Since the summer of 2021, a humanitarian crisis has been unfolding on the Poland-Belarus border. In August, thousands of migrants arrived in Minsk believing that the Belarusian government would help them gain access to the EU. Denied legal entry into Belarus and reportedly threatened by force, many tried to cross to neighbouring Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, wandering through forests and enduring freezing conditions. EU officials and human rights organisations believe the influx of arrivals was intentionally escalated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as retaliation for the EU’s support of his opposition.
In September, the Polish government locked down a strip running along the 400 kilometre border that prohibits anyone but local residents and visiting relatives, police, border guards and the military from entering. Activists have urged the Polish government to allow doctors, humanitarian workers, and volunteers to enter the zone and create a humanitarian corridor but the government didn’t respond to the request. In January 2022, Poland began building a 353 million euro ($407m) border wall to deter migrants.
The following report was produced by journalist Anna Jacková and photographer Michaela Nagyidaiová over one week in November 2021. The images capture checkpoints, those helping migrant families by bringing necessities like food and clothing, and the general atmosphere on the border. Nagyidaiová sought to avoid taking portraits of the migrants themselves, as she worried their images would be appropriated or taken without context. Historically, media photographers have capitalised on the vulnerability of their subjects — something she wanted to steer clear of. In her words, “I didn’t want to bring my camera into the forests and photograph the people stuck there, to take advantage of the situation or perpetuate it through photography, so I had to think hard about how to portray the forests differently.” In the depths of the Podlasie region, Nagyidaiová’s photographs piece together a bigger picture: of community and care existing in an environment of deep panic, prejudice, and pessimism. “The situation on the border is not a migrant crisis,” says Jacková, “it’s a humanitarian crisis.”
“Help is legal.” This sentence is written on one of the leaflets left around the border area. Since the beginning of the crisis, non-profit platform Grupa Granica has used its vast network of NGOs to provide aid to people stranded in the forests. The leaflets instruct locals on what they can do to support migrants, such as giving food, clothes or water. But there is a thin line between what is considered help, and what is officially seen as people smuggling. Under Polish law, it is considered suspicious or even illegal to provide a migrant or asylum seeker with shelter or transport.
The so-called emergency zone stretches through forests and swamps along the entire border with Belarus, and contains 183 cities in the Podlaskie and Lublin regions. Photographer Michaela Nagyidaiova and I met volunteers Agata, Kassia, Marek, Zuzana, and Wiktoria in an old country house near the border in north-eastern Poland.
Each had travelled from their respective Polish cities and neighbouring Slovakia to assist migrants. They ended their daily activities by chatting about the day and how they felt.
On one such evening in November, we hear armoured vehicles roaring outside the window, a reminder that the police and military are patrolling the area. In the quiet of the house, the team agree that their first intervention that day had been successful — meaning they managed to locate migrants in the forests and give them essentials like hot soup, tea, water, or dry clothes. Their second intervention was less fortunate: when the volunteers arrived at the migrants’ reported location, they found nobody there. While nobody is sure what happened, it’s possible that the migrants were taken back to the Belarusian side of the border by the police or border patrol.
These pushbacks have become a daily reality for refugees. According to a report by Grupa Granica, the Polish government has responded to the border crisis by abandoning international set standards of human rights protection. Besides introducing a state of emergency and restricting media and activists from entering the area, officials have introduced a change in Polish legislation. A new regulation states that people who have crossed the Polish border illegally are to be sent back to the border; no exceptions are made for those asking for protection under international law.
“Working here is mentally and physically demanding and you need time to rest. Two interventions is tiring enough, sometimes all you can hope is that there are no more calls [for assistance] at night,” Kassia and Agata explain to me late one evening. But they say they are lucky, because locals living by the emergency zone cannot take a break. Since doctors cannot enter the zone, organising donations and medical assistance falls on the residents of Podlasie.
“We never thought that people from Syria would knock on our door one day. There are no humanitarian workers in the zone, so we decided to help,” shares local teacher Katarzyna Wappa. “I couldn’t turn a blind eye on the situation. People died close to our homes and gardens, in the villages where we live or where we visit our families. If death is around the corner, it might be a good idea to do something to prevent it.”
Besides supporting refugees, Grupa Granica also supports local residents who find themselves suddenly living in a heavily-militarised environment, often trying to save human lives without adequate training or resources. They provide basic support on what residents should do when they encounter refugees, provide psychological assistance via a hotline, warehouses for storing clothing and food, and in specific cases, free legal advice.
Unfortunately, locals like Wappa have been subject to hate attacks in Poland’s pro-government media for the work they carry out. Whilst having breakfast in the house with other volunteers, we learn that an Arabic interpreter, Jakub, whom we met last night, was attacked by Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej (WOT), an armed group operating in Podlasie with the consent of the police. “They are intimidating us because we are providing humanitarian aid. The atmosphere of brutality is becoming an everyday reality,” he reflects.
The intimidation of activists, volunteers, journalists, and even medics and ambulance workers, has been occurring here for months. The more visible you are, the clearer a target you become for such armed groups.
But this doesn’t intimidate everyone. Instead of sneaking aid and speaking to journalists in secret, the inhabitants of the small town of Białowieża have taken the opposite approach, writing an open letter that reads: “We know this forest better than the uniformed services coming from all over Poland, and we know that it is impossible to survive in it. Sentencing people to death from cold and starvation by failing to help is a crime, inhuman and unacceptable. We will not be passive observers! We don’t want to collect dead bodies from our forests!”
The Polish constitution dictates that a state of emergency cannot be extended more than twice But the government has decided to keep the exclusion zone until March 2022. Activists and volunteers fear that the number of victims on Polish territory will only increase. The fact that thousands of people stranded in forests are dying of hypothermia is summed up by the Polish border patrol with only a brief report on the number of illegal crossings.
Historically, Poland’s Podlasie region has been home to a small Sunni Muslim community called the Polish Tatars or Lipka Tatars, who settled in the area more than 300 years ago. In the small village of Bohoniki, there is a mosque right by the road; directly opposite a Muslim pilgrim’s house. We arrived in time for a funeral. In the Muslim cemetery behind the village, we see many tombstones with Polish names — but further on, there are three isolated graves that look as though they were prepared just a few days ago. There is also one tiny hole that must have been dug only recently.
Our suspicions are confirmed as soon as we return to the mosque — a funeral is being held for a premature baby born in the forest. Parked cars stand on both sides and journalists flock to the scene with cameras. A small van arrives, from which people remove a small white coffin. Imam Aleksander Ali Bazarewicz prays but the journalists, who have arrived from around the world, drown out his words. The funeral takes place without the baby’s parents; we hear the mother is in critical condition in the hospital. “We thought the first funeral would be a rare case, but as we can see, they are becoming more frequent,” says Imam Bazarewicz. “We are sorrowful. We hope for no more funerals, but we are ready to arrange them, if necessary.”
On the day of the funeral, at a V4 summit, Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger condemned Lukashenko’s behaviour in accelerating the crisis. He said that he saw no other solution than to build a fence. The following day, Humans Rights Watch published a report criticising both Belarus and Poland for their cruel treatment of people on their borders.
A few days later, we join the volunteers on their next intervention. We have numbers written on our hands: one for medics, for anyone we find in poor health, and the other for a lawyer, in case anything goes wrong on our end. Together with Wiktoria and Zuzana, we head for the forest, where three boys from Iraq are waiting for us. There may also be police, the army, smugglers or an armed WOT group among the trees. One thing is for sure: no one is safe. Time is of the essence. We carry hot soup, tea, food packages, warm socks, gloves, and power banks in our backpacks — all donated by people from all over Poland.
As we take a step into the forest, we notice two piles of clothes left on the ground. A faint smoke rises among the trees, so we head towards it. Olan, Jorin, and Afran look at us by the small fire, frightened. We smile and reassure them that they do not have to be afraid of us; we are not the police.
We introduce ourselves and shake hands. “Are you hurt?” Wiktoria asks. We don’t have time to translate the question into Kurdish before a car arrives. A man jumps out and runs towards us: Border Guard! Documents!”
While the guards — a man and a woman — are checking our ID cards and passports, we pour hot soup for the boys. “You know the smuggling is illegal, don’t you?” The policeman reminds us. “We know. And we are not smugglers, we only brought food.” We communicate calmly, not wanting the tense situation to escalate further. “Olan, Jorin, and Afran want to apply for asylum in Poland, to which they are entitled,” we remind the police.
When they notice that we are recording the interaction, they let the boys eat and together we write out their asylum application papers. “Please, not Belarus, not Belarus!” Afran, who has only turned 18, says to the police officer. He shows the police officer a deep wound on his head.
The three boys had been wandering the Polish forests for five days. No one is certain that they won’t end up on the Belarusian side again. They shake our hands and thank us warmly and graciously before getting into the police car. When they leave, we collect the waste lying on the edge of the forest and leave.