Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identity
Sokolka, Poland – When the 28-year-old Shirin *, an Iraqi Kurdish woman, crossed the border from Belarus to Poland with her seven-year-old son Ali *, she did not expect to end up unconscious and motionless in the ice-cold forest.
“I and my son only survived through a miracle,” said Shirin Al Jazeera the day after she was loaded into an ambulance from a hospital in a Polish border town.
Her body was covered with bruises and blisters from the cold.
“I will never forget what I saw in the forest,” she said. “I saw so many children and babies there. Their mothers screamed and prayed for a miracle. The adults could hardly survive, so what chance do babies have?
“These pictures will haunt me until I die.”
Shirin fled the Kurdish region of Iraq with Ali, their only child, and her husband Afran * on October 22nd.
But when the Belarusian police saw them trying to cross the border into Poland, they intervened and, they said, pushed Afran deeper back into Belarus.
Shirin crossed the border alone and spent 21 days with Ali in the forest.
“My son screamed, ‘Please, my father, please, my father,’ but we didn’t know if he was alive or dead. In the end we were alone, freezing, without food. “
Shirin cried and shivered as she told Al Jazeera her story. Both legs and one arm were connected. She couldn’t walk.
She still doesn’t know where her husband is.
“I do not know where she is”
Thousands of women and children have tried to enter the European Union by entering Poland in recent weeks as the migration crisis that began in August escalates.
Crowds have now been stranded between the border between Belarus and Poland. They traveled to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, with the promise to break through the fence and enter the EU country.
Poland and its Western allies say Belarus has encouraged people, mainly from the Middle East, to come to the country to push them towards the border and destabilize Europe – an act of revenge for Western sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s government .
There are no official data on the number of people at the Belarusian-Polish border, but Agnieszka Kosowicz, head of the Polish Migration Forum, an NGO that supports refugees and migrants in Poland, told Al Jazeera that “2,666 women are seeking asylum in Poland to have”. this year alone from a total of 6,697 ″.
She said that while women’s stories receive less media coverage than men’s stories, women make up a significant percentage of the migrant population.
“We know for a fact that women are present at the border based on daily testimonials from local volunteers.
“Volunteers talk about women who are so weak they cannot walk or care for their children, women who cry for their hungry children, and women who mourn lost babies – children who miscarried them or literally lost their children walking in the woods at night, ”she said.
Azin Govand *, a 27-year-old asylum seeker from the Iraqi Kurdish region who is now in Minsk, has not seen her three-year-old daughter Shewa * and her husband since the Belarusian authorities are said to have separated the family at the border.
At the same time, Azin said the authorities had pushed her back to Belarus.
“I haven’t heard from my husband and daughter for more than seven days,” said Azin Al Jazeera over the phone from a Belarusian number.
“I recently saw a picture on social media of a little girl wearing the same clothes as my daughter. The girl was lying face down near the boundary, ”she said. “It could have been my daughter. I do not know where she is.”
Kosowicz said several families had been separated at the border or in the woods.
This includes, for example, when a parent is hospitalized while the children are left in the forest, people get lost or people are pushed back by border officials on both sides of the border.
Amid the chaos, cases of miscarriages have been documented. Other women have been found with serious medical problems with young babies.
A one-year-old Syrian boy is said to be the youngest victim of the refugee crisis on the border. The cause of his reported death is not yet clear.
Nazanin *, an Iraqi Kurdish woman who was recently rescued from the Polish forests near the Belarusian border after a month there, told Al Jazeera that “only God saved her”. [seven-month-old] Baby from dying. “
She and her husband had fled Zakho, a region near the border with Turkey and Syria, after being exposed to gunfire and fire.
“The baby was frozen,” said Nazanin. “She cried every night because of the cold.
“We only had a t-shirt and sweater for the baby, no other clothes and no diapers,” she said.
“We were told the trip would be short and the food ran out quickly. We haven’t eaten for 10 days and ran seven or eight kilometers without shoes, ”she said, pointing to her frozen feet.
“All this time we had to drink dirty water given to us by Belarusian guards or water we found in the swamps. We were all sick. “
Karol Wilczynski, director of the NGO Salam Lab, which works against Islamophobia in Poland and helps stranded refugees, told Al Jazeera that he had seen several women and babies in need.
“The most terrifying and moving scene I’ve ever seen was that of a 49-year-old grandmother with her two-year-old granddaughter,” said Wilczynski. “When we found her, the grandmother was unconscious and was suffering from severe hypothermia – only 34 degrees (93.2 F) body temperature. As if by a miracle, the baby survived. “
He said an ambulance worker refused to send an ambulance and threatened to call border guards “to take care of the refugees.”
“We then called Border Aid, a group of volunteer paramedics who said the grandmother would have died if she stayed there any longer. I can’t imagine what would have happened to the baby, ”said Wilczynski.
He volunteered for Grupa Granica, an umbrella organization that provides help at the border and supported 1,000 people from November 8th to 12th.
“Of the 1,000 people, 10 percent were children and more than 25 percent were women,” he said. “Of the remaining 65 percent of men, a large proportion were at risk.”
Zarqavt *, 36, spent about a month in the forest with his wife Nazdar * and their three children, ages six, eight and nine.
The cold and lack of drinking water hit Nazdar, who collapsed and was hospitalized.
The children suffered frostbite.
“Even if we don’t know what to do with [Nazdar]”I thank God every day for saving all three of my babies,” Zarqavt told Al Jazeera.
“In the forest, I took off my jacket and put it on my babies. Sometimes I tried to make a fire, but sometimes it was too swampy and I couldn’t, ”he said.
“We saw a lot of women and children in the forest,” he said. “On the Belarusian side, the guards sold us food and water, but charged astronomical prices. They sold us a bottle of water or a biscuit for the kids for $ 50 because they knew the mothers would pay, ”he said.
Kosowicz said she was in contact with a woman who gave birth to premature twins after entering Poland.
“I also remember women who couldn’t walk a few steps from the group to urinate and women who were on their periods and couldn’t quietly attend to their basic sanitary needs,” she said.
“Every time we hear a new story, it’s dramatic.”