“Lies, lies, lies! “: For migrants trapped at the Belarusian-Polish border, no easy way back to Minsk

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Thousands of Iraqis and Syrians recently flew to Belarus, attracted by a “tourist” package promising them illegal but easy passage to the European Union. When they realized that the Polish border was closed, it was too late: the Belarusian soldiers would not let them in. InfoMigrants reports.

Youssef blindly crossed one of the world’s most guarded borders, walking through difficult forest terrain and swamps, clinging to the handle of his friends’ backpack. He didn’t see much of the dense coniferous forests that stretch along the Belarus-Poland border. The beating of a Belarusian soldier left the Syrian migrant’s face so swollen that he could not open his eyes enough to distinguish day from night.

When InfoMigrants met him on November 9 in the Polish town of Białystok, about ten days after his crossing, the swelling had subsided but Youssef’s face was still bruised. His bloodshot eyes were still circled in dark purple colored circles, with bruises turning yellowish down to his jaw.

“After crossing the border, I completely lost track of time. My friends told me that we spent three days in the forest on the Polish side. I’m fine, keep walking “. People whispered around me, I had the impression of having hallucinations,” Youssef remembers.

Youssef’s face is still bruised ten days after being severely beaten by a Belarusian soldier who wanted to extort money from him | Photo: Mehdi Chebil His party of four only had two 1.5-liter bottles which they regularly filled into puddles of water, using kleenex tissue as a filter. “I was weak and dehydrated because eating and drinking was too painful. Every time we took a break I would pass out,” said the 37-year-old from Damascus.

After three days of wandering, the exhausted group decides to get out of the woods. As they walked along a road, they were quickly stopped by Polish border guards. Impressed by the injuries to Youssef’s face, Polish guards sent him to hospital, where he received medical treatment for a broken nose, jaw and teeth, before being given six months of “protection. emergency “in Poland.

But the three friends he was traveling with were immediately turned back to the Belarusian side, where up to 2,000 migrants are now camping right next to the fence marking the border with Poland.

Boots and camping gear left by migrants in the forest near the eastern border of Poland | Photo: Mehdi Chebil

Images of people mostly from Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan trapped in freezing conditions, camping in front of barbed wire and heavily armed Polish soldiers, were widely shared by Belarusian media in what European Union officials called “hybrid war” against the 27 nations. block. It is called hybrid because it combines a media campaign aimed at stoking internal EU tensions over migration and asylum policies, as well as military actions on the ground in which Belarusian soldiers orchestrate regular massive disruptions of the Polish border.

This is not the first time that migratory flows have been used to put political pressure on a European country. Recent examples include Turkey on the Greek border in March 2020 and Morocco on the Spanish border in May 2021.

But, after speaking to several asylum seekers who made it into Poland, InfoMigrants discovered that the Belarusian government had armed migrants to an unprecedented level. Minsk drew people from the Middle East to a place that has never been on a migratory route and made sure that they would not be allowed to easily return to their country.

Marshes near the Polish border with Belarus. Photo: Mehdi Chebil When trying to recall the memories of his beating on the Belarusian side, Youssef only remembers the first try. He and his friends were kneeling with their hands behind their heads, as instructed by Belarusian soldiers who stopped them near the border fence, when he was suddenly kicked in the face. The blow took him completely by surprise and he passed out immediately. His friends later told him that border guards continued to kick him fiercely in the face.

“At that point, we decided we didn’t want to continue. We asked the Belarusian soldiers if we could return to our country. “Youssef said. His group was transported in a military truck to an unspecified location on the Belarus-Poland border.” My friends told me that Belarusian border guards had lifted the border fence and brought me in says ‘Go!’ Then Youssef grabbed the handle of his friend’s backpack and began his blind journey to Europe.

A bottle of water was left by pro-migrant activists in the forest near Poland’s eastern border. Photo: Mehdi ChebilThaer did not have to endure such a traumatic crossing. The 27-year-old Syrian was also beaten in the chest by Belarusian border guards but he recovered quickly and, unlike Youssef, he sometimes smiled when he recalled the most surreal moments of crossing the border. Outside of Belarus, it’s not often that a migrant sees a fair-skinned man, with steel blue eyes visible under his balaclava, use a barbed wire cutter to make his way to a border. European.

“They had walkie-talkies, it was clear that they were Belarusian soldiers who had changed into civilian clothes. They knew the schedule of the Polish patrols on the other side (…) The only thing they did said was “go to Poland!” Thaer told InfoMigrants. He said that on one occasion, after being pushed back by Polish border guards, Belarusian soldiers formed a new group of dozens of migrants and took them away. taken to the Lithuanian border.

“We didn’t know where we were being taken. We only realized it was Lithuania when the signal changed on our cell phone,” Thaer said. Lithuanian soldiers quickly spotted his group. Lithuanian guards beat them with electric punches, stole them and eventually pushed them back into no man’s land between the two countries.

Thaer (center) speaks to the media after contacting a Polish rights group to make sure he will not be returned to Belarus. Photo: Romain Lemaresquier / RFI Thaer then decides to return to Minsk to rest and buy winter clothes and camping equipment. He was fully aware that Belarusian soldiers would do anything to prevent him from leaving the border area in the direction of Minsk. This is why he took additional security measures to avoid being spotted on his way back from no man’s land to Belarusian territory.

“I thought there were sensors on the Belarusian border fence, so I hit him and hid for two hours in no man’s land to see if a guard was coming. When no one came, I crossed Belarus carefully backing up. I had noticed that Belarusian border guards regularly rake sand on their side of the border to check for footprints. ‘they chase migrants leaving the area,’ Thaer told InfoMigrants.

He returned to the border area on his own a few days later, with suitable hiking boots and a sleeping bag, to attempt to cross into Poland again. This time there was no need to hide in the dark or walk backwards. When Belarusian soldiers cut through the border fence, his group rushed as fast as they could into the forest.

Activists from the aid group Ocalenie Foundation carry supplies to help migrants hiding in the forest near the eastern border of Poland. Photo: Mehdi Chebil It was in a thick forest outside the Polish village of Szymki, about five kilometers from the Belarusian border, that InfoMigrants ran into two Syrian women. Shirin (not her real name) was very distraught, jumping at the slightest noise in the forest, as she told activists from the Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish aid group, that she was in severe pain. stomach and heavy vaginal bleeding.

“I had symptoms of pregnancy and I’m afraid I lost the baby,” Shirin said. She was literally terrified of being caught by Polish border guards and declined a doctor’s offer to take her to hospital. Several medical and activist sources have indeed confirmed that some migrants transported to hospital had been turned back after receiving treatment.

“We don’t want to be sent back to Belarus! We stayed there for three consecutive days in a camp without food or water before the Belarusian soldiers took us to Poland. Then we spent two more days in the forest on the Polish side. . We have been told [crossing into the EU] would be easy, but all we found was lies, lies, lies! ”Shirin told InfoMigrants.

After asking for dry socks, pain relievers, food and water, the two women returned to their hiding place deeper in the forest, making sure no one was following them. Their group of 13, including children, vowed to continue until they found a way to reach Germany, where they wanted to seek asylum.

Polish police are checking vehicles heading west near Hajnówka to prevent migrants from leaving the border area. Photo: Mehdi Chebil As the InfoMigrants team roamed the area, we saw several military trucks, border guard jeeps and even soldiers on quad bikes. At checkpoints, police carefully searched vehicles heading west in an attempt to deter human traffickers. The chances of Shirin and his group of making it through this massive security deployment seem very slim.

As temperatures drop steadily below freezing, the trapping of thousands of people in the Belarus-Poland border region turns into a humanitarian disaster. At least ten migrants have died so far, but medical sources believe the death toll is underestimated.

“I think the real death toll is much higher. We are getting information from activists that more people have died on the Belarusian side,” Małgorzata Nowosad, spokesperson for Medicy na granicy, a medical collective, told InfoMigrants. active on the eastern border of Poland. . “If people don’t get help, they will die.”

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