The humanitarian crisis at the Belarus-Poland border is escalating and media from all over the world have started reporting it. The Lukashenko regime is blamed for encouraging people who seek refuge in Europe to come to Belarus and to cross the border to Poland. But the Polish army pushes them back and tension increases. There are said to be three to four thousand people in makeshift camps along the barbed wire.
It is important to develop an accurate idea of the Polish side of the border, which is peppered with over 15.000 gunned border guards, army, and police. And it is just as important to understand and challenge the consequences of the measures that the Polish government has taken so far.
On September 2, 2021 the Polish government declared a state of emergency in the border area, which stretches for 418km, and includes 183 towns and villages. Two things need to be said about the situation loud and clear which might, and should, come as a shock to anyone who has been living peacefully in Europe for the past several dozen years. Firstly, no media are allowed to enter the zone. Secondly, no humanitarian organizations are allowed to enter the zone. There is more. On October 22, the Polish president Andrzej Duda signed a law which officially enables the Border Guards to push people across the border, back to Belarus, without examining an asylum application. Let’s rephrase: the president of a European country has signed a document which encourages soldiers to act against the Geneva Convention.
For a number of people in Poland this is incomprehensible, last but not least because since August help is being organized. For instance, the inhabitants of the state of emergency zone are helping quietly. We will probably never learn about most of them; some wander the woods at night carrying 50 kilogram backpacks filled with supplies for those in need, some hang plastic bags with food on branches and leave water at crossroads, others secretly provide shelter for exhausted people whom they found in the ditches by the road. Outside the zone, organizations like Grupa Granica and Ocalenie Foundation are coordinating volunteers. They are helping those asylum seekers who manage to leave the zone and Medics at the Border provide medical help.
The question that arises is how do the humanitarian aid groups know where to go? They usually get the information from the people stuck in the woods who simply google aid foundations in Poland. Or they send a cry for help with their cellphone and a pin on the map comes from families back in Syria, Afghanistan or Kongo who are desperately trying to save their loved ones by helping from afar. For instance, a friend of mine, who is active on social media, was in the middle of a conference when he got a Facebook message from a stranger in Kurdistan looking for his family who had flown to Belarus a few days earlier. My friend advised him to ask Ocalenie Foundation who were later able to help.
To get a more nuanced picture of what current border help looks like the voice of those helping needs to be heard. The testimonies cited below have been shared on Facebook in the past two months. I also used a file created by Paweł Stolarski who has collected stories, translated and shared them in the Facebook group “Families without Borders.”
Living there in daytime
Eliza Kowalczyk, October, 22, 10:04: I had not even finished my breakfast when behind my window overviewing the church, at the car park, some traffic started. Border Guards. I quickly catch my backpack, load the supplies, and run. I see three persons sitting at the curb, surrounded by Border Guards. I approach (texting friends for help) and ask if I can give them food and water. One of the guards tells me to wait but the woman jumps up from the curb and runs towards me, crying and hugging me, begging “No Belarus.” I hug her and ask if they want to eat and then the worst happens. One of the men opens a tourist bag standing in front of him in which there is a baby. I start crying. I kneel next to them opening a backpack with food.
Everything happens so instantly and emotionally that I might confuse the order of events.
I caress the baby, turn my head towards guards and the four children, men, and pregnant women approach. I want to howl. They ask for milk. They show me some yellow water which was given to them by the Belarussians and keep begging not to be pushed back over the border. They have Euros they want to exchange to buy something in the local shop. I run to get the milk from the shop. I make a credit purchase since I have no money. I return. My neighbour has started helping as well, he carries water and buns for children.
Refugees want international protection but one of the guards tells them they have no right to ask for it and they will not get it. I ask that they do not deceive those people. I look in the eyes of the guards, familiar men, they know I recognize them. And so what? We will pass each other in the street wearing plain clothes soon. Four boys are sitting on the truck, they are eating chocolate and keep repeating “No Belarus.” I touch them friendly. Women are crying, mother takes the baby out of the bag, bus has arrived to collect them all. I take the baby into my arms; it is crying so I caress it gently and rock like I did with mine when they were little. My nightmare has come true. My friends arrive, but nothing can be done anymore. The guard is saying “They could have stayed home!”. [translation P. Stolarski]
Living there at night-time
Nina Boichenk, October 10, 13:42: Last night I left children in the forest. I waded through the forest with warm food, water, and sleeping blankets. I cannot say how many degrees there were, but I did not feel my fingers. Finally, I reached the family: a mother and a father guarding four children. Children were lying next to their parents, wrapped up in wet blankets. Starving and hypothermic. Still and silent. I started changing the youngest child. It was an almost one-year-old. It went quickly – a half-conscious child is easy to change. He was hot, I was wondering whether it is my imagination because my hands are cold, or the child had high fever. I wrapped him up in an additional sleeping bag. I did the same with every next child. I gave sleeping blankets to adults.
And off I went.
The exhausted family has already experienced three push backs. Three times the Polish services have pushed them back into Belarus, three times the Belarus services forced them to go to Poland again. They are paralysed by fear of the officers. They say they will not survive another push-back, another forced crossing over the barbed wire.
Frosts are coming, in one month the “Law and Justice” party will collect dead bodies. [translation P. Stolarski]
Helping in shifts
Ewa Ber, November 7, 21:35: I went to the border of humanity, i.e., to the village beyond which the state of emergency begins. I lived in a big house where mostly young people set up a helping enterprise. Each day each resident has an assigned task that determines the success of the operation. There is a warehouse there, where gifts from people (including those from you) are sorted. Stacks of clothes, overalls, shoes, mats, power banks, energy bars, bandages... And that’s where I had my first shift, separating thick clothes from thin ones, darker ones from the bright and colourful ones, which make a man easier to spot in the forest.
This may mean another deportation to Belarus, and there: beating, often torture. However, when time came to pack a set for a three-year-old child, I checked a dozen or so times to check if I had not forgotten anything, as forgetting might mean he or she would not survive another cold night. The backpack is packed with a set of underwear (preferably thermal, but those finish quickly), two pairs of socks, ski pants, a jacket, and the so-called small set, meaning a hat, scarf, and gloves. Power bank, foam mat, sleeping bag and tarp, which is a kind of incomplete tent, NRC foil. Flasks of hot tea, slices of bread, some energy bars. Soup jars are put into wellies. While packing, adrenaline is rushing, because you cannot forget anything. […]
The next day I was on kitchen duty. You need to cook a cauldron of “soup to the forest,” make sandwiches, brew hectolitres of sweet tea. The residents and the ladies from local women organizations come and help in preparing dinner for us, because thinking about yourself is the last thing that goes on in this house. I was once given the task of bringing two 25-liter thermos flasks of soup from a bar in a nearby town. I don’t know if it’s a conscious help from the bar, or if someone had paid for the soup. Nobody is asking questions here. However, when it was time to prepare powdered milk for a two-year-old, something inside me broke. No, I wasn’t crying. I didn’t see anyone crying here. You could only see despair in the eyes and clenched jaws.
Several teams go out daily to provide humanitarian aid. Every day, day and night. Sometimes you need to pull someone out of a swamp, sometimes you need to cross a river, you always have to make your way through the forest. The area is wet, so you go in wellingtons. Often at night, such an operation often lasts several hours, so, although the legs remain dry, they are frozen to the core. Some people return, others leave. Packing, cooking, going to the forest. The scale of this is shocking. In central Poland, people have no idea what is really going on at the border. And this is in the age of the Internet! Admittedly, the government was well aware of the human handicap. We will close the border zone, there will be no journalists, there will be no problem. No one will want to rummage around and look for information. [translation: M. Gutowska]
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, video talks, projects, and artworks on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de
Maria Gutowska is a cultural anthropologist. Studied at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. In her doctoral thesis she studies travel, especially travel that has art galleries as its destination. In her own travels she examines everything she finds (museums, forgotten villages, garbage containers). Lives and works in Krakow.