The Curonian Spit or Neringa, a narrow peninsula wedged between the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon, has been relatively deserted due to pandemic restrictions – yet border guards working at the remotest crossing between Lithuania and Russia have not had much time to spare.
The country's most remote border post is found in the Curonian Spit, or Neringa as it's called in Lithuanian. It stands surrounded by sand dunes at the edge of the peninsula, right on the border with Russia's Kaliningrad.
Officers stationed here do not only guard the land crossing between Lithuania and the Russian Federation, but also the state border in the waters of the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea.
To be fit for the task, the Neringa border post is equipped with unique vehicles: SUVs, all-terrain vehicles, speedboats, ships, and hovercrafts that can move on both water and land.
The officer in charge of the post is Juozas Rinkevičius, who has been working for the State Border Guard Service (VSAT) for the last 26 years. Over 100 officers are under his command. Most of them live in and around the nearest city of Klaipėda.
Rinkevičius himself lives outside the city and, like other border guards, drives to work, making about 170-kilometre commutes 14 times a month.
“The distance does not intimidate me. I got used to it, it's already a routine,” Rinkevičius says.
Encounters with wild animals are common on the roads in Neringa. One year into the pandemic and its lockdowns, there are more animals wandering onto roads and they are bolder, more agile.
“On the way to work, we notice a lot of deer. They are beautiful, but dangerous. So far I have avoided any collisions, but some of my colleagues have not,” Rinkevičius says.
To successfully patrol the landscape that changes every season, turning water into ice, the border guards use a hovercraft they have named Christina.
Since 2000, this vehicle, which is capable of moving on water, land, and ice, has been particularly helpful during search and rescue operations. It takes only several seconds for the seven-tonne ship to leave the shore.
“She only looks big and clumsy,” smiles Davidas Mockus, who is in charge of steering Christina.
A special training is required to operate the vehicle, notes Rinkevičius.
“The Curonian Lagoon is huge, so, without knowing how to navigate it, it's easy to lose control and even violate the border yourself,” he says.
Most often Christina is used to rescue ice fishing enthusiasts who flock to the Lagoon from across the country. Sometimes the ice is dangerously thin, or fishermen get too close to the Russian border.
“Some of them get frightened, others are happy to get on deck. Only those we have to stop from fishing are angry. They think: the closer they get to the border, the better their catch,” says the border guard.
Training in ice-cold water
According to Rinkevičius the coronavirus pandemic made his job somewhat easier.
“Without the lockdown in place, a huge number of people would be here over weekends,” he says.
However, the border guards now have additional duties: to check if people arriving in the peninsula are following the lockdown rules. Despite the lower workload, the unit also continues to train for rescue operations.
To be ready to work under any conditions, border guards train in ice-cold water. One of them plays the role of a victim and others have to rescue their colleague.
“Before diving into water in winter or spring, we have to put on thermal suits,” Rinkevičius says. “It doesn't matter if the water is freezing cold.”
According to Mockus, It's difficult to say how long a person can survive in freezing waters – it depends on his physical form and conditions.
“Once I rescued people who managed to stay in freezing water for half an hour. They were almost unconscious, but we saved them,” Mockus remembers.
The border with Kaliningrad
Currently, the border between Lithuania and Russia is closed due to the pandemic. All customs officials left the checkpoint last March.
Behind the checkpoint, a so-called hard border stretches into the distance – dunes all the way to the shore of the Baltic Sea are lined with fences and surveillance cameras mounted on poles.
“The old border system is being modernised, part of the border will be fully controlled by video surveillance systems – day and night sensors, video cameras, and other equipment,” says Rinkevičius.
The most common violations are accidental border crossings, he says. Sometimes, due to bad weather conditions, ships find themselves in Russian territorial waters.
“Then there is the procedure to follow. We have to wait until our colleagues from the Russian Federation complete their formalities, investigations and interrogations,” Rinkevičius says.
Sometimes communication between the two sides can be challenging.
“We've had cases when both, crew and vessels, have been returned only after a few days,” he adds.
Job with a charm
After more than two decades working for the VSAT, Rinkevičius says he still finds the job romantic – especially when he got posted to the Curonian Spit.
“It's a unique place not only in Lithuania, but in Europe. The views are amazing. [They] have a calming effect,” Rinkevičius says.