A woman with a backpack stands at the edge of a dark forest with an EU flag in the background

“They will start locking us up” The humanitarian toll of saving lives at the Polish-Belarussian border


Read this article in Polish.

“We have terrorists on the border,” echoed cries of locals in Hajnowka, a border town in north-eastern Poland. A few locals in the neighborhood were discussing an unusual situation unfolding near the Polish-Belarusian border. That was the first time, back in the summer of 2021, when young Mateusz Rybak, 14 years old then, witnessed the commotion shaking his once-calm village. 

Suddenly, it became a focal point in the latest European humanitarian crisis.

Helicopters over the sky, an army of Polish border guards, and formidable tanks started to mobilize back and forth between Poland’s borders with Belarus. Rybak quickly found out who the “terrorists” were: hundreds of vulnerable people, from mostly the Middle East and Africa, trying to reach Europe through a border 20km away from his house. He has been helping them ever since. 

As the news of thousands of asylum seekers stranded at the Polish-Belarusian border spread, local residents of the villages nearby found themselves entangled in a situation they neither chose nor anticipated. Their lives were unexpectedly intertwined with those seeking refuge in a nation determined to block their entry by all means. Their stories highlight the responsibilities shouldered by local communities as European authorities are absent, shedding light on the emotional and psychological toll endured by those who stepped into the role of human rights defenders.

Mateusz in the Bialowieza Forest near his house trying to ubicate asylum seekers stranded in the forest to help. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

When migrants find themselves in a desperate situation on the Polish side, they send a “pin” – request for help with coordinates of their location in the forest – to one of the volunteer groups. None of the activists that we spoke to would have ever envisioned that what initially began as a compassionate gesture of bringing food, water and clothes to a “pin” would evolve into beyond-full-time commitments for over two years.

“I moved to Podlasie to drink coffee on my terrace and watch bison,” Katarzyna Mazurkiewicz-Bylok smiles resignedly. She also has been helping the migrants since the crisis started in 2021. Lately, she was on sick leave as the mental burden of things she saw and experienced got too heavy. 

The situation is not getting any better. Since Poland built its 186-kilometer border wall with Belarus, hundreds of migrants have been stuck for weeks without water or food in no one’s land, not permitted to enter Poland or go back to Minsk.

As pushbacks from one country to the other got more extreme and violent, activists have been discovering more dead bodies in Polish forests, and institutional support has been dwindling; activists state that 2023 has been the worst year since the humanitarian crisis started.

Border wall in the Polish side. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

The heaviest year

This year there have been fewer help requests from people stranded in the forest, but when activists find them on the Polish side, they are in worse health. Despite their state, the Polish authorities would push them back to Belarus, according to the activists who have witnessed it. “Before, when someone was sick, poisoned or had hurt legs, they would be brought to a hospital,” Mariusz Kurnyta, a volunteer with Podlasie Volunteer Humanitarian Emergency Service (POPH), known as Forest Man (Czlowiek Lasu), recounts. “Now they are considered ‘in good state’ and kicked out immediately.” 

In August, three POPH volunteers found an exhausted and severely poisoned Somali man in the Polish forest. They called an ambulance, which arrived after the police and border guards. The man could not stand, so the police and activists carried him to the ambulance. Then, the Somali man vanished. We confirmed with the border guards that Polish authorities pushed him back to Belarus after “a doctor decided he was in a good condition.” Except that there was no doctor in that ambulance, only two emergency responders. The border guards then started a smearing campaign against “activists who spread disinformation.”

Mariusz, a POPH volunteer, organizing supplies before heading to the forest. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

“The Law and Justice party (PiS) made a selection,” Kurnyta, one of the volunteers who found the Somali man, states. “To them, only people with white skin colour are human.”

Until October 2023, there were 49 people reported dead on the Polish and Belarussian sides of the border and over 350 people still missing along the whole Belarussian border (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia), according to data collected by Polish NGO Grupa Granica. However, activists fear these figures are higher, especially due to the lack of information on the Belarussian side. With no formal efforts being made by institutions to locate the missing individuals, POPH took on the gruesome task of looking for those in Poland territory – which largely equals searching for bodies.

Sights to unsee

The border area is home to Europe’s last primeval forest, the Bialowieza Forest. The ancient woodland is a large terrain that’s very difficult to cross. A thick tree layer obstructs the view beyond a few dozen meters, so it’s impossible to orient oneself without a GPS. The underlayer is rich with bushes, old wood, and small plants – everything that makes the land environmentally rich doubles as an obstacle to those trying to pass. It takes double or triple the time to cross the same distance there than it would on a straight road, and it’s easy to get lost while crossing tree heaps or swamps. Food runs out fast, water even faster. In the summer, burning nettles and biting mosquitos are the smallest concerns for migrants having to go days without drinkable water. In the winter, it gets so cold that hypothermia kicks in fast. Any season, migrants have to struggle with damp clothes and shoes from walking in swamps. “Trench feet” – a fungal skin infection from walking in wet socks for days – is commonplace. 

Authorities sometimes join the forest searches, but they cannot handle the harsh forest conditions. Urszula Wolfram, volunteer with POPH, recalls that during one search, “the firemen had enough after the first stretch. They got into the swamp, said this wasn’t for them, and left us alone.”

In early 2023, POPH found five dead bodies within two months. On February 9, they organized a funeral for Ibrahim, a Yemeni man. Three days later, they found the body of Mahlet, an Ethiopian woman. Four days after that, on February 16, the remains of Abdi, also from Ethiopia. He was found seven weeks after his family reported him missing. His remains were already eaten by animals, the only untouched spots being those covered by clothes.

Katarzyna visits the grave of a woman who tried to reach Europe and was buried in a cemetery in Krynki. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

Then, in March, an Afghani man, Mohammad. “This was one of the worst sights there’ve been there,” Kurnyta recounts. A few days later, they found just human remains: “The body had to lie there for about a year; it was half-eaten. The animals ate and dragged the body, many bones were missing.” Among personal belongings the volunteers found next to the remains was an ampoule with insulin. In April, they found the fifth body close by a popular tourist route. An Afghani man in the last stage of hypothermia rested in anemones. 

One activist told us that Kurnyta could not look at the flowers for a long time. When we asked him about it, he replied “I don’t know if I can’t look at the anemones. All I know is that I will find these places without a map, out of memory, even at night. I will always lead you to every place where we found a dead body, without a location. I will show you with details who lied where and how.” 

Mazurkiewicz-Bylok found several bodies in the spring. She recently returned from a 1.5-month-long medical leave. “I never imagined doing these sorts of things,” she shares. She was diagnosed with adaptive dysfunction, a step before PTSD. “I am finally doing better, I got the right type of medication,” she smiles. “But I cannot unsee Mohammad.”

Social costs: Putting their lives on hold

Katarzyna's daugther receives her at the entrance of their house. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

“We’re just normal people who have to do this because we feel that there are no other ways”, Mazurkiewicz-Bylok reflects. Most activists quit not only their jobs but also their “normal” lives to save others.

Rybak has received threats from his schoolmates saying that they will “break his legs so he cannot go to the forest anymore.” This kind of hate also reflects on his Facebook profile.

“I have blocked over 600 people”, he says. Strolling through his online profile shows a mix of opinions. Some think his work serves Lukashenka, others believe he wants to gain fame, yet others feel inspired by a teenager doing what most prefer to turn away from. “All of us met with online hate,” Wolfram adds. 

Close connections with the people they have helped compensate for strained social interactions and online hate. “They call me brother, sister, and even father,” Rybak shares.

From untrained to experts: Locals handle the crisis

Mariusz at a warehouse where volunteers collect aid supplies to support people in the forest. Photo: Gabriela Ramirez

For most activists, helping started with Usnarz Gorny. In August 2021, 32 Afghanis were stuck between Polish and Belarussian border guards. Neither side wanted to let the refugees in, so whole families, from little children to grandmas, camped in bushes. “This was an unacceptable situation for us all,” Wolfram states.

Kurnyta recalls seeing a group of about 10 people where the youngest was a 1.5-year-old kid. The Polish guards pushed them back into Belarus. “I knew then I can’t just leave this. I have children too,” he recalls. Mazurkiewicz-Bylok’s son was two years old at the time

“I was in Usnarz and heard tiny children crying. It was the cry of a two-year-old at night, like my son.”

During their first weeks of helping, soon-to-be activists didn’t know what to do. They carried food and water in case they met somebody and patrolled the forest. “Nobody expected things to happen the way they did,” Mazurkiewicz-Bylok states.

Per Polish law, the border guards should bring migrants to their local unit and start a return procedure. Migrants can claim international protection, which the border guards are obliged to forward to the Office for Foreigners. Witold Klaus, a law professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences, explains that “the border guards cannot just push the person back from Poland.” Doing so violates not only international human rights law like the 1951 Geneva Convention, but also Polish domestic law.

Yet, that’s precisely what the border guards were doing.

Soon after Usnarz, activists found a group of young Iraqi men hiding in a cornfield. The men wrote a request for asylum in Poland. The activists that became their legal representatives then called the border guards. “And the guards drove those people into Belarus,” Mazurkiewicz-Bylok recounts. “That’s when it turned out that things don’t really work according to the law here.” 

Activists resorted to bringing help into the forest secretly. They organized every step of the humanitarian support: collecting donation packages, sorting clothes, setting up the “alarm phone system”, going into the forest, and acting as legal representatives of migrants in detention centers, by themselves and alongside their regular jobs. “We were pretending to work, but actually we kept discussing on Signal,” Wolfram recounts. In the afternoons, nights, and weekends, they would carry supplies into the forest.

There just weren’t organizations specialized in humanitarian crises in Poland. NGOs working on migration took care of legal aid or integration, while Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH), the only large Polish NGO in the field, ran missions abroad. “We called on PAH or the Polish Red Cross many times,” Wolfram explains. “PAH organized a warehouse with supplies, so I can’t say their help equals zero. But nobody from the organization was delegated into action. It all happens with our resources.”

We don’t even count on state help anymore. Our help became so advanced and specialized that we believe we will manage by ourselves pretty much until each of us gets completely exploited.”

After the elections

These days, activists look at the upcoming elections with weariness. They don’t believe in change if the opposition wins and expect even worse if PiS stays in power. The conservative government took a hardline stance on non-European migrants at the Belarussian border, with some experts claiming that among migrants are “terrorists” trained by pro-Russian forces.

The rhetoric increased in the run-up to the elections on October 15. PiS is organizing a referendum during the elections, with one of the questions being “Do you support the taking in of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, per the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the EU bureaucracy?” Apart from clearly biased language, the question is irrelevant – the EU has no forced relocation mechanism, especially since Poland, in a radically different approach towards migration, took in millions of Ukrainian refugees. 

If PiS wins for the third time, “they will start locking activists up,” Kurnyta claims. “The help we bring will be considered illegal.”

Klaus, a law professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences, comments: “I would separate three things: the activists’ fear, the law, and state activity. The fear is definitely well-founded. The government may want to play into this fear,  they may want to legally harass people who act at the border by arresting them temporarily or dragging them through courts. They already showed they are capable of this.

Yet, Klaus remarks that charges would fall short of evidence, as activists aren’t breaking the law. They could be accused of facilitating illegal entry into Poland or facilitating illegal stay in the country. The former “doesn’t take place,” Klaus explains. “Activists help people that are already in Poland. So this article can’t be used.”

Facilitating an illegal stay is a crime only if done for financial or personal benefits. “It’s hard to state that people helping in the forest are getting any financial benefit,” Klaus states. “Also not personal ones because this help is linked to so many challenges. People who run around the forest at night, putting themselves at risk of hypothermia, different kinds of injuries, plus psychological difficulties, don’t gain anything personally.”

The article on facilitating illegal stay was introduced to Polish law by EU requirements, and the European Commission states that it cannot be used to punish people bringing humanitarian help.

“If we look at the law, everything is very clean,” Klaus concludes.

Yet, as activists found out in the past two years, the law doesn’t necessarily apply in the border area.

“If they lock me up, get me out of prison as soon as you can, okay?” Rybak asks. “I need to go back to the forest and keep helping.” 

About the authors:

Zuza Nazaruk  is an independent journalist based in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She covers climate & environment, migration, and corporate wrongdoings. 

Gabriela Ramirez is multimedia journalist. She covers migration and evironmental issues. She is also the Head of Data and Multimedia at Unbias The News.

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