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On the frozen frontiers of Europe with the migrants caught in a lethal game | Refugees

On the outskirts of the Białowieża forest – which bestrides the border between south-east Poland and Belarus – a group of seven Iraqi Kurds make their weary approach in direction of the Polish hamlet of Grodzisk.

The newest miles of their journey have been from Belarus – crossing forwards and backwards twice, deported after their first and second makes an attempt. Now a third time: via sub-zero temperatures, throughout the primeval forest’s marshy terrain. Amongst them are two youngsters: an eight-month-old woman and a two-year-old boy. After we came across them, they had been afraid to rise up off the floor and begged us to not name the police, whispering: “They’ll kill us.”

The toddler was nonetheless, although not asleep. They appeared like waxen figures, their faces clean, although one girl’s face was lined in bruises.

That is one group amongst the hundreds of migrants trapped in a perilous purgatorial terrain between Belarus and Poland, as gateway to the European Union, the place they search refuge and asylum. That gate has slammed shut, claiming eight recognized migrant lives thus far. Poland’s rightwing authorities has secured parliamentary authority to construct a Donald Trump-style wall the size of its frontier with Belarus, and in the meantime patrols the territory with a drive of some 17,000 border police strengthened by navy personnel.

The Polish authorities argues that it’s a deliberate coverage by Belarus to undermine the EU’s south japanese border by encouraging refugees to pour in. The federal government has additionally established a two-mile militarised zone adjoining to the frontier, from which medical providers, volunteer assist employees and reporters are banned. Crystal van Leeuwen, a medical emergency supervisor with Médecins Sans Frontières, informed the Guardian final week that NGOs should urgently acquire entry to the safe zone for migrants’ claims and worldwide safety to be revered.

The migrants are half not solely of the exodus in flight from struggle and different tribulation the place they started their journeys – throughout the Center East and Africa – but in addition pawns in a game between Belarus and Poland. Many are lured by Belarusian journey bureaux, managed by the authoritarian authorities of Alexander Lukashenko, which, as middlemen, organise journeys from the Center East to Minsk, promising passage to the EU.

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The Iraqi Kurdish group is from Duhok, close to the Turkish border. It’s the scene of intense latest intra-Kurdish preventing, and Turkish strikes in opposition to the Kurdish PKK organisation. The mom of the youngsters, 28-year-old Amila Abedelkader, stated that the group was lured to Belarus by a journey company that may prepare journey by aircraft from Istanbul to Minsk, and entry to the Polish border.

Migrants are charged €15,000-€20,000 after they attain Belarus. Airport images present their arrival sporting shorts and T-shirts, clearly unaware of the temperatures awaiting them. They’re then put in in state accommodations managed by the regime, from which formally assigned buses and even taxis switch them to the Polish or Lithuanian border.

Belarusian border guards then shove them previous the fence. “Some migrants we noticed had their faces sliced with barbed wire,” says volunteer assist employee Katarzyna Wappa. “We now have amateur films displaying how the Belarusians drive the migrants ahead. The border guards stand there with snarling assault canines in full battle gear.”

Abdelkader says her group had made their first crossing into Poland in early October, however had been pressured again by guards. Trapped between borders, they got nothing to drink or eat. “The Polish guards caught us and pushed us again. They stated: ‘Return to Belarus.’ And the Belarusian soldier stated: ‘No, no return to Poland.’ When the water was all completed, my brother requested Polish troopers for some water to drink. Day by day we requested about water. They are saying: ‘No, no.’” The guards refused to provide milk for the child. The migrants drank rainwater or from puddles.

This was their third try. Whether or not they have since been profitable is unclear.

Zaynab Ahmad, 25, from Syria at the open migrant centre near Bialystok, Poland.
Zaynab Ahmad, 25, from Syria at the open migrant centre close to Bialystok, Poland. {Photograph}: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

However each morning we obtain information on WhatsApp from individuals held in the border guards’ cells. Bulletins equivalent to: “Yesterday a household and their sick son staying with us had been taken by the police again to the border.” And: “We’re so frightened of going to the border as a result of my child is just too small. Please assist us.”

Again dwelling in the nearest city of Hajnówka, Wappa says: “We’re creating a community, making an attempt to do what we will, however it’s an excessive amount of to bear. Persons are dying in the forest and the Polish state affords no assist aside from bringing in extra troops, rounding them up, and deporting them again to no man’s land. And if we attain these individuals, what can we give them? A flask of tea, some heat garments, then depart them in the darkness and chilly?”

In the forest final week, volunteers discovered Mustafa, a 46-year-old man from Morocco, taken in by a volunteer named Mila. Talking Spanish, Mustafa informed us: “As I made my approach via the forest, I noticed a man mendacity on the floor. I don’t know if he was alive or lifeless. I walked two nights till I might go no additional. I used to be strolling at night time, making an attempt to sleep throughout the day. I used to be in a vacuum.

“Belarusian troopers beat individuals,” he continued. “They beat me in Belarus. There are gangs that stand behind the military and assault us. They beat you, take your cash, and cut up it 50-50, half for the gangs, half for troopers. This border is like a river of demise. What are you to do? The place to go, I have no idea.” Mustafa’s destiny stays in the steadiness.

As soon as on the Polish aspect, migrants are tracked down by border guards, police, military, and territorial defence forces; in the Hajnówka area, virtually each second automotive on the street belongs to regulation enforcement officers. Others have darkened home windows – both defending or smuggling the migrants.

“We’re in a parcelled-off, remoted world,” provides Kamil Syller, initiator of the Inexperienced Mild undertaking, which goals to place inexperienced lights in home windows to indicate houses the place refugees can discover assist, discreetly, and never be handed over to the police.

At the Mantiuk Hospital in Hajnówka, a boy from Somalia tells how he watched his two brothers freeze to demise. “It’s inconceivable to say the place it occurred,” he says.

“Apparently he’s shedding contact with actuality,” say the medical doctors. “He usually asks: ‘However the place am I?’” The refugees who attain the hospital obtain skilled medical care, but the hospital is patrolled by border guards, and as quickly as somebody’s well being is restored, guards take them again to the border and depart them in the forest.

Medics on the Border, a group of medical doctors with an ambulance, operates in the “open” areas, however will not be allowed in the off-limits zone. Requested how they are often of assist, they are saying: “We’d like passes to the zone,” says Jakub Sieczko, a paramedic. “However that is inconceivable.”

“We now have no entry to the off-limits zone,” says a Polish Crimson Cross workerfrom the border space. “We are able to’t hand over assist packages ourselves.”

Syller says that the refugees are freezing, succumbing to hypothermia and shaking from concern and chilly. “The kids are having reactions just like epileptic assaults. The struggling and terror right here can solely remind you of wartime,” he explains.

Wappa feels that she is “witnessing scenes like out of a struggle, however no less than in a struggle issues are clear. “That is worse, as a result of right here half the society denies what’s occurring. They suppose it’s all a massive sham, that there are politics behind it. Folks say of the refugees: ‘Why did they even depart dwelling and why take their youngsters?’”

This land is steeped in darkish historical past of flight and deportation. And there are few reminders so cogent as in the village of Narewka, the place a row of homes from earlier than the second world struggle is adorned with enlarged images of the Jewish residents who lived right here till the Holocaust.

The images present individuals posing in their best garments: an aged couple, an Orthodox household, a woman in a polka-dot gown with bows in her hair, a refined woman sporting a cap.

Now, previous these homes in memoriam for Jews deported from right here, navy and police autos cross, carrying migrants for deportation.

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