On the edge of the Białowieża Forest – which borders the border between south-eastern Poland and Belarus – a group of seven Iraqi Kurds wearily heads for the Polish hamlet of Grodzisk.
The last kilometers of their journey were made from Belarus – making two round trips, sent off after their first and second attempts. Now a third time: through subzero temperatures, through the swampy terrain of virgin forest. Among them are two children: an eight-month-old girl and a two-year-old boy. When we ran into them, they were afraid to stand up and begged us not to call the police, whispering, “They are going to kill us.
The child was still, but not asleep. They looked like wax figures, their faces blank, even though a woman’s face was covered with bruises.
It is one group among the thousands of migrants trapped in a perilous purgatory ground between Belarus and Poland, as a gateway to the European Union, where they seek refuge and asylum. This door has closed, claiming the lives of eight known migrants so far. The right-wing Polish government has obtained parliamentary permission to build a Donald Trump-style wall along the length of its border with Belarus, and is patrolling the territory with a force of around 17,000 border police reinforced by personnel. military.
The Polish government argues that this is a deliberate Belarusian policy to undermine the southeastern border of the EU by encouraging refugees to flow. and journalists are banned. Crystal van Leeuwen, head of medical emergencies at Médecins Sans Frontières, told Guardian last week that NGOs urgently need access to the secure area so that migrants’ claims and international protection are respected.
The migrants are not only part of the fleeing exodus of war and other tribulations where they began their journeys – across the Middle East and Africa – but also pawns in a game between Belarus and the Poland. Many are drawn to Belarusian travel agencies, controlled by the authoritarian government of Alexander Lukashenko, who, as intermediaries, organize trips from the Middle East to Minsk, promising passage to the EU.
The Iraqi Kurdish group originates from Duhok, near the Turkish border. It is the scene of recent intense intra-Kurdish fighting and Turkish strikes against the Kurdish organization PKK. The mother of the children, Amila Abedelkader, 28, said the group was lured to Belarus by a travel agency that would organize the plane trip from Istanbul to Minsk and access to the Polish border.
Migrants are charged between € 15,000 and € 20,000 when they arrive in Belarus. Photos from the airport show their arrival dressed in shorts and t-shirts, clearly ignoring the temperatures that await them. They are then settled in state hotels run by the regime, from which officially assigned buses and even taxis transfer them to the Polish or Lithuanian border.
Belarusian border guards then push them past the fence. “Some migrants we saw had their faces cut off with barbed wire,” says Katarzyna Wappa, a volunteer aid worker. “We have amateur movies showing how Belarusians move migrants forward. The border guards stand there with surly attack dogs in full combat gear.
Abdelkader said his group made their first crossing to Poland in early October, but were forced to back down by guards. Trapped between the borders, they had nothing to eat or drink. “The Polish guards grabbed us and pushed us back. They said, “Go back to Belarus. And the Belarusian soldier said, “No, don’t go back to Poland. After the water ran out, my brother asked the Polish soldiers for water to drink. Every day we asked questions about the water. They say, ‘No, no.’ The guards refused to provide the baby with milk. The migrants drank rainwater or puddles.
It was their third attempt. It is not known if they have since succeeded.
But every morning we receive news on WhatsApp from the people detained in the cells of the border guards. Bulletins such as: “Yesterday a family and their sick son who lived with us were brought back by the police to the border. And: “We are so afraid to go to the border because my baby is too small. Please help us. “
Back home in the nearest town of Hajnówka, Wappa says, “We are creating a network, trying to do what we can, but it’s too hard to bear. People are dying in the forest and the Polish state offers no help other than bringing in more troops, rounding them up and deporting them to no man’s land. And if we reach these people, what can we give them? A flask of tea, warm clothes, then leave them in the dark and in the cold? “
In the forest last week, volunteers found Mustafa, a 46-year-old man from Morocco, taken in by a volunteer named Mila. Speaking Spanish, Mustafa told us: “As I made my way through the forest, I saw a man lying on the ground. I don’t know if he was alive or dead. I walked for two nights until I couldn’t go any further. I walked at night, trying to sleep during the day. I was in a vacuum.
“Belarusian soldiers beat people,” he continued. “They beat me in Belarus. There are gangs standing behind the army and attacking us. They beat you up, take your money and split it 50-50, part for the gangs, part for the soldiers. This border is like a river of death. What are you doing? Where to go, I don’t know. Mustafa’s fate hangs in the balance.
Once on the Polish side, the migrants are tracked down by border guards, police, army and territorial defense forces; in the Hajnówka region, practically one in two cars on the road belongs to the police. Others have darkened windows – protecting or smuggling migrants.
“We are in a fragmented and isolated world,” adds Kamil Syller, initiator of the Green Light project, which aims to put green lights in the windows to signify houses where refugees can find help, discreetly, and not be handed over to the police.
At Mantiuk Hospital in Hajnówka, a Somali boy tells how he saw his two brothers freeze to death. “It’s impossible to say where this happened,” he says.
“Apparently he’s losing touch with reality,” say the doctors. “He often asks, ‘Where am I?’ Refugees arriving at the hospital receive professional medical care, but the hospital is monitored by border guards, and as soon as a person’s health is restored, the guards take them back to the border and let them go. in the forest.
Medics on the Border, a group of medics with an ambulance, operate in “open” areas, but are not allowed in the no-go zone. When asked how they can be of help, they say, “We need zone passes,” says Jakub Sieczko, a paramedic. “But it’s impossible.”
“We do not have access to the forbidden zone,” explains an employee of the Polish Red Cross from the border area. “We cannot deliver aid packages ourselves.
Syller says the refugees freeze, succumb to hypothermia, and tremble with fear and cold. “Children have reactions similar to epileptic seizures. Suffering and terror here can only remind you of war, ”he explains.
Wappa feels that she “sees scenes like coming out of a war, but at least in a war, things are clear. “It’s worse, because here half of society denies what’s going on. They think it’s a big sham, that there is politics behind it all. People say of refugees: ‘Why did they even leave home and why did they take their children away?’ “
This land is anchored in a dark history of flight and deportation. And there are few more compelling reminders than in the village of Narewka, where a row of pre-WWII houses are adorned with enlarged photographs of Jewish residents who lived here until the Holocaust.
The photos show people posing in their best clothes: an elderly couple, an Orthodox family, a girl in a polka dot dress with bows in her hair, a sophisticated lady wearing a cap.
Now, in front of these houses in memory of the Jews deported from here, military and police vehicles pass, carrying migrants to be deported.