Poland-Belarus border: ‘People are dying in the forest’

Hajnówka, Poland – When Yousef*, a 48-year-old teacher from Damascus, Syria, heard through word of mouth that it was now possible to safely cross into the European Union via the Belarus-Poland border, he saw an opportunity. He immediately booked a plane ticket to the Belarusian capital Minsk. With a state monthly salary of just $30, barely enough to feed his family of four, he hoped this was his chance to provide them with a better life.

Leaving his family in Syria, he travelled in October with four friends to Minsk via Beirut in Lebanon. At first, everything went smoothly, and they easily made it to the border with Poland. But there the group encountered Belarusian border guards who aggressively beat them before shoving them under the barbed wire border fences into Poland. “They hit us, my friend broke his nose, they took our money, they took our passports, they took everything,” he says.

In the chaos, Yousef found himself separated from his friends and alone in Białowieża Forest, a sprawling ancient woodland designated a World Heritage Site. The forest, known for its wild beauty, can be unforgiving terrain, with long wet winters where temperatures regularly fall below zero degrees Celsius.

Yousef soon came across other refugees and migrants, who told him he was now trapped in an exclusion zone. This three-kilometre-wide zone was imposed by Poland in early September and runs along the border. It is manned by border guards who force migrants and refugees back to Belarus. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people are believed to be inside this zone, but as human rights groups, journalists, and citizens not local to the border area are forbidden from accessing it, it is hard to know how many people are trapped inside.

Yousef, 48, bears wounds from when Belarusian guards beat him [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Beaten by guards

Yousef tried to return to Belarus three times, but each time he was beaten with batons all over his legs by Belarusian border guards who then told him to return to Poland. He begged them to give him food and water, but they ignored him. “They don’t care if you live or die,” he says. “They have no empathy.”

Stuck in the forest and without any supplies, he drank from rivers and ate anything he could find on the trees. After three days on his own, he met a 22-year-old Syrian man. Wearing damp clothes, the two men held onto each other for body heat for two nights and kept moving when the sun rose. “We didn’t know where we were walking. If we sat down, we would die,” he says. “He pushed me and I pushed him.”

Finally, after five days in the forest, he saw two Polish police officers, who let him call the emergency services after explaining he had suffered from high blood pressure.

They don’t care if you live or die.

He clutches a crucifix as he recounts his story from Hajnówka hospital in eastern Poland, wounds still visible across his legs from where he was beaten. Yousef is mild-mannered and articulate with a good grasp of English, but his sentences begin to trail off as he recounts his experience.

As ventilators hiss around him in a busy hospital ward, Yousef sits perched on the edge of his hospital bed. He wears a pained expression and is still visibly in a state of shock. He is now desperate to be reunited with his wife and two children.

“I just want to go to Syria,” he says with tears in his eyes. “To the airport and home.”

After four days in the hospital being cared for by a kind doctor, Yousef’s physical health has improved. He is able to sit and has been given plenty of fluids. But Yousef is still scared because Polish border guards had come to the hospital before we spoke, asking to see him. The doctor can only turn them away for so long. For Yousef, this is most likely not the end of his ordeal, but merely an interlude, before the border guards, as they have been doing with other migrants and refugees, return him to the forest.

Yousef says it was God and his jacket that saved him in the forest. He will most likely be taken back to the exclusion zone if he is declared healthy by the doctor [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Hundreds of requests for help

In recent months, thousands of migrants and refugees have attempted to enter Poland via its border with Belarus. The EU, NATO and the US all accuse Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, of orchestrating the crisis by encouraging the flow of migrants and refugees to enter the EU via its borders in retribution for EU sanctions imposed on the leader after his disputed re-election last year and his crackdown on mass pro-democracy protests.

After the protests last year, more than 35,000 people were arrested while the country now has some 830 political prisoners. The European Commission has described Lukashenko’s strategy of luring migrants and refugees to the border with false promises of safe passage to the EU as an “inhuman, gangster-style approach”. The border crisis has led to at least nine deaths with the discovery of the body of a young Syrian man on Saturday, but numbers are likely higher according to humanitarian workers.

Poland’s response has been to create a state of emergency in the region, with an exclusion zone protected by 13,000 soldiers and border police. Since Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 it has pursued a tough anti-immigration stance. Diplomatic relations between Belarus and Poland worsened last year after dissidents of Lukashenko’s regime fled to Poland.

As the political standoff continues, thousands of women, children and men are stranded at the border. Border Group, a collection of NGOs providing support for migrants and refugees stuck along the border, receives about 1,000 requests for help a week. However, many people trapped in the restricted area have had their phones confiscated by Belarusian border guards.

On one side of the exclusion zone is a fence with barbed wire that runs the length of the official border, and on the other sits a de facto border line littered with checkpoints and guarded by Polish border guards, police and the military. The migrants and refugees come from a wide range of places, including Iraq (mainly the Kurdish region), Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, DRC, Cuba, Turkey, Sudan, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Senegal, Ethiopia and Guinea.

A Syrian man who now lives in Austria anxiously waits outside Hajnówka hospital to find out if his mother will be sent back to the exclusion zone in the forest [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘Nothing to eat’

At the hospital in Hajnówka, Mohammed Anwar Rasul, 26, from Sulaimaniyah in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, pulls the waistband of his trousers down past his hip to reveal deep scars running from his hip to his knee. These are the outcome of an ‘honour’-related feud that left him fearing for his life. After local police failed to offer him any protection, he decided to leave home to seek asylum in the EU.

He claims he was beaten, along with others in a group of about 20 to 30 Iraqi Kurds, by Belarusian guards before being thrown into the exclusion zone.

“They hit us with sticks of wood, they were kicking and punching us, not just me but also women and children,” he says.

Mohammed tried to enter Poland six times, but each time he was put in a police car and transported back inside the exclusion zone and left by the Belarusian border.

Sozan, who only wanted to give her first name, an Iraqi Kurd who came to Belarus with her husband to seek fertility treatment in Europe, says that the use of dogs by Belarusian guards to threaten and intimidate migrants and refugees scared her the most.

I am really scared to go in there again. I would rather die.

The 25-year-old was separated from her husband at the border and is now being treated at Hajnówka hospital, but she is afraid the border guards will return her to the exclusion zone.

“When I was there, drinking the dirty water and with nothing to eat, it terrified me,” she says, her voice still hoarse from extreme dehydration. “I am really scared to go in there again. I would rather die.”

Sozan is still exhausted from her time in the forest, and her sentences are drawn out. She is desperate to find out where her husband is, but she suspects he is still in the forest. With their phones having been taken by Belarusian border guards, there is no way they can call each other.

Mohammed, 26, is originally from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He escaped threats of violence at home but is uncertain if he will be allowed to apply for asylum. He ended up in hospital after slipping into unconsciousness while trying for the sixth time to enter Poland [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Treating medical emergencies

Dr Arsalan Azzadin, a doctor of Kurdish origin at the only hospital in Bielsk Podlaski, a town in eastern Poland, has been treating migrants and refugees temporarily allowed out of the exclusion zone for medical help since the summer.

He explains that many of them were lured by human smugglers who operate on both sides of the border into a “death trap” and told it would only take a few hours to reach Germany, where many wanted to go. This meant many were vulnerable and underprepared for spending days in the forest.

Migrants and refugees are often lured to Belarus by smugglers, social media posts and online advertisements, paying anything up to $14,000 for the journey.

According to local activists, it is those with less money who are then left in the exclusion zone; those who can pay more stand a better chance of being picked up by smugglers and transported through Poland into Germany.

Among the most common medical emergencies Dr Azzadin has treated are injuries from beatings, kidney issues and low levels of electrolytes from dehydration and drinking dirty water, hypothermia and skin conditions from walking in wet shoes and clothes. He estimates that he sees between two to five patients a day and they are always in a critical condition.

Mohammed, who went for days without clean water, recalls losing the ability to urinate, eventually passing blood. Only after he slipped out of consciousness during the sixth attempt to cross into Poland was he taken by the police to hospital.

Dr Arsalan Azzadin, a doctor of Kurdish origin at Bielsk Podlaskí’s only hospital, has been treating migrants and refugees since the summer [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

‘They didn’t want to let go’

Dr Paulina Bownik, who works at the same hospital and volunteers in her free time helping those who have made it out of the exclusion zone by evading border guards, says the situation is worsening. She recently treated two women who were brutally forced over barbed wire into the exclusion zone by Belarusian border police, as well as two women who had suffered miscarriages, one of whom was about five months pregnant, in the forest.

If this is not a humanitarian crisis, then I don’t know what is.

Many of the people who require treatment have spent weeks attempting to exit the exclusion zone into Poland only to be escorted back by Polish border guards to the official border with Belarus, where they are physically beaten and pushed back into the zone by Belarusian border guards. No one I spoke to reported any incident of physical violence by the Polish authorities.

Dr Bownik recalls an incident where she received information that a young boy in the exclusion zone had broken his leg and was in critical condition. Unable to enter the zone, she called an ambulance to the scene. When the paramedics arrived, they found that the boy had already been placed by the official border with Belarus and so were unable to treat him. She recounts the story with exasperation. “If this is not a humanitarian crisis, then I don’t know what is,” she says.

Once a patient at the hospital is declared healthy, Polish border guards will usually take them back to the forest, leaving doctors in a difficult situation. Dr Bownik recalls the two women she had treated being led away by border guards.

“They just held us, and they started to cry. They didn’t want to let go,” she says.

Dr Azzadin fends off the requests from border guards for as long as he can. “You can’t prevent the patients being sent back, but you can try to let them stay longer in a better situation,” he says, describing the situation as “unbearable”.

Dr Paulina Bownik often works two shifts – one at a hospital and one as a volunteer helping people who have made it out of the exclusion zone [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Activists fight unfolding humanitarian crisis

Michał Mikołajczyk, an executive board member at the Polish Red Cross, stops just short of calling the situation a humanitarian crisis. Still, with COVID-19 cases in Poland rising and temperatures now falling below zero degrees Celsius, he concedes “the situation is going to get much worse”.

Since the crisis began in July, activists and others wanting to assist from all over the country joined forces to help people trapped in the forest, providing them with food, water, warm clothes, nappies, power banks and other essentials.

One such activist is Maria*, a friendly, quick-witted Polish woman in her late 30s who lives near the border. A few months ago, Maria was leading a quiet life, working remotely due to the pandemic when she encountered refugees and migrants in the fields surrounding her house. Since then, Maria and her husband, Adam*, have dedicated themselves to helping people stuck in the forest.

Maria and Adam find many personal items in the forest that belong to migrants and refugees [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

On a recent evening, Maria received information from multiple sources that a man, possibly from Syria, required clothes, shoes and a sleeping bag. Armed with only a small torch, she tracked the location on the edge of the exclusion zone through the pitch-black forest, zigzagging away from the forest path.

Maria is brave and stubborn, often spending hours searching for those in need, but unfortunately, this time, the man no longer had any phone signal. As the damp cold air enveloped the forest, the chance of finding him slid away, and a frustrated Maria was eventually forced to give up.

These operations are mostly kept secret both for the safety of the refugees and migrants and for the activists who can face repercussions if they are suspected of helping them. For example, Dr Bownik, who recently spent six hours with a local activist group looking for a young Kurdish man who had reached the third stage of hypothermia, was asked to leave her previous role as a general practitioner by her then-boss at a clinic in Bielsk Podlaski.

Dr Bownik believes that although there are a lot of local people helping migrants and refugees, there are also many who believe them to be dangerous and would call the police if they spot any outside of the exclusion zone.

Michał Mikołajczyk at the Polish Red Cross says the situation is going to get much worse. The Red Cross is ramping up its activities along the border as temperatures start to drop below zero [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Demonising migrants

The right-wing Polish government’s rhetoric around migrants and refugees has been labelled Islamophobic and xenophobic by opposition politicians and large parts of the Polish media throughout the crisis. In a now-infamous press conference in late September, interior minister Mariusz Kamiński and defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak appeared to accuse migrants and refugees of paedophilia and zoophilia. They also claimed that a quarter of the people who were crossing the border “may have dangerous connections or have participated in illegal practices”.

Dagmara Sukiweicz, an English teacher who is Polish Tatar, a Muslim minority group that has existed in eastern Poland for more than 600 years, says that Islamophobia is a big problem in Poland. “I feel many people here don’t feel Muslims can be part of Polish communities,” she says.

Sukiweicz believes this sentiment is something the country’s ruling Law and Justice party has looked to exploit during the current crisis. By appearing to defend the country against an external threat, the government was able to deflect from a tumultuous summer that saw the party rocked by internal divisions and a diplomatic dispute with the EU over the government’s judicial reforms.

Dagmara Sukiweicz is an ethnic Tatar, the Muslim minority group which has existed in the region for hundreds of years. There is a Tatar mosque located within the exclusion zone which provides food and drink for migrants and refugees [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Less than 1 percent of Poland’s population are non-EU nationals, a fact that Dr Bownik believes has created a deep fear of migrants and people from other places. “Our government is using that before elections, and right now, they are saying migrants are dangerous and will attack us,” she says.

Shortly after the press conference in September, an incident occurred at a border guard facility in the town of Michałowo in eastern Poland. About 20 women and children asking for asylum were pushed back to the border. Through the fence, journalists recorded the scenes as crying children were led away by border guards.

Adam, who was in Michałowo at the time, says the incident started to shift public opinion and showed people what was really happening.

“The narration changed – this was not healthy young men, but families with a lot of young children,” he says.

After the incident, a group called “Families without borders” emerged to support those trapped in the forest. They now protest outside the headquarters of the Polish Border Guard in major cities across Poland demanding better protection for migrants and refugees.

Maria believes there is hypocrisy in demonising migrants, considering Poland has a long history of economic migration. “Many of our neighbours are in quite a good financial condition because they have earned money abroad,” she says, “but yet they can’t see there is no difference between them and other people who are looking for a better life.”

Anyone who goes near the Belarus border receives these automatic text messages. The reference to pills is related to a rumour that Belarusian security forces have given migrants opioids and psychotropic drugs [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Lured and misled

Many migrants and refugees were provided with false information through social media advertisements or directly from people smugglers who promised them a safe and quick journey through the forest.

A large proportion of the people Adam and Maria help are refugees fleeing war, violence and political abuse. But many of those who have grounds for asylum are unaware of their rights, and border guards do not inform them.

Dr Bownik explains that some of the people she has treated by the exclusion zone have been illiterate making an informed asylum application impossible. For example, she recounts a recent meeting with a group of Yazidi women who could only write their names. They were told by Belarusian border guards they were only 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) from the German border when in reality, they were more than 600km away.

“If you are a border guard, and you find someone in the territory of Poland, you should check this person’s identity,” says Adam. “Then if this person asks for asylum, the process should start.”

But Adam and Maria say they have witnessed incidents, some captured on film, such as the one in Michałowo, of people asking for asylum only to be returned to the exclusion zone.

According to Marta Górczyńska, a human rights lawyer based in Warsaw, ignoring asylum requests and sending people back to a country where they face danger or inhumane treatment violates both EU and Polish law.

Illegal pushbacks by Poland are not new. Between 2016-2019, thousands of Chechens, many of whom were fleeing persecution and torture, were denied the opportunity to apply for international protection at Terespol train station in Poland and placed on a train back to Belarus. In 2020 the European Court of Human Rights ruled these pushbacks illegal.

In 2019 I met with many of these asylum seekers in the city of Brest in Belarus. They shared accounts of how they were routinely mistreated, ignored and humiliated by Polish border guards when they requested asylum.

In early October, Frontex, the EU border agency based in Warsaw visited the Poland-Belarus border.

The agency’s Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri stated at the time that he was “impressed” with Poland’s response. Three weeks later, Poland’s authorities confirmed that it did not require Frontex’s assistance. Frontex has since told Al Jazeera that they cannot comment on the situation by the Poland-Belarus border as they have no operational activities in the area.

As the situation worsens, Yousef’s only wish is to be back with his family. He says he would never have travelled if he had known the reality of the situation. “Tell everybody, if you know anyone who wants to come here, do not come! Especially now that the weather will be bad,” he pleads. “People are dying in the forest”.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees

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