After a decade of war in Syria, Boshra Moallem and her two sisters seized their chance to escape. Her brother, who had fled to Belgium years earlier, had saved enough money for her trip, and news spread on the Internet that a new migration route to Europe had opened up via Belarus.
But the trip turned out to be terrifying and almost fatal. Moallem was trapped on the Belarus-Poland border for 20 days, being pushed back and forth between armed guards on both sides in a swampy area. She endured cold nights, mosquitoes, hunger and terrible thirst. It was only after she collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration that Polish guards finally took her to a hospital.
“I didn’t expect this to happen to us. You told us that it is really easy to go to Europe, to find your life, to run [from] War, ”said the 48-year-old as she recovered this week in a refugee camp in eastern Poland. “I didn’t think I would see another war between the borders.”
Moallem is one of thousands of people who have traveled to Belarus in the past few weeks and then been pushed across the border into Poland by Belarusian guards. The European Union has condemned the Belarusian actions as a form of “hybrid war” against the bloc.
Originally from Homs, Moallem was driven to Damascus, the Syrian capital, by the war. She said Belarusian officials led her to believe that traveling to the EU would be easy and then used her as a “weapon” in a political struggle against Poland. But she also says the Polish border guards were excessively harsh, refusing their water and using dogs to scare them and other migrants as the guards kept pushing them back into Belarus.
For years, people who fled the war in the Middle East have made dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea to seek safety in Western Europe. But after more than a million people arrived in 2015, the nations of the European Union erected concrete and barbed wire walls, installed drone surveillance, and signed agreements with Turkey and Libya to keep migrants out.
The far less protected route to the EU through the forests and swamps of Eastern Europe only emerged as a route after the EU imposed sanctions on the regime of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko after a bad election and crackdown on demonstrators.
Suddenly people from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere flew to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on tourist visas, and then drove to the border by car – many apparently with the help of smugglers.
The three EU countries bordering Belarus, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, accuse Lukashenko of destabilizing their societies.
If that is actually the goal, it works. Poland refused entry to thousands of migrants and refused to apply for asylum, in violation of international human rights conventions. The country’s behavior has been criticized by human rights groups at home and abroad.
Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesman for the Polish special service, told the Associated Press that Polish armed forces always provide aid to migrants when their lives are in danger. In other cases, Zaryn insisted that Poland must assert itself and defend its border, even though it pains them not to help as it is targeted in a high-level stalemate with Belarus, which is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Poland is of the opinion that we can only stop this migration route, which Lukashenko artificially created with Putin’s support, by thoroughly securing our border with Belarus. It was artificially created to take revenge on the entire European Union, ”said Zaryn.
Human rights activists are appalled after six migrants were found dead along the border this week and young children were brought back to Belarus. They insist that Poland must comply with its international legal obligations to allow migrants to apply for asylum and not push them back across the border.
“It is clear to us that these are Lukashenko’s political actions against Poland and the European Union,” said Marianna Wartecka from the refugee rights group Fundacja Ocalenie. “But that does not justify the actions of the Polish state.”
Archbishop Wojciech Polak, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, also participated, assisting medics seeking access to the border to help. “We shouldn’t let our brothers suffer and die at our limits,” he said.
Lukashenko denies his troops are pushing people into Poland, but his state media have picked up on Poland’s reaction to portray the EU as a place where human rights are not respected.
After traveling from Syria to Lebanon, Moallem, who was an English teacher in Syria, flew to Minsk and from there took a taxi with her sisters and a brother-in-law to the border. Belarusian troops then led the group to a place to enter Poland.
When she told her story in English, Moallem said weeping that the Belarusian armed forces had told them, “It’s a really easy way to get to Poland. It’s a swamp. Just walk through the swamp and up the hill and you are in Poland. “
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“And when we tried to climb the hill, Polish border guards pushed us back – families, women, men, children. The children screamed and cried, ”she recalls. “I asked the Polish border guards: ‘Just a drop of water, please. I’m so thirsty. I was here without a drop of water. ‘”
But they would just snap back: “Go to Belarus. We are not responsible for you. “
This happened repeatedly, with the Belarusian troops taking them back, sometimes just giving them some bread and taking them back to Poland the next night.
During her ordeal, she made videos of the desperate migrants on her cell phone and posted some on Facebook. Her videos and her report to the AP provide rare eyewitness evidence of the crisis on the border.
Such scenes are largely open to the public because Poland has declared a state of emergency along the border after Lithuania and Latvia, preventing journalists and human rights defenders from going there.
Warsaw’s measures, which include reinforcing the border defense with soldiers, are popular with many Poles. The conservative ruling party, which came to power on a strong anti-migration platform in 2015, has gained popularity in opinion polls in the new crisis.
Despite Poland’s efforts, some asylum seekers have reportedly managed to enter the EU undetected and move further west, often to meet with relatives in Germany.
Moallem says she and her relatives plan to leave the center they now live in and travel across the EU’s open borders to her brother in Belgium. They want to seek asylum there. All she wants, she said, is for her family to be reunited and “safe” after years of trauma.