Y.K. (25 years old from Syrian, an engineer) for several days had been hiding in the strict reserve of the Bialowieza Forest, a place very difficult to access. In this case, I accompanied two volunteers, one of whom was a doctor. To get there, we had to walk 7 kilometers through the forest, avoiding obstacles such as fallen trees and avoiding swamps, which are even more dangerous in winter. It took us 3 hours to reach his hideout. Y.K. was in a very bad shape and was not able to move by himself. We had to change his clothes because, in addition to being dirty, they were very wet, which worsened his hypothermia. The doctor, who was with us, after two hours of care, came to the conclusion that we should call an ambulance even if this meant the arrival of the Border Guards. Y.K. couldn't stay in that place and he couldn't walk on his own strength either. To get him out of hypothermia we had to get him to a dry and warm place.
We were with him for a total of 7 hours in the forest waiting for an ambulance to arrive, while the temperature dropped to -11 degrees. At this time of the year it gets dark at 3 p.m. I was the only person with phone coverage, and we had no more hot tea or hot food. The Border Guards, contacted by the emergency center as required by law, called us several times asking for the coordinates. I had to provide it, fearing they would be the only ones to arrive. Despite having the exact coordinates, they called back several times saying they couldn't find us. At 6:30 p.m. the firefighters arrived accompanied by the Border Guards. The first thing they did was question us and we had to insist very much that the life of Y.K. was in danger and they had to get him out of the woods immediately. Finally, at 8:00 p.m., the firefighters managed to get him out and took him to the Border Guards’ car. According to the latter, the ambulance could not get close to where we were due to the difficult terrain. The doctor who was with us insisted on accompanying them, in case something happened, but the Border Guards refused her access to the car. We had to go back to the village alone, walking for 3 more hours in the dark. As we were leaving, the Border Guards were joking about whether they should call already an ambulance for us.
Photo: Y.K. (25 years old, Syrian refugee, an engineer) find in the forest in the second degree of hypothermia. December 12, 2022
The next day, we found out that Y.K. never made it to any hospital. In these cases there is a risk that, once the migrant's health status improves, the Border Guards will pushed him back to the forest on the Belarusian side. According to the doctor, in the case of Y.K. this could cause a relapse into hypothermia and even lead to his death. To make sure it would not happen and to obtain information about his situation, I had to request the parliamentary interventions from several deputies.
Parliamentary intervention is a tool that allows a deputy to ask a series of questions to which public institutions are obliged to respond. Following these interventions, in which my presence as a photojournalist who documented the entire situation in the forest was also revealed, the Border Guards published a statement assuring that Y.K. was in good condition, that his request for asylum had been accepted and accusing volunteers of misinformation. Later on Y.K. was transferred to a Center for the Internment of Foreigners (CIE) where he had to wait for the judge's decision on his asylum request. Without making the case public, he probably would have been pushed back to the forest, as has already happened in several similar cases.
Photo: The firefighters and Border Guards transport Y.K, a Syrian refugee with second degree of hypothermia. Bialowieza Forest, December 12, 2022
AKRAM & MOHAMMAD
(Yemen & Syria)
Akram (32, Yemen, an oncologist) and Mohammad (50, Syria) met on the road. When we found them, they had been in the forest for 5 months. The first question Akram asked us was: "Can you take us with you?" We had to explain to him that we couldn't do it and that transporting them in a car could cost us 8 years in prison for human trafficking. Both were exhausted, Mohammad told us that they had not had drinking water for several days. They drank what they found in the swamps, filtering it through a scarf. At one point I asked Mohammad where he wanted to go, whether he wanted to try to claim asylum in Poland or go to another country. He looked at me and said, "I don't care. I just don't want to die here, you know?"
When the volunteers received their request for help, it was already a night. Night interventions are usually even more complicated because there is more risk of being discovered. This time I accompanied two volunteers, one of whom knew the terrain relatively well. In general at night the volunteers move in the dark and only if necessary they use very low intensity headlamps. Going towards the refugee hideout, at one point we heard a car and one of us saw lights in the distance. At this time in the middle of the forest it could only be the Border Guard. We fall to the completely wet ground and hide our faces among the foliage, thinking that if they have thermo vision, we are lost. At this moment, it is no longer the question of what will happen to us but, if they find us, they will realize that there are some refugees nearby. The burden of responsibility at that moment is very heavy. You know that the people who called for help are there waiting for you and trusting you and the last thing you want is to expose them to a risk of pushback to the Belarusian side.
We had a hard time finding them but we finally got them. Then the typical thing begins: you try to collect as much informations as possible in less time, also paying attention not to speak loudly or put on too much light. We used only the light from headlamps but even so, Akram was clearly scared and was asking us all the time if we can turn it off. Sometimes the volunteers ask the refugees to sign a paper granting the power of attorney to the volunteers. Thanks to this paper, the volunteers can try to follow the situation in case a refugee is arrested. Otherwise, sometimes those who are arrested disappear without anyone being able to identify their destination. But on many occasions the Border Guards refuse to provide any information even if the volunteers have the signed legal power of attorney.
There are many things that are difficult in this type of intervention: the situation is surreal; the feeling of responsibility is combined with the one of impotence. But I think the most difficult thing is that at a given moment you have to get up and leave, leaving these people in the middle of the forest without knowing what will happen to them in the next few days. Akram and Mohamad called for more help the next day. Another team brought them more food and then they realized that Mohammad had a broken rib. According to my sources, some locals helped them cross a section of the forest and a few days later we found out that they were both safe in Germany.
Photo: Akram and Mohammad helped by the volunteers. October 23, 2022
Photo: Trench foot, a frequent health problem among refugees trying to cross the Bialowieza Forest. October 23, 2022
Photo: Akram signs the power of attorney to the volunteers. October 23, 2022
Fatima (name changed),
Iranian, 30 years old
While in Iran, she participated in protests and was subsequently placed on the country’s blacklist, prompting concerns for her safety. An interpreter who worked on her case stated that "there is not a single square meter in Iran where she would be safe."
With her husband and a friend, she set off on a journey and attempted to cross the Polish-Belarusian border for the first time in December 2022. However, they were immediately pushed back by the Border Guard to the Belarusian side and received orders to leave Polish territory, along with a ban on re-entry. During their next attempt to cross the border, they were stopped by the Polish Border Guard and allegedly subjected to physical violence and pepper spray, according to Fatima.
Overcome with fear, Fatima lost consciousness, and when she came to, she found herself in an ambulance en route to the hospital. Her husband and fiend had been pushed-back to Belarus. She was alone and confused. Although she had no fractures she was still shaken and disoriented, unable to communicate effectively due to her lack of knowledge of languages other than Farsi. Her concern for her husband was compounded by her ignorance of his whereabouts, and it was only later that she learned about his forced return to Belarus.
Testimonies from those assisting refugees in the forest indicate that family separation by the Border Guard during push-backs remains a frequent occurrence. A resident of the area, aged 54, underscored this point, stating that “They separate families without hesitation in various seconds, whether it’s a mother with two children or a father with three children. It has become the norm.”
Fatima applied for international protection, which had to be processed because she was able to sign a power of attorney at the hospital, authorizing volunteers to represent her case. According to reports from both refugees and volunteers, many requests for international protection are ignored by the Border Guard. However, when a representative submits an application on behalf of a refugee, it is documented, increasing the chances of acceptance and transfer to the Office for Foreigners for consideration. This information comes from both refugees and volunteers who have experienced the process.
As per standard procedures, after being discharged from the hospital, the Border Guard took administrative actions against her, including confiscating her passport and determining whether she would be placed in a Closed Center for Foreigners or in an Open Centre. In the case of the former, a court order for restriction of liberty is required. Fortunately, Fatima possessed all the necessary documentation to be placed in the Open Centre. However, given her fragile mental state, she required temporary accommodation, which was provided by local hospital volunteers who often act as proxies for refugees in need.
Fatima is currently awaiting a resolution to her case at the Office for Foreigners. It is difficult to estimate how long this process may take, as it can sometimes take up to six months. In the event of an unfavorable decision, she may appeal to the Voivodeship Administrative Court in Rzeszów, which further extends the time it takes to resolve the case.
Volunteers who are providing housing for Fatima have emphasized that she is deeply attached to her husband and is understandably fearful. She is uncertain about when and where she will be able to see him again.
Photo below: Another Iranian woman attended by a volunteer doctor in the Bialowieza Forest. March 18, 2023
AHMAD & BAYAN
Ahmad (24 years old, physiotherapist) and Bayan (25 years old, studied something related to medicine) came from Syria. They crossed the border between Belarus and Poland for the first time, so they were still in a good shape. Their clothes were wet because, as they explained to us in very poor English, they crossed the border by river. According to Ahmad, the water was up to their chests. Bayan was shaking when we arrived and had to change clothes immediately. They did not want to stay in Poland. Their objective was to reach Germany.
Most of the migrants do not want to stay in Poland, but hope to reach Germany or another European country. In general, they come unprepared and without knowing that, according to the European law, if they want to apply for asylum they must do so in the first country of the European Union where they set foot. Some apply for asylum in Poland when caught by the Border Guards, even if they know full well that they want to go to another country. If they don't do it, the Border Guards push them back to the forest on the Belarusian side and they have to try again to cross the border. Some remain trapped this way for months, suffering those pushbacks as many as a dozen times, exposed to extreme conditions, lack of clean water and food, and in winter, a high risk of death from hypothermia.
As in most cases, when there is no serious case and the refugees are in relatively good condition, the volunteers try to stay as little time as possible in the forest to reduce the risk that noise or movement will attract attention. In this short time shared together, Ahmad did not stop to thank us and at one point he even took out from his bag pack small jars of perfumes he brought from his country to give to the people who help him along the way. Night began to fall and he was very worried about how we are going to return through the forest. It was one of those situations in which you don't even know what to respond thinking that the person who has to stay there, sleeping in the forest and hiding from the Border Guards, worries about how you are going to return at night knowing that you are going to a warm house.
Photo: Two Grupa Granica volunteers care for the wounds of Ahmad, a Syrian refugees hiding in the Bialowieza Forest. October 31, 2022
Mohammad came from Yemen to Russia and then to Minsk with his two friends, Khalid and Salim, the later both 23 years old. They had been in the forest for two months, and had already been pushed backto Byelorussian side twice by the Polish Border Guards. The first time The Polish Border Guards smashed their phones and sprayed teargas in their eyes. Khalid said he couldn't see anything for a couple of hours. This time they have crossed the border by climbing over the fence with a ladder and then slipping down the Polish side. Byelorussians’ guards bitten them and Mohammad had marks on his head and eyes for a long time.
Many times the interventions of volunteers in the forest are very short. The state of the refugees is assessed and, if there is no major health problem, the volunteers try to spend as little time as possible with them, mainly for the safety of the latter. Sometimes only food and clothing are distributed and the most basic information is collected. This was the case of this group, which was in good condition, only needed dry clothes, food and, above all, water.
Despite the fact that a wall has been built and the forest is difficult to cross, this route is still considered the safest and easiest way to reach Europe. However, migrants often do not know what type of forest they will have to pass through and are not adequately prepared. Some call the forest "the jungle."
Photo: Mohammad (30 years old, Yemen) shows his injuries (as a result of beatings he received from the Belarusian police). November 4, 2022
Ali (24 years old) was in a group of 8 people, all from Syria. One of the frequent problems while helping migrants in the forest is communication, as was the case with this group. Quite often those migrants do not speak English and because of coverage, it is not possible to use an online translation.
Ali was very tired and, as we understood, he had not eaten or drunk for 6 days. Refugees often lack access to clean drinking water and are forced to collect water from swamps, which can be dangerous to their health due to contamination by animals. The consumption of this water can cause diarrhea, poisoning or serious digestive problems.
Almost all of them had wet clothes, and one of them, sitting with his back against a tree, seemed to have low blood pressure or some sugar problem. There was no doctor among us to determine exactly what was wrong with him. In these cases, if there is a coverage, the volunteers try to call the base to connect with a doctor or lifeguard and assess what kind of help can be provided and if the ambulance can be avoided. These are very difficult moments, since in a short time, in the middle of the forest and without knowledge, it is necessary to determine if the person can survive without professional medical help or not. Calling an ambulance means the arrival of the Border Guards and, in consequence, either arrest or a pushback to the Belarusian side. The Border Guards had detained Ali already seven times and each time he was pushed back into the forest on the Belarusian side. He ate quickly trying to explain with his tired voice and little knowledge of English how he felt and above all, how much he appreciated this help.
Photo: Ali (24 years old, Syria), with food and clothing provided by volunteers from Grupa Granica. November 1, 2022
Photo: A group of 8 refugees from Syria, with food and clothing provided by volunteers from Grupa Granica. November 1, 2022
A. (25 years old, Yemen, wanted to remain anonymous) tried to cross the border with her brother and a friend. She slipped off the fence and broke her leg. Her brother tried to carry her on his back, but couldn't do it for a long time. They were detained by the Border Guards in the forest, A. was taken to hospital, while her brother and friend were probably pushed back to the Belarusian side. In the hospital, A. had to undergo a complicated operation due to the state of her leg. She even needed a transfusion and, according to doctors, she will never regain full use of her leg. She wanted to get to Norway, where lives her husband.
Photo: A. (25 years old, Yemen, wanted to remain anonymous) hospitalized after broking her leg while crossing the wall at the border; December 18, 2022