On the frozen borders of Europe with the migrants caught in a deadly game | refugees

On the edge of the Białowieża Forest – which spans the border between southeast Poland and Belarus – a group of seven Iraqi Kurds makes their way to the Polish hamlet of Grodzisk.

The last kilometers of their journey come from Belarus – twice there and back, deported after the first and second attempt. Now a third time: at minus temperatures, over the swampy terrain of the jungle. These include two children: an eight-month-old girl and a two-year-old boy. When we ran into them, they were afraid to get up from the floor and begged us not to call the police and whispered, “They will kill us.”

The baby was silent but did not sleep. They looked like wax figures, their faces expressionless, although a woman’s face was covered with bruises.

This is a group of thousands of migrants trapped in a dangerous purgatory between Belarus and Poland as the gateway to the European Union where they seek refuge and asylum. That gate has been slammed, claiming eight known migrant lives to date. Poland’s right-wing government has secured parliamentary authority to build a Donald Trump-style wall along its border with Belarus and is now patrolling a force of around 17,000 border police, reinforced by military personnel.

The Polish government argues that it is a deliberate policy of Belarus to undermine the EU’s southeastern border by encouraging refugees to flow in and reporters are banned. Crystal van Leeuwen, an emergency medical manager at Médecins Sans Frontières, said the Guardian last week that NGOs urgently need to get access to the security zone so that the rights of migrants and international protection are respected.

The migrants are not only part of the exodus fleeing war and other tribulations from where they began their journey – across the Middle East and Africa – but also pawns in a game between Belarus and Poland. Many are attracted by Belarusian travel agencies, which are controlled by the authoritarian government of Alexander Lukashenko and act as intermediaries, organizing trips from the Middle East to Minsk and promising transition to the EU.


The Iraqi Kurdish group comes from Duhok, near the Turkish border. It is the scene of intense internal Kurdish struggles and Turkish attacks against the Kurdish PKK organization. The children’s mother, 28-year-old Amila Abedelkader, said the group was lured to Belarus by a travel agency that would arrange travel by plane from Istanbul to Minsk and access to the Polish border.

Migrants are charged € 15,000 to € 20,000 when they reach Belarus. Airport photos show their arrival in shorts and t-shirts, unaware of the temperatures that await them. They are then installed in state-run hotels run by the regime, from which officially assigned buses and even taxis take them to the Polish or Lithuanian border.

Belarusian border guards then push them past the fence. “Some of the migrants we saw had their faces cut with barbed wire,” says volunteer Katarzyna Wappa. “We have Amateur films shows how the Belarusians are pushing migrants forward. The border guards are standing there with snarling fighting dogs in full riot gear. “

Abdelkader says her group crossed Poland for the first time in early October but was pushed back by guards. Trapped between the borders, they were not given anything to drink or eat. “The Polish guards caught us and pushed us back. They said, “Go back to Belarus.” And the Belarusian soldier said: ‘No, not back to Poland.’ When the water was ready, my brother asked Polish soldiers to drink some water. Every day we asked for water. They say, ‘No, no.’ ”The guards refused to give milk to the baby. The migrants drank rainwater or from puddles.

This was her third attempt. It is unclear whether they have been successful since then.

Zaynab Ahmad, 25, from Syria in the open migrant center near Bialystok, Poland. Photo: Kacper Pempel / Reuters

But every morning we get messages via WhatsApp from people who are being held in the cells of the border guards. Bulletins like: “Yesterday a family and their sick son who lived with us were brought back to the border by the police.” And: “We are so afraid to go to the limit because my baby is too small. Please help us.”

At home in the nearest town of Hajnówka, Wappa says: “We are building a network and trying to do our best, but it is too much to bear. People are dying in the forest, and the Polish state offers no help other than mobilizing and rounding up more troops and deporting them back to no man’s land. And when we reach these people, what can we give them? A bottle of tea, warm clothes, then leave it in the dark and in the cold? “

In the forest last week, volunteers found Mustafa, a 46-year-old man from Morocco who was taken in by a volunteer named Mila. Mustafa spoke Spanish and told us: “As I was walking through the forest, I saw a man lying on the ground. I don’t know if he was alive or dead. I ran for two nights until I couldn’t go any further. I went for a walk at night and tried to sleep during the day. I was in a vacuum.

“Belarusian soldiers beat people,” he continued. “You hit me in Belarus. There are gangs that are behind the army and attack us. They beat you, take your money and split it 50:50, partly for the gangs, partly for soldiers. This limit is like a river of death. What do you have to do? I don’t know where to go. ”Mustafa’s fate remains in the air.

Arriving on the Polish side, migrants are tracked down by border guards, police, army and territorial defense forces; In the Hajnówka region, practically every second car on the streets belongs to the police. Others have darkened windows – either for protection or for smuggling migrants.

“We are in a parceled out, isolated world,” adds Kamil Syller, initiator of the Green Light project, which uses green lights in windows to signal houses where refugees can find help discreetly and cannot be extradited to the police.

In the Mantiuk Hospital in Hajnówka, a boy from Somalia tells how he saw his two brothers freeze to death. “It’s impossible to tell where it happened,” he says.

“Apparently he’s losing touch with reality,” say the doctors. “He often asks, ‘But where am I?’” The refugees who reach the hospital receive professional medical care, but the hospital is patrolled by border guards and as soon as their health is restored, the guards will bring them back to the border and leave them in the forest.

Medics on the Border, a group of doctors with an ambulance, operate in the “open” areas, but are not allowed in the exclusion zone. When asked how they can help, they say: “We need passports for the zone,” says medic Jakub Sieczko. “But that is impossible.”

“We have no access to the exclusion zone,” says a Polish Red Cross employee from the border area. “We cannot hand over aid packages ourselves.”

Syller says the refugees are freezing, succumbing to hypothermia and trembling with fear and cold. “The children have reactions similar to epileptic seizures. The suffering and terror here can only be reminiscent of times of war, ”he explains.

Wappa feels that she “witnessed scenes like from a war, but at least in a war things are clear. “It’s worse because half of society here denies what’s going on. They consider all of this to be a great shame that politics is behind it. People say about the refugees: ‘Why did they move out in the first place and why are they taking their children with them?’ “

This country is steeped in a dark history of flight and deportation. And there is hardly a more convincing memory than in the village of Narewka, where a row of houses from the time before the Second World War is adorned with enlarged photographs of the Jewish residents who lived here until the Holocaust.

The pictures show people posing in their most beautiful clothes: an elderly couple, an Orthodox family, a girl in a polka dot dress with bows in her hair, a sophisticated lady with a cap.

Past the houses that are remembered for the Jews deported from here, military and police vehicles drive past the migrants for deportation.

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