This article by Nina Boichenko of Political Critique was translated by Victoria Roberts and appeared on Transitions Online on October 8, 2021. It is republished as part of a content-sharing partnership and has been edited to fit the GV style.
The space between the Polish and Belarusian borders has become a place of refugees since August. Poland will not let them through, and tries to send them back to Belarus, but Belarusian border guards will not let them back in either.
In September, Nina Boichenko reported from the tiny Polish village of Usnarz Gorny, on the border with Belarus, before it became impossible to travel there. There, 32 people from Afghanistan were stranded in the forested no-man’s-land. This is the story of those people, and how human rights organizations and border guards battled over their fate.
‘No fooling around’
“Here are the satellite phones, which you need to hand over as soon as possible,” says the landlady of the apartment, pointing at the package.
We’re standing in a cramped room, with stuff everywhere. A cat has found itself a spot on a gray sweater lying on the floor. Another cat is twining itself around my leg. The woman is chaotically packing a suitcase, explaining what needs to be handed over, and to whom. This is the second Warsaw address we’ve visited, to pick things up on our way to the border.
“Look, here you go. The main thing now is the tech – the important thing is to be in contact with them! Travel carefully and take care – there’s no fooling around over there,” the landlady warns, as we leave and she closes the door.
I open the trunk and stow the two backpacks of warm clothes and the satellite telephones. We should have set out a few hours ago, but got delayed due to the volunteers’ requests to collect things to pass on.
It won’t be easy to hand over the satellite phones: the people in the woods are surrounded by border guards, who aren’t even letting the human rights people see them.
We get on the road and reach the highway 20 minutes later. There are five of us in two vehicles, and it’s a four-hour trip from Warsaw to the Belarusian border.
We get to Usnarz Gorny, in the forest near where the group of 32 people is stranded. It’s getting dark. We only have 10 kilometers to go. A border patrol appears in the oncoming lane, and a second later, they turn on their siren, signaling for us to stop. We pull over. After the border guards check our documents, they try to find out the purpose of our visit and why we’re in such big vehicles (we are traveling in minibuses with seats for a number of passengers).
“I’ll put it to you straight. You’re in large vehicles, we’re gonna pay close attention to you. Do we understand each other?” the border guard says, looking me in the eye.
“We’re just doing our job,” I answer.
“We’re doing ours, too,” the young man states, writing down our license plates, our personal information, and details of our mileage.
We drive on. A few minutes later, we get to the village. We stop in front of a store, and another patrol comes around the corner. The situation repeats itself.
The border guard asks exactly the same question. “Why do you need such large vehicles?”
“These are the ones we have,” I answer.
“You know, it’s not safe around here. You’d be better off going back,” he says, writing down our details.
“You don’t need to worry about us,” I reply politely.
I get out of the car. The small village has practically no lighting – there’s nothing but forest all around. There’s a tension in the air. Not so long ago, only one car a day passed by, but now there are patrols, media, and human rights activists everywhere, and the terrified local inhabitants.
In response to EU sanctions imposed on Belarus in August, Minsk began stoking a migration crisis on the Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian borders.
The plan is relatively simple. Minsk encourages those who want to flee their countries to come to Belarus. From there, they can cross the border into Poland and be in the EU. By offering its own territory as a transit zone, Belarus created a problem for the EU and a financial opportunity for itself, because even though it’s easy to get a visa to Belarus, it isn’t cheap.
Interest groups on Arabic-speaking Facebook give information about how to get to Belarus. The posts include a price and a contact telephone number. On their arrival by airplane in Minsk, the people are transported to the border, but they must cross it on their own. Some people get to the border under their own steam. The asking price ranges from $100 to several thousand dollars.
On the Polish side, they are carrying out an unlawful “pushback” policy, persisting in calling these war refugees “illegal migrants.”
Under the pushback policy, border troops force migrants and refugees to cross back over the border of the country they came from. The policy is a direct violation of constitutional human rights and the Geneva Convention.
If someone who has crossed the border has no visa, he is indeed an illegal migrant. However, if the person announces that he wants to claim asylum, then he does not require a visa. In this case, migration services are obliged to accept the person’s claim and begin verification procedures. Until the authorities make a decision on whether to grant or deny refugee status, Poland must provide temporary housing, food and drink. This is guaranteed under international law.
Nevertheless, the official line of the Polish authorities is that there are no refugees in Poland. There are only attempts to illegally cross the border by people who possess a Belarusian visa, whom President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will not let back in.
Accordingly, the Polish border guards are just apprehending people in the villages and forested areas on the border and driving them back to Belarus, breaking their telephones in order to prevent them from communicating or filming what is happening.
The Poles are leaving people in the middle of the woods or right in front of the Belarusian guards, who also force them back. And so on, in a circle.
Activists and migrants
Meanwhile the human rights organizations are also monitoring the border area, trying to find anyone coming out of the forest before the border guards do. When they manage to do this, they quickly take down personal details and case histories, and exchange telephone numbers. They also issue a power of attorney which makes the refugee a client of the human rights organization, meaning he gets a lawyer to defend his rights. In theory. In practice, the Polish border guards do not give lawyers access to their clients, destroy power of attorney agreements, and take people back to the forest.
The human rights organizations and activists communicate by megaphone with the people camping in between the borders, trying to pose yes-or-no questions. Sometimes they succeed in exchanging messages, but at other times, the border guards interfere, for example by starting up engines so that no one can hear anything.
The people trying to cross into Poland are mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Congo – others come from Somalia, Yemen, Egypt, Cameroon, and Tajikistan – who fall victim to Lukashenka’s scam and the Polish authorities’ migrantophobia.
Arriving at the border (for which they have to pay big money), these people had no idea that they were serving as tools for Lukashenka. They have no warm clothes, no medicines, no food. They have no contact with their family and friends, and no one to turn to for help.
They drink water out of swampy streams, and eat whatever apples and corn they find.
‘People have become playthings’
A group of young people hangs out in front of the local store. There’s a speaker on the steps and they’re listening to rap and laughing. These are probably the only people here whose behavior doesn’t indicate tension.
I buy some water and head for the car.
A couple of journalists come around the corner, talking loudly about the situation on the border. One of them almost bumps into a woman standing nearby, but manages to swerve.
Approaching her, I say, “There are too many people these days; it’s strange, isn’t it?”
“There are a lot. I haven’t seen so many people in years,” she answers. “At night, there are helicopters flying over, lighting up the streets. It’s eerie, seeing that spotlight.”
“Yes. It’s frightening that they’re playing with people. I don’t know who’s right, and I’ll never know. I only know that the people in the forest have become playthings, and that this is inhuman.”
Another patrol drives past us and slows down. The woman looks wary, but keeps talking.
“The other day, I heard a shot from the forest, and my knees completely buckled. I can’t stand this tension any more. Is it possible to resolve this conflict in a humane way?”
“Maybe,” I say.
“But will they resolve it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“How will it turn out?” the young woman mutters sadly. “Which way will it go?”
Washing their hands of the problem
At the end of August, Poland announced it would happily help Belarus and would supply the people in the forest in Belarus with everything they needed (while insisting there were no refugees in the forest in Poland). Warsaw sent a truck with tents, blankets, and personal hygiene items, and asked the government in Minsk to accept the aid. The truck reached the border and waited for permission to enter – at the same time as the Polish border guards were bundling people into Belarus. Meanwhile, the Belarusians were shoving them back.
We approach the border point, trying to find the aid truck. After five minutes’ driving along the line of traffic, we find what we’re looking for.
The driver is strolling around outside his vehicle, bored. I try to start a conversation with him, but he darts into his cabin, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Poland knows that Belarus will not accept help, but it’s not about the help; it’s about making the gesture.
‘As a human being’
It’s getting late, and we decide to stay the night with a local we know. We decide that if one of our vehicles gets stopped, the other will drive on and try not to lead the border guards to this person’s door.
It’s dark all around. We’re driving along along the village road behind our friend’s car. We’re going slowly so as not to run over an animal. There are a lot of deer here. After a minute, the border guards appear on our tail. They turn on the siren, signaling for us to stop. My friends manage to swerve, and we pull over.
There are four border guards. Two of them are fully equipped: vests, masks, and assault rifles. One of them, who doesn’t have a mask, is really young; he looks around 20. Another guard, this one older, asks for our documents. We hand them over.
“Where’s the second vehicle?” asks the border guard. “You had two.”
“It went on ahead.”
“Where was it headed?”
“We don’t know; we were following them.”
“Could you call them and ask where you were going?”
“We can’t, we don’t have a signal.”
The border guard takes our documents and goes to the car, while the two with the automatics stand by the side of the road. We hear the one who had talked with us trying to read out our details over the phone. They can’t hear him. There genuinely is no signal here, or only a Belarusian one.
Finally he comes back with our documents.
“Can I ask something?” I say.
“What do you think about all of this?”
“Difficult for you as a human being, or difficult work-wise?”
“As a human being,” the border guard answers. “Work-wise, too,” he adds, after a few seconds.
‘I don’t know what to say’
After we say goodbye to the border guards, we park outside our local contact’s house. There’s not a single lamp anywhere around, and the only source of light is the house, which is in the middle of the forest. The sky is overcast and it’s wet. It’s silent.
A man opens the door to us. He has melancholy eyes and a kind face. In the entrance to his cozy house, a big white dog licks my hand.
“I moved here a few years ago, for the peace and quiet,” our host says. “Only a week ago, the border guards were stopping by for tea, out of boredom. They were nice people. And now they’re thumping the car window with their rifle butt and checking my documents,” he says, serving us dinner.
“They’ve stopped us four times in the last 10 kilometers,” I say. “One of the last set of border guards was actually nice.”
“The one thing I don’t understand is why they’re carrying out these Nazi orders.” Angry now, the man puts a plate of pasta on the table. “Why are they forcing exhausted people to climb back over the barbed wire? Why don’t they refuse? After all, they won’t be sent to a tribunal for refusing. The pushback policy violates the constitution. What they’re doing is illegal. They took their oath to the constitution, not the authorities! Why does a man hold on so hard to his cushy job? Why is his salary more important than someone else’s life? Where is the border with humanity?”
“I don’t know what to say to you.”
“I don’t know myself,” our host says quietly, staring at the wall.
Seven in the morning. There’s a light mist, and our feet are already wet with dew. It’s cold.
The human rights group’s camp lies in front of us: four tents and 10 or so vehicles.
Right beside the camp, the border guards form a line, controlling access to the group of refugees. Just a few days ago, it would have been possible to approach this group of people, but now the activists have been edged out, so that none of those sitting in the forest can be seen.
One of the people from the human rights organization comes out of a tent, holding a mug and a steaming thermos.
“We brought you some things,” I tell her.
“Thanks. I’ll take them now.”
“How is it here?”
“It’s cold. All the people in the woods are already sick. Many of them have stomach ache, probably because of the water. There are swamps around here.”
Over the next few days, the woman from the Polish human rights organization Bread and Salt will tell me about finding a pregnant woman who had spent two weeks in the forest, or the diabetic man who fell into a coma – but the border guards refused to call an ambulance for him.
“People showed us their bruises from the beatings, told us how the border guards set a dog on them. But when they told the Belarusians that they didn’t want to go to Poland, and wanted to leave, the guards started firing shots around their feet, forcing them to go back over,” she adds.
At this point, we’re driving along the border. Behind the border crossing, Poland has already laid a barbed wire fence about a meter high. In August, Ukraine gave Lithuania 38 tons of barbed wire in humanitarian aid.
I stop at a place where the fencing is a little bent. I look carefully at the sharp blades, trying to find any trace of blood. Soon after this, pictures of human leg injuries started appearing on the internet. And a week later, the Belarusian border guards would put out the first video of the mutilated body of a deer which had impaled itself on the wire.
In and out
We drive back to Warsaw on an empty road. A few days later, the Polish government will declare a state of emergency, and the activists, media, and human rights people will have to get out of the border zone. Everyone will have to leave in a hurry, in order to be out of the area by midnight. There will end up being a traffic jam of activists on their way out of the area … and a traffic jam of soldiers and police on their way in.
On the same day the emergency is declared, a protest will begin in Warsaw. People will gather around the Sejm – the lower house of parliament – to express solidarity with migrants and refugees, while an activist group sets up camp and goes on hunger strike. Police will outnumber protesters.
The human rights organizations will unite into a single monitoring group, and continue filming events in the border areas that don’t fall under the state of emergency. Activists will travel through the border villages telling the locals how they can help the refugees without breaking the law.
All down to luck now
The emergency situation is still in force in the area around Usnarz Gorny. There are no longer any witnesses. Everyone has left. Only the personal factor is left: sometimes people somehow manage to come across more humane border guards who allow them to video what is happening. Sometimes they manage to get through, or get some water. Or sometimes they get a bullet at their feet – it’s all down to luck now.
On the night of September 18, the temperature dropped to 3 degrees Celsius, and the next day the Polish border service reported the first bodies, three men from Iraq.
That same day, information about the discovery of a woman’s body appeared in the Belarusian border service report. It was reported that at the Polish crossing point, not far from the place where the body was found, there were clear traces visible of a body having been dragged from Poland into Belarus.
The account of the incident stated: “Around the body, there were three children, aged seven to 15 years old, and also a man and an elderly woman. They stated that they had been forced to walk to the border and then cross the Polish-Belarusian border, at gunpoint.”