Žydrūnas Vaikasas, head of the Gintaras Žagunis frontier post on the Lithuania-Belarus border, greets me outside a new building. It includes spaces adapted to the needs of the State Border Guard Service (VSAT) officers, as well as a dozen beds for detained migrants. The building was designed long before the migration crisis, which began right here, in the so-called Dieveniškės loop.
According to Vaikasas, border guards noticed the first signs of “unusual migration” at the end of November 2020, when four groups of foreigners crossed the border. One of the groups consisted of 19 people.
“It was an emergency because, to us, it looked like a huge and unusual movement. Immediately, another smaller group was intercepted, and people from faraway places, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, started coming. We realised that something unusual and organised was going on,” said the head of the frontier station.
Vaikasas then noticed changes in the behaviour of Belarusian border guards. Communication with them became more formal, more of it would be conducted in writing. There were unusual delays in receiving responses to reports, exchanging information, and intercepting irregular movements.
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The Lithuanian border guards noticed another curious aspect – foreigners were crossing the border en masse at places where they were sure to be caught. The Dieveniškės loop is a Lithuanian “peninsula” surrounded by Belarusian territory – the only way out of it is through a narrow two-kilometre stretch, carefully monitored by border guards.
“By pushing people into Dieveniškės loop, the Belarusians are aware that almost all of them will be detained. Now, we feel that irregular migrants have understood the specifics of this place and avoid crossing the border here,” Vaikasas said.
Since last summer, VSAT officers have been noticing not only the Belarusian border guards, but also officers dressed in the Special Forces’ uniforms patrolling on the other side of the border, the head of the frontier station added.
He is showing a newly installed video surveillance system. Guards used to monitor the border with old-fashioned patrols and trace tapes. Now, some of their work is done in front of computer screens.
The CCTV operators’ room is on the ground floor of the Gintaras Žagunis frontier station’s new building. Two VSAT officers monitor the footage that covers 112 kilometres of the border – almost the entire perimeter of the Dieveniškės loop.
“In total, there are around 1,700 cameras. They have motion detectors. Moving objects pop up on the screen, where the operator sees them and reacts accordingly,” Vaikasas said.
According to him, such monitoring integrates two systems “to avoid possible mistakes”. Some screens show video footage, while others display information from fibre optic sensors and geophones that capture vibrations and sound.
This system had been installed before the migration crisis started in Lithuania, but it significantly facilitates the officers’ work in the current situation, Vaikasas added.
The screens show Belarusian guards who patrol the border. One camera has captured three deer walking across the frontier. No migrants crossing the border were recorded on that day.
One of the operators showed me some videos recorded before. One of them showed three Belarusian officers bringing a group of 57 migrants to the border. The Belarusians escort foreigners to the border and point in the direction where they should cross.
Asked about what happened to this group of migrants, Vaikasas said they were questioned and “given the opportunity to leave”.
Previously, around 50 irregular border crossings would be recorded at this station a year. Cigarette smuggling used to be a much bigger problem. But the new video surveillance system has also made the border almost impenetrable for smugglers.
Amid the migration crisis, information warfare has become another major challenge for the VSAT officers.
“The Belarusian side is organising provocations, filming them. They take one part of the event, cut it out, and edit it. You watch it and cannot understand – it happened, but it wasn’t like that at all,” Vaikasas said.
He recalled a few instances of migrants crossing into Lithuanian territory, walking here for a bit, telling Lithuanian border guards that they did not need any help, and then returning to Belarus, where they were filmed by Belarusian officers.
“This is done for propaganda purposes. We monitor their information space and see how such events are used to create desired scenarios,” Vaikasas added.
Asked about how local residents reacted to such events and Belarusian propaganda narratives, the head of the frontier station said that the migration crisis brought the local community and VSAT officers closer together.
“People we meet on the street often say ‘Thank you for protecting us.’ Attitudes are changing, and people are now convinced that we are there to protect the border,” Vaikasas said.
According to him, protests against accommodating migrants that took place near the border were not organised by the local communities.
“They came from other places. We recognise locals. They [protesters] arrived in convoys of 25-30 cars we had never seen before. These were the faces that we later saw at the [August 10] rally outside the parliament,” Vaikasas said. “They were also creating provocation here, walking right up to the border, filming.”
Surveillance from the other side
I got into the VSAT car together with Saulius, another border guard. He had been working at the border for twenty years. Previously, his work mostly consisted of intercepting smugglers or searching for missing locals.
According to Saulius, throughout this year, he encountered migrants in various places – on roadsides, in forest, or walking across fields.
“It was an intense period. If it weren't for the soldiers, we would have struggled to keep up,” Saulius said.
“At least several officers must respond to an incident. […] But what if there are six or seven incidents at the same time? The shortage of people becomes acute. Or you see a group of seventy people crossing the border. You have to divide, detain them. It requires a lot of manpower,” he added.
We drive along more than 20 kilometres of razor-wire fence. It was built in areas where the highest number of border crossings were observed. Soon, the barrier should cover almost the entire border of the Dieveniškės loop.
Saulius points to dugouts on the Belarusian side of the border. These are small huts made of spruces or logs.
“[The Belarusian border guards] are on duty in these dugouts. In some places, they are built further from the border. They are monitoring our movement. It feels like they are counting our cars, officers. Sometimes, they sit there for days, lighting bonfires,” the border guard said.
I asked Saulius about the migrants he encountered.
“There were no aggressive groups. Some tried to evade detention, but nobody resisted. Otherwise, they all tell the same story – war, persecution, fleeing from war, looking for a better life,” he said.
“In my opinion, only a few are actually running from danger. They say they want to go to Germany. There were almost two hundred migrants at the frontier station here. Relatives from Germany and the Netherlands used to come and visit them, bringing money and other things,” Saulius added.
After Lithuania adopted the pushback policy, border guards had to start turning migrants away, not allowing them to enter Lithuania.
“Most of the time, they obey. We explain where they should go to cross legally or ask for asylum. But all of these cases are difficult. These are people. So you think about the human side. But it is what it is. These are the orders we get,” Saulius said.
He recalled an incident when a group of 30 migrants was not allowed to enter Lithuania.
“The provocateurs were walking around, telling the group to go. But people were not going anywhere. Belarusians with shields were behind them.
“Then, a Belarusian truck arrived […]. Twenty more people with riot gear. They started pushing those migrants towards us, pressing them.
“We had soldiers, border guards, and police officers among us. We also formed a human chain and stood there. [This situation] lasted for about a day.
“Of course, we realised that the Belarusians would not start shooting, but we were prepared. In the end, the irregular migrants were rounded up by the Belarusians and taken away.”
In Saulius’ words, there were no cases of the use of service weapons because “we all understand what this could turn into”.