Belarus-Poland crisis: Death and misery at the border

He was only 19 years old when he died — and was buried this week in a quiet ceremony in the tiny Polish village of Bohoniki, near the Kuznica border crossing to Belarus. The location is a place where Muslim Tartars settled in the 17th century and, while only a handful of them live there today, the small community felt obliged to bury him as one of their own.

“He was a human being after all, a Muslim and still a youth,” said Maciej Szczesnowicz, the head of the local Muslim community in Bohoniki. He was given “a dignified burial,” the official said. Now his grave lies at the end of Bohoniki’s Muslim cemetery, thousands of miles away from his Syrian hometown of Homs, which was destroyed in the civil war.

It is a lonely place, overlooking an avenue of birch trees and a forest similar to the one where Ahmad lost his life.

‘A tragedy’

The young Syrian left the Jordanian refugee camp he was staying in when he and many others had read on social media that there was an easy route into the European Union via Minsk. He wanted to continue his education in Europe and start a better life.

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The government of Belarus authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko is accused of spreading disinformation systematically to encourage people toward the border. The tactic set the ball in motion that saw thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers head westwards, especially from the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Ahmad and a young Iraqi Kurd died in late October as the two men attempted to cross an icy tributary to the Bug River, which makes up part of the border. Numerous reports suggested that Belarusian border guards had forced migrants to cross fences, forest areas, and swamps along the country’s 400-kilometer (248-mile) border with Poland. DW could not independently verify whether the military pushed them towards the Polish border.

In the small mosque in Bohoniki, a congregation says a few prayers for Ahmad during the evening. Eugenia, a local resident, said she is distraught as she contemplates the situation of those still at the border.

“It’s terrible to watch, it’s cold, they’re freezing to death out there, it’s a tragedy,” she said. “To my simple mind, it’s just tragic, I don’t understand how people can allow this to happen.”

On Wednesday, Lukashenko said he would engage in talks with the European Union to end the standoff at the border.

Polish border guards also said hundreds of migrants and asylum-seekers were moved from the border. Belarusian state news agency Belta reported that they were taken to a heated, warehouse-like building about 500 meters from the border. Poland has sealed off the border region and does not allow journalists into the area to verify the reports.

Helpless helpers

Many in the border region are pitching in where they can. The residents of Bohoniki have been collecting warm clothing and food for those in need. There are also a few dozen people from Polish non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helping — but undercover. Many do not dare enter the cordoned-off area because they will be immediately arrested by border police if caught. So, in secret nighttime operations, they have been taking care of migrants and asylum-seekers who have been able to transmit their whereabouts by cell phone and are within several kilometers of the border.

“The first thing the border guards do is take away the migrants’ phones,” says Agata Kolodziej of the aid organization “Ocalenie.” She is tired and frustrated because the authorities are doing everything they can to put obstacles in their way.

“It is very emotional,” she says, because they are constantly confronted with how little they can accomplish.

Illegal pushbacks

“Sometimes we help people at night in the forest, and then later border guards push them back to the Belarusian side. We have met refugees who have already had six or seven such pushbacks, and still keep trying,” said Kolodziej.

She said she also witnessed a crying woman with her small children who was taken by force back to the forest on the other side of the border. Border guards, she says, even entered a local hospital and removed a patient who was being treated for heart problems and sent him back across the border. But their efforts to get him treatment were in vain.

“The next night we got a text from the man telling us he was on the other side of the border,” she said.

“All these pushbacks are illegal, according to international and EU law,” Kolodziej points out, “but the government in Warsaw issued a decree recently that declared them legal. And the European Union also doesn’t seem to care about the fact that the law is being broken dozens of times a day at the border. On Monday night, the Polish border police reported about 200 attempts by migrants to cross the border and 29 so-called ‘repatriations’ from Polish soil.”

Polish opinion divided despite propaganda war

In the Polish media, the migrants are being portrayed as a threat to national security, as illegal border violators and as economic refugees who have no place in Poland or in Europe.

Public television station TVP reported on Tuesday: “Shocking images from the refugee slums at the border, where migrants are using their children to pressure Poland, by breathing cigarette smoke in their faces to make them cry.” Meanwhile, Gazeta Polska wrote: “Aid organizations at the border are one of Putin’s hybrid weapons. They are being used against Poland to damage national security by blocking the construction of a fence.” The government in Warsaw has since announced it will start construction on a 180 kilometer-long border fence with Belarus in December.

Public opinion in Poland, however, is divided on how to address the people attempting to cross the border from Belarus. A recent poll indicated that while more than 50% of respondents think pushbacks are the right thing to do, more than 60% of those polled say those trying to enter the country should be allowed to apply for asylum.

“We want to have an excuse to not see ourselves as cruel and evil,” said Martin Duma, head of the IBRiS polling institute.

This article was originally written in German.


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