There was a lot of attention when more and more people tried to cross into the EU autumn last year. But with the Belarusian military behind them and Polish border guards in front of them, there is no way forward. Helpless, sleepless and partly traumatized, they are still stuck in the forests – still there has been hardly any reporting for months.
„Few of our doctors knew what to do at the beginning because they had no experience with it.“
„Almost always, the first thing all aid workers had to learn was how to treat it,“ Ana* says. Her too. What is meant is an immersion foot, also called trench foot, which is actually known from the First and Second World Wars or from times when the USA was at war in Vietnam. Days and weeks, kilometers covered, in the same soggy shoes – bacteria and fungi nest in the damp tissue and smaller wounds. This leads to serious infections and, in the worst case, death.
„Very few of our doctors knew what to do at the beginning because they had no experience with it.” Ana is Polish and lives just a few kilometers from the Belarusian border in the east of the country. Since last autumn, she has been helping people who are stuck in the swampy border forests of Poland. In the meantime, she has aquired sound medical knowledge. Immersion foot is the most common injury she has to treat.
„Now that the whole world is looking towards Ukraine, we lack witnesses.“
When asked what has changed on Poland’s outer EU border with Belarus since the Ukraine war, Ana initially replies, „nothing“, and laughs. What she means is that people are still trying to cross from Belarus into the EU. They still wander around for days or weeks, unable to continue or retreat, in devastating conditions. There is still no support from Poland, the EU or the big aid organizations. Then she adds, “since the start of the war in Ukraine, our situation has even worsened.”
Marta Górczyńska, human rights lawyer specializing in the asylum and migration law, describes it this way: “Now that the whole world is looking towards Ukraine, we lack witnesses. There is more violent behavior, more human rights violations against refugees and more attempts to criminalize our humanitarian aid.” Marta Górczyńska as well as Ana belong to the Grupa Granica (engl. Border Group) network. The alliance came together last autumn in response to the lack of political and humanitarian aid. It is people from the Polish civil society who help.
Last autumn, the situation at the border aggravated. Lukashenko started bringing refugees and migrants, mostly from countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq or Syria, to Belarus to deliver them at the EU border. Further, people from other Asian and African countries tried to reach Europe there. In response, Poland erected a three-kilometer-wide, 400-kilometre-long exclusion zone for aid workers, journalists, and lawyers and legalized. Refugees who made it across the border into Poland were rejected (or detained in inhumane conditions) and often brought back directly – but Belarus refused to let them return and sent them back to the border. A trap.
„At night we are less visible.“
Although since the end of July it has been possible again to approach the border up to 200 meters, border guards, military and police are omnipresent. 180 kilometers are now secured by steel and barbed wire as well as a five and a half meter high wall. The security officers are very creative in finding reasons to stop them from doing their work, as flimsy as they may be, Ana says. Sometimes it takes several hours to take their personal details, sometimes they are searched or have to pay a fine, and sometimes they are held overnight, for 24 or 48 hours.
Even though she, like almost all helpers, has often been stopped, questioned and also detained, she has been lucky so far. Other cases, however, have ended up in court. The helpers are accused of illegal assistance in border crossings. Ana says this is her biggest fear – she could lose her job because of it. But even more serious is the fear or the certainty that people die on this, their, border.
The main task of their relief work is to bring food, water, sleeping bags and other essential supplies with backpacks into the forests, as well as first aid. They are often contacted directly by people seeking help, who have somehow gotten their number. They tell the helpers what they need. When they then set off, the most important thing is not to be seen, which is more difficult during the day. „At night we are less visible, but we are also aware that we are not invisible,“ Ana says. This is because the security forces‘ night-vision devices can also detect them in the dark and it is also more difficult to find the way.
„There are no shelters/places to rest and warm up in, but bison and wolves.“
For nature lovers, it sounds wildly romantic: largely untouched, the forests of the Białowieża National Park belong to the last primeval forest in Europe and are part of the UNESCO World Natural Heritage. For refugees stuck here, however, the humid, swampy area is not exactly beneficial for life. Many poison themselves on unfamiliar plants and fruits or on the undrinkable water when hunger and thirst become unbearable. In winter, freezing temperatures quickly lead to hypothermia and frostbite. There are no shelters to rest and warm up, but bison and wolves, Ana reports.
The suffering within the border forests is enormous
The physical and mental condition of the people is usually very bad when the helpers find them. „They are frightened. We ask for their names and how they are. Where are the family members? Sometimes it turns out that the family was separated in the forest,“ says Marta Górczyńska. “Of course, the first thing we do then is try to reunite them and find the missing husband or child.”
Every situation is very different, she says. Some have broken bones or flesh wounds from crossing the border fence, others suffer allergic reactions from insect bites. For children it is particularly bad and exhausting. Pregnant women often suffer a miscarriage. Both women and men bear marks of violence on their bodies – including rape.
Ana says she cannot judge from which side of the border more violence emanates. But they have started to collect evidence, she says. Little is known about the number of dead either. According to the Polish authorities only about 20 people have died in the border area, which seems rather unlikely given the conditions described. More than 200 people have already been reported missing and there is no trace of them. A much higher number of fatalities is therefore assumed.
„The racism of the Polish government is also reflected in the aid measures.“
How long people are stuck in this inhospitable environment is hard to say. Some make it from Belarus to Poland and out of the border area within a week. Others are stuck on the Belarusian side for several weeks or months, or are pushed back several times. They come from a multitude of regions of the world – the reasons for their flights are diverse.
But they all have one thing in common: the hope for a safe and better life in Europe. Ana also describes another commonality: „The people on the Belarusian border are generally not white but darker. That is also the reason why they are not helped compared to Ukrainian refugees.“ According to Ana, the racism of the Polish government is also reflected in aid measures.
Marta Górczyńska tells us that she is celebrated for the same work and help on the Ukrainian border for which she faces all kinds of hostility in the Polish-Belarusian area. „When I go to the Ukrainian border, I feel that the government and authorities are grateful for what I do. They are open to talk to me and seek my advice when they need it. I do not understand why I can’t do the same on the Belarusian border. It’s absurd because in both cases I provide people with correct legal information and try to save lives.“
„Soon our current resources and funds will be exhausted.“
Currently, Ana and Marta Górczyńska and other members of Gurpa Granica are trying to prepare for winter. They already know what is needed from the experiences of last year. However, they are dependent on financial support. „Soon our current resources and funds will be exhausted,“ Ana reports. Marta Górczyńska therefore emphasizes how important the support of larger and experienced aid organizations would be. Ana no longer believes they will come.
„They should have come last year. I don’t believe in miracles. We appealed to them to come or at least support us materially or financially. So far, nothing has happened.“ She can only speculate about the reasons, probably political. A request to the Polish Red Cross for this article remained unanswered.
Although the work is very exhausting, she will not stop working for the people in the border region, Ana says. „I will help as long as there are people who need help and as long as I can, physically and mentally. Unless I lose my mind.“
*Ana wishes to remain anonymous, which is why her real name is not mentioned here.
This article was first published in German.