When Europe's Borders Are All The More Reason To Mourn

NORVILISKES, Lithuania, Aug 12, 2008 (AFP) - Peering through a border fence, a clutch of elderly women in Belarus offer a heart-rending testament to the fate of those on the wrong side of Europe's eastern frontier, cut off by history from loved ones both living and dead.

"All we want to do is go to the church and the cemetery," shouted 68-year-old Leokadia across the barrier that divides what once was a single rural community.

"My two sons, my husband, my father and my grandfather are all buried there, and all we can do is stand here," she cried.

They shout over to the hamlet of Norviliskes that is in Lithuania, inside the eastern rim of the 27-nation European Union whose borders with non-member states are tightly controlled to keep out smugglers and stop illegal migration.

Leokadia lives in neighbouring Pitskuny, in Belarus whose President Alexander Lukashenko is branded "Europe's last dictator" in the West and where life is tightly controlled.

Such division is etched into communities all along the 678-kilometre (420-mile) Lithuanian-Belarussian border.

What hurts the people of Pitskuny is that generations of them lie in Norviliskes' cemetery, only metres (yards) from the fence but agonisingly out of reach of those who want to tend the graves.

"I don't have anyone left. I'm all alone," shouted Stanislawa, another elderly woman from Pitskuny.

"I want to be buried there, next to my husband and sons," she said, gesturing mournfully towards the ranks of tombstones.

The region, many of whose inhabitants are ethnic Poles, has changed hands half a dozen times in less than 100 years.

Until World War I, it was ruled by Tsarist Russia. Then it was briefly part of newly independent Lithuania before Poland annexed it in 1922.

During World War II it was seized by the Soviet Union, then occupied by Nazi Germany before Moscow took over again in 1944 and split it between the Soviet republics of Lithuania and Belarus.

For five decades, locals were born, raised, schooled, married and worked on different sides of what was just an administrative frontier.

Religion was anathema to the Soviets, but many in the region stuck to their Roman Catholic faith, worshipping in churches like Norviliskes' and planning to be buried in family plots.

-- He's too old to come here anymore --

Both Lithuania and Belarus became independent in 1991 as the communist bloc crumbled.

Their contrasting post-Soviet paths have severed the ties that once bound their border-dwellers, who since 1993 have had to get visas to visit each other.

Lithuania beefed up its entry rules when it joined the EU in 2004, gradually building fences along the line.

The section in Norviliskes was put up last year, as Vilnius prepared to join the now 24-nation grouping, the Schengen zone, where frontier checks are abolished among members in exchange for tougher external controls.

Since 2007, the price of a Lithuanian visa has jumped from five to 60 euros (eight to 93 dollars) because of Schengen rules.

That is a huge slice of an average Belarussian's monthly wage -- worth around 260 euros -- let alone of a 100-euro pension.

To ease matters, Lithuania grants free visas to children under the age of 16, as well as people visiting sick relatives or attending a funeral, and grants one cost-free visa a year for graveyard visits.

But even free visas are a slog for the mostly elderly residents of Pitskuny, who have to go to the Lithuanian consulate in Grodno, a border city in Belarus.

"They have to go twice to Grodno, once just to fill in the paperwork and then again to collect the visa. For an old woman like this? Well, imagine a 200-kilometre (120-mile) round trip," said Vladimir Janowicz, in Lithuania.

Janowicz, whose mother lives in Belarus, said he would welcome any move by either side to make visits simpler.

"There's a gate in the fence, but it's closed and we're not allowed to cross. I want to go and see my mother. To go just half a kilometre (500 yards), I have to go 135 kilometres (84 miles)," he said.

At least getting Belarussian visas is easier for Lithuanians. It costs 25 euros -- a lighter burden in a country where the average salary is 623 euros.

Since March, the two governments have been locked in talks on easing rules for border-zone residents.

While they wait, locals try to maintain a semblance of their former lives.

When the people of Norviliskes gather for mass in their clapboard church, Leokadia, Stanislawa and a knot of others in Belarus walk the few hundred metres (yards) from their homes also to pray, from a distance. (I dropped gathering at edge of forest as not sure it's necessary here)

Poignantly, both sides swap family news through the fence.

"We're all from the same village," said Janina Stanczyk, 83, on the Lithuanian side. Her 81-year-old brother lives in Belarus.

"He can't come here anymore. He's too old. But these women are always here. So I ask how he is, and ask them to tell him I'm fine," she said.



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