“Considering how many refugees’ clothes and remains of camps are found in the Podlasie forests, it is reasonable to assume that many refugees are gone forever. Some drowned in swamps; some were eaten by animals. Those bodies will most likely never be found, they may never get a respectful burial” – the photojournalist Agnieszka Sadowska-Mazurek tells Salam Lab
Julia Parkot: How did you start documenting the humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border?
Agnieszka Sadowska-Mazurek: I have been working with the “Gazeta Wyborcza” newspaper in Białystok for years. Podlasie is my region. Once it started to become widely known that more and more refugees were appearing near places like Krynki, I realised that something serious was happening. Together with journalist Joanna Klimowicz, we began to receive various reports from local people. And these people had seen, for example, how a refugee family was escorted by the Border Guard who were handling rifles. We were getting calls from terrified people who had noticed that something was wrong, and then we started driving to the border ourselves.
The crisis first started in Usnarz Górny. I happened to be on a one-week holiday during this time, but when I returned, it was still unfolding. And it began to escalate dramatically. It was clear, from a political point of view, that these actions were devised by Lukashenko, probably in association with Putin and aimed at the European Union. We can assume that Poland was supposed to focus on the Polish-Belarusian border, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine would have taken place in the meantime. This was meant to be a retaliation for the sanctions imposed by the EU on Belarus after the rigged presidential elections. It was evident that all of this would not be over anytime soon.
When you drive to the border, you are going there for work purposes. On the other hand, it must be difficult to disengage your emotions in such a situation. What did your first visits to the border look like?
You had to be alert. You had to react to every signal. At that time, the measures taken by the authorities were chaotic, uncoordinated, and the behaviour of the Border Guard and the police was quite different. Some graciously accepted applications for international protection. Others handed out food. But things began to change. Ordinances were given to the authorities to treat refugees at the Polish-Belarusian border more strictly.
Since then, on the web, there have been comments asking: “why don’t these people just go to the border crossing?” That’s because they don’t have an option to do so. Lukashenko did not bring them for that. That is not why he wanted to destabilise European borders. Migrants and refugees simply cannot go to a border crossing. And it is not their fault, because for the most part they were forced to the Polish side and the Poles pushed them back. The Belarusians, on the other hand, beat them and did not allow them to give up crossing the border under any circumstances. These people very often had to pay huge amounts of money to get to Europe. But no one reckoned with their lives.
What happened to them next?
They found themselves in a trap. Some managed to get through, some ended up in Polish facilities. These people were “lucky”. Some refugees and refugee women tried to cross the border a dozen or even several dozen times. Repeatedly, on their way to the Polish side, lives were lost. At the moment, we know that about 37 are dead. Several are buried in Bohoniki in the Muslim cemetery, the mazar. However, the actual magnitude of these tragic deaths is unknown, since more than 200 people are still missing. Considering how many refugees’ clothes and remains of makeshift camps are found in the Podlasie forests, it is reasonable to assume that many refugees are gone forever. Some drowned in swamps, some were eaten by animals. Those bodies will most likely never be found, and they may never get a respectful burial.
About three weeks ago I headed out with a group of volunteers to search for people who were missing. We found one body that had been bitten by wild animals. I still have this view in front of my eyes.
People are dying on our border. Many Poles do not understand why people from countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan or Ethiopia seek safety at Europe’s gates. Double standards apply. As if one refugee was better than another.
These people live in war and conflict zones or politically and economically unstable countries. Some live in camps. Camps like this, for example on the Turkish-Syrian border, are a nightmare. People exist there for months or even years, with no future and no prospects, no bearable conditions, let alone decent ones: tents are their only homes. They are fleeing because they are looking for a better life.
At the border I was doing my job, but it was impossible not to get emotionally involved. Time after time, I had a tremendous amount of understanding and compassion for the people I met and photographed. People who have slightly darker skin are often not very welcomed by Polish society. This has the hallmarks of racism. It only takes reading a few comments on the internet to see the scale of the hatred. I am very saddened by this.
When you see refugees with your own eyes, when you hear their stories, you can see that they are just like us. I remember a man from Ghana, who was a teacher. He sat in the forest with resignation after being robbed by Belarusians. He was crying, because he knew that asking for international protection was for nothing. That he would be facing deportation. “I am a Christian. The only thing that makes me different from you is my skin colour. We have the same blood flowing in us. Why are you treating us like subhumans?” – I still remember his words.
Evil people can be found anywhere, we might be living next door to an aggressive neighbour. During the humanitarian crisis that has been going on for 1,5 years, I have never felt the slightest threat from any of the people I met in the forest.
What is important in the work of a photojournalist at the border?
It’s a difficult professional situation. All the time I feel that the most important thing is to respect the people I meet at the border. If I notice even the slightest sign that someone does not wish for me to take a photo, I put my camera down. I also know that some refugees may feel that they are somehow reliant on us. That perhaps they should somehow repay our help. People may not have the courage to say ‘no’ in these situations. That is why it is doubly difficult. I am always trying to be mindful. I also make sure that the photos I take say something and convey an important message.
Certainly, the photograph of the woman and child sitting on the curb is such a photograph. She is photographed from the perspective of a gun held by the Border Guard officers.
This is a photograph from Michałowo. There was a group of Kurds staying there. For me, this was the first time I saw refugee families with such young children. I am a mother myself. To see guns and children all together in one place was terrifying. These families posed absolutely no threat. And yet they were surrounded by a group of soldiers and the Border Guard who were armed as if they were going for a war. I wondered how this was even possible.
Last weekend, your photograph of a girl from Rwanda hiding in the Białowieża Forest won the Photo of the Year and Portrait category of the Photojournalists Association competition. When did the idea for the exhibition come about? Right now, following the initiative of Janina Ochojska, your photos can be seen, for example, in the European Parliament. Was the aim of this to change the attitudes of at least a few Poles?
The idea of the exhibition started to emerge somewhat beside me. We received some initial requests to present photographs made at the border. Anna Fostakowska, a fellow journalist from Rzeszów, pointed out that it was necessary to show publicly what was happening in Podlasie, because Poles are very often unaware of the humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border. They do not realise that people are dying there. The media rather portray refugees as a threat. There is a dominating politics of fear and an idealised image of the Border Guard “defending the borders”.
That is why it is so important to show refugees the way they actually are and to remind everyone that they are ordinary people. I wanted my photos to challenge the stereotypes. I do not know whether I have succeeded in doing so, after all, the negative attitudes towards refugees in the Polish-Belarusian borderland still persist. Can it be changed? I don’t know, particularly since the Polish government is fuelling the whole situation.
Border protection, in my view, is an important function of the state. However, border protection must be separated from the provision of humanitarian aid, which is also a state’s function. While the aid happens occasionally, ruthless push backs are a daily occurrence. The pushbacks include everyone: men, families with children, the sick. There has been a recent uproar over the death of Mahlet, an Ethiopian girl, a beautiful girl, who was left to die in the forest. Her friends, who went to look for her rescue, were pushed back to Belarus.
Nevertheless, I think that this situation in some time will get back to all of us and sooner or later the guilty parties will be held accountable. The authorities who work at the border should remember that they should be people first of all, and only after that some ruthless robots who follow orders. Everyone who needs help should receive that help. People are crossing the border and will continue to do so, not even a giant metal fence will change that. We should stop this wave of tragic deaths. We must respect the rights of refugees. Not like some trash bags that can be thrown into a truck and taken away.
Translated by Urszula Jocz.