Reporting from the border area between Poland and Belarus, where a migrant crisis has been unfolding since the summer of this year
Poland has become a hotspot of the European migrant crisis after people from the Middle East started flying to Minsk and from Belarus to enter the EU. The Polish government swiftly introduced a state of emergency this summer, restricting access to the border area for journalists and aid workers. In October, President Andrzej Duda signed into law a bill that enshrines the practice of pushing migrants out of Poland without giving them the right to seek asylum in the EU. The measure is considered illegal under international human rights and refugee law.
In this context, Polish journalist Rut Kurkiewicz-Grocholska from the Strajk portal travelled to the border area and shared pictures and emotions from her encounters there. The two recent peer-to-peer discussions on Cross-border talks about the migrant crisis can be found here and here.
I reached Hajnówka at dusk. A column of police cars passes by. One, two, three, four vans, and after a while – a huge military truck with a tarpaulin. The vans flash blue in silence.
I drive into a poor station to get a supply of cigarettes and a cup of coffee. The lady behind the counter is not expecting a crowd at this hour. She and her friend are scrolling through their phones, barely noticing me paying. I ask them how far away this state of emergency is and what they think about it all.
– It starts a dozen kilometers from here, but they’re here too, ma’am. Here in Hajnówka, although it’s far from the border. I live near the forest, I see someone walking there all the time. It’s these people. They are everywhere here. My son showed me on TikTok a boy from Afghanistan, I think, when he made a video from Hajnówka. He got through, someone came here for him. Am I afraid? I am a bit scared, but more of the atmosphere, of everything, than of the refugees. There is a lot of army, helicopters are flying low, there is a lot of noise. I feel sorry for the children, our children, because they don’t know what it is, they are afraid, we have to explain it to them. They ask if there is a war. You can feel that something is going on here for a long time. And these people? Well, they are people, too. When Poles went to Germany to work, nobody stopped them. You just drove off and that was that. They don’t want to stay with us anyway, so what, we can’t let them pass? This whole state of emergency is an absurdity. In Białowieża everything was closed, people lost their jobs, they had to travel further and look for something, and not everyone will find it anyway. Now after the season they will not earn anything.
She shows me phone with photos. – You look, it is here, in Hajnówka. The sun is setting, two military helicopters are hovering over the field, just like in Apocalypse Now.
I don’t have a place to sleep. I came spontaneusly, full of faith in my own luck and good people. I bounce off one door, the other is way too expensive. Third time – bingo, cheap accommodation from Booking.com. I am close to tears, because it is dark, I am alone and tired. On the way I passed more police patrols and military trucks, and a whole convoy. In the middle of the town, on the main street, they check two cars. Evidently this is no ordinary inspection, but a whisking fest, which has long been the order of the day on the outskirts of the state of emergency. The windows of my cottage are dark, no one answers the doorbell. I don’t want to sleep in the car so much. Then the key buzzes in the lock, I am saved. Cheap, humble, but clean room, nice owner. Panels, sofas and artificial flowers, a state of emergency around the corner.
– You know ma’am, I’m just scared. Do I know what kind of people they are? Yesterday I had such a situation, my husband was not at home, I was here alone. And four of them come, dark ones, none of them speaks Polish. Two of them addressed me in German. They say they want to stay the night, that two more will join them, at night they will go for someone, they will come back. Oh no, no way, I said. They get on the phone, they’re already calling someone, and this woman in Polish says to me that I should let them in because I have a hotel. This is not a hotel! This is a private house. Let me tell you, I was scared. Normally I was scared. But this Lukashenko is a devil, a madman, he behaves like Hitler, right? What is he doing? Let’s hope there won’t be a war out of this. Belarusian guards have just been shooting at ours. If our guards had returned fire? What would have happened? But I will tell you that our people have their own faults, they also provoke. My husband and I, we are Orthodox, after the Orthodox holidays something started to happen here. There is a lot of army, some manoeuvres. Poles also provoke, you can be sure. It bothers us a lot, absurdity follows absurdity. My husband is a builder, privately, he commutes to work. Now he had a job in Teremiski and they wouldn’t let him go. He came home several times. Because it’s too close to the zone. Here you have the keys, I always lock myself in now.
In the morning I get a message: „There’s action, we can take you”.
I go to the assembly point, to meet M. and K.. They tell me to leave my cap in the car. It glows red from a distance. Each of them has a huge backpack, weighing some 20 kg. They got a tip about a group of five people in need.
We have a location, we’re going. In the backpacks there are two bottles of water per head, a thermos of coffee, a thermos of tea, for each person a packet with socks, gloves, nrc foil, energy bars, power banks. The guys also carry a few pairs of shoes, jackets, some t-shirts to change into. The backpacks are heavy as we trudge through bushes, go through fallen trees. Sometimes the backpacks outweigh those who carry them. If I once thought that activism was a fun, light activity, I have managed to change my mind.
M.’s sweat is pouring from her forehead in torrents as she makes her way through the brambles and fields of nettles. K. walks more slowly, saving his strength. When we make a stop, he takes off his completely soaked T-shirt. – Only the wool works. The rest is not suitable. Cotton does not work, it will dry for hours – he says, hanging his wet rags on a branch.
The rest of the way we go on dry ground, walking over fallen trees or crawling under them. When we are too close to the road K. says: on the ground! We were crouching on the ground so no one would see us. Like we were on war. It makes me laugh a little and the whole experience seems unreal to me. Why do we have to hide? We are not doing anything illegal!
Activists who have been active in the topic for weeks, dynamically have to adapt to the reality and learn lessons. Because their main aim is, above all, not to harm, to help, and not to fuck up themselves. Initially, the procedures for relief efforts were different. Each group of foreigners encountered was reported to the Border Guard in order to get a legal representative and submit applications to start asylum procedures in Poland. This strategy proved to be ineffective.
According to the activists, the Guard rejects the applications, loses the papers and takes people back to the forest on the border with Belarus. It is practically impossible to ensure that asylum applications are accepted and procedures completed if the media do not accompany the intervention. Applications can easily be rejected and people packed into a green military truck again, then taken away in an unknown direction. Those we meet in the forest speak of even a few or a dozen pushbacks. There are dozens of such stories. People are pushed for weeks from one border to another. On the Belarusian side there are supposedly bodies lying around. On our side, in the zona (zone under state of emergency), probably, too.
We reached the pin with the location after an hour and a half. Something is wrong, they are not there, they changed the place, even though they were supposed to wait. We get another pin, hopefully up-to-date this time.
We already know that they are not far away. Maybe we will be able to reach them and pass on the help. We catch a ride and move on. I have completely wet shoes, I am terribly cold, I do not believe what is happening, for several hours I have been participating in something completely abstract. After a while one of my companions raises his hands in the air. Here they are, we have them!
They are sitting on the ground. They greet us, shake our hand and hug us. The guys quickly pull out things to eat and to change into. We are happy to meet, we look at each other, I smile at everyone, like some nurse in the war, I smile broadly and feel tears coming to my eyes. I am ashamed that we are meeting under these circumstances. There are five of them. Mustafa is the oldest, his name is the only one I remember. The others are maybe my age, maybe younger. They have fled Iraq and Syria. They hardly speak English.
The activists explain to the refugee boys what and how. They inform them that they are in Poland, that the services here are unlikely to help them, that they have to cope on their own, that during the cold night they should hug each other and necessarily warm their hands and faces. They say that there are no dangerous animals in these forests. That the roar of a deer is not dangerous, and no spider will bite them fatally. That if they encounter servants, they must ask for asylum in Poland, otherwise they will be sent back again.
I pour the tea and feel the great inadequacy of this situation. I should have met these guys on Tinder. I wish I could complain that when that Iraqi guy fries onions, it stinks up the whole stairwell. I wish I could meet them at a party and ride in an Uber with them, in line at Biedra. I wish that beautiful boy from Iraq, who just got a woolen hat from humanitarian aid, would correct it for himself because it’s terribly crooked. I’m shaking to do it for him, but I control myself and offer a cigarette. I have a can of coffee from the gas station in my pocket. The guys share this one can, and for a moment it is funny – sweet coffee, there are cigarettes, and we are sitting in the sun. In the backpack with the gifts is a warm earflap. – You look great – I say to its new owner. Another second of normality, we laugh.
I try to ask them questions through Google translator, but it’s not working out. They also want to write something, but they don’t know the Latin alphabet, so I end up typing „all the best” and Google says it out loud in Arabic. That’s how much they all understood, another second snatched from the horror and mess we are in.
I look at them. Five beautiful guys who represent everything worst to many people. Because women and children are capable of eliciting empathy from some. But they don’t – not anymore. Typical, young, strong, illegal, unwelcome, hicks, savages, let them go back where they came from. They have these cool clothes that everyone envies them.
Only when you sit next to them do you see that these beautiful, supposedly expensive clothes are already worn out from the road. Dirty from sleeping in the woods, torn from trudging through the brushwood, worn out from successive push-backs and days in the woods.
They have unloaded power banks, which they give to the activist boys, useful for the next ones in need. Their fingernails are black, and their hands shake before they warm up with tea. They have wet socks and no sleeping bag. I would go to dinner and ballet with them, and I have to leave them in the woods. We say goodbye, make hearts to each other in sticks; Stay warm, be safe, good luck. Mustafa says: Thank you. You are good men and good women.
We know they have been caught and taken to the border several times before. What will happen to them next? Where will they go? How will they cope? Activists don’t know and don’t want to know. They are „only” concerned with emergency relief, with saving lives, with survival in the forest. As Karol Grygoruk, a photographer, journalist, and activist said, they are a Band-Aid for an open fracture. Although they are not doing anything illegal, they are afraid. When delivering humanitarian aid, they rather avoid services that have long failed trust. Illegal deportation of people, refusal of asylum are constant procedures of the Border Guard, activists say. That’s why you have to go through the forest, go quietly, avoid the trails. I look at it from the side and see total paranoia and fear. But people I trust say it’s a reasonable strategy. Legal and safest for everyone.
Many people get hysterical at the words „Belarus” or „police”. They had been transported, beaten and robbed by the police so many times that they get out of their minds. – This is not the same hysteria as in Poland, this is such a terrible lament, wailing, crying and shaking,’ K. tells me, ‘Genocide is happening here. No law works here. A fox in Poland has more rights than these people. It is protected. And for the services they are just meat.
On my way back I pulled up in front of Biedronka. I sat in my car, dazed for half an hour. I cannot connect what just happened with reality. The weather is beautiful, golden Polish autumn in Podlasie. People are walking around dressed in festive clothes; it is Sunday. From church, to church, to Biedronka, and to the cemetery.
Children are riding bicycles, and not far from here, five guys are hiding in the forest and will fight for their lives in the near future. The nights are already very cold. The weather forecast says it will be 1 deg C in the morning.
It is still Sunday. Thousands of people all over Poland are coming out to demonstrate in defense of the European Union. They are walking out with flags on a cold evening, at the urging of Donald Tusk. – I felt obliged to raise the alarm at this critical, crucial moment,” said the former prime minister at a rally at Warsaw’s Castle Square. Critical for whom?
At the same time, I receive a notification that there is a family with children in the forest several dozen kilometers from me. They need help. The Border Group sends activists, and a Border Medics ambulance also goes to the site. They ask for the media to come, so that someone will look at the hands of the Border Guard, because only then is there a chance that people in need will get asylum, and not be taken to the forest. The message is dramatic, the condition of the children reportedly bad.
I put the location into the GPS and go. I forget the charger, I forget my headlamp. I have a few dozen kilometers to go, I will be riding for an hour. If I push it, maybe faster. I did not check the map, I blindly followed the pin. After a while the first police patrol stops me. Documents, please turn off the engine, open the trunk. Are you driving alone? Where are you going? Where is she registered? Where is she staying? You’re not carrying anyone? I’m struggling, I don’t know what to say. Finally they let me go. Time is running out, the road is dark and winding, 20 minutes to my destination. I enter the village and this time the Border Guard stops me. It turns out that the road touches the state of emergency zone and I have to cross it to get there.
Documents, where are you coming from and where are you going? Turn off the engine. I’m confused again, I don’t know if I can say what my destination is. In truth, I don’t know where I’m going myself, I can’t name the place. I have a pin and that’s it.
The border guards see that I cannot really explain who I am. They tell me to turn around immediately and take another road. There is no state of emergency marked on my map, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know if I will even make it there. With the help of a friend who hangs out with me on his phone and sends me links with maps, I figure out the route and take a detour. 40 minutes to the destination. I pass the police who checked me before, I say through the window that I am going back to Hajnówka. I finally got to where I should have been a long time ago.
There is an ambulance and a border patrol on the side of the road. I put on my press ID and try to look confident. Good morning, media, I pass them and turn into the woods. The family and the Border Patrol team are a few hundred yards from me. I can’t see them, it’s completely dark, the forest rustles. I am scared. I called the team to ask someone to come out for me. “Help yourself, I am here for the first time, too. We are on the left side of the road, you will find us, get into those bushes,” said K. I know they are somewhere nearby, I can see the location, but I am afraid to turn on the flashlight on my phone. Maybe the Border Guard had already found the group?
After a while I find a small light in the darkness in the forest. I blindly go through the bushes. There they are. In the light of Maciek Piasecki’s, a fellow journalist, cameraI see four children, two men and a woman. The smallest baby is a few months old, his diaper soaked through. A lawyer from the Border Group is rummaging through a pile of rags. She searches for hats, scarves, and warm jackets to put on the children. Two girls of an early preschool age and a boy. Chaos. A toddler is crying, he needs to be changed, in this cold.
The men are talking in raised voices, K. is talking to them, they barely communicate in broken English. They come from Iraq. They have been wandering in the woods for a month; they are in this place for the fourth time. All of them have already been examined by medics, fortunately they are in good condition, no one needs to be hospitalized. The children were given sweets and fruit mousse. While dressing the children, the lawyer jokes: – Who packed this parcel, these are all unhealthy things.
Medics brought fleece blankets from the Red Cross. We wrap the little ones in them. They look like they’re just out of the bath, in big white towels. M. appears. He is calm and knows what to do. He starts playing ku-ku with the children, they hide under the blanket, giggling.
The father of the family, Mr. Izmail asks to be recorded, he wants to say something. He will speak in Arabic, his English is too weak. I record. Mr. Izmail gestures, speaks quickly and nervously. His wife stands beside him with a baby in her arms. She has a big pink hat, a gorgeous face and is totally lost. Then a second man wants to say something to the camera. The footage will be cut off because my phone falls off from the cold.
Two days later I will ask my friends to translate the recording for me. Rami was also a refugee, he comes from Palestine, but he manages to translate from Iraqi Arabic dialect to English. His wife sent me the text. She said that Rami was totally devastated.
Someone is coming. We see flashing flashlights. It is the Border Police. Three officers and one territorial army soldier in full gear. Helmet, masked face, uniform and a perfectly shiny rifle on his chest. He is very tall and stares at us without saying a word. I sit on the ground next to Mr. Izmail, he whispers to me in a panic: Police? Belarus? No! I want to stay in Poland. I try to calm him down, but I do not know what will happen.
K. talks to the border guards. He is getting on his nerves as this is not his first action and he knows what to do. It gets uncomfortable, the guards get tense, K. raises his voice. Suddenly, the phone rings for one of the guards. His ringtone is Nirvana, “The man who sold the world”. Maciek makes a live broadcast, several hundred people are watching us. In front of the cameras, the family asks for asylum in Poland and international protection. They sign powers of attorney from lawyers of the Granica Group. The guards have to identify themselves and the place where they will take the Iraqis. The lawyer tries to defuse the situation, but the border guards let it go. – We are just cogs in the machine, not everything depends on us. Cogs that do a lot of harm – says K. – Not only, not only, sir. We are also trying to help. Let’s go to the car, how much longer are these children going to freeze here? – says the guard.
The rally in defense of the rule of law and humanism of the European Union is long over. They will go to the facility in Mielnik, where we have been promised that they can apply for international protection in the presence of an interpreter. This will be the first night in a month that they will spend in the warmth.
I want to leave now. On my way back I met Małorzata, who lives in the zone, 800 meters from the border, at a gas station. Is there razor wire? She doesn’t know because she was afraid to approach. She has already heard gunshots and barking dogs several times. Police patrols with a barker and an eerie emergency message drive by her house, soldiers and guards with long guns march by. Since the state of emergency was imposed, she has not been able to invite guests, and the forest that was her home has been taken away from her because she is afraid to move freely through it. She is ready to bring help if needed. She knows what to do and is not afraid. The gas station worker thinks differently. From the moment she enters, she starts the subject herself.
– There are these, excuse me, hicks walking around. Today two of them came. Elegant, with documents, with everything, but still I was terribly scared, I am alone at this station. Do you know why they are here? They come for their own. Apparently they have residence cards or citizenships, because otherwise a mouse can’t get through here. You know, the residents themselves complain about these inspections. I’m afraid of them. I don’t want them here, I don’t know these people. I’ve already heard about break-ins, at my neighbor’s house two people came into the yard, they were sitting there, they wanted food. There was a break-in at another neighbor’s house too, into the summer kitchen. They took only the food, left everything else. I wouldn’t let them into my house, because I wouldn’t, but if someone came to me hungry? Feed the hungry, that’s how my mother taught me.
The government voted to extend the state of emergency for another 60 days. The Senate rubber-stamped the pushbacks with votes from both the ruling party and some of the democratic opposition. Demonstrations over human rights violations are getting smaller instead of bigger.
Winter is coming. Nobody has any idea how to stop the death games that are taking place on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Every day the Border Group receives at least a few or a dozen reports of people in need of help along the entire length of the Belarusian border.