‘Worse than war’ — a dispatch from the Polish-Belarusian border
Urszula Glensk is a professor of documentary literature and literary criticism at the University of Wrocław’s Institute of Journalism and Social Communication. This piece was translated by Soren Gauger.
Hajnówka, POLAND — We’re sitting in a bright, cozy kitchen in a house on a peaceful street lined with pre-war wooden buildings in the Polish town of Hajnówka, near the border with Belarus. A young woman named Anna K. calmly relays to me what she saw in the forest — and then, she bursts into tears.
A moment later, she gets a hold of herself and says: “Don’t think we’re a bunch of crybabies from the woods. We really are coping here; we’re collecting things, creating a network, trying to do what we can, but it’s too much to bear, to watch. People are dying in the forest, and the Polish state offers no help apart from bringing in more troops, rounding them up and carting them back to no-man’s-land. And if we reach those people, what can we give them? A thermos of tea, some warm clothes, then leave them in the darkness and cold?”
The border here is dominated by a forest that stretches into both Poland and Belarus. Sparsely populated and a natural reserve, this primeval wood is now also the site of growing geopolitical and humanitarian crisis — a trap in which thousands of refugees from Iraq, Syria and Yemen now find themselves.
No one knows how many of them there are, but they were lured here by Belarusian travel bureaus, aided and controlled by the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The agencies are middlemen, organizing migrant trips from the Middle East, promising passage to the European Union. They demand fees of up to $15,000.
The migrant’s journey begins with a flight to Minsk; airport photographs show groups of these passengers in shorts and T-shirts. The next step is to set them up in state hotels managed by the regime, and a dozen or so hours later, they are transported to the forest at the border between Belarus and Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
There, “border guards violently shove them past the border fence. Some migrants we saw had their faces sliced with barbed wire,” says Anna K. “We have amateur films showing how the Belarusians drive the migrants forward. The border guards stand there with snarling attack dogs in full battle gear.”
After crossing the border into the EU, the migrants then press on through the forest, a muddy, swampy mire in many places, with no paths, just endless “frozen jungle.”
“It’s indescribable what’s happening,” says one local inhabitant and charity worker. “This is a special forest. I’ve lived here all my life, but I’ve never slept in the forest. Those people are going to have trauma for the rest of their lives if they manage to survive. In Greece, they went through similar things, but here, at this time of year. . .”
October here is very cold. Even when the weather’s fine, the sun does not warm you, and the evenings are dreadful — dark and cold. The nights are freezing. At any moment, the temperature cold drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile, in Poland the migrants are tracked by border guards, police, army and the Territorial Defense Force. There are now so many armed forces in the Hajnówka region that practically every other car on the road belongs to law enforcement. Their aim is to catch people, cart them away and push them back into Belarus.
To do this, they are using a pushback procedure that was “legalized” by a minister’s ordinance, followed by legislation passed in mid-October. A series of amendments to the law have since been introduced, but these changes involve breaking both the Polish constitution and a whole range of international conventions. The “legality” of this act is “legality only within the scope of this act, period,” said Krzysztof Pyclik, a lawyer.
At the same time, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government has set up an information blockade, barring journalists’ access to the 3-kilometer strip of land by the border. The area has been cut off from the rest of Poland, and a state of emergency has been declared. It is entirely off-limits to anyone who is not living there, registered as a resident or has obtained a special pass.
“We have no access to the off-limits zone, we can’t hand over aid packages ourselves,” says a Polish Red Cross worker from the border area.
“We’re a part of this parceled off, isolated world,” says Kamil Syller, a lawyer who started the Green Light project, an initiative that organizes people to put green lights in their windows to signal homes where refugees can discreetly find help and not be handed over to the police.
All information concerning the situation on the border is currently controlled by the government, which has been employing techniques of manipulation and propaganda. Endlessly pumping out a few familiar images, the government has portrayed Lukashenko’s regime as a destabilizing agent that is solely responsible for this catastrophe.
It has also glorified the efficiency of the Polish state, border guards and Territorial Defense Force. The images it offers show either armed officers standing in front of barbed wire strung along the border, or nocturnal thermal images of drone footage, displaying white dots on the move, like enemies in a computer game.
“In the state propaganda, the refugees are dehumanized and society grows accustomed to the government breaking the law and principles of ethics,” says Grzegorz Gauden, creator of the Book Institute, a national cultural organization.
Back and forth
At present, there are 17,000 officers guarding the Polish side of the border, and they are tracking down refugees who come near human settlements. Polish forces are also staging ambushes in the forest.
Anna K. says: “The suffering and terror here can only remind you of wartime. We are witnessing scenes like out of a war. But at least in a war, things are clear. This is worse than a war because here, half the society denies what’s going on, what’s taking place. They think it’s all a big sham, that there are politics behind it. People comment on the refugees’ situation by asking, ‘Why did they even leave home, why take their children?’”
The local community is among the poorest in Poland. The average inhabitant of Dubicze is 65 years old. The local inhabitants practically do not leave their homes, the streets are quite empty. Residents here mainly watch government-supported television, as the slow signal of independent television is too weak, and few can afford satellite television.
“Half of the local residents have an aversion to the refugees because they are manipulated by the hatred towards migrants from the Middle East in the public television and Radio Maryja propaganda, and they have no access to other media,” says a local social worker.
The local community is convinced that if they see a refugee, they must call the police. The person who told me this was unable to say if she had heard the information from an official source. “Everyone knows it, everyone says the same thing,” she adds.
A farmer from the Hajnówka region says of the refugees: “I’m seventy years old, and I’ve never seen the likes of it, they’re treating them like animals. The day before yesterday, they pulled them from an empty hut and sprayed them with gas. They’re torturing those poor people.” When asked why the border guard puts up no resistance, he says, “They’re afraid of losing their jobs. There’s no other work around here.”
In the zone just outside the state of emergency, joint police and border guard patrols are set up every dozen or so kilometers along the roads. If someone gets caught, and it is hard to imagine otherwise with such a tight network of checks, they are taken back to the Belarusian border and pushed across. No requests for asylum or pleas of starvation are any good.
Border guard cars also drive through vacated villages, then turn into the forest to drive to the frontier — not at the official crossing, but directly into the forest. Barbed wire is often found in these regions, as razor fences were stretched out practically all across the Polish side in mid-August. Behind the wires are white and red poles, then a cleared strip of land stretches for 10 or more meters, leading up to red and green poles on the Belarusian side, beyond which is another barbed-wire fence.
The migrants are pushed through in places where the razor fences have yet to be installed. They are pushed into that 10-meter strip of land between the lines. When asked where people are taken in the forest, Polish border guards curtly respond that they are left at the Belarusian border. They are officially prohibited from saying anything more.
On the other side, encountering Belarusian border guards could mean being beaten. They are sometimes robbed of their mobile phones, and the icy nights mean they are sentenced to die of cold and starvation.
The state of these refugees is desperate — I have seen it with my own eyes. They hide, they lay on the ground . . . A group of them were eventually spotted because a young boy was moving his hand, and the rhythmic movement was noticed between the trees. This is the way we found a group of Iraqi Kurds, including two children — an eight-month-old girl and a two-year-old boy — near the village of G.
They were afraid to get up off the ground and begged us not to call the police, whispering, “They kill us.” The infant was very still, though not asleep. Their faces were blank. They looked like wax figures, even though one woman’s face was covered in bruises. One man’s jacket was strangely torn around his shoulders, reminding us that on the Belarusian side, they are using dogs, as Iwona, a volunteer and resident from the village of N. has reported.
The migrants from Iraq told us their story: In October, they were “pushed back” to the border by Polish guards. There, they were stuck, guarded on either side by Belarusians and Poles. They finally managed to escape by paying off a guard. At the border, they could not move and received nothing to eat or drink. They drank from puddles or rainwater. Asking the guards for milk for the baby was in vain.
In an interview given two hours after the group was found in the forest, Jiwan J., born in 1993 and the mother of two children, reported: “The third time, we spent only two days in Poland, and the Polish guard caught us and we [were pushed back] to the border. And they said, ‘Go back to Belarus.’ Then, the Belarusian soldier said, “No, no, go back to Poland.’ On the border, when the water was finished, my brother went to the Polish soldiers and asked for some. We had none left. Every day we asked for water. They say said, ‘No, no, no.’”
State of emergency
“Some refugees,” says Anna K., “have been taken to the border a dozen times. They have been wandering back-and-forth for a month and a half. I ask every refugee I meet if they have been ‘pushed back.’ Only one person has avoided this procedure because they managed to escape. The people on the border will have no help throughout the winter.”
The volunteers are operating in an area that isn’t covered by the state of emergency and are trying to help those in the forest. They say that the refugees are freezing; they are succumbing to hypothermia and are shaking from fear and cold. The children are having reactions similar to epilepsy attacks. They are all soaked through, as they have been hiking through wet, swampy ground, avoiding the roads.
Asked why they couldn’t set up camp in the wilderness and put up tents, one volunteer worker responds that this would make it easier for them to be tracked and caught by border patrols. “When you go to give them help, you look around. Make sure no one sees you, or you might have some officers tailing you,” she adds.
In the hospital in Hajnówka, there is a boy from Somalia who watched his two brothers freeze to death. Anna K. says, it’s “impossible to say where it happened, because he can’t point out the spot. No newspaper has written about him because he’s in bad shape. Apparently, he’s losing contact with reality. He often asks, ‘but where am I?’”
She also tells the story of a 32-year-old lawyer from Egypt: “Ibrahim flew to Moscow, and he was supposed to have a plane from there to Brussels, but he was tricked. He ended up in Belarus. The border guards advised, best to sail down that river. Ibrahim drank water from the river and ate dates, carefully portioned out. He went six days without warmth or normal food. He wound up in the hospital in Hajnówka. He had been sailing with two friends, but they were nabbed and carted off to the strip of no-man’s-land.”
The refugees reach the hospital in a state of extreme exhaustion. Medics on the Border, a group of doctors with an ambulance, are operating in the open area — but they are not allowed in the off-limits zone. When asked how they can be helped, they say, “We need passes to the zone.” But this is impossible.
Volunteer doctors are currently helping the refugees in the forest. If their lives are in danger, they cannot take them to the hospital themselves. Instead, they hand the patient over to a state ambulance, which then takes them to the hospital.
On this particular day, the ambulance used by Medics on the Border shows up twenty minutes after receiving the call from the group from Iraq. Highly professional and sensitive, the doctors explain as much as possible to avoid increasing fear. The sick, bruised woman is immediately hooked up to a drip.
Iwona, the local volunteer, says that today they did an ultrasound of a woman who is eight months pregnant. The volunteers say that when they tried to call a public ambulance through the emergency number, the dispatchers refused to send anyone. The Podlachia emergency services will not confirm this information, however, and state that they bring help to anyone “whose life is in danger.”
Those who make it to the hospital in Hajnówka do receive professional and dedicated medical care. Yet the hospital is rigorously guarded by border guards, and as soon as someone’s health is restored, the guards take them back to the border and leave them in the forest. The medical personnel’s efforts to protect the patients are in vain, and the officers unconditionally prohibit hospital workers from giving interviews to the media.
In the place where the Iraqis were found, a volunteer comes around right after Medics on the Border, wanting to help in any way they could. About an hour later, several others from the Polish Border Group come to assist. It is impressive how they have managed to organize themselves in the course of just three months. They brought all the gear needed for warmth, clothes and food — all properly marked and organized.
The Border Group also brings the documents needed to apply for asylum, and it is legally prepared to conduct this process. Applying for asylum in Poland is risky, however. It forces migrants to show themselves, and the chances of being accepted are slim. The government is fiercely determined to send them back to the border. There is a greater chance of asylum procedures working when the media is there — television cameras in particular.
The group of Iraqis applied for asylum. They were then taken to a border guard station, and at 8:00 pm, there was internal information that they were in danger of being deported to the border. Within twenty minutes, volunteers and those who were legally conducting their asylum application appeared at the station. Their situation is touch and go, but they were able spend one night in a warm space — under arrest.
If a bureaucrat in Warsaw rejects their plea for asylum, this seven-person group of migrants will be sent back to the border, including the two children — the eleven-month-old Zheela Ashti and two-year-old Siraj Ashti — where they will be subject to the pushback procedure. They will be carted off to a place where they will have no water, nor any shelter from the freezing cold or rain.
Later, driving around the area, a wooden building in Narewka grabs my attention. It looks like a house from before the war, and there hang massive, enlarged photographs of Jews who lived there until the Holocaust.
From the front, from the street, the photographs show them in their normal lives, posing for the photographer in their best clothes: an elderly couple hugging, a three-person Orthodox family, a girl in a polka-dot dress with bows in her hair, a dainty young girl is holding the purse of a grown-up woman and smiling hesitantly, looking right into the lens. On the side of the building is one that shows black figures walking down the main street of the town. . .
I take pictures of the pictures. I stand there a moment, in dark rumination. I am finally yanked out of my daze by an all-terrain vehicle rumbling by. Refugees are being transported — the border guard station is just 400 meters from the house.
I am quite unable to fathom the course of this history. Where do we go from here?