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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soldiers' Wives Stake Out a Home of Their Own

LIDA, Belarus -- A dozen wives of former Soviet servicemen sit around a card table calmly drawing up a guard duty roster for their husbands to keep the authorities out of homes they say are rightfully theirs.

Last year, 17 military wives seized as many apartments in the Belarussian town of Lida, deciding they had had enough of broken promises about housing. They rejected a military directive to transfer their husbands to Russia.

"Before, I was ready to move into any old apartment," said Natalya Karpovich, 28, "but now I am so fed up with the system, I'm not going to leave this one. We have heating fuel and petrol -- if they try to force us out, we'll bring the building down."

The "zakhvatchiki," or invaders as they have come to be known in Belarus, say they are victims of the messy carving up of the Soviet Army among 15 sovereign states.

The officers and enlisted men, from an elite Soviet air force regiment transferred from Germany in 1991, say they were promised housing and told they would serve in Belarus.

They ended up with neither.

Requests to serve in the Belarussian army were lost in red tape. Instead, they were told to report for duty in the Russian Army and forget about Lida's new German-built housing complex.

The Belarussian authorities say the servicemen have no claim to the apartments, luxurious by Soviet standards and initially earmarked for Soviet troops transferred from East Germany.

Three days after the families seized the apartments and moved in, each of the enlisted men was forcibly discharged. Because they lack legal addresses, they cannot find permanent jobs.

"It's not as though we want to drive them out into the cold," said Valery Pavlov, Belarus' first deputy state secretary on national security. "But this housing is for Belarussian servicemen."

The guard duty and a makeshift gate at the entrance to the complex is meant to keep out the curious and, they hope, anyone who would try to force them to leave.

Inside the apartments, the women are clearly the driving force in the campaign to hang on to their homes. Last year, several of them blocked runways at the military base in Lida to prevent planes from landing to arrange the return of servicemen to Russia.

While the men hang back, smoking in the spacious central stairwell, their wives mind small children and explain how they masterminded the takeover.

They occupied the apartments during a tour of the complex, forcing the caretaker through sheer numbers to hand over his keys.

"When we said 'takeover,' naturally he got a little pale. But what could he do when there were so many of us? We were afraid he was going to jump off the balcony," said Ira Ditrik, 35, to chuckles from the other woman.

"I guess it seems funny now. It's funny and it's bitter."

Captain Arkady Levkovich, the group's leader, produces a neat stack of documents -- telegrams and letters to and from various authorities. All attempts have run into a dead end.

"We want this to go to court. We could explain our side of the story -- how they threw us out of the service and why these apartments should belong to us," said Levkovich, one of three officers in the group.

Newspapers in Lida have reported nothing about the invaders, although their presence is well known in the town of 100,000, the center of which is dominated by a centuries-old fortress.

Officials are also reluctant to comment.

Regiment commander Colonel Valery Polikov, who is to leave Lida for Russia within months, says little when asked about the invaders.

"Naturally it's an awful shame to have to split up, move away. We had a wonderful set-up here. Few places can compare," Polikov said. He added that he had overseen the move of about two-thirds of his men to Russia and other former Soviet republics.

"There is a serious housing problem for servicemen transferred to Russia."

Ditrik, who has two children, accompanied visitors through her large two-room apartment, featuring beautiful wood floors and modern fixtures.

"I'll die before I move out," she said.

Neither she nor her husband work. They rely on her parents to help with food. Heat and electricity were turned on only in November, when the cold would have started bursting pipes.

Despite difficulties, none of the "invaders" seems ready to leave.

"My father served in the Soviet Army for 29 years and he still lives in a dormitory with a common kitchen and toilet," Ditrik said. "At least we're living now. At least we have a home."