Just 20 years ago, both Lithuania and Belarus belonged to the Soviet Union. All that stood between the two neighbours was the formal separation of a line drawn on a map. Today the border is marked by a fence, a kind of new Iron Curtain, which was erected after the collapse of communism. Since it was built, Lithuania has joined NATO and become a member of the European Union and a signatory to the Schengen Agreement, while Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic regime has continued to hold sway in Belarus.
The metal fence topped with rolls of barbed wire not only separates two countries, it also passes through a village. The Lithuanian side of this village, which is known for its restored 16th century manor and the Be2gether music festival, is called Norviliskes, while the Belarusian side is named Piackunai. Built between them, the fence has separated families, put a distance between neighbours, and blocked access to the church and the cemetery.
“My aunt lives on the other side of the border. We can talk across it, which is not forbidden by the Belarusians or the Lithuanians. We just need a little help from the neighbours so as to agree on a time”, explains Stanislaw Alencenowiczius, whose house marks the end of Lithuanian territory, and backs onto a potato field, which is divided by the barrier.
Although the two sides of the village are only a few yards apart, crossing the border takes you into a very different world. To the northwest of Stanislaw Alencenowoczius’ field, the white manor of Norviliskes emerges from between the trees. To the east, all that you can see are abandoned wooden shacks, ranged behind two tiers of wire fencing.
“Why would I break the law?”
In times gone by, Alencenowoczius, who was born in Lithuania, used to receive visits from relatives in Belarus, and often went there himself. Today, to call on his aunt whose house is within hailing distance, he has to make a 40-kilometre journey to the town of Salcininkai to obtain a visa from the Belarusian cultural centre before heading for the border crossing. The road that passes in front of his home stops short at a locked gate. A few yards from the border, there is no sign of life in the green freight container that serves as a border post on the Lithuanian side.
Beyond the wire, there are no Belarusian guards in sight. But make no mistake: it is forbidden to throw objects across the fence or to attempt to climb it. Just a moment after we had begin walking alongside the wire, an unmarked green van appears, and lingers for a few minutes before quietly vanishing.
The border in Norviliskes has also separated Leokadija Gordiewicz from her husband and her two sisters, one of whom lives in Piackunai, just 500 yards away. She also has a school friend on the Belarusian side, but it has proved impossible to stay in touch. The two women do not communicate across the fence. As she herself says: “Why would I break the law?”
Married during the Soviet era, she initially lived with her husband in Lithuania. Then he found work in Belarus, and obtained a Belarusian passport, before finally deciding to remain on the other side of the border in Asmena. She told us that visiting relatives on the other side was not an option, and that she has never made the trip to Salcininkai, where an annual visa costs 600 litas [174 euros] — a sum that she cannot afford.
“This is where Europe begins”
Asked when she last saw her husband, Leokadija Gordiewicz counts the years in her head. It has been a while, but she cannot remember exactly. “I would get a divorce, but it is too expensive,” she laughing remarks. She fields all of our questions with humour, but has a hard time hiding the pain in answers about a life of separation and financial difficulties.
While we are talking, a minibus zooms past on its way to Norviliskes Manor. According to Leokadija Gordiewicz, there is no shortage of visitors to the historic building at weekends. “The cars are so beautiful. But everyone knows times are hard. And where do they come from? From Belarus”. She has no doubt that the cars have been bought with money earned from the sale of contraband cigarettes and petrol from the other side of the border.
Sakaline, which is another divided village, presents a similar picture. On one side of the border, there are the Lithuanian houses, all painted in different colours with their well tended flower beds, vegetable gardens and apple trees heavily laden with fruit. On the other, the buildings have all been abandoned. Nonetheless, a customs service SUV is parked outside the green freight container that serves as a border post. It is an area that has to be watched carefully, if it is not to become an open door for cigarette smugglers.
“This is where Europe begins”, proudly remarks Ceslava Marcinkevic, who heads the local council in Dieveniskes, a small town in this outcrop of Lithuanian territory, an hour’s drive from Vilnius. “But this is where it stops too, because it is all but surrounded by a fence separating states and families. People are unable to visit each other. There are possible ways of doing it, but they cost time and money”. The small area of territory around Dievenikes juts 30 kilometres into what might otherwise be Belarusian territory.
In 1939, when the country’s borders were redrawn at a meeting in the Kremlin which gave Vilnius back to Lithuania, Stalin put his pipe on this part of the map. No one dared to move it, so they just drew around it. At least, that is the story jokingly told by the locals.
The rather less colourful truth is that the actual location of the border has changed no less than five times in the last 100 years. The region’s oldest inhabitants delight in explaining how without moving they succeeded in living in three different states: in Poland, then the Soviet Union, and thereafter in Lithuania or Belarus. The region around Vilnius belonged to Poland for most of the period between the wars until it was occupied by the Red Army in September 1939. However, the border was not redrawn until November 1940, when the URSS had already taken control of Lithuania.
When they recovered their independence, what was an internal Soviet border became the dividing line between two sovereign states, but restrictions on travel were not as severe as they later became. Belarusians were still able to visit the graves of relatives buried in Lithuania.
However, when Lithuania joined the European Union, the 677 kilometre border with Belarus became the external boundary of the European Union, and thereafter of the Schengen Area, which meant that it had to be doubly secured against contraband and illegal immigration. The cost of visas which used to be five euros shot up to 60 euros. As it stands, if they want to visit Lithuania, Belarusians who live just next to the border must make two 100-kilometre trips to the consulate in Grodno — once to their submit applications, and once to pick up their visas — before traveling to Norviliskes via an official border crossing. As a result, calling on relatives who live only a few hundred yards away has become as complicated as spending the weekend in London or Paris.