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Poland-Belarus: Refugees talk of 'unimaginable suffering' on border

Thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans and Iranians trapped between Belarus and Poland in spat between Minsk and Brussels
People seeking asylum staying in a camp on the Belarusian-Polish border, 14 November 2021 (AFP)

Eighteen days of "inhumanity" is how Hamza described what he experienced at the gates of the European Union. The 25-year-old Syrian was still in shock when he sent his testimony through WhatsApp to Middle East Eye.

“It was horrible, unimaginable suffering,” says Hamza. "With my friends, we wished for death. We wandered in this forest. Without food, without water. We suffered beatings, humiliations. We are traumatised.”

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Along with two friends, Hamza thought he could be in Germany within a few days of leaving Syria. On 15 October they boarded a flight to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, from Damascus, where they faced being conscripted into President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Hamza, Abdallah, and Mazen all had visas issued in Syria by the Belarusian authorities in the capital. Each of them paid $5,300 to a people smuggler who was supposed to organise their trip from Minsk to Germany.

But nothing went as planned. Once they arrived in Minsk, the three young men found themselves stranded on the Belarus-Poland border, pawns in a diplomatic spat.

A political tool

More than 2,000 people, including Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, and Iranians, have been stuck between the two countries in freezing temperatures for weeks. At least 10 people have died there since August.

The crisis is, in part, the result of several months of deteriorating relations between Minsk and Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU.

At the beginning of July, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko warned that he would allow refugees to come through his country.

"We will not detain anyone. We are not their final destination, after all," he said in statements at that time. "They are headed to enlightened, warm, cosy Europe."

He denies opening the new route in retaliation for EU sanctions imposed on Belarus following his government's repression of opposition protests last spring.

On 8 November the President of the European Commission (EC), Ursula von der Leyen, called on EU member states to impose further sanctions against Minsk, which the EC accused of exploiting migrants as a tool against Europe.

On Thursday, Lukashenko said he would respond to any new European sanctions. 

“We are heating Europe, and they are threatening to close the border. And what would happen if we cut off the natural gas that goes there? So, I would advise Polish leaders, Lithuanians, and other fools to think before they speak,” he said.

A picture taken on November 12, 2021 shows children in a migrants camp on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region (AFP)
Children in a refugee camp on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, on 12 November 2021 (AFP)

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called for “immediate” humanitarian access to the area.

After being abandoned by their first smuggler on 17 October, Hamza and his two friends managed to reach the Polish border, guided by men based in Belarus, Greece, and Turkey.  After three days of wandering in the Podlaskie forest, they were arrested by the Belarusian army. The soldiers beat them before taking them to a detention camp.

'The lights of the Polish army were directed at us. They knew where we were… as though both countries were playing a game, and we were the toy'

- Mazen, refugee

"There were many children in that camp," said 32-year-old Abdallah. "There were many women; some were pregnant. People came from Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and even India."

After dark, Belarusian soldiers turned into smugglers, says Mazen.

"They put us in a truck. We were 40 to 50 people. We couldn't move. We were locked in the dark without knowing where we were going."

When the truck doors opened again to reveal a four metre-wide river, Belarusian soldiers ordered them to cross it. The three Syrian friends, like many other people in their group, did not know how to swim; but after being threatened, they moved into the icy water.

"The lights of the Polish army were directed at us. They knew where we were… as though both countries were playing a game, and we were the toy," explained Mazen.

The 27-year-old was convinced that they would not be rejected in Poland, on the other side of the river. But the Polish soldiers arrested them.

"They started beating us up. In English, they told us, 'no Poland, go back to Bielorussia!'" a local term for Belarus, remembers Hamza, who was beaten the worst of the three. "It was very violent. We didn't eat or drink for three days. My body was exhausted; it was unbearable. For Poland and Belarus, we are like animals." 

'We drank water from the swamps'

Finally, the Polish soldiers pushed the refugees back into the icy water. They stayed there for half an hour.

“The tone rose between the two armies. They hurled insults at each other,” explained Mazen. "The Belarusian military was firing bullets into the air. The Poles were doing the same, while we were in the middle. Some refugees fainted. We held them up so they wouldn’t drown in the river."

Belarusian soldiers ended up allowing the refugees to come back. They again used force to get the three Syrians - and the entire group of refugees - into a truck. The truck stopped in another camp in the middle of the forest.

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“We drank water from the swamps,” explained Abdallah. “We had to drink so we wouldn’t die of thirst. We ate grass. We didn’t have any food left.”   

Seeking help, Hamza said they contacted a humanitarian organisation in Belarus, which tried to help, but they couldn't reach the group.

After a week, the Belarusian soldiers tried to bring Hamza and his friends back, to push them to cross the frozen river again, but they managed to escape.

They begged a driver to take them back to Minsk, where they remained hidden for another week. And on Wednesday 10 November, the three Syrians managed to leave Belarus.

One remains seriously injured from the ordeal.

Abandoned

Thousands of people are still trapped between Belarus and Poland. In images that have emerged over the past few days, a mass of people, including young children, can be seen behind barbed wire fences in the freezing cold.

"There are many people in this forest... We have to help them. What is happening is shameful. It is shameful."

After 18 days spent in the Podlaskie forest, Abdallah remains scarred.

"We felt abandoned like goods that were offered to be sold. Nobody cares if people die there or not," he explained. "I'm sure there are 30 to 40 people who have lost their lives in that area, maybe more."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.