is the solution to ending the war?
The Russian troops need to leave our territory and then we can begin some form of negotiation. Crimes have been committed by the Russian army on our land, thousands of our people have been tortured and killed and these are children as well as the elderly, across the different cities. We have never invaded other countries so we will continue to fight for our land and protect it.
If you were given the opportunity, would you join the army and fight on the ground with the army?
We have a long list of people who are eager to join the army and defend the country. People between the ages of 18-60 have been banned from leaving the county as we need all the manpower to win the war. The only reason I am allowed to leave is because I am an MP and it’s my duty to travel the world and tell the world the truth about our country after the propaganda circulated by Russia about Ukraine. But if given the chance, of course I would want to fight and protect our land. There is so much unity as we are all aware that our only way out of this predicament is to win the war.
What brings you to South Africa?
We had an IPU assembly with other members of parliament but afterwards my ambassador invited me to South Africa to meet with the member of parliaments here to exchange ideas and communicate about sports as it is also my portfolio in Ukraine. We had a meeting with the president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) and we tried to find opportunities where we can work together as the sport infrastructure in Ukraine has been destroyed.
It has been 30 years of attempting to develop a relationship with Ukraine and Africa and now is the right time. The African continent holds a lot of opportunities for us in many ways including food security.
Do you think sports and politics mix and if so, how do you think the role of sports can create a more peaceful world?
Yes! We are constantly exposed to politics however Russia believes that sports and politics need to be separated but how? When we compete and you as an individual represent your country, your flag is raised and you are identified by your country, that is politics. Sports brings about unity, comradery and a sense of peace.