Special Envoy, Hajnówka (Poland)
There is not a cloud but an icy wind on this autumn day on the border between Poland and Belarus. Not a sound either, in the middle of a forest with the colors of fire for a few more days, before winter takes its quarters. Only the sound of the footsteps which lift the dead leaves, and that of the wind which blows in the branches. This magical landscape has become nightmarish in the space of just a few months, by the will of men. Near Hajnówka, Kasia, a single mother of three, has been coming every day for weeks. Alone or with her family, she leaves warm clothes, sleeping bags or even food by the side of the roads, for those asylum seekers who will pass by there.
A migratory movement calculated by Alexander Lukashenko
Since August, the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, has orchestrated a calculated migratory movement at the gates of Europe: thousands of visas are distributed to candidates for Europe, mostly from Iraq, Syria or even from Afghanistan, but also sub-Saharan Africa. Once they arrive in Minsk legally, asylum seekers are then pushed towards the borders of the European Union, into a hostile forest area where they wander for days.
There, in defiance of international law, they were turned away not only by Poland but also by Belarus, although they were signatories to the 1951 UN convention on the status of refugees. In theory, the legal obligation is to welcome asylum seekers with dignity. In fact, hundreds of people are currently stranded between the two countries and are being pushed back to one side or the other. Those with the strength and a bit of luck will pass through the ponds, thickets and icy nights of Eastern Europe. The rest, and among them hundreds of elderly people, women and young children, are doomed to wander in this hostile environment.
State of emergency proclaimed by Andrzej Duda in early September
It is to help them that Kasia decided to get involved, but she is isolated: “Unfortunately, what we see on the official media is completely hostile to foreigners, and it is often the only source of information here. At first, my neighbors didn’t even want to talk about the situation, they didn’t believe it. Little by little, by dint of seeing people arrive, they have realized this reality, even if they do not necessarily approve of what I do. But there are still many people here who don’t even know that there are people dying right now in the forest. “
In the surrounding villages, the police and military presence (around 10,000 soldiers deployed) is the only indication of the state of emergency, proclaimed by the Polish President, Andrzej Duda (PiS, Law and Justice party), and entered into force September 2nd. All along the border, on a strip 3 kilometers wide, a lawless zone has been established by the authorities. No international observer or humanitarian worker, not even the Polish Red Cross, can enter. Identity checks are arbitrary, and cars are sometimes thoroughly inspected.
“The Polish border is closed, the Belarusian authorities have lied to you. Return to Minsk! Do not take any pill given by Belarusian soldiers ”
Poland barricaded behind a wall 5.5 meters high over 200 kilometers
It is precisely in this lawless zone which stretches over the 400 kilometers of common borders between Poland and Belarus that hundreds of people are trapped. The ultraconservative and nationalist Polish government, led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, of the PiS, wants to barricade the country. Automatic SMS messages displayed on all phones as soon as they stop near the border – “The Polish border is closed, the Belarusian authorities have lied to you. Return to Minsk! Do not take any pill given by Belarusian soldiers ”- In addition, there is the construction of a border wall 5.5 meters high over 200 kilometers at a cost of 350 million euros. After being approved by the Senate and Parliament at the end of October, the law entered on November 4 following its promulgation by the Polish president.
“I was lucky, I went to Poland, but in one day in the forest I saw three corpses, in ponds. “
Children trapped in the forest, victims of human trafficking
Among the prisoners in the forest are also children. In front of a hospital in the region, Mohamed (first name changed), a 14-year-old Syrian teenager, waits. After escaping this horror, he hopes to see his father there again, from whom he was separated during a refoulement by Polish customs officials. It testifies : “I was lucky, I went to Poland, but in one day in the forest I saw three corpses, in ponds. “
The border between Belarus and Poland is 400 kilometers (orange line).
The primary forest that borders it is one of the densest in Europe, essential, it is located on the migrant route.
Mohamed was taken into the care of a Polish family who immediately put him in touch with Marta Górczyńska, a lawyer, who is part of a human rights collective. She explains that Mohamed’s situation is far from being an isolated case: “We are here to make sure that both can apply for international protection. There are more and more cases of unaccompanied minors who are arrested by customs officials, and separated from their families, who are either turned back or taken to another detention center. As the authorities do not properly register these minors and do not take into account their asylum requests, we find ourselves in situations like the one experienced by Mohamed and perhaps worse. Because we absolutely do not know what is happening in this forbidden zone. These children are left there without care and may be victims of human trafficking. No one can really know what is going on. “
“I experienced what anyone can imagine: hunger, thirst, mistreatment, mental trauma, drinking swamp water, crossing rivers one and a half meters deep, crossing swamps. .. “
Ahmad, in his 20s, who is also Syrian, was turned away several times before arriving in Poland. He was not registered and was able to reach Germany, where he formally applied for asylum. Ahmad, who spent three weeks in the forest, first with a group of friends from whom he was separated, tells us: “I experienced what anyone can imagine: hunger, thirst, mistreatment, mental trauma, drinking water in swamps, crossing rivers one and a half meters deep, crossing swamps, be detained by Belarusian and Polish authorities. I was beaten, insulted, lost, I endured the rain, the cold, and spent several days without sleeping. “
A green light or the insurance of a refuge
Darkness falls on the forest of Białowieża. A few hundred meters away, in a house on the edge of a field, we find Kasia and her three children. She illuminates her living room with a green light. This pale glow has become a bearer of hope for what remains of humanity in this part of the world. Like other Poles in the region (Podlasie), Kasia indicates with this light to asylum seekers that they will find in this home a friendly presence and the assurance of refuge, food and compassion.
In the meantime, the dramatic political game of Alexander Lukashenko and the Polish government is ending in human lives. The death toll of ten officially dead ten grows heavier day by day in deafening silence. Faced with the criminal inaction of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the Commission, simply said that. But it is nevertheless on European soil that, currently, thousands of people find themselves trapped in a forest that has become hostile. From now on, they endure freezing temperatures, and risk death at any moment, for lack of reception and humanitarian assistance.