A divided village highlights a divided Europe

A fence facilitates the new division
6/22/2008 PYATSKUNY, Belarus The package is then tossed over a metal fence and 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 communism 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 Belarus side from its Lithuanian half, Norviliskes. Villagers are cut off from the 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.

Belarus' President Alexander 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 them 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 Belarus side, armed guards patrol with dogs and are authorized to shoot, though they never have. 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, since it had become part of the EU's border-free zone.

Many Belarusians would like to travel West, but the European Union 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 cell phones. 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 a 16th century castle that draws tourists year-round, and a summer music festival that attracts thousands.

Marja Dudowicz, 68, who lives next to the castle, sells milk to tourists to supplement her monthly pension of about $275. She also receives more than double that sum from the EU for sowing wheat, rapeseed and oats on her 37 acres of land, some of which she rents out.

"We have problems, but I can't complain after looking across the fence at our Belarusian neighbors," said Dudowicz. She has renovated her house and has groceries delivered to her door.

For 50-year-old Leokadija Gordiewicz, living in the EU means being able to serve visitors Brazilian coffee, Belgian amaretto, ham, homemade sausage and fresh brown bread. It also means being able to talk politics without fear.

Her dog is named Landsbergis, after Lithuanian independence leader Vytautas Landsbergis. She named her cat name Lukashenko, even though "I could be jailed for this in Belarus."

Despite Norviliskes' relative prosperity, most of the young Lithuanian villagers have left, either for Vilnius, the capital, about 50 miles away, or farther afield.

Yan Mikul, 24, grew up in the village but for the past two years has been working in Dublin, Ireland as a plumber, where, he says, he earns up to $4,500 a month.

"Only a fool would not take advantage of the opportunities of a Europe without borders," said Mikul, who was wearing a new green sweater and red jacket. He had driven back to Norviliskes in his used BMW to tend his grandparents' graves, and was also helping to collect the flowers thrown across the fence and placing them on the graves.

Giedrius Klimkevicius, the Lithuanian businessman who restored the village's castle with EU help, would have liked to place the stage for the music festival right on the border as a gesture of unity, but says the Belarusian authorities forbade it.

"The iron fence on the border has become a symbol of the division of two civilizations, to our deep regret," he said.

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