Interview with Aleksandra Chrzanowska, 
volunteer from Grupa Granica 

(March 21, 2023) 

Photos & text: Hanna Jarzabek

“The case that is currently pending concerns the situation from March 2023 when my friend and I were assisting a 35-40 years old Syrian refugee who was alone in the forest, in the swamps. He was soaking wet and in a very poor mental state. Despite my friend’s ability to speak Arabic, we had difficulty communicating with him. He was completely lost and kept saying that he would die if we left him alone in the woods. He did not understand his situation or the risk of being pushed-baked to the belarusian side by the Border Guard. He believed he would be safe as long as he stayed with us. It was snowing, cold, and we were reluctant to leave him alone given his condition. We decided that he needed professional medical help, but there was no coverage to call an ambulance.

Suddenly, we heard voices in the distance. It turned out to be a patrol of the Border Guard, who tracked our group through the snow tracks. Because we were lying face down, they couldn't see who we were from a distance, and I think they mistook us for three refugees. One of the officers approached me and kicked me. It is indicative of how some officers treat refugees. More and more foreigners in the forest are reporting us violence at the hands of Polish officers. This phenomenon began appearing in refugee accounts last summer. Initially, the physical violence they described was typically perpetrated by Belarusian officials. On the Polish side, the violence was more psychological and consisted of intimidation, harassment, shouting. However, this has changed since the summer of 2022, with many reports of physical violence on the Polish side.

This situation in the forest and swamp confirmed my suspicion that the Border Guard mistook us for three refugees, and that is why I was kicked by one of the officers. When it happened, slowly I got up and asked the officer: "Did you just kick me?" He was masked, and all I could see was his eyes full with terror and confusion. Suddenly, when he heard Polish and saw a woman, he began to apologize and said that he only stumbled. However, I could tell the difference between a stumble and a kick.

The officers wrote up our information and immediately announced that we would be summoned for questioning. They asked a lot of questions about how we got there and where we were going, but all we said was that the man with us was in a very bad condition and needed help. They also asked why we were hiding, and we explained that we wanted to call for medical help and that we were hiding because we knew the Border Guard was driving people back to Belarus, which could be deadly for this man.

The guards took Mr. E. to their vehicle and, of course, denied us the opportunity to accompany him. However, before they left, we managed to offer him legal assistance and obtain a power of attorney from him. We explained to him what the document was and that, since he expressed his desire to apply for international protection, we would not only be able to represent him in administrative proceedings but would also have grounds to seek information about his situation.

We immediately went to the Border Guard post in Narewka, where Mr. E. was being transported, to submit a power of attorney. The officials told us to wait until the morning, as the office was closed at night. We were concerned that Mr. E. might be pushed back if we left, so we wrote an email on the spot to the Commander of the facility, attaching a scan of the power of attorney and sent it with a copy to the Commissioner for Human Rights and UNHCR.

The next morning, we tried to find out about Mr. E’s fate by phone. Eventually, the officer called my friend back, to whom Mr. E. granted a power of attorney, informing that Mr. E. wanted to apply for protection. He would be placed in the Open Center in Biała Podlaska for the duration of his case. The officer asked if we could transport him there, and we agreed. My friend went to the Border Guard station to pick to participate in the application acceptance procedure and then pick up Mr. E.

She waited for almost two hours, but it turned out that she had actually been "invited" to be questioned as a witness in the case of the destruction of the border dam, because in the meantime Mr. E. reportedly stated that he did not intend to apply for protection, and that his testimony also showed that we were nearby when the border fence was being destroyed and we may know something about it, so it was decided to interrogate us on this matter. My colleague refused to testify, arguing that, she came as a proxy at the officer’s request to participate in the procedure for submitting an application for international protection and to pick up Mr. E. for transport.
The appropriate summons should have been issued for her first. Only when she refused to testify did the officers write out a summons in her presence stating that she would have to testify the following week. Meanwhile, she was told that Mr. E. testified that he did not want to apply for protection and had been coerced into signing the power of attorney. The officer stated that Mr E. also claimed he had been deceived and paid a large sum of money to smugglers to help him enter Poland. He alleged that our assistance was also part of this scheme, as we appeared as soon as he contacted the smuggler. The officer said this could be interpreted as helping in human traffic, facilitating illegal stay, and intellectual forgery. He alleged that we forced Mr. E. to sign documents he did not understand while he was in poor health.

As of today, we're both out of auditions. We were summoned as witnesses, but we both felt that we were in fact being treated as suspected of helping to cross the border and stay illegally. I can't talk about it in detail for now, because the preparatory proceedings are still pending, and therefore they are confidential. It all seems absurd and I think it is a typical strategy calculated to intimidate us, wear us out and discourage us from further aid activities. Our presence here is inconvenient for the authorities and services, because we are constantly publicizing the fact that there are still a lot of people on the Polish-Belarusian border looking for security, and the government's message is that there is no one here anymore, because the wall - for which huge taxpayers' money were spent - stopped them all and solved the case. So they try to shut us up in various ways."

Hanna Jarzabek - Photography & Documentary Storytelling

Documentary photographer and Multimedia Storyteller specialized in projects addressing discrimination and societal dysfunctions, with accent on Europe.
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