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Persecuted citizens on the Polish-Belarusian border

The Bialowezia Forest region used to be known for its quality of life, peace and nature. Today, border guard vehicles patrol the villages in search of migrants while a few locals come to their aid.

In Bialowieza, the multicolored wooden houses typical of the Polish wilderness are covered by the morning dew. In the center of the small town of roughly 3,000 inhabitants, the chairs of a swing set in a cozy playground are slowly moving, pushed by the winter wind. A few meters from the children’s den, the town’s dusty military base awakens. It’s barely 8 a.m. and the silence of the quiet town on the Polish-Belarussian border is suddenly broken. The armored vehicles leave the camp, drive past the houses and speed along the muddy forest roads of Poldasia.

Once welcoming, Bialowezia is known for its proximity to Europe’s last primary forest, its biodiversity and its tourism. Since August 2021, migrants from Africa and the Middle East have been trying to cross the Polish border from Belarus to Europe. Driven by the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, in order to put pressure on the European Union, this arrival has turned these uneventful borderlands into areas of tension. In November 2021, Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, said he was facing a “hybrid war in which migrants were used as weapons. Now, at the end of every forest road in the rural villages of Poldasia, there is a soldier in combat gear, machine gun in hand, along a 180-kilometre long, five-metre high iron wall topped with barbed wire.

Originally, the rooms in Kamil Syller’s guesthouse were intended for tourists. Now they are temporarily housing refugees. Polska/Chloé Ferreux

Arriving in Werstok, a hamlet of about 50 inhabitants, a khaki Polish military vehicle passes an imposing light wooden house on the edge of the forest. Kamil Syller had this family cottage built five kilometers from the border in 2015, when he wanted to leave his Warsaw city life behind for the Poldasian wilderness. Six years later, he turns an exhausted glance toward this forest he used to love dearly. “When I walk there, there is always a parasitic thought in my head that I might stumble upon a corpse,” says the former lawyer. On February 6, the Pole was alerted on a local Facebook group helping refugees that a young Ethiopian woman was missing. Convinced that he could still save her, he spent his days walking through the forest to find her. However, on February 12, one of his friends sent him a video of the young woman freezing to death near Hajówka, a town about 20 kilometers from his home.

Kamil Syller has rescued more than 100 migrants since August 2021 in the Bialowieza Forest ©Polska/Chloé Ferreux

“If we help refugees, we are enemies”

By day, by night, Kamil sees men in military uniforms, armed tanks and even helicopters flying past the windows of his house. “The moment we help the refugees, we are considered the enemy,” boils the father of three. At the beginning of the crisis, his wife Marysia and daughter Adela, then 15 years old, were bringing food and warm clothes to a group of refugees in the Bialowezia forest, a few kilometers from their homes. Border guards, their faces hidden by skeleton masks, pointed the barrel of their guns at the mother’s temple, Kamil says. The 40-year-old has lost count of the number of times he has been threatened by the Polish authorities. “At first, I was terrified that I would end up in prison for taking refugees into my home,” the Polish man admits half-heartedly. “Often they come at night with their pickups, they surround the houses, and they turn on the lights to remind us that they are watching us,” he adds.

Poland sent thousands of soldiers to support the border guards. They were given permission to push back migrants into Belarus.  ©Marianna.

Children “confronted with the cruelty of the world”

Slumped in an armchair, Krystyna, the last of the Syller couple, listens attentively to the testimony of her family. The 9-year-old girl with big blue eyes remembers the day her parents had to explain to her that she should not tell the school that they were hosting migrants. “When she asked us why, we told her that if she spoke, people could die.” According to her father, this heavy responsibility has caused the golden-haired child to grow up much faster than her two older sisters. “She is stronger than her sisters who grew up in the city. She knows how to keep a cool head in front of the police,” says Kamil.

Like Krystyna, Marianna’s children (name changed) have seen their daily lives turned upside down by the migration crisis. In 2017, this mother of two had a small wooden farm built only ten kilometers from the border. Trees as far as the eye can see, bison nearby. The former Warsaw native always wanted to raise her family in Europe’s last primary forest but, according to the 40-year-old, the reality she faces today is far from her childhood dream. “My 11-year-old son is confronted with the cruelty of the world in his own home. It’s like living in a waking nightmare,” the 38-year-old woman with the boyish face says with annoyance. “One day, a border guard threatened me by saying that he knew where my daughter goes to kindergarten,” the Polish woman worries. Today, the mother is trying to leave Poldasia.

Kasia Poskrobko, a native of Hajówka, is a refugee aid coordinator at the city’s hospital, one of several medical complexes in the region. Polska/Chloé Ferreux

“At war” even in the hospital

On the street leading to the hospital in Hajówka, Kasia Poskrobko, an humanitarian worker, explains that she feels “like she is at war”. Before pushing the imposing doors of the orthopedic wing, this 44-year-old woman counts on her fingers each military vehicle that passes. She counts ten. In the elevator, the border woman fidgets with her hands, leans on one leg and then the other. A man from Yemen and three Syrians are waiting for her medical assistance. One of them broke his leg because of the height of the wall. All of them have their hands scraped by the barbed wire. When the doors open, Kasia comes face to face with three-armed colossus, in military uniforms, with a threatening look. Since the beginning of the crisis, every refugee entering the hospital is watched by a border guard. When they are able to be moved, some migrants are taken to closed detention centers in Poland, others are sent back to Belarus. The aid worker eventually passes the three border guards without a word and hurries to her patients’ room. “They sometimes lock the access to the refugees’ rooms. They can’t stand to see me helping them,” she whispers once she is out of their reach.

Fates turned upside down

At the beginning of the migration crisis, Kasia Poskrobko had just quit her job and was about to start a business with my husband. “When the first refugees arrived, I went to the hospital every day to provide support for the injured,” relates the former office worker whose project never saw the light of day. Today, she wants to get involved in politics. “It’s the only way to have a real impact,” she points out.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Marianna sometimes spends 10 to 15 hours a day in the forest looking for refugees to bring them medicine. Polska/Chloé Ferreux

As Kasia did, Marianna also wanted to change her life by building a small wooden farmhouse. At the time, she had no idea that her guest room would turn into a pharmacy. Efferalgan, survival blankets, syringes… drawer cabinets, packed with medicine, fill her home. “When a woman had a miscarriage in front of me, I realized that it was essential for me to develop medical skills,” says the border woman. Now she divides her life between helping refugees around her home and attending nursing school.

Fear of denunciation

In the small hamlet of a dozen inhabitants where Marianna lives, lost in the middle of the bumpy forest roads of Poldasia, mutual help between neighbors is essential. But since the migration crisis, the residents who help refugees at the border no longer know who they can trust. “I used to spend a lot of time with an elderly neighbor. We helped each other regularly. Now she is against the refugees and I know she will not hesitate to report our activities to the border guards,” says Marianna. When one of her friends visits her, the Polish woman rushes to her garden to close her large wooden gate before the inhabitants of her village notice the presence of this unknown car.  “I have sometimes caught neighbors taking pictures of my garden to send to the authorities,” says the mother. Her guest, who is also involved in humanitarian aid at the border, agrees and says, “My daughter once asked me if we could build a secret room to hide the refugees.”

The wall is located two kilometers from Bialowezia. Even for the locals, it is forbidden to come closer than 15 meters. Polska/Chloé Ferreux

“When I go into the forest, I am terrified”

A few meters below the military base in Bialowezia, a path strewn with dead leaves runs into the forest. Joanna Pawlu?kiewicz walks her dog cautiously along it. When the migration crisis began, the comedian and screenwriter “naturally” became involved in humanitarian aid. A year and a half later, her big blue eyes with deep circles can no longer bear “to witness the terrible aggressions of the government”. Her nights are filled with nightmares of the Polish army crushing the heads of her relatives and killing her family. Like other committed locals, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that prevents her from continuing her humanitarian work. “I always feel like I’m being watched by the border guards. When I venture into the forest, I am terrified,” she says, her voice trembling. Originally from Warsaw, she had moved to the small town in 2017 to recharge her batteries. Today, Joanna regularly takes refuge in the Polish capital to find a semblance of peace.

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