Beatings, canine bites, and barbed wire: life and loss of life on the Poland-Belarus border

Beatings, canine bites, and barbed wire: life and loss of life on the Poland-Belarus border

Poland’s defence, inside and overseas ministers lined up in entrance of a tall, metallic wall topped with barbed wire. Talking to assembled tv cameras, the three males warned of a horrible plot in opposition to Poland, orchestrated within the Kremlin.

The Russian plan to sow discord and chaos in Poland had been foiled solely as a result of the patriotic Polish authorities had constructed the wall behind him, mentioned the overseas minister, Zbigniew Rau. The weapons on this “particular operation” weren’t tanks or bombs, he prompt, however folks from the Center East and Africa.

“In any other case, we might have change into Lampedusa, however a Lampedusa crammed with migrants who had been given army coaching. Ninety per cent of them, then and now, have been recruited by the Russian particular companies,” Rau claimed, falsely.

Job completed, the three ministers headed again to Warsaw. Their speeches had been fed into the each day churn of migration scare-stories on pro-government tv. The temperature rises every week, as Poland enters the closing section of a intently contested election marketing campaign.

A bit of Poland’s border wall with Belarus, bolstered with barbed wire on the high and backside. {Photograph}: Kasia Strek

That very same night in late August, on the opposite aspect of the border wall, the well being of 20-year-old Sadia Mohamed Mohamud was deteriorating. By then, Sadia had been caught within the skinny strip of land between the 2 border fences, Polish and Belarusian, for nearly a month, along with just a few fellow Somalis additionally attempting to get to the EU. Sadia advised the others she had left her conflict-torn house nation within the hope of incomes cash in Europe to supply an honest life for her two younger youngsters, who remained in Mogadishu.

Talking by phone from Belarus, one other man from the group mentioned that on one event a few of them had made it on to Polish territory via a gap reduce within the border fence. Border guards materialised virtually immediately. One of many guards beat Sadia on the shoulders, shouting at her in English: “Why did you come right here?”

The Polish guards unlocked a gate within the wall and shoved Sadia and the others again to the opposite aspect. The group retreated via no man’s land, solely to achieve one other fence. There, Belarusian border guards threatened them with canines and batons, ordering them to show again in direction of Poland. Sadia later made it into Poland a second time, however was once more swiftly apprehended by Polish border guards and pushed again.

Barred from getting into the EU but additionally blocked from returning to Belarus, the group was caught within the gray zone in between, with minimal meals and shelter and no clear water. Everybody was weak, however Sadia was within the worst state. A video taken by one of many group within the forest reveals her wrapped in a sleeping bag, barely aware.

On 10 September, the group once more begged the Belarusian guards to allow them to out, telling them that Sadia was dying. Lastly, the guards relented. One other Somali girl took Sadia, wrapped in a white blanket, by automobile to a home exterior Minsk they’d been advised was protected. An ambulance was known as. By now, Sadia was unable to talk, barely capable of open her eyes and gurgling up blood.

By the point the paramedics arrived, she was lifeless.

The background

The disaster on the border started in autumn 2021. A yr earlier, the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had crushed mass protests in opposition to his rule with brutal violence, resulting in a collapse in relations with the EU and the imposition of sanctions on his regime.

In return, Lukashenko threatened to flood Europe with “medicine and migrants”. He quickly made good on his promise. Flights sprung up from Center Jap cities to Minsk, bringing susceptible individuals who had been offered the concept of a straightforward path to Europe.

As a substitute, they discovered themselves caught in considered one of Europe’s final primeval forests, which grew to become a hellish no man’s land between a dictator bent on utilizing them as political pawns and a authorities decided to maintain them out.

Soldiers from the Polish Armed Forces patrol the Belarus-Polish border on November 11, 2021 in Kuznica, Poland.
Troopers from the Polish Armed Forces patrol the Belarus-Polish border on November 11, 2021 in Kuznica, Poland. {Photograph}: Getty Pictures

In response to the preliminary disaster, the Polish authorities introduced the development of the border barrier, 5.5 metres excessive and stretching for 186km. It was accomplished final summer time. Poland’s authorities incessantly factors to the catastrophic scenario within the Mediterranean and claims it has solved its personal migration situation with the wall. The truth is, humanitarian organisations say the construction has solely elevated struggling whereas doing little to cease the motion of individuals.

On 15 October, Poles will vote in a knife-edge parliamentary election. The ruling Regulation and Justice celebration – whose chair as soon as accused migrants of bringing “parasites and protozoa” to Europe – has been upping the anti-migration rhetoric as soon as once more, within the hope of boosting assist amongst its core base and successful one other time period.

Within the days after Sadia died, the night information on Poland’s government-controlled tv once more featured tales of invading hordes of migrants laying siege to Europe.

One Regulation and Justice marketing campaign advert interspersed footage of burning vehicles and violence in western Europe with the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki taking selfies alongside smiling Poles. Because of Regulation and Justice, mentioned Morawiecki, in Poland there have been “no districts filled with unlawful immigrants … No horror districts”.

The activists

The emergency name got here shortly earlier than nightfall, just a few hours after the three ministers had recorded their speeches on the border. At a base in a secret forest location, a gaggle of humanitarian workerscrammed scorching soup, tea, garments and medical provides into backpacks.

Dominika Ożyńska, a Polish humanitarian employee and Liz, a German physician taking a break from her hospital job again house, set off amid the fading gentle by automobile, in direction of the GPS location pin they’d obtained.

They parked on the nearest level to the pin and continued on foot via the darkening forest, clambering over fallen trunks and protruding branches till they reached the spot. They used no gentle, in order to not appeal to the eye of border guards, police or troopers. Finally, they discovered the eight Syrian males who had summoned their assist, exhausted and disoriented.

A woman stands in a dark storage room with shoes on shelves behind her
Dominika Ozynska, a Polish humanitarian employee, in a storage room in a village close to Białowieża the place primary provides are stored for individuals who name for assist from the forest. {Photograph}: Kasia Strek

One of many males apologised for the group’s look in Europe, as if pre-empting judgemnt. “We wish to work, we’ll work,” he mentioned. Dominika assured them they’d nothing to apologise for as she handed out cups of tea.

The boys had been stranded within the forest for weeks, and this was the fifth time they’d crossed into Poland, after 4 pushbacks to Belarus. This time, although, the group had managed to evade the warmth sensors and troopers stationed on the border, and had made it deeper into Poland. Lastly, they had been capable of ship a pin to an SOS quantity to summon assist from Polish activists.

These forest missions are identified by the activists as “interventions”, they usually started two years in the past as an advert hoc response to the rising disaster. Nowadays, the procedures for interventions are extra formalised, however main worldwide NGOs are nonetheless absent from the border space. As a substitute, the burden falls on small Polish rights organisations, big-hearted locals and volunteers. By now, a lot of them are exhausted and burned out.

Each intervention is completely different: some folks want meals or new footwear; others are moments away from dying. For the reason that wall was constructed, there are extra frequent critical accidents that require hospitalisation: damaged pelvises and legs, or extreme concussion.

Typically, psychological trauma and panic assaults are added to the combination. Individuals have been warned the journey might be laborious earlier than setting out. However little can preparethem for what it’s actually prefer to be caught in a forest for weeks on finish, ingesting from swamps and sleeping on chilly, mossy floor amid the bugs and ticks. It may possibly ship the hardest individual right into a spiral.

Most people who find themselves nonetheless able to strolling don’t want official medical assist, as a result of they know that with the ambulance comes the border guards, who would possibly push them again to Belarus once more, or throw them into considered one of Poland’s closed detention centres. So the activists do what they will to patch them up on the spot and ship them on their approach.

On this explicit night, Liz, who didn’t need her surname to be revealed, set to work evaluating the Syrian group’s medical wants. She discovered a reasonably normal assortment of illnesses. One man had excessive ache in his ribs, most likely a fracture from a beating administered by border guards. One other had a deep reduce on his leg, sliced open when he fell from the border fence on to barbed wire, not too long ago positioned on the backside in addition to the highest of the wall by Polish border guards. A 3rd had an abscess the dimensions of an egg on his knee, from a small reduce that had change into contaminated throughout weeks within the forest.


In a hospital setting, Liz would have ordered scans, stitches and surgical procedure. Within the forest gloom, she may solely provide bandages, painkillers and antibiotics.

It’s authorized in Poland to provide meals and medical assist to these in want, butagainst the legislation to supply transport to individuals who authorities say have crossed the border illegally. So after a few hours, Liz and Dominika wished the eight Syrian males the very best of luck on their onward journey, and left them alone within the eerie forest evening. The help employees by no means know if the folks they’ve helped will make it out of the forest alive.

“It’s all a bit summary while you learn an article at house. And then you definitely come right here and this disaster will get a face,” mentioned Liz, in an interview on the base two days later. “I really feel a variety of rage and anger in direction of the entire scenario. In the direction of Poland, in direction of Europe.”

The dictator

Lukashenko’s regime continues to exacerbate the disaster, permitting folks to enter Belarus after which giving them gear to assist them get into Poland.

“The Belarusian troopers give folks particular instruments for slicing the barbed wire, and issues to dig a gap beneath the fence,” mentioned Katarzyna Zdanowicz, the spokesperson for the regional border guard service, in an interview in her workplace in a fortified compound within the metropolis of Białystok.

By mid-August this yr, the digital sensors on the wall had logged greater than 20,000 crossing makes an attempt for 2023 thus far, up from 16,000 whole makes an attempt in 2022, mentioned Zdanowicz.

Katarzyna Zdanowicz
Katarzyna Zdanowicz, the spokesperson for the regional border guard service on the Polish aspect of the border, says greater than 20,000 folks have tried to cross the border thus far this yr, up from 16,000 makes an attempt final yr. {Photograph}: Kasia Strek

Lukashenko’s function as a supporter of Russia’s struggle in Ukraine has additional escalated rigidity. After the failed mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin, troops from his Wagner group relocated to Belarus over the summer time. Lukashenko “joked” in regards to the Wagner fighters planning to invade Poland. In late July, three Belarusian army helicopters flew over the border city of Białowieża.

In response, Poland ordered an additional 10,000 troops to the border area. Up to now, Wagner troops haven’t come near the border, however the extra troopers make it even more durable for individuals who make it over the wall to cross additional into Poland undetected. Most roads near the border have police checkpoints, the place officers cease vehicles and scan the pores and skin color of the passengers.

This has led to extra pushbacks, in addition to far more testimony of violence from Polish border guards. Zdanowicz mentioned border guards wouldn’t push again an individual who had claimed asylum in Poland, and likewise denied there had been any case of unprovoked violence from border guards. Activists say each of those claims are unfaithful.

Members of a Kurdish family from Dohuk in Iraq are seen in a forest near the Polish-Belarus border while waiting for the border guard patrol, near Narewka, Poland, on November 9, 2021.

Members of a Kurdish household from Dohuk in Iraq are seen in a forest close to the Polish-Belarus border whereas ready for the border guard patrol, close to Narewka, Poland, on November 9, 2021.
{Photograph}: Wojtek Radwański/AFP/Getty Pictures

For the folks pushed again to Belarus, or stranded between the 2 partitions, there may be virtually nobody to show to for assist. Belarusian border guards incessantly set canines on folks attempting to return to Belarus after failed crossings; many individuals return to Minsk with leg wounds from canine bites.

The election

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine final February, Poland has welcomed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. Authorities and the overall inhabitants got here collectively in a response crammed with compassion and generosity to supply shelter and assist to fleeing Ukrainians.

For the a lot smaller numbers of individuals coming from additional away, and with a distinct pores and skin color, the message stays very completely different.

“From the start the entire thing has been portrayed as a safety risk as a substitute of a human story,” mentioned Ala Qandil, of Grupa Granica, the most important umbrella group of activists and humanitarian employees on the border. “We simply need the folks crossing the border to be seen as human beings.”

People carrying packs of water bottles
Volunteers and activists from Grupa Granica organise provides together with water bottles to provide to folks within the forest. {Photograph}: Kasia Strek

As a substitute, the dehumanisation is growing. On the identical day because the parliamentary election, Poles might be requested to vote in a referendum. One query will ask in the event that they want to take away the border wall. One other asks: “Do you assist the admission of hundreds of unlawful immigrants from the Center East and Africa?”

In latest days, the information on government-controlled TVP has been introduced stay from Lampedusa, the place correspondents clarify the distinction between Europe’s normal migration coverage and Poland’s robust stance on the border. The ticker headline to a migration story on the tv information one latest night comprised a single phrase: “Invasion”.

It’s an unsubtle try by the Regulation and Justice celebration to mobilise its base for an election that’s prone to be so shut that it may activate a tiny variety of voters. Eager to not seem smooth on migration, the principle opposition coalition, led by former European Council president Donald Tusk, has determined to increase one foot onto the federal government’s turf.

“By no means in historical past have Poland’s borders been so open to authorized and unlawful migrants,” mentioned Tusk, accusing the ruling celebration of speaking robust whereas stealthily letting in migrants.

Kamil Syller, an activist who lives in a small village near the border, mentioned he was notably disheartened by Tusk’s dabbling within the rhetoric of the appropriate. “We had been upset and terrified by their change of language. The politicians take a look at this disaster as a political goldmine and all of them attempt to use it,” he mentioned in an interview at his house, a up to date farmhouse set amid bucolic fields.

In border communities like Syller’s, many individuals have proven solidarity to folks passing via. In 2021, Syller and his spouse arrange the “inexperienced gentle” motion, wherein a community of sympathetic locals put in inexperienced lights exterior their houses to point locations the place folks on the transfer may search assist.

Some locals had been initially scared, mentioned Syller, however after interactions with folks looking for assist realised they weren’t evil invaders however merely susceptible folks in want of assist.

Kamil Syller
Kamil Syller lives near the border with Belarus and arrange the ‘inexperienced gentle’ motion to assist folks passing via his village after crossing into Poland. {Photograph}: Kasia Strek

“Lots of my neighbours was aggressive, however over time they understood the sadistic nature of the border guards, they began wanting to assist. Now, in the event that they discover individuals who need assistance, a few of them name me as a substitute of calling the border guards,” he mentioned.

However after two years of the disaster, many within the border area have grown weary of the elevated army presence, and annoyed on the lower within the variety of vacationers visiting the forest. Syller fears attitudes would possibly change quickly, particularly with the each day election propaganda concentrating on migrants.

“We see disgusting, dehumanising propaganda each night, it’s pure propaganda from the darkest moments of the 20 th century,” mentioned Franek Sterczewski, an opposition MP who has supported activists on the border. “Sadly, the propaganda of worry usually works.”

The lacking

On a sultry afternoon in late August, Mariusz Kurnyta, a wiry 36-year-old with a fortnight of stubble, got down to search for a physique.

Mariusz, who goes by the nickname “Man of the Forest”, crowdfunds the work he does on the border. In latest months, he has patched up accidents, fitted intravenous fluid drips in forest clearings, hauled dying folks out of swamps and helped lots of extra on their approach with water, soup and a change of garments.

“For the final two years, my life is the forest. I don’t have one other life,” he mentioned, puffing on a cigarette as he ready to depart from his base. He has fallen out with a number of the different activists working on the border. He chain smokes. He appears to be like completely exhausted.

Mariusz final noticed Ibrahim Eltony, a 37-year-old Egyptian man, a yr in the past, when Ibrahim summoned assist after crossing from Belarus. Mariusz gave him meals, water and a particular blue coat to stave off the rain. Ibrahim was by no means seen once more.

A blue coat on the ground
The blue coat believed to be the one Mariusz Kurnyta gave to to Ibrahim Eltony, who known as for assist after crossing from Belarus. {Photograph}: Kasia Strek

In June this yr, throughout a search in swampy terrain not removed from the border, a backpack that appeared to have been Ibrahim’s was discovered. Its contents: some sodden paperwork, an influence financial institution, a mud-caked thermos flask and an electrical razor. Two months later, the identical blue coat was present in a spot not removed from the place the backpack had been. Mariusz determined to return to the spot a 3rd time, to see if the physique was close by.

Mariusz and two different activists walked previous hikers and bikers having fun with the late summer time on the forest paths. A military pick-up truck crept alongside an adjoining monitor, its passengers carrying balaclavas, apparently on the hunt for individuals who have crossed the border.

Leaving the trail and choosing via a piece of dense forest, Mariusz emerged right into a boggy clearing. The bottom was uneven, each step a possible twisted ankle. Mariusz cast a path via chest-high grass in direction of the part of stagnant swamp the place the anorak had been discovered. There was a pristine silence save for the whirring of bugs.

Mariusz Kurnyta and activists
Mariusz Kurnyta trying to find the physique of Ibrahim Eltony, who crossed from Belarus and has not been seen since final yr. {Photograph}: Kasia Strek

He and the others donned waterproof overalls, picked up chunky sticks, and started slowly wading via the lavatory, prodding the bottom as they went.

After just a few hours of methodical probing, they gave up. Ibrahim Eltony, lacking since final summer time, wouldn’t be discovered that day.

Ibrahim is considered one of greater than 200 people who find themselves nonetheless lacking for the reason that disaster on the border began. At the least 49 deaths have been documented. The actual figures are virtually definitely a lot greater, particularly as there may be so little details about what occurs on the Belarusian aspect of the border.

Many of those deaths had been preventable. Typically, folks died inside 100 metres of a village, a police patrol or a highway the place assist may have been given. On the Belarusian aspect, folks have died inside days of being pushed again by Polish border guards.

This month alone, there have been credible studies of 4 folks dying on the Belarusian aspect after they had been pushed again from Poland. Individuals have died of thirst and exhaustion when Polish territory is seen only a few metres away. It’s unlawful for activists to come back inside 15 metres of the border wall, that means they can not throw provisions over.

Malgorzata Rycharska, an activist in Poland who fields calls from these caught within the gray zone between the border fences, mentioned it may be unbearably laborious to clarify to those that no assist can attain them, although they will see the EU with their very own eyes. She referred to her work as “hopelessness administration”. Typically, all she will do is attempt to join them with different stranded teams.

“It’s all the time the identical. They name and say: ‘We’re right here, we now have no water, no meals and our battery goes to die. Are you able to assist us?’ After which we now have to clarify to them that nobody will come.”

Further reporting by Katarzyna Piasecka

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