Night in neutral zone. Reportage about migrants on Lithuanian-Belarusian border

Border guard Evaldas behind the wheel of a company jeep while patrolling the border with Belarus. July 7, 2021. Photo: Vitaly Babin for Vot Tak

Since the beginning of 2021, over 2,000 migrants have been detained at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. These are citizens of, among others, Iraq, Congo, Cameroon, Guinea, Iran, who are brought to the neutral zone on the direct instructions of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The flow of refugees has increased 20 times in recent months, says the Lithuanian side. A state of emergency has been declared in the country. The correspondent of Vot Tak went to the Druskininkai outpost to see with his own eyes how dozens of migrants are trying to enter the European Union from Belarus illegally.

We arrive in Druskininkai – a small Lithuanian town in southern Lithuania, near the border of Poland and Belarus. Here, at first glance, nothing betrays the emigration crisis: people are walking, relaxing, rushing to the shops and to work. They seem to have heard nothing of the problem, which has turned the fairly quiet work of local border guards into a daily quest with chases and night patrols.

Night on the border

“You are lucky,” they say after checking our journalistic documents at the Druskininkai outpost, “you will be the first journalists to go on such a night adventure with us.”

The evening shift change has begun, during which we also notice German police officers from Frontex [the European Union’s agency for external border security. – Editor’s note], but they ask us not to take pictures. Preparations take about an hour, and we go. Our guides are Lithuanian border guards Rokas and Evaldas [they asked not to name their surnames. – Editor’s note].

The first thing we ask our guides is whether it is hard to work now.

“It depends on the situation, is it difficult or not. Sometimes you just patrol, no problem. But now we have to run and detain, – says Rokas. – It is not psychologically difficult. This is our job. But we are not alone, we are helped by the internal troops and the police. We work together, this is probably what allows us to remain firm.”

Border guard Rokas with a night vision device while patrolling the border with Belarus. July 7, 2021. Photo: Vitaly Babin for Vot Tak

The first stop is at the border post. Cars crossing the border are selectively stopped here. It is almost impossible to transport an illegal migrant this way: all trucks are under control, our companions say.

“Do you have any darker clothes with you?” the border guards ask, and at this moment the operator and I realize that putting on white shirts was a huge mistake.

“Okay, we’ll come up with something,” they reassure.

Half an hour later we are slowly walking down the forest paths which migrants walk every day, crossing the border with Belarus. It is here, at different times with different regularities, that most detentions take place. A few days ago in these places, with yellow warning signs on the trees, more than a hundred people were detained.

“Sometimes it’s one small group, followed immediately by another. Then an hour later there’s another one. It all depends on the speed of their movement. We are blocking a certain area and waiting for them to come. Aggression from uninvited guests is rare, – says Evaldas. – Most often they give up themselves. Seeing the border guards, people squat and wait until they are approached. But it happens that we have to chase and catch them, look for them in the woods. And some are resisting, so we even had to make warning shots in the air and use pepper spray and handcuffs.”

A warning sign in a Lithuanian forest near the border with Belarus. July 7, 2021. Photo: Vitaly Babin for Vot Tak

“Usually these people are well dressed, – adds Rokas, who has already taken out a night vision device and is looking at dark areas in the distance:

“They look neat and have expensive things with them, sometimes iPhones; however, not originals, but rather copies, I think.”

When darkness falls, the degree of anxiety gradually increases. Border guards carefully inspect the forest thicket with thermal imagers and then find a white jacket. Apparently, it was left so as not to attract the attention of the Lithuanian side. Belarusian border guards allow refugees to pass without any problems, no longer responding the requests to monitor the border more closely.

“Until recently, one call was enough to resolve any issue,says Rokas. – We used to exchange words and remarks near the border during the patrol. Now the Belarusian side completely ignores us. They are silent or pretend not to hear.”

Towards midnight the forest becomes absolutely dark. We are given dark jackets and asked not to talk, not to turn on phones and lights on the camera. We even try to breathe quietly and listen to the barely audible sounds that give out the presence of a person in the woods: the crunch of branches, whispers. At some point we hear a message on the walkie-talkie: refugees from Africa detained. We are going there.

From Africa to Druskininkai

We’re riding rapidly on the forest hillocks; during this race we get a message that four more people are detained, and two unknown violators climbed over the fence and crawled into the thicket. Literally two minutes later we arrive at the place of detention: four guys are on their knees with their hands raised.

One of them, a young man with tattoos, has tears in his eyes. Stress, fear and the long-awaited relief that it is finally over – that’s what his face shows. When I asked where he came from, he said that he was from Iraq and bought a ticket to Minsk for $ 600. They cannot be asked more questions – only border guards can do that; the status of detainees does not allow migrants to talk to journalists.

Lithuanian border guards patrolling the border with Belarus. In the headlights is the border guard Evaldas. July 7, 2021. Photo: Vitaly Babin for Vot Tak

The guy with the tattoos immediately says he is asking for political asylum. The other three give their backpacks for inspection and greedily drink water. The police and the other crew are registering them, and we’re leaving to look for the others.

Looking for a better life

On the way we ask our guides about the refugees. Rokas and Evaldas say the stories are very different. Some admit that they want to find a good job, because it is almost impossible at home. Others say that they were students in Hrodna or Minsk, but at some point they were expelled from the university, or tuition fees were significantly increased, which led them to Lithuania in search of a better life and further study.

For a while we patrol the track. Rare cars drive along the unlit section of the road, and we listen again to the ringing silence. An hour passes before Rokas and Evaldas approach the car. A command sounds: “Take your places!”

Another couple of minutes passes, we stop abruptly, and run into the thicket, where we can already hear people’s voices and see the light of flashlights. The violators are two guys from Africa. One of them is holding a bottle of drinking water made in Belarus. Police and border guards try to ask questions in English, but one is silent and the other answers in French.

Are you a student? How old are you? Where are you from? What do you have in your backpack?

People who crossed the border illegally detained by Lithuanian border guards. The night of July 8, 2021. Photo: Vitaly Babin for Vot Tak

A guy in white clothes shows some card with a small photo. The on-site proceedings take a few minutes, after which we move to the outpost. On the way we make a small stop, policemen and border guards smoke, and we see a car with detainees passing us by.

Morning at the outpost

At 7:30 a.m. there is a shift change. Andrus Belaruchkinas, the commander of the outpost in Druskininkai, sums up the results of last night: 10 migrants who crossed the Belarusian-Lithuanian border illegally were detained.

“Recently, migration flows have decreased slightly, but we still detain an average of about 30 people a day,” says Andrus Belaruchkinas. – After the detention we register them, distribute them to different places, where they undergo a ten-day quarantine. And only then are they distributed in migration camps, for example, in the town of Pabrade, where they are provided with temporary housing until further decisions are made. They usually spend only a day at the border itself.

The outpost commander confirms our assumptions that most migrants cross the border without any documents. The answer to the question of how they managed to cross the Belarusian border without hindrance is uncertain. If any.

At the beginning of the month, due to the influx of migrants, Lithuania imposed a state of emergency in the country. Vidas Mačaitis, Deputy Commander of the State Border Guard Service, explains to us what this means in practice:

“After the proclamation of the regime, we had the opportunity to involve internal troops, motorized infantry brigades, the police, and to conduct public procurement according to a simplified scheme.”

Soldiers of the Lithuanian army install barbed wire on the border with Belarus in Druskininkai. July 9, 2021. Photo: Janis Laizans / Reuters / Forum

Last year, Vidas Mačaitis says, 74 people who crossed the Lithuanian border illegally were detained. This year their number is already more than one and a half thousand (as of the morning of July 10 – 1577 people, including 680 Iraqis, 200 Congolese, 118 – Cameroonians, 82 people from Guinea and 68 – from Iran).

“Therefore, the situation remains difficult, – Mačaitis says. – We used all the 250 places in Pabrade [tent camp in Pabrade, where the migration centre is located. – Editor’s note], plus hangars at the border. For now it’s enough. As practice shows, among those who migrate through Lithuania, only Belarusians stay; citizens of third countries (migrants from Africa, Iraq, Iran, Syria) leave our country and go to Europe. We are working with the embassies of the countries where these citizens came from, next week our government delegation will go to Turkey, Iran, Greece to discuss the crisis on the spot.”

To my question, when to expect the end of this migrant crisis, the deputy commander says that if Lithuania had any contact from the Belarusian side, this question would make sense.

Vitaly Babin, for Vot Tak