„I’m a hunted animal. They took away my humanity.” An OKO.press reporter on the refugee trail

I’m not afraid of the forest or of the border, I was raised on war and bullets. I’m afraid of people who forgot what it means to be human. 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…

Minsk has reached perfection in the art of pantomime. Loud voices went out of style here a long time ago. People are subdued, conversations are curt, and steps are quiet. Even sellers in ticket booths only open their mouths to sigh theatrically. Fear struck them all into ringing silence.

The plane that took me from Istanbul lands almost without a sound as well. It’s still trying the ground under its wheels when some of the passengers start to crowd the exit. The rest sit calmly: forty migrants — two families with children and a lot of young people — are staring at the floor. You can see that their stomachs are in knots and their legs are heavy, but it’s time to go.

“With visas to the left, without visas to the right,” says a customs officer, and his facial expression does not harmonize with the joyful logo of the National Tourism Agency saying: “Belarus: Hospitality without borders”.

This is the second 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.

Istanbul. A smuggler assures me: „It’s 100% guaranteed.” An OKO.press reporter on the refugee trail

This episode starts in Minsk and follows the reporter on his journey. The following episodes will take place at the border.

I go with those who have visas, although I don’t have one myself; they’re holding passports from Iraq, Syria, Congo. Upon seeing my Polish passport, a second customs official summons yet another, who leads me to a room where a fourth customs official kneads my freshly made passport for a good ten minutes (I obtained a new passport because I had been planning to set out from Lebanon, where entering with a passport stamp from Israel is impossible).

She flips through it, illuminates it, brings it closer, then eyes it from further away, and finally, calmed by my explanation that I’m going to a bachelor party, she stamps my passport heavily.

No one’s waiting in the arrivals hall. There are no flowers, screams, falling into each other’s arms. In front of the terminal, a taxi driver is finishing his cigarette. I message a Syrian man that I exchanged phone numbers with before boarding the plane. We were supposed to go to a hostel together. He’s not responding.

I’m roaming around the departures hall, but there are no migrants there either. They disappeared after movies showing people stranded at the airport had been leaked on the internet. After I wait for two hours, hoping to meet any fellow passengers from my flight, I set out alone. The guy from Syria still hasn’t responded. Maybe he was afraid? Or maybe the authorities sent him straight to the border?

I’m embarrassed that I’m vetting Ramiar

I’m meeting with Ramiar B., an Iraqi Kurd, who has just come back to Minsk after trying to cross the border twice.

“I’m not sure whether I’m still a human. I became a hunted animal who the regimes have declared open season upon. They took away my humanity. My crime is having the worst passport in the world.

The first time, there were 50 of us: a lot of children, old people, and several pregnant women. They caught us in a forest near Brzezina [a village in Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about half a mile from the border]. They didn’t mess around. They threw everyone back to the other side.

The death zone, or the second Iraq — this is what we call this narrow strip of land between Poland and Belarus.

We were lucky because in our camp, Belarussian border patrol officers brought apples and potatoes, and they allowed us to charge our phones. For free! My friend met border guards who demanded 10 dollars for a bottle of water. People were passing out in front of them, but they only looked ahead in the darkness, pretending that they didn’t see anything.

The second time, on October 14th, I was in a group of seven. It was cold and dark. My wife Paiwast fell near Stare Masiewo [a village in Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about half a mile from the border]. Her leg was hurting terribly. I told my friends to go on. They’re in Germany now, the whole family. I called Polish emergency services. The dispatchers said, “You’re lying,” “You’re in Belarus.” One simply hung up. But I kept trying, maybe even twenty times, and I begged for help! Finally, they told me that I had to go to the nearest village. Was I supposed to leave Paiwast crying and alone in the woods? I set out.

When I got there, instead of an ambulance there were two Border Guard vehicles. The Poles treated me like I was a terrorist. I explained that I’m 26, I’ve just started adult life, in my country there are bombings, and I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m a journalist and a photographer. My channel earned the disapproval of the authorities, which is not uncommon in Iraq. I was arrested several times, and I was afraid they would put me in jail. I had no choice, I had to escape.

At long last, they agreed to go back to get Paiwast. She was crying from pain and exhaustion. Then I set out again toward the Polish village, with my wife on my back. They were telling me that I’m too slow, that she should be walking on her own. An ambulance came. They wanted to separate us: she would be taken to a Polish hospital and I’d be transported back to Belarus. We did not agree to this. The ambulance drove away empty.

My wife wanted to use a restroom. One of the border guards said, “You want to take a piss? Get in the car, we’ll drive.” And he drove us straight back to the border. “Please,” I was begging him, “my wife is going to die here,” but he just kept laughing louder and louder. I don’t know how long I was walking with my wife on my back when the Belarussians stopped us. I pleaded with them and they called for an ambulance. It took us to a hospital in Svislach [a town in the South-West of Grodno Region, Belarus, about 7 miles from the border]. Luckily, it turned out to just be a nasty contusion.

We came back to Minsk, and now we’re gathering our strength. In a few days we’re going to try once more. I’m a Kurd, I was raised on war and bullets. I’m not afraid of the border. I’m afraid of people who forgot what it means to be human.”

Out of my obligation as a journalist, I’m trying to check whether Ramiar is lying. I’m looking for evidence that he was jailed. I’m analyzing a clip from the ambulance and a photo from a ward in the hospital in Svislach, I even call them and I find out that recently they’ve treated a few patients from the Middle East and Africa. I write to Kurdish friends of mine who confirm that Ramiar worked in the media. I’m embarrassed that I’m vetting him like this.

Tsentrkurort with Lukaszenko’s blessing

I begin my trip following Ramiar’s trail from his Facebook profile. Under the “Likes” tab I find a Belarussian travel agency Oskartur from Minsk. Indeed, he confirms that he paid 3,400 dollars for the trip. The price included the flight and four nights in a hotel. He got close to the border, near Stare Masiewo, by taxi.

In May of 2021, the agency, founded in Belarus by Salah Muhaimen Al-Asadi, signed a cooperation agreement with a state-owned tourist company Tsentrkurort [the name is an amalgamate of “center” and “resort”, a construction which reminds one of the Soviet era]. Invoices and emails asking for visa processing for Iraqi citizens, obtained by the journalists from Centre Dossier and Der Spiegel, are among the evidence showing that the Belarussian government is behind the establishment of the network smuggling migrants to the Lithuanian and Polish borders.

I’m walking around Minsk in the footsteps of this group. In the vicinity of the Yubileiny Hotel, which accommodated some of the migrants from Iraq, I meet two Nigerians, then a Syrian. Nearby, there is a small shopping center, where I try to start a conversation with the visitors. “What are you doing here?” I ask. Almost all of them reply: “We’re studying.”

They’re everywhere: in parks, at train stations, in shopping malls. They’re waiting for the right time to set off for Europe. Hotel keepers that I’ve talked to in Minsk, Grodno, and Brest rubbed their hands happily: they have never seen this much activity, not even before the pandemic.

The migration business clearly likes silence. Maybe it’s because the headquarters of Tsentrkurort is placed at the heart of Belarussian administration. Within the same building, colossal and heavily-guarded from all sides, are the ministries of finance, health, architecture, and education. In the immediate vicinity there is the House of Government. Everything under the watchful eye of a 23-foot-tall statue of Vladimir Lenin speaking to the nation.

I enter the building and I show my phone with a cliché prepared beforehand: “I am a foreigner. I do not speak Russian. I bought a trip with your agency. I was promised sightseeing in Minsk. Nobody came for me to the hotel.” The doorman alerts a lady sitting behind a desk, who calls her manager. I see confused shrugs, stealthy smiles, leafing through dictionaries. Finally, they send me away with nothing and tell me to wait.

This was only a ruse to see the headquarters of Tsentrkurort. Previous investigations by journalists put the company at the very center of the illegal smuggling of migrants. The Belarussian dealer signed contracts with several local as well as foreign travel agencies that were aimed at expanding the tourism from the Middle East.

The company has been given an unprecedented authorization: they are allowed to issue visas to citizens of Iraq, who constitute the majority of people I meet at the border. Among the flights available at the Minsk airport there are now direct connections to Baghdad provided by Fly Bagdad, Iraqu Airways, and Belarussian Belavia.

The Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority has twice suspended flights to Belarus. However, this doesn’t mean that the [Belarussian] authorities ceased to invite migrants from other countries. Within the last week, I obtained several messages from Turkish smugglers telling me about flights their clients were to take from Istanbul (four or five flights per day) or Dubai. One sent me a photo of a visa for a Syrian man with October 24th as the date of entry. A day after that, a flight from Damascus was supposed to land in Minsk. According to the official website of the airport, the connection has been cancelled.

“Maybe it’s a sign that the regime got scared of the sanctions? Or of the humanitarian crisis on the border during winter?” a researcher from the Human Rights Watch wonders; the researcher, who requested anonymity, has worked on a report about the situation of the migrants. “We can see, based on the airlines’ schedules, that the number of flights from Baghdad to Minsk has been reduced to nearly zero. We don’t have other tools to study the migration, and it’s a subject with a wide range of possibilities: we know that many people arrive in Belarus through Russia.”

This often takes place with the help of Tsentrkurort, which reports directly to the Administration of the President, specifically to the President’s Affairs Board. This is the same in the case of at least 79 other companies, including dairy and construction businesses, companies selling souvenirs, as well as hotels, and in the past even producers of cheap fruit wines.

Browsing through the website of the Administration of the President, I’ve also found information that it has a jurisdiction over the Białowieża Forest and two hotels, one of them in Kamieniuki [a village in Belarus, in the Brest Region, about 3 miles from the border] which is near Białowieża [a village in Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about 1 mile from the border]. The other one, located near the very heart of the forest, is the Manor of Tyszkiewicz.

I thought, “Since Lukaszenko is using people’s lives to pursue his goals, then I have the right to use Lukaszenko in my plan.”

Grodno gossip: black people slept at Lenin’s feet

But first, I go to Grodno [also Hrodna, a city in western Belarus, located in the Grodno Region, about 9 miles from the Polish border and 19 miles from the Lithuanian border], which is reportedly crowded with visitors from the Middle East and Africa.

My plan was to stay in a hostel on Marx Street. Only four days ago, it was so full of migrants that there were no beds available. Children ran about the yard strewn with ditches dug out by excavators. “It was like in a kindergarten here,” says a neighbor. Now the building is empty, and the hostel has been closed altogether. The police came on October 14th. The migrants left the hotel, walking single file, and carried their luggage straight into a police vehicle. And they were gone. Where to? No one knows.

“A reader of ours wrote to us about this. We didn’t even have a single picture, and there was not enough material for a news story. But we decided to ask a provocative question on the Telegram app: ‘We’re wondering: are they going to be taken to jail, or to the border?’,” says Alexei Shota, the editor-in-chief of an independent news website hrodna.life.

His newsroom is also very quiet. Only Shota himself comes to the office regularly, and the rest of the journalists work either from home, or even from abroad. At the beginning of September, he received court documents which, citing transgressions, ordered the company to shut down. The regime claimed the editorial staff was “disseminating extremist content”.

Despite this, Shota is glad that his Telegram post spurred the police to issue a statement. The title proclaimed “We’re fighting fake news.” According to the statement, 24 citizens of Iraq gained unlawful presence in Belarus. Most likely, their visas expired before they were able to push through the border. They will probably be deported.

One of the few Belarussian human rights activists, who also asks to withhold her name out of fear of repercussions, points out that this might have been a move that president Lukaszenko made purely for optics.

“It’s possible that he wants the European Union to soften its stance, or maybe he wants to show that he’s got the reins. I also suspect that cases where migrants are turned away from the border or where plans are made for their deportations from Belarus may have to do with some friction between different departments whose approaches to using migrants as a political leverage may slightly differ,” she notes.

All the while, Grodno is abuzz with gossip. Gossip about a woman who rents her apartments for a hundred dollars a night; it is said that twelve people share a 300-square-foot studio. Gossip about black migrants who spent the night in sleeping bags at the foot of the statue of Lenin in a billowing coat. About a group of Syrians who looked for tall boots at the marketplace, as many have come wearing flip-flops.

“We get no information. Not a single independent journalist in the country is covering the subject of migration, nor do any of the non-governmental organizations. It’s simply too dangerous for us. All possible sources of information are quiet. We’re only able to get some news through provocations, like ours on Telegram. We’ll never be able to discover what’s in that black box,” says Shota.

Google tells me: “I need water”

Silence again. I’m in a communal bedroom at a hostel in Grodno; there are 16 beds, but only one is taken. I hear someone’s breathing. In the middle of the night, I’m woken up by a familiar voice.

“Please help.” “Give me some water.” “I don’t have any more money,” I hear in English. I need a moment to realize that the voice belongs to the speech synthesizer of the Google translator. “Please help me,” I hear again, followed by the sound of a pencil scratching on paper and whispering of a man who believes in the power of words.

The man is Ali from Tajikistan. He’s 28 years old, and he left his country to seek work in Russia. A month ago, a friend told him about the Belarussian trail. He wants to go to Germany or Sweden. He’s already tried once, but a Belarussian border patrol caught him and ordered him to take a taxi back to Grodno. They showed mercy: they didn’t take a single ruble from him.

“My parents don’t know anything about this,” he confesses in the morning. “I want to help them, and I want to help myself. There is no future in my country. There are no jobs. I don’t want much, I just want to work.”

Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, with an unemployment rate of over 40%.

Ali is sitting on a couch in the hostel, wearing sweats, and he’s constantly making calls: to his friends who made it across, to smugglers whose phone numbers he found online, and finally, to a taxi driver in Grodno, who supposedly charges the migrants lower prices. I’m there when he makes the call.

“150 dollars will get you to a certain spot behind a hill. Look around, left, right, and if there’s no one there, then quickly jump into the forest and within an hour you’ll be in Sokółka [a town in Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about 10 miles from the Poland-Belarus border],” the taxi driver persuades him.

I explain to Ali that I cannot go with him. Before my trip I consulted a number of lawyers as to what charges I could face if I were found on Polish territory with a group of migrants. Illegally crossing the border. Smuggling. Engaging in organized criminal activity. Up to 10 years in prison.

The lawyers didn’t even want to think about possible charges I could hear on the Belarussian side, including being suspected of spying for Poland. With this in mind, during my work at the border I do meet with migrants, even in the areas close to the border, but these meetings last only long enough to have a short conversation. Often, we don’t even sit down. I don’t go anywhere with them. I don’t help them with their luggage. We only talk, and sometimes I give them some food or thermal blankets. Then we all go our separate ways.

Finally, I admit to Ali that I am a journalist, but he still doesn’t understand why I don’t want to go to the border with him. He keeps trying to convince me to take the leap. After all, it’ll be only 75 dollars each. That’s a steal!

I report that a Pole is looking for a bison

The last stretch of road from Svislach to the Manor of Tyszkiewicz must be the newest and smoothest in the entire country. I’m in a cab with a taxi driver, who got hired two days earlier, seeing that one can make a lot of money. Before the pandemic and closing of the border, he smuggled gasoline: he used to fill up his Volkswagen Passat, drive to Białystok [the capital of the Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about 40 miles from Grodno and about 30 miles from the border], then drain the fuel from the tank and sell it to a customer. The remaining gallon of gas was enough for him to drive back, having earned 15 dollars.

And now? At this very moment, he gets a call from a buddy in the Border Guard Service who tells him that a ride to Minsk is needed, 150 dollars per passenger. He smacks his lips, annoyed, but after all he’s not going to drop me off in a forest. There are six taxis in Svislach, and there has never been such demand.

The Manor of Tyszkiewicz in Zharkovshchina [a village in the Grodno Region of Belarus, located within the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, about 6 miles from the border], originally used during hunting trips and currently one of the favorite places of Aleksander Lukaszenko, allows one to get closer to nature for just 44 rubles per night.

At night, there is a party at the hotel. Earlier in the day, I saw military vehicles and border patrol cars in the vicinity of the manor. The revelers look like they are taken out of a spy movie. They were brought in by two stocky men in suits. There are a few bottles of vodka on the table, which will be smashed to pieces by around 3 a.m. Every time I walk past the conference room in which they’re holding their meeting, somebody closes the door.

“I think those were policemen,” I try to start a conversation with the receptionist in the morning.

“Yes, kind of,” she replies, flustered.

The hotel at the Manor additionally offers mountain bike rentals for 2 rubles per hour. In the next few days, I cycle along the border, following routes taken by migrants. From Tikhovolya [a village in the Grodno Region, Belarus, about 2 miles from the border] to Stoki [a village in the Grodno Region, Belarus, about 1.5 miles from the border] and back again, I bike on narrow pathways and I often push the bicycle while cutting through fields, but I’m still stopped by Belarussian border patrol a few times.

Sometimes I meet them in the forest, and at other times they’re hiding in the bushes. Their lips are pursed. Their commands are given in harsh tones. They inspect my backpack. They demand that I have a permission to be in the region along the border. They threaten me with an arrest. And they make calls; each time they call somebody.

“A Pole, right next to the border, says he’s looking for bison,” one reports to his supervisor on the phone. His boss must play the situation down, because soon the border guard hands me my passport back and explains to me in great detail in which parts of the forest one can see the animals.

Another time I say, “But officer, can you hear this? It’s a tryohpalyi dyatel, a three-toed woodpecker!” Before coming to the Białowieża Forest, I wrote to a friend of mine who’s an ornithologist, asking for his advice on how to pretend to be a bird watcher. The border guards look at me like I’m a madman. And when ornithology fails to buy me anything, I say that I come from Lukaszenko’s hotel. They call the director of the establishment, and then let me go freely.

The world won’t be able to explain any of this

On a side note, such a woodpecker can be really frightening in the forest. As is a running herd of deer, a breaking twig, or leaves rustling under one’s shoes. When I’m walking through the forest, my imagination kicks into a high gear, and I’m only a tourist that is slightly bending the rules.

I am led to most of the migrants by pins marking their location. I get them from the migrants themselves or from their families in various parts of the world, who are worried about their fate. I generally look for the migrants during the day, when they try to become invisible: they crouch down among fallen tree limbs or in birch groves, and they’re gathering strength so that at night they can again try to cross the border.

A Syrian man who hasn’t eaten in three days shows me how to squeeze water out of moss.

Four Iraqi men, one of which speaks English, tell me that they’ve already been on the Polish side, but they ran back when they heard dogs of a border patrol.

One of the Kurdish men always has with him a hundred dollars in replacement for words.

Those who don’t respect the silence of the forest, like a Congolese woman who I meet, along with her three friends, on the side of a paved road in Tikhovolya as she pulls a rolling suitcase, will most likely end up in the hands of a Belarussian border patrol. If she has money, they will let her go back to Grodno or Minsk. If she doesn’t, she’ll be pushed to the Polish side. The woman and her three friends don’t want to talk with me. They avert their eyes, as if I’m about to give them away to the border guards.

Just before dusk I get another pin. Seven miles from the Manor of Tyszkiewicz, beyond doubt on the Belarussian side. Close to the road. Most importantly, there are no border guards with them. I’m going. It’s parents with two children: the girl looks about five years old, the boy is roughly three, the same age as my son. They cuddle together with their mother, putting their numb hands in the pockets of her coat. The bottoms of their trousers are wet, their shoes are muddy.

I know that, unlike in Poland, on this side of the border one cannot count on activists or obtaining medical assistance. Admittedly, the Belarussian Red Cross is active here, but the migrants only call them in extreme situations. The volunteers always come accompanied by the police. “We have no information on what this help is like and how effective it is,” the Belarussian human rights activist throws her hands up.

The inhabitants of the nearby villages also prefer not to stick their noses out. For them, the migrants are invisible. In Dobrovolya [a village in the Grodno Region, Belarus, about 5 miles from the border], Tikhovolya, or Svislach people rake the leaves or mow their lawns; everyone tends to their own backyard. People are scared to look out on the street. The mailman, the forester, the saleswomen in the stores: all of them shield themselves off with their blindness.

Only wrinkled grandmas, who have seen everything and are afraid of nothing, tell things straight. “They’re brought here by our soldiers who are frightening my hens, any more of this and they’ll stop laying eggs,” says one of the grandmas from the southern outskirts of the Białowieża Forest.

Another one, from Brovsk [a village in the Grodno Region, Belarus, about 3 miles from the border], saw me on a country road one day, peeking from behind a lace curtain. Her curiosity is killing her and so she asks whether I am a migrant. “A Pole, a friend,” she sighs with relief. She tells me about eight cars that brought people last night. All of them had Minsk registration numbers. The people jumped out and right away plunged straight into the forest. I confirm her story with two more people: everyone saw this, because on this road every strange car is like a UFO. An old woman cannot believe that healthy and handsome boys came to her house, and when she showed them the well, they did not know how to draw water. She showed them how, and then she gave them some cookies for the road. It’s the only person who admits to helping the newcomers.

This is why I always take food and water with me. I cannot do anything beyond that.

The father of the Syrian children comes closer to me until he’s about a yard away. I can see that his hands are trembling. His lips are parched. He doesn’t want any help. He points toward Europe: tonight they’re going to go that way. I give them bread, water, and some chocolates.

They drink.

We look at each other.

They chew.

The little boy smiles a bit. The girl is watching a spider.

It seems to me that I can hear the teardrop rolling down the mother’s cheek. It’s the most sorrowful silence in the world.

All stories from the Belarussian forest are similar: a tragedy in the home country, a call with a smuggler, a visa, the journey, the forest, hunger, thirst, cold, crossing over, they either make it, or they don’t. Then they start over. The moldy, soaked clothes are also similar. And tears that taste the same everywhere. This is why we don’t say a word.

I put my phone with the Google Translate app in my pocket. I won’t be able to explain anything to them. Nor they to me.

The world won’t be able to explain any of this, either.

First published in Polish at OKO.press

Translated pro bono by our reader from USA. Thank you for your effort!

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OKO.press is a non-profit, investigative journalism and fact-checking project, created to preserve freedom of speech. Check also: https://blog.okopress.dev/

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OKO.press is a non-profit, investigative journalism and fact-checking project, created to preserve freedom of speech. Check also: https://blog.okopress.dev/

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