Poland’s defence, interior and foreign ministers lined up in front of a tall, metal wall topped with barbed wire. Speaking to assembled television cameras, the three men warned of a terrible plot against Poland, orchestrated in the Kremlin.
The Russian plan to sow discord and chaos in Poland had been foiled only because the patriotic Polish government had constructed the wall behind him, said the foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau. The weapons in this “special operation” were not tanks or bombs, he suggested, but people from the Middle East and Africa.
“Otherwise, we would have become Lampedusa, but a Lampedusa filled with migrants who had been given military training. Ninety per cent of them, then and now, have been recruited by the Russian special services,” Rau claimed, falsely.
Job done, the three ministers headed back to Warsaw. Their speeches were fed into the daily churn of migration scare-stories on pro-government television. The temperature rises each week, as Poland enters the final phase of a closely contested election campaign.
A section of Poland’s border wall with Belarus, reinforced with barbed wire at the top and bottom. Photograph: Kasia Strek
That same evening in late August, on the other side of the border wall, the health of 20-year-old Sadia Mohamed Mohamud was deteriorating. By then, Sadia had been stuck in the thin strip of land between the two border fences, Polish and Belarusian, for almost a month, together with a few fellow Somalis also trying to get to the EU. Sadia told the others she had left her conflict-torn home country in the hope of earning money in Europe to provide a decent life for her two young children, who remained in Mogadishu.
Speaking by telephone from Belarus, another man from the group said that on one occasion some of them had made it on to Polish territory through a hole cut in the border fence. Border guards materialised almost instantly. One of the guards beat Sadia on the shoulders, shouting at her in English: “Why did you come here?”
The Polish guards unlocked a gate in the wall and shoved Sadia and the others back to the other side. The group retreated through no man’s land, only to reach another fence. There, Belarusian border guards threatened them with dogs and batons, ordering them to turn back towards Poland. Sadia later made it into Poland a second time, but was again swiftly apprehended by Polish border guards and pushed back.
Barred from entering the EU but also blocked from returning to Belarus, the group was stuck in the grey zone in between, with minimal food and shelter and no clean water. Everyone was weak, but Sadia was in the worst state. A video taken by one of the group in the forest shows her wrapped in a sleeping bag, barely conscious.
On 10 September, the group again begged the Belarusian guards to let them out, telling them that Sadia was dying. Finally, the guards relented. Another Somali woman took Sadia, wrapped in a white blanket, by car to a house outside Minsk they had been told was safe. An ambulance was called. By now, Sadia was unable to speak, barely able to open her eyes and gurgling up blood.
By the time the paramedics arrived, she was dead.
The crisis on the border began in autumn 2021. A year earlier, the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had crushed mass protests against his rule with brutal violence, leading to a collapse in relations with the EU and the imposition of sanctions on his regime.
In return, Lukashenko threatened to flood Europe with “drugs and migrants”. He soon made good on his promise. Flights sprung up from Middle Eastern cities to Minsk, bringing vulnerable people who had been sold the idea of an easy path to Europe.
Instead, they found themselves stuck in one of Europe’s last primeval forests, which became a hellish no man’s land between a dictator bent on using them as political pawns and a government determined to keep them out.
Soldiers from the Polish Armed Forces patrol the Belarus-Polish border on November 11, 2021 in Kuznica, Poland. Photograph: Getty Images
In response to the initial crisis, the Polish government announced the construction of the border barrier, 5.5 metres high and stretching for 186km. It was completed last summer. Poland’s government frequently points to the catastrophic situation in the Mediterranean and claims it has solved its own migration issue with the wall. In fact, humanitarian organisations say the structure has only increased suffering while doing little to stop the movement of people.
On 15 October, Poles will vote in a knife-edge parliamentary election. The ruling Law and Justice party – whose chair once accused migrants of bringing “parasites and protozoa” to Europe – has been upping the anti-migration rhetoric once again, in the hope of boosting support among its core base and winning another term.
In the days after Sadia died, the evening news on Poland’s government-controlled television again featured tales of invading hordes of migrants laying siege to Europe.
One Law and Justice campaign advert interspersed footage of burning cars and violence in western Europe with the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki taking selfies alongside smiling Poles. Thanks to Law and Justice, said Morawiecki, in Poland there were “no districts full of illegal immigrants … No horror districts”.
The emergency call came shortly before dusk, only a few hours after the three ministers had recorded their speeches at the border. At a base in a secret forest location, a group of humanitarian workerscrammed hot soup, tea, clothes and medical supplies into backpacks.
Dominika Ożyńska, a Polish humanitarian worker and Liz, a German doctor taking a break from her hospital job back home, set off amid the fading light by car, towards the GPS location pin they had received.
They parked at the nearest point to the pin and continued on foot through the darkening forest, clambering over fallen trunks and protruding branches until they reached the spot. They used no light, so as not to attract the attention of border guards, police or soldiers. Eventually, they found the eight Syrian men who had summoned their help, exhausted and disoriented.
Dominika Ozynska, a Polish humanitarian worker, in a storage room in a village near Białowieża where basic supplies are kept for people who call for help from the forest. Photograph: Kasia Strek
One of the men apologised for the group’s appearance in Europe, as if pre-empting judgemnt. “We want to work, we will work,” he said. Dominika assured them they had nothing to apologise for as she handed out cups of tea.
The men had been stranded in the forest for weeks, and this was the fifth time they had crossed into Poland, after four pushbacks to Belarus. This time, though, the group had managed to evade the heat sensors and soldiers stationed on the border, and had made it deeper into Poland. Finally, they were able to send a pin to an SOS number to summon help from Polish activists.
These forest missions are known by the activists as “interventions”, and they began two years ago as an ad hoc response to the emerging crisis. These days, the procedures for interventions are more formalised, but major international NGOs are still absent from the border area. Instead, the burden falls on small Polish rights organisations, big-hearted locals and volunteers. By now, many of them are exhausted and burned out.
Every intervention is different: some people need food or new shoes; others are moments away from dying. Since the wall was constructed, there are more frequent serious injuries that require hospitalisation: broken pelvises and legs, or severe concussion.
Often, psychological trauma and panic attacks are added to the mix. People have been warned the journey will be hard before setting out. But little can preparethem for what it’s really like to be stuck in a forest for weeks on end, drinking from swamps and sleeping on cold, mossy ground amid the bugs and ticks. It can send the toughest person into a spiral.
Most people who are still capable of walking do not want official medical help, because they know that with the ambulance comes the border guards, who might push them back to Belarus again, or throw them into one of Poland’s closed detention centres. So the activists do what they can to patch them up on the spot and send them on their way.
On this particular evening, Liz, who did not want her surname to be published, got to work evaluating the Syrian group’s medical needs. She found a fairly standard collection of ailments. One man had extreme pain in his ribs, probably a fracture from a beating administered by border guards. Another had a deep cut on his leg, sliced open when he fell from the border fence on to barbed wire, recently placed at the bottom as well as the top of the wall by Polish border guards. A third had an abscess the size of an egg on his knee, from a small cut that had become infected during weeks in the forest.
In a hospital setting, Liz would have ordered scans, stitches and surgery. In the forest gloom, she could only offer bandages, painkillers and antibiotics.
It is legal in Poland to give food and medical help to those in need, butagainst the law to offer transport to people who authorities say have crossed the border illegally. So after a couple of hours, Liz and Dominika wished the eight Syrian men the best of luck on their onward journey, and left them alone in the eerie forest night. The aid workers never know if the people they have helped will make it out of the forest alive.
“It’s all a bit abstract when you read an article at home. And then you come here and this crisis gets a face,” said Liz, in an interview at the base two days later. “I feel a lot of rage and anger towards the whole situation. Towards Poland, towards Europe.”
Lukashenko’s regime continues to exacerbate the crisis, allowing people to enter Belarus and then giving them equipment to help them get into Poland.
“The Belarusian soldiers give people special tools for cutting the barbed wire, and things to dig a hole under the fence,” said Katarzyna Zdanowicz, the spokesperson for the regional border guard service, in an interview in her office in a fortified compound in the city of Białystok.
By mid-August this year, the electronic sensors on the wall had logged more than 20,000 crossing attempts for 2023 so far, up from 16,000 total attempts in 2022, said Zdanowicz.
Katarzyna Zdanowicz, the spokesperson for the regional border guard service on the Polish side of the border, says more than 20,000 people have attempted to cross the border so far this year, up from 16,000 attempts last year. Photograph: Kasia Strek
Lukashenko’s role as a supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine has further escalated tension. After the failed mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin, troops from his Wagner group relocated to Belarus over the summer. Lukashenko “joked” about the Wagner fighters planning to invade Poland. In late July, three Belarusian military helicopters flew over the border town of Białowieża.
In response, Poland ordered an extra 10,000 troops to the border region. So far, Wagner troops have not come close to the border, but the additional soldiers make it even harder for people who make it over the wall to pass further into Poland undetected. Most roads close to the border have police checkpoints, where officers stop cars and scan the skin colour of the passengers.
This has led to more pushbacks, as well as much more testimony of violence from Polish border guards. Zdanowicz said border guards would not push back a person who had claimed asylum in Poland, and also denied there had been any case of unprovoked violence from border guards. Activists say both of these claims are untrue.
Members of a Kurdish family from Dohuk in Iraq are seen in a forest near the Polish-Belarus border while waiting for the border guard patrol, near Narewka, Poland, on November 9, 2021. Photograph: Wojtek Radwański/AFP/Getty Images
For the people pushed back to Belarus, or stranded between the two walls, there is almost no one to turn to for help. Belarusian border guards frequently set dogs on people trying to return to Belarus after failed crossings; many people return to Minsk with leg wounds from dog bites.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, Poland has welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees. Authorities and the general population came together in a response filled with compassion and generosity to offer shelter and support to fleeing Ukrainians.
For the much smaller numbers of people coming from further away, and with a different skin colour, the message remains very different.
“From the beginning the whole thing has been portrayed as a security threat instead of a human story,” said Ala Qandil, of Grupa Granica, the largest umbrella group of activists and humanitarian workers at the border. “We just want the people crossing the border to be seen as human beings.”
Volunteers and activists from Grupa Granica organise supplies including water bottles to give to people in the forest. Photograph: Kasia Strek
Instead, the dehumanisation is increasing. On the same day as the parliamentary election, Poles will be asked to vote in a referendum. One question will ask if they wish to remove the border wall. Another asks: “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa?”
In recent days, the news on government-controlled TVP has been presented live from Lampedusa, where correspondents explain the difference between Europe’s general migration policy and Poland’s tough stance at the border. The ticker headline to a migration story on the television news one recent evening comprised a single word: “Invasion”.
It is an unsubtle attempt by the Law and Justice party to mobilise its base for an election that is likely to be so close that it could turn on a tiny number of voters. Keen not to appear soft on migration, the main opposition coalition, led by former European Council president Donald Tusk, has decided to extend one foot onto the government’s turf.
“Never in history have Poland’s borders been so open to legal and illegal migrants,” said Tusk, accusing the ruling party of talking tough while stealthily letting in migrants.
Kamil Syller, an activist who lives in a small village close to the border, said he was particularly disheartened by Tusk’s dabbling in the rhetoric of the right. “We were disappointed and terrified by their change of language. The politicians look at this crisis as a political goldmine and all of them try to use it,” he said in an interview at his home, a contemporary farmhouse set amid bucolic fields.
In border communities like Syller’s, many people have shown solidarity to people passing through. In 2021, Syller and his wife set up the “green light” movement, in which a network of sympathetic locals installed green lights outside their homes to indicate places where people on the move could seek help.
Some locals were initially scared, said Syller, but after interactions with people seeking help realised they were not evil invaders but merely vulnerable people in need of support.
Kamil Syller lives close to the border with Belarus and set up the ‘green light’ movement to help people passing through his village after crossing into Poland. Photograph: Kasia Strek
“Many of my neighbours used to be aggressive, but over time they understood the sadistic nature of the border guards, they started wanting to help. Now, if they find people who need help, some of them call me instead of calling the border guards,” he said.
But after two years of the crisis, many in the border region have grown weary of the increased military presence, and frustrated at the decrease in the number of tourists visiting the forest. Syller fears attitudes might change soon, especially with the daily election propaganda targeting migrants.
“We see disgusting, dehumanising propaganda every evening, it’s pure propaganda from the darkest moments of the twentieth century,” said Franek Sterczewski, an opposition MP who has supported activists at the border. “Unfortunately, the propaganda of fear often works.”
On a sultry afternoon in late August, Mariusz Kurnyta, a wiry 36-year-old with a fortnight of stubble, set out to look for a body.
Mariusz, who goes by the nickname “Man of the Forest”, crowdfunds the work he does at the border. In recent months, he has patched up injuries, fitted intravenous fluid drips in forest clearings, hauled dying people out of swamps and helped hundreds more on their way with water, soup and a change of clothes.
“For the last two years, my life is the forest. I don’t have another life,” he said, puffing on a cigarette as he prepared to leave from his base. He has fallen out with some of the other activists working at the border. He chain smokes. He looks permanently exhausted.
Mariusz last saw Ibrahim Eltony, a 37-year-old Egyptian man, a year ago, when Ibrahim summoned help after crossing from Belarus. Mariusz gave him food, water and a distinctive blue coat to stave off the rain. Ibrahim was never seen again.
The blue coat believed to be the one Mariusz Kurnyta gave to to Ibrahim Eltony, who called for help after crossing from Belarus. Photograph: Kasia Strek
In June this year, during a search in swampy terrain not far from the border, a backpack that appeared to have been Ibrahim’s was found. Its contents: some sodden documents, a power bank, a mud-caked thermos flask and an electric razor. Two months later, the same blue coat was found in a spot not far from where the backpack had been. Mariusz decided to return to the spot a third time, to see if the body was nearby.
Mariusz and two other activists walked past hikers and bikers enjoying the late summer on the forest paths. An army pick-up truck crept along an adjacent track, its passengers wearing balaclavas, apparently on the hunt for people who have crossed the border.
Leaving the path and picking through a section of dense forest, Mariusz emerged into a boggy clearing. The ground was uneven, every step a potential twisted ankle. Mariusz forged a path through chest-high grass towards the section of stagnant swamp where the anorak had been found. There was a pristine silence save for the whirring of insects.
Mariusz Kurnyta searching for the body of Ibrahim Eltony, who crossed from Belarus and has not been seen since last year. Photograph: Kasia Strek
He and the others donned waterproof overalls, picked up chunky sticks, and began slowly wading through the bog, prodding the ground as they went.
After a few hours of methodical probing, they gave up. Ibrahim Eltony, missing since last summer, would not be found that day.
Ibrahim is one of more than 200 people who are still missing since the crisis at the border started. At least 49 deaths have been documented. The real figures are almost certainly much higher, especially as there is so little information about what happens on the Belarusian side of the border.
Many of these deaths were preventable. Often, people died within a hundred metres of a village, a police patrol or a road where help could have been given. On the Belarusian side, people have died within days of being pushed back by Polish border guards.
This month alone, there have been credible reports of four people dying on the Belarusian side after they were pushed back from Poland. People have died of thirst and exhaustion when Polish territory is visible just a few metres away. It is illegal for activists to come within 15 metres of the border wall, meaning they cannot throw provisions over.
Malgorzata Rycharska, an activist in Poland who fields calls from those stuck in the grey zone between the border fences, said it can be unbearably hard to explain to people that no help can reach them, even though they can see the EU with their own eyes. She referred to her work as “hopelessness management”. Often, all she can do is try to connect them with other stranded groups.
“It’s always the same. They call and say: ‘We are here, we have no water, no food and our battery is going to die. Can you help us?’ And then we have to explain to them that no one will come.”
Additional reporting by Katarzyna Piasecka