“Lithuania received 43 million euros from the European Union, to keep refugees in closed centres throughout the country. So, de-facto it received money so that they can violate human rights in refugee camps”, says Ewa Wołkanowska-Kołodziej, a journalist who helps refugees at the Lithuania-Belarus border.
“I was born in Vilnius. My dad and my grandparents live here. I came to Poland after completing school to study at university. Here I spent 19 years, started a family, and had children here. I speak Polish and Lithuanian. When my youngest child was a few months old, we decided to move to Vilnius to be closer to my great-grandparents and grandfather. We have been here for 4 years now. We want the children to go to a Polish school, so we intend to come back in some time. I don’t even know which country I can say that I am “coming back” to: to Poland or to Lithuania? Which one am I closer to?
The loneliness of the activist
I belong to Sienos Grupe, a Lithuanian organisation that helps refugees on the Lithuania-Belarus border. Movement on this border began earlier than on the Polish-Belarusian border, but here in Lithuania, there was no one to help these people. Lithuanians did not want to show solidarity with people who fled from war, violence and persecution.
Sienos Grupe was founded in response to this apathy in our society. We acted alone and we are still alone. As many as 95% of Lithuanian citizens support the actions of our government and support deportations. Such people claim that the pushback of refugees from Congo or Syria to Belarus are in “defence of Lithuanian borders”. There are even Lithuanians who go in groups to the forests, catch people who are freezing, often sick, sometimes pregnant, and hand them over to the border guards. Who then send them to Belarus, where they are exposed to violence from those border guards.
The need of real volunteers
We have our hands full of work. We handle calls to people in need from forests, support people in refugee centres and attend the Lithuanian Parliament when needed. But you know, I have no idea how we would have managed when beginning without Polish help: donations, money, necessities all came from Poland.
There are simply not enough of us here. “Volunteers” who catch refugees in the forests and hand them over to the border guards are easy to find. But there are practically no people who want to give these people something to drink and eat, dress their wounds, talk. Lithuanians hit their heads when they hear about our activities. They say that Lithuania has to be defended against these strangers. And there are even rumours about Sienos Grupe that we have a sculpture of Lukashenka in our headquarters and that we worship him. That is why we fight for every volunteer willing to help us, for every journalist who is sympathetic to us.
From the beginning of July to August 2021, Lithuania accepted refugees who tried to get into the country from Belarus. When the Border Guards met someone who had requested asylum at the border, they followed the procedures: they took them to a guardhouse or a refugee centre to begin the appropriate procedure. About 4,100 people were admitted to refugee camps in this way.
The decision to start a pushback policy was made later. Most of these people were locked up in detention centres, that is, de facto, in prisons for a year. Later, more refugees began to receive the so-called Green Cards, i.e. a pass for one day. But people who are locked up for a year, who have difficult contact with the outside world and who are deprived of their rights, will try to flee a country that has treated them so badly. That is why many of my friends are already safe in Germany. Today, there are only about 750 people in Lithuanian refugee centres.
And there are no more of them. The Border Guard has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy, and all people encountered in forests are pushed back to Belarus. The authorities sometimes say, for “special humanitarian reasons”, they take refugees from the border area to a refugee centre. But what does “special humanitarian considerations” mean? Does an 8-year-old girl need to be moved from the forest? But not a 10-year-old? And s pregnant person? A seriously ill man? Who deserves the favour of Lithuanian authorities?
It was the refugees who attacked the dogs
In one of the Lithuanian detention centres, I met a boy from Congo, Muthuke Ara [name changed]. Muthuke lost his father who was in the military, in the bloody massacre in the Congo. He has not had contact with his mother and sister for years; they were most likely raped and killed. The boy fled to Angola, where he sold his paintings in order to survive. But he missed home and wanted to return to Congo. He’s back. In his country, he had to hide in a church with a Catholic priest for six months. Muthuke decided that he could not live so much that he wanted to be free. He wanted to live in Europe. He heard that the road to Belarus is safer than the one that leads from the south through the Mediterranean Sea.
He wanted to make a life for himself in Belarus. He sold his works there also, which were quite popular. When he thought he had found a new home, he was attacked by the Belarusian youth. He didn’t make it out alive. He lost an eye. Since Belarus could not provide him with security, he decided to try with Lithuania. After crossing the border, Muthuke was locked in the refugee camp for a year, in a tin, in a kind of container. The containers in the camp are arranged in sectors and fenced with barbed wire. Refugees, or actually “inmates”, cannot go further than to the toilet or shower. There is no privacy there. Did you know that Lithuania got 43 million euros from the European Union to support refugees? So, in fact, we received money to break human rights in the refugee camps.
Muthuke recently got a Green Card. He can go out but must report to the camp daily.
We were recently contacted by a boy from an African country, who was kept in solitary confinement in a refugee camp in the Lithuanian city of Kybartai. His cellmates managed to escape. Not him. As punishment, he spent 7 months in solitary confinement, without a phone, without any contact with other people. When he left, he was in a bad mental state.
I know another story from the refugee centre: one time, the migrants tried to escape but were chased by dogs. They were seriously bitten. The guards when reporting the entire incident wrote that it was the migrants that attacked the dogs.
I envy Poland
Despite difficulties, we are constantly operating. One of our activities is supporting people who create art in refugee centres. We provided them with materials, we said to them “draw, paint, create, so as not to go crazy in here”. When Lithuanians later view these works at exhibitions organised by us, suddenly people locked in the refugee centres gain a new front for themselves. They are no longer anonymous refugees.
I look at Poland with great envy. I appreciate your solidarity. There are Polish journalists and activists, people who fight for every human being in these forests. We don’t have this.
I was once a journalist. A year ago, I wrote my last article. I don’t know who I am now. An activist?
What I am most proud of this year is the impact I achieved thanks to my activity on social media. Thanks to my posts on Facebook, proceedings were initiated against border guards who used violence against refugees. Thanks to my journalistic workshop, I have a real influence on politics, the police and prosecutors. The Lithuanian watchdog for human rights comments on my posts.
I want to show young people what the power of the written word is. Friends who were against accepting refugees changed their opinion after my reporting from the refugee centres. I want young people to feel that writing makes sense”.
Translated by Dawid Mliczek.