It is 19.40 on a dark, wet and windy September night. We have been on the road north from Kiev for the last two hours, with only a vast panoply of stars for illumination. But we are approaching the border area and it has begun to rain heavily. We are crossing into Belarus from the Ukrainian side by car and a line of long, low buildings has just appeared out of the blackness on the treeline. Tatyana confi rms they are the administration and living quarters of the border guards. Beyond them lies deep, impenetrable darkness, with mile upon mile of forest. I am immediately reminded of a black-and-white spy drama from the 1960s. The rain beats down on the roof of the car as the gloom intensifi es. ‘Sometimes,’ says Tatyana with a deep sigh, ‘people wait here for three days. The queues can be very long.’
Little by little, we inch towards the fi rst obstacle: Ukrainian emigration. Shadowy figures drift in and out of the darkness. We reach the head of the queue and an official in uniform peers through the car window at our passports. Then we move painfully slowly to the next checkpoint, a large, purpose-built, multi-storey monument to officialdom. As we wait, I ask Tatyana about security along the length of the border. ‘It’s a big stretch to police,’ I say. ‘How is it patrolled?’ She and Yura exchange views in Russian, before agreeing that most of the roads are impassable, save for the offi cial crossing points, other than on foot. And right now, the other official crossings are closed, so that this is the only means of access by road between Ukraine and Belarus.
Plain-clothes officials mingle with uniformed soldiers and militia, all under blazing arc lights. We reach the front of the queue, where two soldiers (one sporting a very large peaked hat) sit impassively at a small table, surrounded by pens, paper, ancient computer hardware and a scanning device. Out jumps Yura to hand over sheaves of passports and stamped paperwork. Another huge hat joins the first at the flimsy table. One of them scrutinises every single page of our passports and scans in the photographs, before purposefully (but with one fi nger) pressing keys on his keyboard, occasionally glancing up at his screen as he types. We notice with some amusement that his table, the extent of his domain, is only partly protected from the elements by the overhead canopy, so that the many wires coming out of the back of his kit are now being liberally rained upon. As we pass by, he stares wistfully at us from under his enormous peaked hat, perhaps longing to be a passenger in a car that takes him away somewhere, anywhere.
And so into no man’s land. No lights, just darkness stretching into the night. Unexpectedly, ghostly figures emerge from the gloom. All are women, pushing bicycles with one hand, sporting umbrellas in the other and peering through every car window as they pass by, off ering coff ee and food from their panniers. One by one, engines are switched off and lights extinguished. After 20 minutes, all is dark and silent. The rain stops as suddenly as it began, and overhead the vista is once more a stunning display of stars. I fall in and out of fitful sleep. ‘We should be through… in the next 24 hours,’ offers Tatyana and it is not easy to spot if this is irony or a cheap shot at humour. As I ponder this, the driver of the lorry next to us in the parallel queue fi ddles irritably with the aerial of his ten-inch portable television, as the screen changes from images of lurid colour to grainy black and white. Every ten minutes or so, we start to inch forward, just one car’s length at a time. Now more shadowy figures criss-cross the lines of traffic, sometime standing in small groups, their faces eerily lit by a combination of cigarette ends and vehicle tail lights.
Our progress is mind-numbingly slow. To our right, a bicycle vendor strikes it lucky, as a lorry driver beckons her over and gestures for her to pour coffee into a plastic cup from her flask. Then much to our surprise, our progress quickens and the next booths appear closer and closer, grotesquely back-lit by huge overhead arc lights. The guards seem to have decided that the lorries are going nowhere that night, for their queue has ground to a complete halt. Another very large hat appears at the driver’s window and Yura tells the official he has three ‘foreigners’ on board, from England. Three immigration forms appear through the open window from an unseen hand. There is much more activity here; more people, more uniforms, more women on bicycles, more noise, more light. There is only one queue now and we finally reach the front. Our guard is a striking blonde woman; her friendly manner is most unexpected, but deceptive. She peers alternately at our passports and through the open door, softly speaking our names in anticipation of some recognition on our part. She motions our vehicle forward and invites us to park up, still on the exit lane, but kind of out of the way, in an ‘in the way’ sort of way. Yura accompanies her into the office while she scans our passports.
Ten minutes later, Yura returns and opens the door. ‘She wants to see your insurance papers.’ He scurries off with them. Then two more very big hats walk out with Yura, deep in conversation. Tatyana too is summoned to join the gathering, before she returns to open the car door to enquire sweetly of Richard as to whether or not he has any more photo ID, as the computer is unable to scan his passport photograph. He gazes imploringly into my eyes and I know at once that he has been transported back to our little adventure at Minsk Airport, when it cost me US$100 to get us out of the country. ‘Don’t worry, this won’t be a problem,’ I say, as I begin to feel the first flutterings of irritation. Here we go again…
But it’s all a game. Yura returns to move the car 2m forward and perhaps 10cm closer to the kerb, presumably as instructed, before returning back inside. The merry-go-round spins on. Yura keeps pacing to and fro and the hats keep scrutinising our papers. A large hat appears and points the way forward for us, towards the nirvana of customs (and the final control point) 100m in the distance. Our hearts lift, but the dawn is a false one. Yura does indeed drive towards the customs zone, but when we are tantalisingly close, he turns through 180° (as instructed by the hat) and parks up near to the office. He turns off the engine, climbs out and disappears. He is gone maybe 15 minutes and we begin to wonder if we are ever going to escape this scene.
Then a figure appears from the inky blackness, striding purposefully forward, head down and hand clutching a wad of documents. It is Yura. He flings open the door, climbs in with purpose and we drive around a corner… and into a queue. Yura is quizzed by a large hat, but this one has the inclination neither for confrontation nor for sport and we are flamboyantly gestured forward into another queue, where another booth and another hat await. We are waved on and before we know what is happening, Yura is gunning the car into the Belarusian night, while an astonishing display of stars shine in the firmament overhead. The whole experience took two hours 45 minutes from start to finish and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.