The silence is the worst. When my twin brother Paul Whelan doesn’t call us from the Russian labor colony where he’s being held hostage, we worry. Well, we worry all the time. But especially when he is silent.
Paul calls home almost every day. When he doesn’t, it usually means something has changed from routine human rights violations. We already know that Paul is woken up every two hours every night. Imagine being unable to sleep more than two hours at a time for two years. We also know that he was put in solitary confinement for 30 days straight. The UN calls this torture.
Paul’s calls to our parents are such a lifeline. I haven’t spoken to Paul since October 2018 while we were staying with our parents in Michigan. He said he would be away to help another Marine who was going to celebrate a wedding in Moscow over Christmas. I should keep an eye on our parents. We never thought that he’s the one who needs to keep an eye on him.
The calls stopped coming in September 2022 and last November. Paul tells our parents it’s because the Wagner mercenaries in prison are recruiting soldiers for Russia’s war in Ukraine. The prison doesn’t want Paul covering the recruitment. They silence him by sending him to a prison hospital where he runs the risk of actually getting sick. Paul warned the prison that a lack of phone calls would worry our family, especially on Thanksgiving. We were glad when he finally showed up, as sane as one can be in a Russian prison. Back to the routine abuses and corruption of his daily life.
When there is silence, we think about the worst that can happen. We also wonder if the best could happen. You can not know it. If he doesn’t call, does that mean he’s fired? We haven’t experienced that yet. When Brittney Griner got home, Paul’s calls to our parents continued uninterrupted.
I was happy because we wanted Paul to hear the news from us. He learned of Trevor Reed’s freedom – and his own continued imprisonment – on Russian television. Nobody should hear such news from the media. This time, the US Embassy called Paul first. It seems that Paul experienced the same range of emotions as I did; bitter disappointment for Paul, joy for Brittney and her family, anger at the Kremlin – the kidnappers who are prolonging this injustice.
As soon as the news came, we got back to work. Every member of our family lives a parallel life. There is the person who goes to work every morning, drinks coffee with the neighbors, tends the garden or walks the dog. Then there is the other person. Our parents wait by the phone at 1 p.m. every day, hoping for a call. You hear about Paul’s needs and his life in prison. They share a rosy picture of local events in their Michigan village and the latest antics of Flora the dog. Small details of your home can mean so much when you are in prison. I long for the day when her calls will return to normal, impromptu conversation just because you’re thinking of someone.
In my case, I’m stepping into the role of the media person working to get Paul’s story out to the public and trying to hold the government accountable. Our sister, a professional portrait painter, is Paul’s leading advocate for government relations. Elizabeth was in regular contact with White House officials in the days following Brittney’s release. Your work never stops. When she’s not speaking to someone at the State Department, she calls a congressional staffer to obtain or exchange information. None of us can stop until Paul is free.
The White House has also been silent for years. More recently, they have been vocal in supporting Paul. But realistically, it may be months or years before Paul is freed. At least we have hard evidence that the US government is working on Paul’s case. Many American families whose loved ones are wrongfully imprisoned around the world may not have.
I know their names – Siamak Namazi, Kai Li, Austin Tice, Paul Rusesabagina, Emad Shargi, Majd Kamalmaz and so many more – and I feel for their families. I worry that they are going through the same challenges of finding resources and advocates as we are. Who asks about their loved ones at White House briefings? Who helps to support them in prison, with a card or a donation?
We break our silence when we feel Paul needs an advocate or when the US or Russian governments need to be held accountable. It has taken the US government years to get to the point where it is actually taking steps to secure Paul’s freedom. You can break yourself into pieces trying to bring your loved one home and persuade your government to act. Once they are engaged, wait. Here, too, the hostage-taker has a say.
We do what we can and don’t waste resources on things that are beyond our control. We’re trying to make sure Paul has money on his prison phone card and can call home. We send money so he can supplement the meager meal—what Paul describes as two inches of fish a day—with groceries from the prison store. We process his food and medicine requests and work with the US, UK, Canadian and Irish embassies to ensure they reach him. Some do, and some get stolen by guards before Paul gets it.
This became much more difficult with the Russian war in Ukraine. How to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in Russia without a Russian bank account? Paul can’t get fresh food in prison and now we can’t wire money to the grocer. How do you get mail to Paul? The war means that postal services do not deliver mail to Russia. A journalist once asked me what financial support “the government” had given us to support Paul. I laughed in disbelief. none.
If you don’t experience this, you may not realize how important the individual is: the US consular officer who shops for Paul and then mails things to him. The journalist who puts a question to a State Department official. The Marine who served with Paul in Iraq and sends us a message that we’ll get to him. The person I’ve never met who says they sent Paul a card and has our family in their prayers. Paul’s personal strength and willingness to overcome whatever the Russian government throws at him. I pray that Paul remains irrepressible.
I felt so hopeless after Brittney’s release that I had to look up the word “hope.” That’s what you do as a librarian! I picked up this thread because of the hope of a desired future outcome. As long as Paul isn’t free, I hope he will be.
And when Paul comes home, I imagine saying, “Long time no see,” hoping to be rewarded with that big grin I’ve been missing. And I hope Paul just says, “Whatever.” I would welcome the silence then.
David Whelan is a legal librarian living in California. He is campaigning for the release of his brother Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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https://www.newsweek.com/paul-whelan-russia-prison-torture-brother-1767943 “Paul Whelan is my brother, Russia is torturing him in prison”