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2021.07.16 09:00

‘Lithuania was manipulated.’ Belarusian dissidents run headlong into migrant smuggling operation

Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt2021.07.16 09:00

On July 1, Andrey Sharenda and Olga Pavlova slipped unseen past what looked like a Belarusian border guard camp set up metres from Lithuania. Moments later, a few dozen migrants crossed the border after them.

“It’s clear that the Belarusian state works with this,” said Sheranda, a dissident from European Belarus organisation. After spending several days in hiding near the border with Belarus, they spoke to locals who witnessed the movement of migrants in an area off limits to all but the few Belarusians with permits and the border guard service.

“To go even within one kilometre of the border [for Belarusian citizens] is simply impossible,” he said. During their perilous journey through the forest to reach Lithuania, they saw what looked like a military tent with several smaller shelters built some 200 metres from the Lithuanian border.

“It was obvious that they were not tourists, local people do not have the right to be there,” said Sheranda. “It was clear it was some government agency, but I could not tell which one exactly.”

On their way towards the border, they saw a flashlight and had to jump face-down to the ground. “Like soldiers, we started crawling,” said Olga. “My grandparents were partisans, and I understood I had this in my blood,” she smiled.

After they finally crossed a swamp to reach Lithuania, around an hour later, a group of 11 undocumented migrants, seemingly from African countries, crossed the road that passed near the tent camp in Belarus.

“We were very dirty, as we passed around two or three kilometres through a forest,” said Pavlova. “Everything we had was dirty – and they were clean.” It is likely, they said, that the undocumented migrants were brought right up to the border for an easy crossing. There was no way that the guards would not have seen them, added Sheranda.

In the past several months, Lithuania has seen a sharp spike in irregular migration via Belarus, which Vilnius officials called “hybrid aggression” against the country by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. An LRT investigation published on Wednesday has also outlined the migrant smuggling scheme from Iraq.

During their time in quarantine with the border guards, Andrey and Olga witnessed entire families with children in crowded conditions, even if the guards and medics “did everything they could”.

“It’s a colossal tragedy for people who ended up in this [situation],” said Sheranda. At their temporary accommodation, “Belarusian diaspora brought us food, fruits, which we gave to children. Some border guards also gave their own food to the children.”

Although Lithuania has been welcoming Belarusians fleeing repressions ever since the protests and the subsequent repressions began last year, the public sentiment against migrants from the Middle East and Africa has been largely the opposite.

Read more: No right to appeal and mass detentions: Lithuania's new migrant laws draw criticism

A series of stringent rules, deemed “legal nihilism” by Lithuania’s former Constitutional Court judge Dainius Žalimas, were passed under a fast-track procedure by the country’s parliament that have removed the right to appeal from asylum seekers and have legalised mass detentions.

“I ask Lithuania to look at all migrants the same way they look at Belarusians,” Sheranda said. “They are the biggest victims of this situation.”

And then he smashed my head against the wall’

Olga Pavlova was the coordinator of the campaign of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition frontrunner in the August 2020 presidential election. Pavlova was also one of the first people to witness tortures in regime prisons.

“An investigator said [...] why do you want change? You have a big salary even for us,” remembered Pavlova. “Everything that you have is enough. Why do you want change?”

“And then he smashed my head against the wall.”

During her detention at the infamous Okrestina prison in Minsk, where human rights groups say hundreds had been tortured, Pavlova was put with 35 other people in a cell made for four.

“We didn’t have enough oxygen to breathe and the girls just started to lose their consciousness, but they didn’t understand what was happening,” said Pavlova. “I am a doctor. [...] I understood that we were just dying and I was afraid that if I told anybody, they would panic. [...] That’s why I turned off all emotions. To this day, I'm in this state.”

It wasn’t possible to treat her dissociative syndrome due to the ongoing climate of fear in Belarus. While still under house arrest, which does allow her to leave for work and other matters under strictly controlled conditions, she received a request to report to a police station. She knew her time was up.

After spending some time in hiding, she joined Sharenda at a house near the border with Lithuania, waiting for the get-go to cross.

“The Lithuanian border is now the only way to flee Belarus,” said Sharenda. With the Ukrainian and Polish borders sealed, and Russia being “the same regime as Minsk”, a wall on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border will trap dissidents. Some will lose their lives, he added.

Sheranda had been declared wanted by the regime after he failed to show up to his court hearing on June 28. His dissident wife Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk was sentenced to two years in prison in June. During her five-month detention prior to the trial, Sheranda-Panasyuk had managed to pass a letter describing the torturing she witnessed, according to Belsat.

Sheranda had already spent months in prison and was under house arrest when the court call came.

“I was practically alone [from European Belarus organisation] who managed to escape. All my friends are now in prison, my wife is in prison,” said Sharenda. “Last time such repressions were happening in Europe was probably during the Polish solidarity movement, 40 years ago.”

“Lithuania remains the main export point for the regime. [Vilnius] doesn’t have to build fences, but to sever all [economic] relations.”

Lithuania was ‘manipulated’

The regime is scared, “because many Belarusian specialists are leaving Belarus very quickly, and people who are under criminal cases are also running”, according to Pavlova.

“It's like a game,” she added. “They manipulated [Lithuania] with emigration to make you build something instead of them.”

Sharenda himself lived in the border region near Poland. “On the Poland-Belarusian border, there are fences. Not like Lithuania, [but] full systems that span 50 metres. Without a smuggler it is not possible to cross, but somehow these migrants [are still] somehow transported over the fence.”

Walls “will not work”, added Pavlova.

“Everyone needs to understand that the [migrants] are victims of circumstances,” said Sharenda. They were cheated by people who organised these transfers, they were cheated by the regime of Lukashenko [who] does not even hide [regime's involvement] in the last days.”

The only way is to sever all relations with Belarus. “The EU needs to answer, rip up all economic links with the dictator.”

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