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A single village split into two worlds

One side is in more prosperous Lithuania. Those in the Belarus half live in a time warp behind a frontier wall.

June 22, 2008|Yuras Karmanau | Associated Press Writer

PYATSKUNY, BELARUS — When Stanislava Subach wants to lay flowers on her husband's grave, she puts them in a plastic shopping bag and adds some stones for weight.

The package is then tossed over a metal fence into what is now another country, to be picked up by former neighbors and placed on the grave.

The border between Belarus and Lithuania, two countries that were part of the Soviet Union, was once little more than a line on a map.

Now a fence runs along the border, representing a new version of the Iron Curtain that separated Eastern and Western Europe until the communist bloc collapsed. The autocratic regime of Belarus portrays this heavily policed border as the last line of defense against an encroaching West, represented by Lithuania, now a member of the European Union and NATO.

Here the fence cuts right through the village, separating Pyatskuny on the Belarusian side from its Lithuanian half, Norviliskes. Villagers are cut off from neighbors, the parish church and the cemetery, just a few steps but a whole world away.

People living across the fence can travel visa-free throughout Europe and work there. Those who stay in Norviliskes are paid by the EU to farm their land, and have money to fix up their homes and buy new clothes.

Those on the Belarusian side have little choice but to work on the local collective farm, and they depend on their gardens for food.

Belarusian President Alexander G. Lukashenko, who permits no real economic or political reform, uses the fortified border much as the Soviet bloc once did: as a way to keep people in as much as keep others out.

The Lithuanian border police operate as any in Europe: guarding the frontier with patrol cars and video cameras, chiefly to catch smugglers and illegal immigrants. But on the Belarusian side, armed guards patrol with dogs and are authorized to shoot. Anyone trying to climb over the fence can be imprisoned for up to two years.

Villagers cannot even walk to the fence to talk to neighbors or pass parcels. Just leaving a footprint in the 10-foot-wide raked dirt track along the fence can mean a fine or 10 days in jail.

"Our hearts were left on the other side of the fence," said Subach, 67, as she sat on the border watching a service through the open door of the Catholic church and joining in the prayers. She has not visited her husband's grave for more than two years, nor can she attend Mass in her church on Easter and Christmas.

To travel there, she would have to journey 90 miles to the nearest Lithuanian consulate, wait in line for several days, pay about $90 for a visa (almost her entire monthly pension), travel 60 miles north to a border checkpoint and another 60 miles south before finally arriving in Norviliskes.

This is the only border village that is cut in two. As under Soviet rule, border guards and secret service agents keep tabs on everyone in the border region, and those traveling here from elsewhere in Belarus need permission.

Three men in leather jackets who introduced themselves as border guards accompanied two journalists throughout a recent visit. Some villagers said they were afraid to speak in the men's presence.

Anton Alyantsynovich, 68, has taken the precaution of hanging a large portrait of Lukashenko, torn from a newspaper, in the entryway of his home.

"The division of the village was a tragedy for us," said Alyantsynovich, whose home sits on the border.

Elderly villagers joke that they have lived in three countries without ever leaving home. Once part of Poland, the village was taken over by the Soviet Union in 1939, which gave one half to Belarus and the other to Lithuania.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the border with Lithuania became an international one, but travel rules remained relatively lax and Belarusian villagers were able to cross over to the Lithuanian side on religious holidays.

Then, in 2004, Lithuania joined the EU and NATO, and required visiting Belarusians to have visas because it had become part of the EU's border-free zone.

Many Belarusians would like to travel to the West, but the EU says it will ease travel restrictions only after Lukashenko frees political prisoners and holds free elections.

Yanina Yanovich, 61, says she shouts across the border to communicate with her nephew, Stanislav, who lives in the first house on the Lithuanian side.

"This is one thing the government can't stop us from doing," said Yanovich, wearing old rubber boots and a darned sweater with the lettering U.S.A.

In Norviliskes, many of the 35 inhabitants have cellphones. Pyatskuny's 50 people have only the phone in the grocery.

The store's clerk, Tereza Turkevich, says she often sells food to villagers on credit. "Some survive on bread and water so they can save enough money to travel to Lithuania," she said.

Norviliskes has a recently restored 16th century castle that draws tourists year-round, and a summer music festival that attracts thousands.

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