Marched off a train? Interrogated by ten armed men? Denied exit from an authoritarian country? Yes, I had another border “incident” over the weekend. As if Iran was not enough for one year, I ran into some problems at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border Sunday evening.
I had applied for a transit visa to Belarus weeks back. My understanding was that a transit visa allowed access to Belarus for 72 hours, full stop. What I was not aware of, was that the transit visa did not allow me to enter and exit through the same country. In other words, I should have had a tourist visa rather than a transit visa, because my itinerary included entering Belarus through Lithuania and leaving Belarus to Lithuania.
The outbound journey was fine. I traveled by rail from Vilnius and although the train was far past its prime—with weathered, cracked, leather chairs that was so very Soviet—it was exactly what I was suspecting.
As we neared the Belarusian border, the train stopped and Lithuanian border officials boarded to stamp people out of Lithuania (and the EU). At the next stop, Belarusian border agents climbed onboard and slowly checked the passports of each traveler. The official who checked mine did not say much, merely examining my visa, scanning my passport on her laptop computer (worn like an accordion), then stamping my migration card (yes, you have to carry a migration card as well in Belarus [like Mother Russia] and register immediately upon arrival with the local government).
I expected the same thing on the way back Sunday night, but the process was not nearly as smooth. Upon examining my passport, a female border agent started speaking to me (with a raised voice) in Russian. I simply smiled and said that I do not speak Belarusian or Russian. She said, “English,” then walked off the train with my passport. She came back with a male colleague who spoke just a few words of English. For good measure, he tried to speak to me in Russian, but quickly saw I had no idea what he saying.
What came out next was the quintessential Soviet phrase, “Your papers are not in order.” At this point I was unaware that my papers really were not in order, and very calmly and slowly tried to explain that my visa was good for 72 hours. The agent responded, “You come in from here and get out here. You cannot go out Vilna and in Vilna. You must go out other way.”
I acknowledged what he was saying, but sat there quietly waiting for him to get to the point. It came next: “You must get off train and come with us.” Sigh. Here we go again, I thought. I made the “walk of shame” down the crowded train aisle with two border guards in front of me and two behind me.
Outside the train was a small train station and a border post, but nothing else—I was in the middle of nowhere. Inside the border station I was led to an interrogation room (how familiar…) where ten armed border agents crowded in the room and the one who spoke a few words of English began questioning me. First question: “Why you come to my country?” They weren’t impressed by my full passport, evidenced by one border agent shaking his head at everything I said.
“What your plan here?”
“Do you live in Belarus?”
“Why you try to come in Vilna out Vilna?”
“Why you not go out from other way?”
I again explained my story and the border agent flashed a toothy grin and stated, “You talk too fast.” I slowly repeated myself, and I think he understood what I was trying to do. He told me simply to “wait” and he and his nine colleagues disappeared.
Over the next 45 minutes, I heard them arguing loudly with each other in Russian with the phone ringing every few minutes or so, which I can only assume was a government office in Minsk—perhaps checking out my story.
Finally, the agent who spoke a few words of English returned, sat down at the table across from me, stared at me for a few minutes, then said, “I bring well news. You go next train to Vilna.”
Whew. He smiled and apologized that his English was bad. I smiled back and apologized that I only knew three words of Russian—da (yes), nyett (no), and spaseeba (thanks). He laughed and told me “You must have new ticket,” then walked me over to the passenger waiting area in the building next door. Thankfully, a train from Moscow bound for Kalingrad calling in Minsk and Vilnius was coming through in about an hour.
I purchased a ticket for about $5 and returned to the interrogation room to wait out the next 45 minutes. The border agent introduced himself as Michael and we tried to make small talk, though it was very difficult.
About 35 minutes later, I was told to follow him and his colleagues out to the tracks, where we waited for the train to arrive. Far in the distance I spied the single beam of the oncoming train, but we waited outside in the crisp evening air for nearly ten minutes.
The train pulled up and I was instructed to board car two. As I boarded, I shook hands with Michael and we both exchanged big smiles. A Russian hostess glanced at my ticket and directed me to my seat. This was the overnight sleeper service, so I had a nice lower berth for the 1.5 hour ride to Vilnius.
Every passenger’s documents had to be checked and it was a multiple car train, so we remained at the station for the next 50 minutes. Michael came by one last time to ensure that I was safely onboard. After stepping off, the train departed.
I made it out of Belarus!