People in the Swamp


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February 18, 2022

People in the Swamp

Notes from the Polish Border with Belarus

  • Belarus
  • borderlands
  • borders
  • Poland
  • Refugees

The heavily policed Eastern borderlands of Poland, Podlachia, saw significant changes in the latter half of December. The number of police personnel and road checkpoints  began dwindling away. Previously, one could hardly drive ten kilometers without being stopped and being subject to inspection. Each car trunk, no matter how big the vehicle, was checked multiple times. In theory, judging from the diapers scattered around the forest and those in the closed zone, one could smuggle an infant in a tiny trunk. There were fewer street patrols because the border crossings were  militarily secured and not many refugees were able to get out of the closed zone. 

At the border, guards have been placed in very close proximity. Heavy military gear has also been set up. Pictures taken secretly by the residents show the NATO army in a rather pathetic state. No tents were set up for the military troops. The temperatures were unbearable, and the soldiers had to build huts that resembled homeless camps, constructing makeshift shacks out of boards and hacking down trees for campfires. Armored vehicles with turret systems, equipped with optical and night-vision capabilities, which were brought in to monitor the area, get easily stuck in the mud, and it takes several days to pull them out and move to other locations. The local residents are the only ones who can observe the zone up close, and they claim that the soldiers are always leaving behind piles of beer cans and often buy moonshine liquor from the residents.

The entrance at the Border Guard Station exhibits a plaque received from residents: “In these trying times, please accept our thanks,” write the inhabitants of Pietraszka, Brańsk district, “and our hopes for safe duty and the care of the Domanowska Virgin Mary; may you feel the constant support of the Polish nation and pride in your work (…) We are proud of you and pray for you. May God be at your side.”


With greater military presence at the borders, there are fewer and fewer migrants, and the volunteers aiding refugees don’t call for help as frequently as they did. At the same time, one continues to hear of border guards destroying cell  phones of refugees so that many of them cannot send requests for help. Moreover, due to poor GPS signal in border areas, by the time refugees are discovered by volunteers they are often so emaciated that they can barely walk. The evident reduction in the number of migrants in the forest also comes from the fact that the Belarusian officers push fewer people through the border fences at night. Only few migrants make it out of the closed area and onto the Polish side.

On the freezing evening of November 16, news reached the volunteers that four Syrians were in the forest waiting for help. It was easy to bring them warm clothing and food but much harder to get them to shelter. Transporting them anywhere would likely result in the refugees being pushed back to Belarus, which is an all too frequent experience for them. Their country of origin did not protect them from expulsion. But as refugees from Syria, they should automatically receive international protection in the European Union, just like Afghans. Poland has no right to repel them even if they have crossed the border without permits. Polish border guards have thus far pushed 27,000 refugees back to Belarus. 

One of the border guards says that there are neither special instructions nor brigades involved in pushing migrants back to Belarus. Guards, who happen to be on a shift, catch the migrants, take them back to the border, cut the barbed wire, and physically push the people across to the other side. A dozen others observe this and after the “push-back” seal up the fence again.

Some Syrian refugees reported that they were trapped on the border fence between Polish guards on one side and Belarusian guards on the other. They were freezing and starving. One night, a Syrian refugee was bitten by a dog that belonged to a Belarusian border guard. Poles also patrol the border with dogs, he later reported. After that night, the Belarusian officers pushed them across the border into Poland once again. The Syrians spent eleven days wandering the forest in the cold weather and without warm clothes. When Polish volunteers found them, the refugees were exhausted and traumatized.

The youngest among them, Khamd, who was not yet twenty, was in relatively good shape. In Syria he studied journalism, he speaks English, and has a charming smile. He has six siblings and wants to get to Holland because one of his brothers lives in Amsterdam. The oldest of the Syrian refugees, almost fifty years of age, is also doing all right. After his first night spent under a roof and in shelter in many weeks, he quickly regains his senses. He’s eager to talk. The stilted dialogue, mediated through Google translator is slow, but to the point. He responds to the standard set of questions: “Where are you from,” “Have you got siblings,” “Where would you like to go?” Two other men are in an evidently worse condition. One keeps smearing ointment on his bruised feet, the other has swollen lips—all puffy and pale. Both seem to be suffering from chronic depression.

On the night of December 3, the Border Group (a civil society initiative that unites fourteen NGOs working for human rights and supporting refugees and migrants in Poland) released information that two Kurdish refugees from Turkey were in the forest near the village of Zabroda, not far from Narewka. They had flown in from Istanbul in the latter half of November. They were driven from Minsk to the Polish border in a private taxi, where they were apprehended and attacked by Belarusian soldiers, who tossed them over the border into Poland. Once in Poland, they received similar treatment from Polish soldiers. They tried to  slip through a cut barbed-wire fence for a second time, but were again discovered by border guards who chased them and destroyed their phones. They were pushed back twice.

Before the volunteers revealed the location of the Kurds found in the woods, they acquired European Human Rights Tribunal documents for them, and these documents temporarily protected the migrants from being tossed back into Belarus for the third time.

At midnight some journalists come to the forest to meet with the Kurdish refugees. Seizing the opportunity, Maria Złonkiewicz, a volunteer with the Chlebem i Solą (With Bread and Salt) Foundation says to the journalists “We want to call the border guards in your presence. Our friends will be asking for asylum. They’ve received a month’s temporary protection under ‘interim measures,’ which lets them apply for international protection in Poland.” The European Human Rights Tribunal responded to the plea of the Kurds almost within twenty four hours. The document stops the deportation. When refugees are detained in front of cameras, there is a greater chance that they will avoid being deported to the border again. This is an open secret around here.

The Kurds sit on mylar thermal blankets leaning against birch stumps. They cover their faces with masks and hats. They do not want to reveal their names. Translator Jakub Sypiański says that one of them was politically oppressed in Turkey and spent two years in jail.

“The situation on the Belarus side was very bad,” one of the Kurds reports. “The Belarusian army took everything we had, money and food. People are left sleeping out in the cold.” The other adds: “The first time we got to Poland we were given some documents to sign, we signed them and we were thrown back across the border. We spent one day there, again we got to the Polish side, then we spent five days wandering the forest without food or water. It’s been very hard, physically and mentally.”

One of them lost his shoes in a swamp, he had to walk in just his socks,” the translator adds. In the woods on the Polish side they met another group of refugees, but they didn’t want to go with them because the other refugees spoke a different language. When asked if they saw any bodies lying in the forest, they said no. A Moroccan escapee from the zone, however, said that he saw a person lying motionless in the woods.

Maria Złonkiewicz dials the Border Guard: “I’m calling because I came across some refugees in the forest.”

“Refugees or foreigners?” asks the person on the other end of the line.

“They say they’re refugees.”

“Ha, ha, they’re only refugees when our country says they are. All right, where did you come across them,” he says, stressing the last part.

“And what is your business here? You haven’t been hurt in any way?”

The Border Guards here miss no opportunity to declare that the refugees are dangerous and they carry long knives, that if you go into the woods you’d better watch out.   

After half an hour, two border guards in ski masks show up, one with a big weapon. They do not wish to introduce themselves. When the two Kurds get up, one of the guards asks: “Will you be cleaning up in here?” One frequently hears this question now in Podlachia; it is repeated like a mantra. Muddy clothes, food and medicine packages, thermal sheets, torn sleeping bags are left in the camps abandoned by escaping refugees. Sometimes these things are neatly folded, as if left for others. The local forest is also littered with old refrigerators, printers, renovation garbage, and beer cans; our trash—their trash.

The volunteers pack up the things. When the refugees climb into the guards’ all-terrain vehicle, the guard adjusts the front seat so roughly that it seemed he was attempting to slam into the legs of the Kurd sitting behind him.

This humanitarian crisis was created by the Belarusian regime, but two sides of the conflict are visible in Podlachia. On the one side are the refugees and migrants trying to cross over to Western Europe, on the other are the Border Patrol, police and military of both countries. 

In the border region, there is no way to close your eyes and not see. The sight is dramatic— “the pain of others,” as Susan Sontag puts it, is palpable. It is happening right here, and yet somehow seems unimaginable. No one can say exactly how these hunted people are capable of surviving in the dark, freezing woods. They do not light campfires, as this could put the police on their trail. The people helping out say they have seen mothers huddled up, holding their child in their arms, shaking so badly it was impossible to make any kind of contact with them, even to give them soup. They tell of migrants stuck in the swampy depths of the forest; when they were pulled out and their clothing was changed, they were horribly emaciated.  

Not all of them hold out. Eighteen bodies have already been found. A four-year-old girl vanished on the night of December 6th and 7th when her parents were pushed back to Belarus. The guards have not taken up a search and have not let people into the closed zone to look for little Eileen. People died as a result of the border operations that were initiated by the government in Warsaw. They were pushed back, they tried to survive, but they died suffering. Many have been buried anonymously in Poland. Everyone still wonders what might yet be revealed in the forest of the border zone that remains off limits.

Photo credit: Urszula Glensk

Urszula Glensk is professor at the University of Wroclaw is interested in reportage and documentary literature. She published five books, including Historia słabych. Reportaż i życie w Dwudziestoleciu 1918-1939. This book received an Award for science from the Prime Minister and the History Award from the weekly magazine „Polityka”. Her last book Hirszfeldowie – zrozumieć krew was nominated for the Nike Prize, the most important literary award.

The translation from Polish was provided by Soren Gauger.


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