A border guard cries and transports them to the border. An OKO.press reporter on the refugee trail
We were threatened by a border guard: “If you don’t go, I’ll throw your child into the fire.” Human rights are dead. Even animal rights don’t apply in this forest. This is a tale of a reporter who traveled on the refugee trail himself: starting in the Middle East, through Minsk, to the Poland-Belarus border…
On Friday, October 22nd, I get a message with a pinned location. “We don’t have anything to eat or drink. Help!”
They’re on the Belarussian side, near the Pererovnitsa River, about half a mile from the border with Poland, beyond which the wildlife refuge Wysokie Bagno [“High Swamp”] stretches. I manage to catch a ride through the forest with Nikolai, a local forest ranger. I don’t share the reason for my trip with him. I’m carrying a backpack full of food and water.
Our small talk revolves largely around the solitude of the land around us. “It just seems that there are no people here. Over 300 soldiers are stationed in the forest,” he says.
We get very close, about a mile as the crow flies, to “my” family. I’m about to get out of the car when I get a message: “They ordered us to cross to the Polish side.” I decide to ride further on to Kamieniuki [a village in Belarus, in the Brest Region, about 3 miles from the border]. There I find that the group has already been caught by a Polish border patrol.
This is the third episode in the series of articles by OKO.press. Szymon Opryszek set out on a lone journey along the trail taken by thousands of refugees arriving at the Poland-Belarus border.
The first episode took place in Istanbul. A smuggler assures me: „It’s 100% guaranteed.”
The second episode started in Minsk. „I’m a hunted animal. They took away my humanity.”
This episode follows the fortunes of a Kurdish family at the Polish-Belarus border.
We have sold everything, we have nothing to go back to
“I’m an old woman. I’ve lived through my share of hardships: we are Kurds, we’ve always had to face enemies, none of us had an easy life. But what I’ve gone through [here]… I’ve never heard of anything like this. We began this difficult journey to gain the freedom that we’d heard about. The freedom that people like us had been dreaming about. To realize this dream, we sold everything we owned. We were hoping for a better life. Not for me, as I’m already at the end of my life, but for the children who are just at the beginning. Even if we find a way to go back where we came from, we have nothing to go back to. We’ve risked everything for the myth of freedom and better life that we’d heard of from afar. We wanted to live like human beings.”
This story is told by Nazanin, an almost 70-year-old retired nurse. She spent all of her life in Kunamasi, a town located close to the Iran-Iraq border in the Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate, a province of the autonomous Kurdistan Region. She never thought she’d like to emigrate. Five years ago, the Islamic State terrorists killed the husband of her oldest daughter Sabri. Half a year ago, bombings began.
Her younger daughter, Seyda, who worked in an animal shelter, recently started publishing clips on social media which showed people from neighboring villages torturing cats and dogs. This didn’t sit well with the neighbors, who reported her to the authorities. She got on their bad side. It became dangerous.
The daughters begged Nazanin to flee to Europe. Sabri has a 14-year-old son, Twan, while Seyda is married to Farman with whom she has two children: a 15-year-old daughter Shewa and a one-and-a-half-year-old son Rangar. Nazanin sold her house. They left together, all seven of them: first by bus to Istanbul, then by plane to Minsk, and finally by taxi to the border.
A video from a truck. “We will die in this jungle”
Now they’re writing to me: “Help us, they’re attacking people.” And then: “They put us in a truck again.”
They send videos from a military vehicle. There are over 20 people inside, most of them are from Iraq and Syria, two people come from Sudan. It’s as loud as a busy market. Seyda, the younger daughter of Nazanin, sits on one of the benches, hunched over her toddler who sits on her lap. The grandma with the older daughter and grandson are in another truck.
“Help!!! We don’t know where they’re taking us.”
I’m sitting at a bus stop in Kamieniuki, next to the entrance to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, and I’m following the truck’s route in real time. I let the activists on the Polish side know that the convoy is headed toward Narewka [a village in eastern Poland, Podlaskie Voivodeship, about 7 miles from the Poland-Belarus border]. They cannot help the migrants, who are still within the area where Poland has declared a state of emergency [and which cannot be accessed by journalists, activists, or non-governmental organizations].
Another message: “We’ve got no strength left. Some of us have been at the border for 27 days.”
I continue to follow their path. The vehicle doesn’t stop in Narewka, nor in Gródek [a village in Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about 10 miles from the border with Belarus], nor in Michałowo [a town in Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about 12 miles from the border with Belarus], where the Border Guard has stations. My stomach sinks, because this means that they are headed toward the border.
Yet another message: “Do something! They’re going to throw us out again and we will die in this jungle.”
Do you want me to kill your son? Get up and go
Sabri recounts: “The first time, the Belarussians were very pleasant, they smiled and said, ‘Go over the fence, don’t worry’. It was in the border zone between Poland and Belarus. A truck arrived, bringing with it three or four families. They drove us somewhere for about an hour. They told us to get ready and wait until it gets dark. Then three Belarusian men arrived, who wore civilian clothes and balaclavas. They cut through the fence and ordered us: ‘Go!’”
On the other side, in Poland, there was a river and muddy terrain. This is where my mom lost her shoes. She was walking barefoot. We tore a towel and some t-shirts to wrap them around her feet. We hiked for 2 miles, we were very tired, and we didn’t know where we were. It was the middle of the night. The Poles caught us in the morning.
Every time we met Belarussians or Poles, the first thing they ordered us to do was to hand over our phones. They took them away because they were worried about leaked videos. Before kicking us out, they put them on the ground and everyone picked theirs up. This happened every single time. Once, the Belarussians found a phone on one boy, and they started to beat him. My mom ran to defend him, because he was crying and screaming from pain. They hit her too. And then they sent him to a camp near the Lithuanian border.
Another time, we told the Belarussian border guards that we were out of water and that we were thirsty. They brought a bucket of water and poured it out on the ground while we were watching. And then they knocked down our tent and put out our fire. They were doing this to make us go over to the Polish side.
Or when they were putting us in their vehicles, once they told us to go to the truck on our knees. Another time, to force people to get in, they caught small children and threw them onto the truck bed, so that their parents would also get in.
This is what happened to our neighbors from the camp: A border guard lifted their four-year-old child by his arm and started to scream at the mother: “If you don’t go, I’ll throw him into the fire! Get up! I’ll lift him up and throw him on the ground. Do you want me to kill your son? Get up and go.”
New message: “BELARUS! We’re going to die!”
I’m still in Kamieniuki, and this time I’m sitting in a café. It’s warm, the coffee is tasty, and the truck is nearing the border; they’re almost 60 miles away from the location where they had been rounded up.
I’m contacted by Azad, the son of Nazanin and brother of Seyda and Sabri. He left Iraq 22 years ago; he used to live in Great Britain, but now he lives in Rotterdam; he has a Scottish wife and three children, and works at a hair salon. “I did not feel alive in Iraq. There, a hunt is ongoing,” he says.
Throughout all these years he’s met with his mother only two times when she came to visit him in Europe. He’s never seen the youngest members of his family in person, but their situation keeps him awake at night and he would do everything to save them.
We’re messaging while they’re being driven toward the border. Then I get a new message: “BELARUS! We’re going to die!”
And I get a pin: they’re in the death zone, the narrow strip of land between Poland and Belarus, one and a half miles from the town of Krynki [Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about half a mile from the border with Belarus].
“They are treated like they’re chickens that one lets out into the garden in the morning and then herds back into the coop in the evening,” Azad is outraged. “They told me that Poles used dogs during the expulsion. What a bunch of cowards, they’re afraid of women who don’t even have enough strength to walk. They’re condemning people to death. Everything under the cover of the night.”
I get another message: “We told them that we wanted asylum in Poland. They didn’t listen.”
Polish gas is better than Belarussian sticks. Truly
Nazanin says, “The Polish side is better than the Belarussian side. When it was time to get into the truck and we didn’t want to go, they sprayed us.”
“With a gas, it burned our eyes like chili pepper. But it’s better than Belarussian sticks. Truly”.
On the Polish side, we twice encountered women in the border patrol. It was then, at those two times, that we were given chocolate and water, once even bread and jam. When we asked for food during other expulsions, they all said the same thing: ‘Go to Belarus, they will help you.’
Twice, we drank water from a puddle, right in front of them. They were averting their eyes.
In that forest… It’s not even that you don’t have human rights. You don’t have animal rights. In many cultures animals are not treated in the way that we were treated. For me, given all the shiny placards, the statements about human rights… I did not see that.
Once, we were detained by two men from the Polish border patrol. They cried when they saw us. Two grown men! ‘We’re sorry,’ they said. ‘We don’t have a choice, it’s not our decision to make, we would like to help you but we can’t.’ And then they put us onto a truck.”
Videos are the best weapon
It’s late in the night. I came back from the border to Minsk. I get another message from Azad in Rotterdam: “They managed to get out of the camp.” And another one: “They’ve been separated.”
Nazanin paid 400 dollars for permission to go back to Minsk. The money was not the bargaining chip. It turned out that a movie, made by their friend on the Polish side, had a much bigger value. In the video, one can supposedly see Polish border guards pushing the migrants and beating them with sticks. That’s a fat prize for the Belarussian services. They agreed to negotiate.
The border guards decided who was going to go. The migrants were not certain whether they could trust them, or whether they would be driven out into the forest again. In the end, Nazanin together with Sabri and her son got into a car. The other daughter, her husband, and two children, including the 1-year-old boy, stayed in the forest, where they’d already been for 10 days.
They’re on their way. Meanwhile, Azad and I are looking for a place to stay in Minsk. There’s hardly anything available, and even when we find something, the owners do not agree to accept people without a valid visa. The cost? 50 to 60 dollars per night in a studio of up to 450 square feet. Finally, we succeed; the owner even helps them do some shopping.
I call them. They’re having dinner. Finally, with a roof over their heads and at a table.
You don’t eat. You don’t drink. You sleep on the ground
Seyda says, “What you can see in the temporary camps on the Belarussian side is like a horror movie, it reminds one of ‘The Walking Dead’ TV series. Walking dead. You don’t eat. You don’t drink. You sleep on the ground.
You constantly live in the moment, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Will they come? Will they beat us? You’re on a high alert at all times. There’s also the darkness. It’s so cold that you have to almost stand in the campfire to warm up. And when you’re this close to the flames, your clothes can burn. We had to lie over my one-year-old son to warm him up.
In Belarussian camps, we were an entertainment for the guards. They teased us. Once, they brought a container with dirty water. Imagine a hundred people who are running to get it. They laughed. We begged for food with gestures. They were joking around.
We didn’t have to answer the call of nature very often because our stomachs were empty. But when we did, the guards followed us every step of the way. It was especially uncomfortable for women. They said that they couldn’t let us go alone because we’d run away. But where to, when all around there is the forest and the whole family is in the camp?
Or they picked boys and ordered them to chop wood. Like in a labor camp. They treated us like slaves.”
The prices of lodgings in Minsk jump up
I’m already in Kutaisi. I’m returning through Georgia, because according to the Belarussian regulations on visa-free travel, if you arrive in Minsk by plane, you also have to leave by plane, and the flight to Poland through Kutaisi turned out to be the cheapest. I get a message. Seyda, along with her husband and two children, will soon join Nazanin and the rest of their family in Minsk. They paid the border guards 700 dollars.
Together with Azad, we’re again looking for an apartment in Minsk. Over the last few days, the prizes have increased twofold.
Within three hours I call almost all of the listings. Finally, we get an apartment, but the owner changes the price a few times. “I’m wondering what could be bringing Iraqis to Belarus?” he writes. When it turns out that their visas expire tomorrow, he withdraws from the agreement. It’s 9:02 p.m.
We find an apartment, an extremely expensive one, just before midnight. Azad, the relative from the Netherlands, is running out of people willing to lend him money.
One potato and some jam from Poland
Seyda says, “The last four days in the Belarussian camp were dramatic. We had no food or water.
The puddles were the only source of water. In the morning one had to break the ice on them. And the wood was so chilled that one couldn’t make a fire. All the while, their fires were burning. We approached them, begging them to allow us to warm up because our child was crying. They said: ‘Children cry. It’s normal.’
It was a small camp, guarded by them throughout the night. One is not allowed to leave. They came by every hour and shined their flashlights into our eyes.
Throughout these four days, they gave us one boiled potato per person. Nothing else for the rest of our days there. Luckily, during the last expulsion from Poland we were given some jam and an old bread, and we saved that for the children. We ate nothing ourselves. Well, almost nothing, except for that potato.
Understand the other side of the world
I’m already in Poland. They’re in Minsk, all seven of them. Three generations without valid visas. In an apartment rented for four days. Without a plan for the future. We are talking over four phones. I’m with my partner — I can’t handle their powerful words on my own.
It’s a chorus of three women from Iraq. Grandma Nazanin speaks with consideration, sometimes using grandiose language, and she tries not to pass judgement. She makes the impression that she’s trying to understand those who went against them at the border.
Sabri and Seyda constantly add to what she’s saying, almost as if in competition, full of outrage.
“I am ashamed for my country,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not the fault of a country, it’s not Poland’s fault, or Belarus’s fault, but the politicians’ fault. They are the ones who meddle. People have no say,” Nazanin responds. “Just like those Polish border guards. We could tell that they felt bad about not being able to extend a helping hand to another human being who needs it. They get orders from the top to do this dirty work.”
We say our goodbyes. I try to say “thank you” in Kurdish, but I don’t think I succeed because they’re amused. I hear a timid laughter, maybe the first in weeks.
“I’m grateful that you took the time to hear our voices. I wish more people wanted to understand the other side of the world.”
In the background, one can hear little Rangar. I know that, despite everything, they will try to cross again.
- — names have been changed to protect the identity of people portrayed in this story.
First published in Polish at OKO.press
Translated pro bono by our reader from USA. Thank you for your effort!