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'We need to help them': In Lithuania, locals say Afghan refugees are welcome

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By Linas Jegelevicius
 Dalia Lukauskiene, who organises the market in Raseiniai.
Dalia Lukauskiene, who organises the market in Raseiniai.   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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A day after 181 Afghans were evacuated from Kabul to Lithuania and resettled in the central city of Raseiniai, vendors were surprised to see a mother and father and their four daughters at their weekly car boot sale, shopping for clothes.

“Just seeing them, so friendly and smiling all the way, and imagining what horror they had been through, was very moving,” Dalia Lukauskiene, who organises the market, told Euronews.

“Some vendors approached them speechlessly, some of them even were choking on tears. They stuffed various warm clothes into their hands – free of charge.”

For her part, Lukauskiene was impressed that the father - despite the family’s ordeal - turned up to the market in a freshly-pressed white shirt.

She was even more impressed with his bargaining skills.

“When asked for 50 euros, they would offer 25,” she said, “with a smile on their face.”

The father in question, the market organiser added, spoke excellent Russian and had worked as a driver for the EU’s envoy to Afghanistan, Vygaudas Usackas, who is Lithuanian.“I had no reason to doubt his story – he appeared as a very intelligent man,” she said.

In a small city where residents know their neighbours and are keenly aware of local news, the arrival of the Afghans -- all of whom worked for Lithuanian special forces in Afghanistan -- has been a hot topic. Some admit they initially had misgivings, but their attitudes have softened in the days since.

“As much as I do not like migrants, I just cannot be too hard on these men,” said Paulius, a young man in his 30s.

“They’ve stared death in the face. Their case is completely different than of those who sneaked into Lithuania through the border with Belarus.”

The Afghans have arrived in Lithuania at a time when the country’s borders -- as well as those of Latvia and Poland -- have seen other migrants trying to enter the EU via Belarus, which is accused of facilitating the surge in arrivals to destabilise its neighbours.

For some, those events on the border coupled with the arrival of the Afghans, have been too much.

One elderly resident, Ceslovas, said that taking the Afghan refugees was not in the interests of the country, but rather had been done for political reasons.

“(It is) horrible! We have to house and feed them […]. It is just a matter of time when they leave Lithuania – without looking back,” he said.

He says some of his neighbours have avoided travelling into town since the Afghans arrived.

“Imagine a local elderly woman being accosted by these men. Can you be sure that they will not snatch her purse and run away?”

Another resident, in her 80s and who declined to be named, said that she was “disturbed” by the new arrivals.

“It would be better not to meet them at night. But can you vouch for any late passer-by – what intentions he has? It would have been better if they had been placed somewhere at the border,” she said.

Linas Jegelevicius
Ricardas, 48, a construction workerLinas Jegelevicius

But of the residents approached by Euronews, these critics were in the minority.

“These men look decent, well-educated. Had they stayed in their country, they would have lost their lives. We need to help them and grant asylum if they request it,” said Benas, 65.

Ricardas, 48, a construction worker, said he was far more worried about the local drunks than he was about the Afghans.

“Here in town, we have workers from Ukraine and Belarus, and elsewhere. We all are getting along very well. Why would that change with the Afghans here?” he said.

Another resident, Rita, said once she heard about the Afghan arrivals she went to their dormitory in town to see them with her own eyes.

“The people I saw were very nice and polite. It was very heartbreaking to see little kids running around in very light clothes in nasty weather,” she said.

“They have no fault to have ended up [with this] plight. The sheer majority of locals support them. We need to help them, not those who got into Lithuania illegally.”

Bozena Zaborovska-Zdanovic, an advisor to Lithuanian Interior minister Agne Bilotaite, told Euronews that the Afghans’ asylums requests will be examined during September.

“If their identities are confirmed, they will be granted political asylum in Lithuania,” she said, adding that this year, in all, 54 Afghans have already applied for asylum in Lithuania.

Around 5,000 Lithuanian troops were involved in US-led and NATO missions in Afghanistan for almost 20 years between 2002 and 2021.

Back at the market, vendors not only feel empathy for the new arrivals -- they also believe that they might be good for business.

For her part, Lukauskiene is convinced that a “clear distinction” has to be made between migrants getting into Lithuania illegally through the Belarusian-Lithuanian border and the Afghans in Raseiniai.

“Let’s not forget that we, Lithuanians, have been also compelled to escape various regimes in the past. These men have helped our troops,” she said.

"They have nothing to do with illegal migrants we see on the border with Belarus.”