VOLUNTARY HELP FROM LOCALS

Photos, audios & texts: Hanna Jarzabek 

Przemek, around 50 years old 
(name changed)

When the crisis on the border began, Przemek started going to the forest with a few friends to help. As of today, he is no longer as active because, as he puts it, at some point he also had to take care of his mental and emotional health. However, as a resident of Podlasie, he is unable to completely distance himself from the subject. He follows the situation and wanders about the fact that nothing fundamentally changes. He prefers to speak under a pseudonym mainly because he does not rule out actively helping in the forest again if necessary.
 “The most intense period for me was at the very...
“The most intense period for me was at the very beginning, in autumn 2021, when I went to the forest a lot. In January or February, there were less crossings, so there was not much pressure to help, and in March things started to happen again, but at least I started going less. I withdrew from it because well ... I had a depressive episode. And since my wife was also taking it hard, we decided we had to back off a bit. This was also possible thanks to the fact that the Granica Group (an informal initiative of organizations and people who help refugees on the Belarusian border) works quite well, so I decided that I would not engage in such systemic activities anymore, because I am glad that someone else does it. I mean, if it happens that someone calls me and says there is a need, I will help, but it's another thing to have to go to the forest in the middle of the night, be on the phone for hours, and not know when you can go to sleep. There were times when there were requests for help at night, and someone had to go there.
Photo above: One of the warehouse with clothes for refugees, set up by one of the volunteers groups. Much of the financial help comes from crowdfunding campaigns and various NGO's (both Polish and foreign); Bialowieza Forest, Podlasie/Poland, November 12, 2022


Initially, when the first requests for help appeared - for food, water, clothes etc. - as local residents, we began searching for a place to store these necessary items. Podlasie is a diverse region, with Catholics, Orthodox, and Baptists among us. So we reached out to friends from these different religions to see if their parishes could allocate a space for a warehouse. The Baptists tentatively agreed but later withdrew their offer. With the Orthodox and Catholics, there was no discussion at all. From the start, we knew that no one would officially organize a warehouse or anything similar here, so we started storing these items in a garage. 
 We initially assumed that if we reported to the army or...
We initially assumed that if we reported to the army or the Border Guards about the presence of refugees, some legal procedure would be launched and these people would be registered, screened, and possibly detained in a center. However, it turned out that this was not the case. Instead, they are simply thrown back into the forest on the Belarusian side without being registered or screened. We also believed that if someone went to the hospital, they would be safe. Unfortunately, even after being treated, the Border Guards drag people out of the hospital and throw them back into the forest. (Read more about the medical situation on the border). 
It was a big shock for us when we first found out that families were being thrown out. Later, we learned that sometimes these families were also broken up. Once, we tried to stop a transport because we knew that a pregnant woman was in it and that she would be thrown into the forest on the Belarusian side. I think now, after all these months I can say that we received this information from someone in the Border Guards (Read more about pushbacks) who asked us to try to do something to help. But unfortunately, we were not able to stop them, and they ended up throwing her out. 

It was naive of us to think we could do anything, and it was hard to accept. It was also tough to hear about groups of people we had helped being caught and thrown back on the Belarusian side. Even powers of attorney, which we sometimes signed with refugees, did not help. The Border Guards often refused to take them into account, and they would throw people to the Belarusian side and then refuse to provide any information. I hope that one day the commander of the Border Guards will have to answer for some of the things that have happened here. As for now, he has been promoted and retired. There are many things that have not even been documented. When we went to the forest to help, there was not always time to collect data and transfer it to Grupa Granica to register the case.

Photo above: Akram, a refugee from Yemen) signs the power of attorney to the volunteers from POPH (Podlasie Volunteer Rescue Service), a local group that provides help in the Bialowieza Forest; Podlasie/Poland, October 23, 2022
 I had an encounter with  a man from the Border Guards ....
I had an encounter with a man from the Border Guards. He was not from here, but was here on a duty and told me that if he lived here, he would hide refugees at his place because he knew what was going on in the forest. So this division into those who are "good" and "bad" is not so simple, but we have seen how most of the Border Guards behave. They probably also have some propaganda training that these refugees are terrorists and that this is a threat. And sometimes it looked like they were on a hunt: these people in the woods trying to hide and run, and the Guards hunting them down. And at some point, it starts to get to you too. You know you have to hide from the uniformed man, and when you come back from the woods, whenever you hear a suspicious rustle or see a light somewhere in the distance, you hide in ditches or fall on your face so no one can see you.
My wife did not go to the forest; she would rather help in preparing things. But once it happened that she simply met refugees on a walk. She had nothing with her, and they were in such a very visible place. So she decided to call me to arrange something and she explained to them that help would be there soon. Unfortunately, shortly after she called, the Police showed up. When she came home, she told me that she would never forget the look of these people, that they must have thought that she had betrayed them.

I never thought I did anything wrong. Well, when you see a family in need, there's no issue at all for me. Small, frozen children with nothing to eat or to drink ... should we throw them out? It doesn't mean that I'm naive and I think that among those people who come, everyone is great. I just don't know it, and I am not in a position to check it. So what am I supposed to do about it? Turn my back, go my way, and let them die there?


Photo above: One of the volunteers from POPH (Podlasie Voluntary Humanitarian Emergency), a local group that provides help in the Bialowieza Forest; Podlasie/Poland, October 23, 2022
    Nor have I gone further than this basic aid. I...

Nor have I gone further than this basic aid. I assumed that refugees are also responsible for themselves to some extent, so I limit my assistance to providing water and food, if I can, and showing them on the map how to reach a point where they can hide and wait for a ride. However, I don’t want to be involved in any smuggling activities. I used to think that smugglers were the bad guys because they take money from desperate refugees. But when refugees are stuck at the border for weeks or months, what is better for them: die in the forest or take a risk of entering Germany illegally? I do not know the answer. I think it's better for them to get through, even if someone profits from it. I won't judge because it's not my place. Let the church evaluate this situation from a moral perspective. However, the level of hypocrisy in this institution is so high that I find it ironic. I envy the well-being of Catholics but most of the people who help refugees are not practicing or are in opposition to the Church. 

For me, helping refugees is a moral obligation. I don't want to feel ashamed when I look in the mirror and realize I did nothing. Although I feel disillusioned because only a few people are actively helping. When I compare this situation to the Jews during the Second World War, I realize that only a few people had the courage to help them. And now the whole nation is proud of it.


Photo above: Przemek (name changed), a local inhabitant who clandestinely helped the refugees, with objects that the latter left in the forest; Podlasie/Poland, October 22, 2022
  It stripped away all my illusions.  I have always been...
It stripped away all my illusions. I have always been quite critical of the Church, but what I saw here completely severed my ties with this institution. I want nothing to do with it. I am referring to the Church as an institution, not individuals. This institution has completely isolated itself from what is happening here. There are people suffering in the forest who need help, and this idea of "love your neighbor as yourself" becomes a nice inscription but it has no practical application in real life.

My wife, who used to be a very regular churchgoer, now feels complete rejection towards the Church and says she is going through a crisis of faith. Because every time she went to Church or had any contact with our local priest, she heard about refugees as criminals who illegally cross the border, and of course, this did not coincide with the reality we witnessed. So yes, I think we lost our illusions. This applies to both: the Church and the state.
I no longer believe that the state is there to protect us. When I see someone in uniform, I have mixed feelings because what we experienced here was just harassment. We were intimidated in various ways and had these constant checkpoints. I am not a lawyer, so I don't know to what extent I could have acted illegally or not. All of this stress, combined with the situation in the forest, the feeling of rage and helplessness, was just mentally exhausting.

I am aware that our emotional or depressive problems, compared to what these people go through in the forest, seems almost ridiculous. They left their whole families, their whole world and ended up in some, as they say, "Jungle" and  talking about ourselves in this context is simply awkward. This is the whining of a man who now goes to bed at a normal hour and that someone made his life a bit difficult six months ago, because he couldn't go to sleep normally, while these people froze or died in the forest. Sometimes when we went to the forest in winter and we saw footsteps somewhere, we walked around checking if there was a body (read about deaths and missing cases). So these are the things that these dark thoughts come to you later on." - Przemek (name changed) 

Photo above: Postcards made as part of the campaign to help refugees, with the inscription "Bylem przybyszem (I was a stranger), taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
 Of course, I don't know the solution to all of this....
Of course, I don't know the solution to all of this. But I cannot understand when I hear from some locals that "maybe we should shoot those refugees". These are just words, but as I once read somewhere: "crimes and evil begin with speech." And I think it is so, that what a large part of society has managed to do is to dehumanize those people who cross the border. They are not seen as persons, only as criminals. For a brief moment, we hoped that what was happening in Ukraine and the whole flow of people on that border there would help in better understanding of our situation, and that these people here should be treated similarly, but nothing like that happened. Of course, I wonder what the reasons for this are. And probably one is that those who cross the border here, have the wrong skin color, the wrong religion, they are from the wrong continent, or culture and by definition, they are the barbarians who invade our great homeland.

We know that Belarusians and Russians help these people to get through, but does that mean that we should just leave these people in this forest until they die, and then there will be no problem?

I don't know how to solve it all, but famine, war, climate problems, all these things exist and are unlikely to end, so people will go another way if not here. We should probably systematize the answers so that when these people appear, we know how to act to integrate them. I have no illusions either, I know there are problems with integration, but what other option do we have? Should we shoot them? 

We need to look for some solutions that will help to integrate them. It requires a huge social effort, and it probably requires that we make some compromises. It's definitely not easy, but I think it's possible, and if you search, you can find positive examples. In addition, among the people I met in the forest, I have never seen aggression. A man who needs help will not be aggressive. When I went to the forest, I was absolutely not afraid that someone might do something to me. Rather, I was anxiously thinking about the Border Guards or soldiers and what to say if they found me. And among refugees, I met doctors as well as people who were fluent in several languages. Wouldn't we need such educated people here?" - Przemek

Photo above: Typical house in Podlasie region by night, Podlasie, October 23, 2022
Tomek (over 40 years old)
(name changed) 


Tomek (name changed) has been living in Podlasie for over a dozen years and in the Bialowieza Forest itself for 7 years. He is a guide to the Białowieża Forest and the Strict Reserve within it. From the beginning of the crisis, he was involved in helping refugees in the forest. He does not want or can talk about everything, not necessarily because he is afraid of the consequences for himself, but above all because he wants to be able to help refugees as long as they need it. (Interview conducted on December 14, 2022).
 - "I've been following all this from the...
- "I've been following all this from the beginning, when it started a year ago, well over a year ago. I was wondering if this migration was taking place in my region, and I suspected something might be wrong, because almost every day there were helicopters, sometimes they used to fly at night even. It was very strange. I live about 1500 meters from the border and I quickly realized that something was going on near my place too.
I am a guide in the Białowieża Forest and I know these areas very well. I also have the National Park License, so I can show people around the Strict Reserve too. People, even those living in our climate zone, do not really know what this forest is like. The vast majority of forests that we have in Poland, or in Europe in general, are very orderly, rejuvenated forests. These are usually wood plantations and real forests, more like the Białowieża Forest, almost no longer exist. Even a Polish citizen, who lives in a climate zone where the forest is a basic vegetation cover, can feel lost in Bialowieza Forest. The more it applies to people who come from places where there are no forests at all and they know it only from television or from photos. For such people, on the one hand, this forest is a shelter, sometimes they do not appreciate it, because thanks to it they can hide from these services. But on the other hand it is also a bit of a trap for them.

It is very difficult to walk in this forest. There are parts where you can walk with no problem, but there are places where there are simply a lot of fallen, old, broken trees. It often goes hand in hand with swamps and it is easy to lose orientation because you can pass a fallen tree so many times that you get lost and you walk in circles. It can happen to me and I'm a guide, so what about somebody who's never been in the woods, doesn't have a compass or network in his phone or his phone was destroyed by Border Guards or police. 

Photo above: One of the swamps in the Bialowieza Forest. Many of them are dangerous and on several occasions volunteers had to remove refugees who got stuck in them. Bialowieza Forest, Podlasie/Poland, November 1, 2022
 From what I heard from refugees, Belarusian Border...
From what I heard from refugees, Belarusian Border Guards sometimes steal their phones. Then there were some rumors that it happens that they destroy them. And then, unfortunately we heard it was also happening on the Polish side, be it theft or destruction. Once, a refugee who had previously been detained by the Polish police told me that they had taken his phone when he was arrested and showed me a receipt that a Polish policeman had written for him. It was just a piece of paper, it wasn't a real arrest record, the kind an officer should have issued. And of course he never got that phone back, so my interpretation is that the cop just stole it from him. But it's a fact that it happens more often on the Belarusian side. On the Polish side, these phones are usually broken by Border Guards. 
Leaving a man in such a forest without a phone is practically condemning him to death indirectly. It's a bit like taking someone's last water bottle in the desert. Because without a phone, the people in this forest are in deep trouble. They are not able to call for any  humanitarian aid if they need it and they cannot arrange anything to get out of there either. Let's not fool ourselves, because there is such a pathological situation here, these people almost always have to use the help of smugglers to get out of here, and if they don't have a phone, they can't contact such a smuggler. And that doesn't make these people disappear or stop them from crossing the border. It just makes them more mistreated, because by the time they finally meet another refugee who happens to have a phone, or by the time they happen to meet someone who can help them, they may just die. Especially if there is frost and snow, then without a phone it is a really strong threat to life. 


Photo above: A phone found in the Bialowieza Forest. Podlasie/Poland, December 9, 2022

  The help that I sometimes provide them is very basic....
The help that I sometimes provide them is very basic. These are very prosaic needs, i.e. often people have not drank anything for several days, or they have been drinking some poisoned water from a swamp and it is necessary to bring clean drinking water. They are also starved, sometimes they need clothes, because they are often soaked after crossing some rivers or swamps, especially when the temperature is low. But there are also psychological needs, because they are often just a mess, broken, they have lost faith in everything. And when you give them warm tea, pat them on the back and they see that not everyone is hunting them, then they feel better and I think that's important too.

Photo: The objects left by the refugees in the Bialowieza Forest; Podlasie/Poland, November 7, 2022
Sometimes the help is more complicated because it turns out that someone has an injury. Fortunately, I didn't come across many people with any serious injuries, nor did I have situations like my friends where someone was vomiting blood or that there was a pregnant woman complaining of pain. Fortunately, such things did not happen to me and the most difficult thing that happened to me was that someone had a broken leg, could not walk at all or had trouble walking, or that someone was very wet or cold. But I had situations where people were trapped, because, for example, the Internet did not work and they did not know where to go, and then sometimes I would help them, I would lead them through the forest to a place from which it was easier for them to get a grip so that they could go somewhere else. This, of course, can be interpreted as being on the verge of the law, the more so that people, even for simple help such as delivering food, were dragged to the courts and tried to be accused of helping to illegally cross the border. But I never received any financial benefits for this help, so it was not a prohibited act.
  I believe that the law does not always go hand in hand...
I believe that the law does not always go hand in hand with the ethical law, the one resulting from the heart and human thinking. There were plenty of laws that allowed people to do terrible and shameful things, and on the other hand, there were many situations where people were punished for noble things. So doing what I do, well, you know, it's better not to get in trouble for it. But I don't feel like I'm doing anything wrong, quite the opposite. These people often really don't know where they are and if I leave them, they will just wander there until someone catches them, throws them to Belarus and so on, until one of them dies (read about death cases and missing people). So I don't feel that helping them walk a bit is a bad thing, quite the opposite. 

Photo: One of the graves in the Polish Muslim cemetery, which houses the migrants who died in the Bialowieza Forest. In this case, the body could never be identified. October 27, 2022
If someone thinks it's breaking the law, I don't agree with that. Apartheid and slavery were also backed by law. And the narrative from the Polish authorities that this is harmful, that it is a crime, or that this is some kind of support for the Belarusian regime is something terrible, and the fact that the Polish president calls us traitors and fools is even a shame to comment on it. (read more about the criminalization of humanitarian aid)

I've seen soaked, cold children who just cried. I saw a woman who was shivering from the cold and crying. It was early November last year. It was really cold and there was a group that crossed the river. There were women and children there and the woman was just sobbing. It was obvious that she was suffering, that she was cold. And you remember things like that. Or situations where you can see how these people are hounded, for example, when I come to them and they grab my legs, beg me not to call the police. It's very sad that these people are just so intimidated.
 Sometimes I went with groups where there were children,...
Sometimes I went with groups where there were children, they were all exhausted and they had to go through the swamps on top of that. And they sank in these swamps, but knowing we had to go fast, I had no choice but to rush them. Once one kid was almost crying, asking me to sit down for a while. I see that the kid has wounded legs, he can't walk but I keep thinking it's going to be light soon and we can't sit down, we have to keep walking. And you feel terrible. I was tired too, but I knew that in an hour or two I'd be back home, take a shower, make myself a cup of tea, lie down in my bed, and they'd be waiting out there in the cold. And you don't know if they won't be caught again and thrown back into the forest. This is the worst part for me. The feeling of impotence that such pure evil is happening around you and it is not only not combated, but even inspired by people who theoretically should take care of us, because they rule us.
They care very much that outsiders do not hang around here, because they prefer to do what they do without any social control, without witnesses and quietly. So they try to somehow discourage or intimidate people. I am careful about what I do and how I do it and what I say to whom, but sometimes they have tried to intimidate me, e.g. when searching my car. There were some meticulous checks during which I was asked some strange questions, suggestions were made that maybe I should be afraid. Sometimes undercover agents came to my house and stared through the gate, but in such a way that I was aware of it. So it was a kind of pressure, but they never had anything on me to be able to, for example, arrest me. Well, at some point I had such paranoia, while seeing those undercover agents at the gate, that one day to intimidate me they would for example poison my dog. Well, because a man in such situations can fall into various paranoia, and I have seen many times in my life on other occasions that the police are capable of various things.

Photo above: Mohammad, a refugee from Yemen, with food provided by volunteers; Bialowieza Forest, Podlasie/Poland, November 4, 2022

 Sometimes I feel like history is kind of repeating...
Sometimes I feel like history is kind of repeating itself. And even more so here, in this forest where partisans who fought against the occupier or Jews during the occupation were hiding. And now the refugees. I don't have much experience, I didn't go anywhere to the Balkans, when there was a humanitarian crisis there. But in general, people who have some experience in the subject of migration claim, which seems quite likely, that once a migration route is opened, it will never close again. And here this migration route has already opened.

When they were supposed to abolish the zone, I had some hopes related to that, and I must admit that some of these hopes came true. But not all. I didn't expect that suddenly everything would be super cool, but I was hoping for some kind of relief and there was a bit of that relief. Suddenly it turned out that my family and friends could visit me legally, which was impossible before. Suddenly, these permanent checkpoints have been removed, so I can go to Białowieża and I don't have to explain to some idiot why I'm going or when I'll be back. This is a big relief for me and I was hoping for such things. But I also secretly hoped that it would end somehow, and it didn't.


Photo: Tomek (around 50 years old, name changed), a local inhabitant who helps refugees, with a backpack he uses when going to the forest. Podlasie/Poland, March 14, 2023
  There is already a wall built that was supposed to stop...
There is already a wall built that was supposed to stop the migration, but it didn't. All it has done is stop the migration of animals and cause people who cross the border to suffer more brutal injuries. It is known that there are much fewer crossings than there were last fall. But this whole summer season, for example, a lot of people came through.Now this electronic barrier is being finished, will it stop migration? In my opinion no. Maybe fewer people will manage to cross this wall, maybe they will have to make more attempts. But I don't think they will stop. So it will continue, in what form it is difficult to say, because it is also unknown what the political situation will look like and whether Belarus will stop issuing visas at some point or something else will happen. It may take different forms, but it will probably last.

Photo: The anti-migration fence recently built by the Polish government on the border with Belarus. The wall is 5.5 meters high and extends on 183 kilometers of the border. It has been one of the most expensive border fence built recently. Krynki, Podlasie/Poland, October 26, 2022

We also hoped that after the abolition of the zone, large humanitarian organizations would appear in our region and relieve us a bit. On the one hand, I had hope, on the other hand, this hope was rather weak, because if they really wanted to help, they could have done something about it even earlier. I'm not saying that they didn't do anything at all, because they sent some stuff or opened a warehouse in Bialystok. But most of all, we needed such real help in the forest. The spring of this year (2022) was the worst. Because yes, in the fall there were a lot of volunteers from everywhere. Then it was winter when it was quieter and then most of these people left. Then the war in Ukraine began, when a lot of people who wanted to help anyone, got involved there. And there was such a time in spring that practically only the inhabitants stayed here to help. When an outside volunteer showed up, it was worth its weight in gold, let's say. And yet humanitarian organizations have budgets, they could hire workers who would just go to the forest and carry this humanitarian aid and take this burden from us. I don't know if the fact that they don't do it is due to some political reasons, that they are afraid of putting themselves at risk, or if they think that it won't give them a good image. I don't know, but we hoped that they would help a little in this direction and it didn't happen unfortunately.

I would like people to stop dividing others into better and worse, and to stop using them in political games, both when it comes to the dictator in Belarus and the Polish government or the European Commission. Because turning a blind eye to all this, the European Commission also takes up this game, not taking into account the fact that these are people, not pawns. And I would also like someone to bear the consequences for what is happening here and for all those deportations back to the forest (read about legal situation). Both, those pulling the strings and those who say “sorry, we have such orders”. The guys in the concentration camps used to say the same thing. They too had orders." - Tomek (name changed)
  Photo: Concertina that, at the beginning of the crisis,...
Photo: Concertina that, at the beginning of the crisis, served as a separation between Poland and Belarus before the fence was built; now the same type of concertina is placed on top of the anti-immigration fence; Podlasie/Poland, October 23, 2022
G.
(50 years old)

G. helped in the forest during the most tense period of the crisis. At some point, she stopped, even more so as for health reasons she couldn’t carry heavy backpacks, where you often have to cover a few kilometers very quickly through a forest that is difficult to walk. It was beyond her strength. However, she is one of those people who provided refugees with shelter, sometimes for two, sometimes for more days. As much as they needed to recover and organize themselves somehow. Everything had to be done in secret, because, as she says, "one phone call would be enough and you know where these people would end up." She is convinced that she did nothing wrong and that it was just simple human help.

For a long time it was difficult for her to go, as she says, "recreationally" to the forest. The memories of the past months are still fresh, the more that she knows that people are still in the forest and she is afraid that it will stay that way.

 “We started to receive news about people trying to...
“We started to receive news about people trying to cross the border but we haven't seen them and it was so hard to imagine. There's never been a wave like this here before. And so at some point, probably in September, it turned out that there are so many of these people that we have to react somehow because they are completely ignored by the Border Guards and all our uniformed services. Ignored in the sense that their human needs and rights are ignored. And so we slowly created an informal group, a large and growing one, of people who simply tried to organize help somehow and shared the duties. Everyone had a task and we tried to collect everything that was needed to go to the forest.

Photo: G., a local inhabitant who used to help refugees in the forest with the boots. Refugees often need proper, dry footwear, as many come unprepared to cross this forest. Podlasie/Poland, December 17, 2022

There were several such groups in the Bialowieza Forest. It had to be organized somehow because we all had jobs and some other duties and suddenly we also had that. So it wasn't like this that everyone was always ready at any moment. And depending on how many refugees in need were there in the forest, it was necessary to gather some extra people to help.

We had a base in the sense of a warehouse in which there were all necessary things: clothes, shoes, basic food that was suitable for eating in the forest, hygiene and dressing supplies, backpacks and sleeping bags. And we would just take from this magazine every time we needed something. People also had extra supplies at home. In general  people were going to the forest in a group of two, just to bandage and dress the wounds, or to bring dry socks so that they could change and give them something hot to eat. It was well I guess it still is a bit of a conspiracy to this day, but maybe not so much because a lot of people really understand this problem. I know personally such people, who were very badly attuned, but met a refugee in need somewhere on the threshold of their own house, or by the fence or somewhere in the forest, and only then they saw the scale of the drama and tragedy. And suddenly it turned out that they were helping too, that they were carrying something somewhere, soups, I don't know, they were even hiding these refugees.

At the beginning it was really very hard for us. For several months, we had such a deep conviction that, because there was the so-called state of emergency and no one from the outside could come here, neither any institution or humanitarian organization that should take care of these people in such situations, we had a deep conviction that absolutely everything: life and health of these people is solely in our hands and depends solely on us. It was really depressing because it was a sense of responsibility and helplessness at the same time, terrible. It really paralyzed a lot of us. It was really hard to do anything else back then.

 There were a lot of young men, but from my experience -...
There were a lot of young men, but from my experience - I wasn't the main activist in this forest, but I also used to go to the forest - there were also a lot of families. Once I met a group where there were probably two families and someone else joined them on the road. And there were four little children there. Well, I was once on such an action, where we had to go with a stretcher and get one gay out of the swamp. Very often these people in the forest seem totally exhausted, they have a fracture or are unable to walk or something. Well, it turns out that two or three days in a warm place or in a hospital or at someone's home, some nutritious food and suddenly they are fully healthy and able to go on. 


Photo: Two volunteers helping Y.K. (25 years old, Syrian refugee, an engineer) find in the forest in the second degree of hypothermia. Bialowieza Forest, Podlasie/Poland, December 12, 2022

 It also happened sometimes that the Border Guards...
It also happened sometimes that the Border Guards appeared right after someone went to the forest to bring help. So you could see how they were getting those refugees. Sometimes they would take them to the Border Guards’ station and then they would put them on big soldiers' trucks, covered with a tarpaulin and they would simply push them through the razor wires back to Belarus. And in Belarus, we know from various stories that people were bitten by dogs, beaten by Bialorusina Guards and pushed back through this razor wire to the polish side. Rarely have there been any human reflexes, although they must have been some. It's horrible. The fact that people who were brought up on stories from the Second World War, on the Nuremberg trials where it was said that having an order does not justify actions that were putting in danger someone else; and yet somehow they don't see this similarity, they underestimate it. They laugh at those people who suffer there in the forest, as was the case recently with the boy who was hanging on the fence, there was a lot of laughter and nothing bad happened. It's absolutely terrifying to me. 
Initially, no one knew what was going on. At some point we were wondering why we hear dogs barking terribly all the time, especially somewhere in the eastern part of our village, right next to the forest. And it turned out that in the evenings there were military cars driving around with huge round loudspeakers and they were broadcasting dogs barking. It was awful and harassing. I don't know but I guess that Arabs are often afraid of dogs or don't like them, so Border Guards and army would go around with those loudspeakers. Now we still see these cars, only the speakers are temporarily covered. But I'm sure they might easily start to use it again. It really was something horrible and so humiliating for these refugees. In the past, people from Poland were leaving for the west, they were fleeing during martial law, just before or just after; no one treated them like that.  

Photo above: A local volunteer, shows on her phone the image of the video in which a refugee was left hanging upside down on the fence, with one leg caught in the concertina above. Podlasie/Poland, October 26, 2022
 But the worst thing for me and what made me furious was...
But the worst thing for me and what made me furious was when I saw on TV when the war in Ukraine started, how these wonderful Border Guards went across the border and helped these grandmothers to pull the suitcases and were carrying children on their hands so that their mothers would not have to carry them and so on. I really got pissed off. I guess that's how everyone here felt. Pissed off. 
Of course, we all support Ukrainians, and we wanted to welcome Ukrainians here but it turned out that it was impossible because we were in the zone and no one could come here. But that is one thing, and another thing is that until now no one accepted that people are just divided into better and worse just because they happen to have a darker complexion, for example. 


Photo: A drawing made by one of the refugees arrested in the Bialowieza Forest and placed in one of the Immigration Centers for Foreigners. Podlasie/Poland, October 23, 2022

I don't understand why these people here can't be accepted. I understand that someone may be against or afraid; but there is a law that obliges us to give them shelter if they are in need or express willingness to stay. You can and should verify them afterwards, and send back those who may be dangerous or terrorist. But the rest should be helped.

We won't run away from it anyway because the climate is changing also and many places will be drought and desert and so the refugees will come here anyway. It’s a question of time. So how we respond to it now only shows our bad side, and influences how they think about us too. Anyway, I'm supposed to talk about it to people who believe that love of neighbor is the basic thing? It seems that many people go to church on Sunday and probably feel released from thinking that they also have to do certain things on a day by day basis. Somehow they feel so justified, almost saints, but truly matters is what you do in everyday life, not in such empty gestures. I'm simply thinking about trying to behave like a human being and abide by some basic social rules, such as that everyone has the right to different things and has the right to live and to help if he needs it, right? You also have to think about how you feel with yourself. I can't imagine behaving differently than helping. And that's it." - G.

PODCAST (polish)
G., local inhabitant who used to help refugees in the forest


A. (around 50 years old photo above) is an anthropologist and lives outside of Podlasie region. She had never been particularly interested in the issue of migration before. When the crisis started in Podlasie, it was her daughter (then 19 years old) who got involved first, starting with preparing food and then going into the forest to help. A. used to listen to the stories her daughter told her and finally decided to enroll as a volunteer too. At first she went one week a month, but now she has decided to stay for six months. The first time she went to the forest to help a group of migrants, she met a boy of a similar age to her son and that's what has motivated her to continue helping until now.


The Podlasie region is dotted by small villages that are often inaccessible by public transport. In such close-knit communities, any unusual activity is likely to draw attention. While those who help refugees often prefer to remain anonymous, their efforts do not go unnoticed by their neighbors. Some may choose to turn a blind eye, but there is always a sense of unease about how others may react. 


P. (a mother of 10 years old boy) had been hosting two refugee families in her home, when a shop assistant’s curious questions sparked fear in her. The assistant’s queries about P.’s buying habits, such as why she was purchasing more bread than usual and why she had started buying canned fish, made her realized that her guests may be at risk. P. feared that someone might inform the Border Guard about the presence of refugees in her home. As a result, she decided that it was no longer safe for them to stay with her.





    Unfortunately, there are some local residents who...

Unfortunately, there are some local residents who actively seek out refugees in order to report their presence to the authorities. In an “unofficial” conversation, one man proudly boasted to me about his nocturnal patrols in the forest, claiming that he does not sleep so that his neighbors can rest easy. His vigilance behavior reflects the harsh reality that refugees face in the region, where hostility and suspicion towards outsiders can run deep. 

During the height of the crisis, many courageous women in the Podlasie region hid refugees in their pigsties, often without their husbands’ knowledge. K., one of them, recounted how she secured the pigsty with a chain and, if her husband asked about the key, she claimed it has been misplaced. This gave her time to move refugees to a safer location. In oter instances, families hosted refugees in their homes and continue to do so if the need arises, but they now prefer to keep their actions private. As some have explained, they want to ensure the safety of their homes in case they are called upon to host refugees again in the future.
G. K.  
(around 50 years old)
 
Local inhabitant who used to host refugees at her home


PODCAST (polish)

English transcription below  

"For the past two decades, I have called the southwestern edge of the Białowieża Forest my home... my paradise on earth. I felt like I was living in paradise and was the happiest person in the world. However, in 2021, everything changed. The first incidents involving refugees occurred near Bialowieza village, and soon, the zone was established, and troops arrived in large numbers.  

I live 800 meters from the border, so most refugees passing through were trying to move away from the area as quickly as possible and did not stop near my home. Nonetheless, the sudden influx of people had a significant impact and it was difficult to ignore the changes taking place. 

Despite my love for the forest, there was a constant fear that I would discover something horrific during my walks. As a result, I stopped venturing in the woods alone. The forest no longer felt like a peaceful escape, but rather a place of danger and uncertainty. The sounds of gunshots, screams, and other disturbances could be heard at any moment. It was difficult to discern the source of the noise – whether it was refugees being caught, or the military conducting operations. Regardless of the origin, the chaos was unsettling, and the forest began to feel like a warzone. It was an overwhelming experience, leaving me feeling vulnerable and powerless in the midst of it all.
 The were moments when a stranger would appear at my...
The were moments when a stranger would appear at my window, seeking help. In those situations, it was difficult to know what to do.  Should I pretend not to see them? Call the Border Guard? Or invite them into my home? For me the choice was clear – when faced with a person who was exhausted, wet, and possible on the brink of death, it was essential to show empathy and extend a helping hand. I couldn’t bear the thought of pushing someone back into the forest, or to their death. Turning someone to the Border guards simply meant expose him to pushback. Therefore we felt that we had no other choice but to do what we could to help.

Photo: K., a local inhabitant who helps refugees in the forest, shows the first aid kit that she carries with her during interventions; Podlasie/Poland, October 19, 2022
 It wasn't like flocks of people came to my house,...
It wasn't like flocks of people came to my house, but several individuals did need my help. One particularly memorable encounter was with a girl who had frostbitten feet. At the time, I didn’t realize that her condition was first-degree frostbite, despite her telling me that her feet hurt. Looking back, it’s clear that her shoes were in such poor condition that they likely contributed to her injury. In fact, I’ve noticed that I tend to focus on people’s shoes when they approach me for assistance. It’s heartbreaking to see individuals in shoes that are so worn out that they can’t even walk properly, especially when they’re in the middle of a forest in freezing temperatures. So the first thing I look at are the shoes and the sight of course freezes me.

Photo: A shoe left by refugees in the forest, Bialowieza Forest; Podlasie/Poland, March 16, 2023
There was another situation that moved me very much. My husband had to undergo surgery and my daughter and I were alone at home. One evening, around eight o'clock, my daughter says: someone knocks on the window. I go to that window and I see a young dark-skinned woman outside. I let her into the house and we began to talk. During our conversation, I learned that she had nothing with her except for two soaked Bibles and a handful of garbage. She didn’t have a phone, backpack, map or any way to contact anyone. When I asked her how she ended up in this situation, she told me that she had been crossing the border walking with five men. She tripped and hurt her leg. The men left her behind because she couldn't keep up with them. As a very religious person, she began to pray and ask God fro help. I am an atheist, so for me it's an abstract situation. But she said she prayed to God to lead her to someone who could help her. As luck would have it, she saw the only house in the area with a light on and felt compelled to knock on the door. She said she heard a voice from God telling her to enter the house. Her faith and trust in a being that I personally don’t believe in left a lasting impression on me. I still get chills thinking about the experience. 

I can recall exactly where she wanted to go, whether it's in Germany or Belgium, but I remember her telling me about a man from her country who wanted to marry her. She believed that a woman’s role was to be a wife and mother, and felt she was made for marriage. She was a nurse by profession and told me the man she was supposed to marry was good because she wanted to keep learning and he didn’t mind. She was such an ambitious girl. 
 Before she came to my door, I saw two border patrols...
Before she came to my door, I saw two border patrols pass by my house. I asked her if she had seen any patrols or cars while she was walking to my house, but she said no. Despite walking slowly and the physical impossibility of going unnoticed, she arrived without seeing any patrols or vehicles. It was a mystery to me, but explained that she had been walking and praying all the way, entrusting her life to God, who she believed would help her. Her faith and determination to trust in God left a strong impression on me.

Photo: One of the villages in Podlasie region, November 3, 2022
In April, I discovered two families in the forest just six kilometers from my house. There were four children, including a two-year-old toddler and a girl just a bit older than him. I found them quickly, as I was familiar with the area. When I arrived, I saw a young man kneeling in terror and begging me not to call any services. Behind him were the children, all displaying the same fear and terror that he had. There were three adults present, as well as a 13-year-old girl and a 14- or 15-year-old boy. The same fear was reflected in the children's eyes, which made the moment even more difficult for me. 

I learned that they had been pushed back 31 times and had been on the border since October, including in Bruzgi camp. The wife of the man from the older family, those who had three children, also made a strong impression on me. When I arrived, volunteers were giving them soup, but the woman just sat on the side, showing no emotion. It was as if she had no hope left and knew that they would be caught and deported soon anyway. The terror in their eyes and the fear that I might betray them were the most affecting things of this experience. 

After going through all these situations, I’m not sure if I’m ready hosting in my house someone in need again. The thought of it scares me, and I don’t know if I could handle it emotionally and mentally. The situation of the last person who showed up at my house pushed me to my limits, and I felt like I was going crazy. It’s much easier for me to go to the forest and bring help than to have someone stay at my home. I can't imagine what would happen if I was put in that situation again. It was all too intense and overwhelming for me, and I don’t know if my hypersensitivity plays a role in it. 

However, I feel capable to go to forest and help there. I refer to keep it that way and not have anyone come to my house. I know it sounds cruel, but it’s a matter of self-preservation. This past year has been line a nightmare, and I can’t accept that my paradise on earth has turned into a hell." - G.K.

Married couple, both aged 54

Zbyszek and Madzia 
(names changed)


Z. - Entry to the zone was only permitted with a valid reason in the beginning. However, we were allowed to enter as we had property in one of the villages within the zone, which proved to be very useful. During that time,many people in the forest required assistance and we both decided to help. It is with noting that the majority of people providing assistance in the forest are women.

M. - Initially, we were supposed to volunteer at the hospital. However it became clear that our help was more required in the forest. We had to acquire new skills and knowledge, including legal training and understanding powers of attorney. This was necessary as we found ourselves frequently helping people and ensuring that everything was legally sound. We learned when to argue with the police and when to politely present our IDs, as they are authorized to ask for identification. Additionally, we had to become familiar with the terrain to be effective.

There were times when my husband would come home, empty the mud from his shoes, put on dry socks and rush back to the forest to respond to more calls for help. We were not alone in this effort, as it was a common mobilization among locals, often associated with scientific institutions in the area. None of us anticipated that the situation would persist for so long. When people learned about the situation, many asked what they could do to help. Eventually, we had shoes, sleeping bags, and jars of food outside our house, and thus began the process of organizing aid.

Z. - From the outset, we were aware that the Border Guard was not trustworthy due to their practice of  push-backs. I recall one group of Somalis comprising nine teenagers and one adult, who were detained by the Border Guard. During their detention, an officer, unaware of being recorded, said he would drive them to the facility unless he changed his mind. Thus, it never occurred to us to trust the Border Guards with the safety of refugees in the forest. In this regard, we were not disappointed, which was probably not the case of those  who knew people from the Border Guard for a long time.
  Photo above:   A Border Guard watch refugees...
Photo above: A Border Guard watch refugees hospitalized after being injured trying to cross the fence; Podlasie/Poland, 08/12/2022


M. - The fact that uniformed services cannot be trusted came as a huge surprise to me. For the past twenty years I have lived in a country where I have worked with them and respected them greatly. They were my colleagues at work and supported me in various difficult situations. So far, I've had no reason to think they have a double agenda or bad intentions. However, after what I've seen here, the Border Guard and the military cause me great contempt and I have no desire to interact with them.

Z. - While it’s true that we haven't personally experienced aggression or major issues with uniformed services, I believe it's because we don't fit the stereotypical image of activists, particularly giving our age. Perhaps, when they see someone with gray hair walking in the woods, they assume it's an etymologist or professor and do not bother us.

M. - Fortunately, we have been able to avoid moral dilemmas on a personal level. For local residents who have deep roots and connections to friends, neighbors or family in the Border Guard, the situation has been much more challenging. Our situation has been easier because we are strangers, and the relations we have developed align with our values and actions. However, not everyone initially shared our views. We have some close friends who know that we are involved in helping refugees. A woman knows more about our work, while a man knows less. At first, he was very anti-refugee, but after more than a year of knowing him, we see that he is changing his views. We are not saying that everyone should remain here, but it is not our role to decide that. When we talk to him, we ask if he thinks refugees should be left in the forest or thrown behind the fence to the Belarusian side. No one should die from fear, hunger, or cold in the woods, so we help. When we approach the topic in this manner,  we notice a softening in his views. While he is far from providing assistance himself, I have a feeling that now he would not call the Border Patrol if someone showed up on his doorstep.
  Photo above: The anti-migration wall at the Polish-...
Photo above: The anti-migration wall at the Polish- Belarusian border. Klakowo, March 11, 2023

Z. - The situation has changed a bit since the wall was built, but it has not stopped migration at all. Walls have never been successful in completely halting migration. However, we have observed that fewer elderly individuals and children are attempting to cross the border, with some exceptions. People who try to cross the border must be fit. However, I do not know whether this reduction is due to the wall or because the route has become more well-known over the past year and a half. 

Initially, we encountered people who had travel insurance for their entire family. One family with children of different ages showed me such a document. They had purchased a package that included a trip with insurance, two or three days of sightseeing, which nobody did, and then a taxi dropped them off at the border line. They were told that the hardest part of their journey was ahead of them, which was a 15-kilometer walk through the forest. It was similar to the emigration of Poles in the past who went to Rome to visit the Pope and the Holy Land. In reality, they were heading to Germany and never planned to return. 

M. - It is my belief that the first migrants who arrived here were unprepared and had no idea of the reality of the situation. Now it seems that potential migrants are receiving information about the difficulties of the journey, the high risk of injury and the likelihood of death. Unfortunately, this does not discourage everyone from attempting to cross. For instance, now in the hospital we have a girl who, after six push-backs, on the seventh time when she jumped off the wall, she broke herself very badly. But she'd tried seven times. 

Currently, our focus is mainly on helping people in the hospital, as there are fewer calls for help in the forest and more volunteers are available to assists. from On the other hand, because of the wall, more injured people are ending up in the hospital, which was not the case before. Our work is very intensive and requires us to document the exact history of these people, obtain powers of attorney from them, send letters, and fight to prevent them from being sent to the Guarded Centre. If we fail in this, we do our best to get them out of there as soon as possible.
  Photo above: A. (25 years old, Yemen, wanted to remain...
Photo above: A. (25 years old, Yemen, wanted to remain anonymous) hospitalized after broking her leg while crossing the wall at the border; Podlasie/Poland, 08.12.2022  - read her story


Z. - There is no logic in what is happening here. When a refugee is admitted to a hospital, they are guarded by the Border Guard. Once they are discharged, they are sent to a Guarded Centre for Foreigners, where they may spend up to half a year. After that, they are released onto the street without any means of subsistence, and nobody monitors them anymore. Why? Because the Office for Foreigners did not manage to complete the formalities within half a year. It feels like refugees are serving a sentence for crossing the border. They are given a piece of paper with an address, but nobody asks if they have money to travel or if they can get by. 

We had a Kurdish family consisting of two adults and five children who were illiterate. They were given a printed bus ticket and told to appear in Dębak (Decision Center - editor's note). They were guarded by armed guards in the Guarded Center, but after half a year, they were released onto the street and left to fend for themselves. This makes no sense, and it seems like nobody cares.

It looks like most of the funds are being spent on surveillance and military operations in the woods, while there is little attention given to proper procedures. In the Guarded Center, refugees are given only an hour to pack their belongings without being told why or where they should go. Since the beginning of the crisis, there has been a lack of information, access to interprets, and training of officers in foreign languages, even basic English or French. Even illiterate refugees are given documents to sign in Polish.

M. - One of the significant problems in the Guarded Centers for Foreigners is the inadequate provision of food. We have witnessed the plight of people who have been locked up there for an extended period, as we visit them, and every one of them has come out 10-15 kilograms thinner. They are not allowed to go shopping by themselves, and if they have money, they can only make a list of a maximum of eight items per week, and an officer shops it from a poorly stocked store with unclear prices. These people are starving, and it’s heartbreaking to see. On one occasion, we managed to arrange for a family with a child to receive powdered milk. We got that approval. The guard in charge of the facility clearly told all his guards that he gave permission for this and that they should not pick on it. The recent development is that food donations are allowed, but only to a limited extent.
  Photo above: Ambulance brings a refugee from Syria...
Photo above: Ambulance brings a refugee from Syria found and helped by volunteers in the forest, March 17, 2023


Z. - One major issue at the border is the lack of a proper system to accept and process documents from refugees. This is the biggest problem, and it could be addressed by establishing large centers where refugees can stay in a safe and human environment. These centers should provide basic medical care, sleeping accommodations, bathing facilities, and food, while the refugees’ documents are being checked and their applications processed in a timely manner. Once their status is established, we can focus on their adaptation and integration into society. It's important to treat refugees with dignity and respect, because locking them up in harsh conditions for months on end is demoralizing and degrading. 

Many refugees have remarkable skills and abilities, such as the cook who wanted to share his cuisine, or the assistant professor with excellent English proficiency. I recall another who was a mechanic and second mate on the ship, so he also had good skills. Of course, there are also those who are focused on exploiting the system. They are good and bad people like anywhere else and I have no idea if they should stay here. I think a lot of groups should get back where they came from, but I don't have tools to verify that and it’s not my place to judge anyone. It’s essential to handle the refugee crisis logically, sensibly and humanely. We do not accept overt violence, disregarding requests for international protection and acting against the law.

M. - Those who are wiser than us say that once the migration route is opened, it may take several years before it can be closed. Unfortunately, organized smuggling is also starting to develop here, and we must be careful not to get involved, and not to be perceived as a piece of this puzzle. Our services are also becoming more specialized, so it would be foolish not to consider the consequences of doing something that the government is trying to criminalize. We are prepared for this, and we know that sooner or later we may encounter problems. It is not a question of "if" but "when".
  Photo above: Ambulance, followed by Border Guards,...
Photo above: Ambulance, followed by Border Guards, brings a refugee from Syria found and helped by volunteers in the forest, March 17, 2023

I believe that someday someone will be made a scapegoat, and some show trials will begin. If the political decision is that these few people should be punished, they will go after those they need. If the current government loses the election, it will be much easier for us to help because there will be no criminalization. At least, we hope so. I hope that someday people will be held accountable, and those who gave the orders will be punished and go to jail. 

Z. - In my opinion, the Border Guard should be replaced here on the eastern border, as some of the residents have lost complete trust in them. In the past, the officers had a very high level of social trust, they knew the area and the people well. HOwever, many officers have left their job now.

M. - Some people say that the pressure and moral dilemmas have caused many Border Guards to retire early. I don't know. I would like to believe that some officers left for that reason. I hope there were some righteous people among them. They couldn't prevent the bad things from happening, but at least didn’t take part in it themselves and left. It would be nice if it turned out to be true, and not a made-up theory after the fact. Because it's always like that, then more heroes show up in the end. What I do know is that they are now looking for replacements and the selection criterion seems to be  getting lower and lower. For WOT, which is ubiquitous here, they seem to accept anybody, and those who come are beyond measure, grossly vulgar and excited. 
These young boys had no idea for themselves in life and suddenly they got uniforms and long guns. This is something to be afraid of, as we fear that one of them might not be able to cope psychologically and will pull the trigger at some point. Unfortunately, their training and supervision are poor, and there is nothing to be proud of. We'll see what happens, I don't know. Nobody thought it would last this long.

Z. - We don't know what will happen in the future. Lukasheno will eventually lose power, if only because he will die. But what happens after that, who knows? As long as there are people who say “come, we will make it easier for you”, people will keep coming, as this has already become one of the migrant routes. 

M. - I really want to believe that there will be a happy ending to all of this, where the scoundrels and rascals will be punished. I truly hope it happens. 

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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