In Eastern Europe two villages once separated by nothing but a thin line on a map have now been cut in two by a new iron wall. Only this time the division is not communism and capitalism, but belonging or not — membership in the EU versus non-membership.
Belarus is ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko, who appears to regard economic and political reform as the kryptonite to his power. To the west of his nation lies Lithuania, now a member of the European Union and NATO and therefore beneficiary to all that membership entails: economic prosperity and political freedom. In the town of Pyatskuny Lukashenko has erected a Berlin Wall-style fence complete with Soviet-esque border guards and secret service agents to keep tabs on those living in the border region. The now two villages, which once shared a church, cemetery and other services are now hit by huge problems.
“Our hearts were left on the other side of the fence.” Said one 67 year-old woman. To find out why, read more. The woman hasn't been able to visit her husband’s grave on the Lithuanian side in two years. If she did want to visit the grave, she would have to travel ninety miles to the nearest Lithuanian consulate, pay roughly a month’s income, travel another sixty miles north to the checkpoint and then sixty miles south to reach a destination roughly 2 miles from her home.
Since Lithuania joined the EU and NATO in 2004, it has been required to toughen restrictions on Belarus hoping this pressure will force Lukashenko to free political prisoners and hold free elections. Still, there is one thing the government on either side has been able to prevent: good old fashioned hollering. A 61-year-old woman shouts through the fence to communicate with her nephew whose house is the first one on the Lithuanian side.
The divide is huge and eye-opening in our post-Berlin Wall era: on the Lithuanian side, cell phones are common while those who live in Belarus must share the one phone in the grocery store. Some in Belarus are so desperate to cross over, they survive on bread and water to save enough money to head across the line — anyone attempting to climb the fence can be jailed for up to two years.