One thought is a constant in my head: “I have kids at home, I cannot go to jail, I cannot go to jail.” The politics are beyond my reach or that of the victims on the Poland-Belarus border. It involves outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, getting through to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus. It’s ironic that this border has more than 50 media crews gathered, yet Poland is the only place in the EU where journalists cannot freely report.
Meanwhile, the harsh north European winter is closing in and my fingers are freezing in the dark snowy nights.
The border situation shows the chasm between what is legal and what is moral. It trumps the endeavours of those acting to save lives. All that we activists in the forests on the Poland-Belarus border can do is to bring water, food and clothes to desperate people. Yet to perform this basic humanitarian act requires stealth. We have to hide and sneak through the forests. Attracting the attention of the border guards, police or army would force another pushback.
I’ve met diverse groups among the trees: families, mothers with kids, fathers with disabled kids, elderly people and people from the world’s most vulnerable groups – ethnic, religious and LGBTQ+. They sought freedom, but find themselves being pushed backed into Belarus five, 10 and even 15 times since August until now, December.
On my night walks, I’m equipped with a big backpack full of flasks of warm soup, socks, boots, jackets, gloves, scarfs, hats, plasters, medicines and powerbanks. I walk in the darkness and hide behind trees when I hear helicopters or see the bright touches of the police. I hear the splash of the soup in the containers on my back, I hear the shortness of my breath – nobody taught me to be stealthy and invisible like a professional soldier. I have worked in human rights for years, visited most of the EU’s borders and refugee camps, but I was never afraid of crackling sticks underfoot or rustling the trees above my head as I move.
From personal stories and evidence collected by Minority Rights Group International with colleagues at Grupa Granica, an alliance of 14 Polish civil society organisations responding to the crisis, we know at least 5,000 people have been in the forests and that at least 1,000 are there currently. We’ve been in touch with all: desperate victims of a disgusting power game between states.
Every time we respond to a call from someone in need, or their mother still in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a cousin in Berlin, we shoulder our backpacks and go. Day and night – long after the world has lost interest. Sometimes, we look for people for hours. Sometimes, because of security issues, they change their location many times Sometimes elderly grandmothers or the little kids with no more energy to walk are stranded in Polish swamps. Now, since snow covers the forests and people cannot call us, because their phones have been destroyed by the Polish army, we use thermal imagers.
We meet scared eyes, exhausted faces, bodies destroyed by the cold, desperately short of immunity after weeks in the icy, wet forest. Freezing, thirsty, hungry humans. I had no idea what hunger meant. I’ve given a piece of chocolate to my kids when they complain before dinner. I’ve read poverty statistics and history books. I knew nothing about hunger.
People on the Poland-Belarus border have not eaten for weeks. Every few days, after a violent pushback over the barbed wire fence, they may get an old potato from a Belarusian soldier, if they have money. They will share that with the kids. They have nothing to drink for days. Or drink swamp or rainwater, which causes stomach cramps and a deadening headache, further weakening them.
We wish them care and luck at the end of our interaction. Leaving them with enough food and water supplies for a few days is impossible: no one has the strength to carry that much. We cannot take people with us or drive them to a safe place. That would be a criminal act. But it is not a crime to leave these people to their slow death.
Where is the Red Cross, the UN’s International Organization for Migration and the UN refugee agency? Those organisations that operate even in war zones? That take food and water to the most dangerous criminals? Is Elina, 5, more dangerous or less worthy? She has epilepsy but no medicine. I met her in the forest with nine other Kurds, all without boots. They survived wars and airstrikes back home but may freeze to death in the Polish forest. During every pushback Polish and Belarusian officers take away everything: money, clothes and footwear.
There was the group of nine women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably trafficked. When I explained the situation to them, they just cried and cried . Or the Yazidi sisters, who escaped genocide in Sinjar, Iraq seven years ago, but are still trying to find a safe place. Or the boys from Yemen, speaking perfect English. Or the three gay men from Iran, desperate not to be sent back to Belarusian soldiers.
We stay in touch. If they manage to hide their phones, we can communicate after a pushback. They share pictures and videos of Belarusian dogs. Show me bite wounds if we meet on the Polish side. They cry. They ask for advice. They don’t want to tell their families about their plight, but they need somebody to talk to.
“The fifth pushback. At six, I’ll kill myself.”
“I lost my son, he has asthma. [The] last time he called [was] three days ago. Do you know where he is?”
“When do you arrive? Do you have water? Even a drop?”
Subjected to a disinformation campaign, the refugees receive conflicting reports from Belarusian services, which distribute forms about the settling in Poland or Germany. This fosters hopes for a safe journey. But the real aim is to camp them on the Polish border to put pressure on the EU. Some disturbing reports suggest migrants are being forced to participate in violence as part of Belarusian attempts to provoke Polish officials.
With the risk of an escalation of violence, we, the activists in the forests, would like to remind the world that refugees are not aggressors. They are hostages to the Lukashenko regime, which is using them for its agenda.
Poles send me messages: “Where should I send warm and dark clothes?” “How is the situation on the border? Media shows us only videos by [the] Polish ministry or Belarusian authorities.” “I cry when I put my children to sleep. Please, write something that can help.”
Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, spent four days in Poland and came to the field with us. She said: “The greatest strength of the aid movement for refugees and refugees from the Poland-Belarus border are the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns – in the zone of emergency and next to it. It is their compassion and empathy that prolongs the life of people in the forest. Their courage and selflessness. Their good saves lives.”
Of course, others see it differently: people helping on the border are “enemies of the nation”, “agents of Lukashenko”, “guilty of destroying European values”, “inviting terrorists here”.
We are guilty of leaving water packs in the woods for the thirsty. We are guilty of sharing soup. Of putting shoes on cold feet that couldn’t move any more. If helping is illegal, do we even understand what crime is?
• Anna Alboth is volunteer at Minority Rights Group
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org
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