A couple days ago I picked up two boys seeking to hitchhike. Okay, two young men. They are both nineteen. One of them was from the Territorial Defence Forces. He has never seen refugees. He never participated in deportation or pushbacks. When asked “what will you do when you see a refugee family in the forest?”, he replied, “I’ll call the Border Guard”.
Since August last year, Paulina Bownik, a doctor, has been helping refugees in the border forests who were there after trying to get from Belarus to the European Union. The migrants face inhumane treatment from Belarusian border guards: they are beaten, robbed, and hounded with dogs. The Polish Border Guard uses illegal pushbacks against them and does not provide any basic protection. Refugees have great difficulties starting the asylum procedure in Poland. Sometimes they have to stay many months in forests. Paulina Bownik puts drips on them, bandages their wounds, and gives them the necessary help they need.
The absolute lack of awareness
The conversation was long because the road was long too. But the boy didn’t know anything. It wasn’t about differences of opinion; he just didn’t have a clue. He thought the refugees were “Muslim stone throwers”. He didn’t know which countries the refugees came from, how many there are, how they moved through, and why they are doing it. How many refugees have been granted asylum in the western EU countries and for what reasons. The government put him on the border, handed a rifle, great power and responsibility. And he didn’t know anything about it.
During our drive he has learned the following facts:
The refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border have long been mostly Christians, often women, also pregnant, and children.
They can be both educated people, such as the doctors from Syria, as well as illiterate. For example, a group of Yazidi women whose dream is to go to school for the first time in their life, because in their community “God forbids it”.
Refugees are not “young men who do not want to fight for the country.” The first group I met were soldiers from Afghanistan. They once fought alongside Poles. They had to flee the Taliban. I also told him about a Kurdish family from Turkey with four children. At the age of fifteen, the father was forced to marry a girl he didn’t know. He went to fight right after the marriage. On one hand, he was threatened with death by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. On the other – Turkish tanks, with the ability to drive into a Kurdish village and raze it to the ground. Oftentimes I simply met soldiers who were trying to escape from the worst places on Earth.
The Border Guard puts refugees at risk of death
Refugees from the northern border can’t go to the border crossing because the Belarusian side of it is out of order. Moreover, even if it was active, Poland has not been accepting asylum applications for years on this part of the border, as we’ve seen in Kuźnica and Terespol. For this reason, the country has been receiving convictions from the European Court of Human Rights.
Each pushback is a risk of death, rape, beating, cutting off fingers, and other possible tortures as punishment for letting yourself be pushed out into Belarus.
People pushed back come back because they want to live. Because they have no choice. Because they don’t want to be tortured. That is why they cross the fence, sometimes several or several dozen times.
Polish soldiers turn their heads because they know that someone else will give refugees food and water. Someone else won’t let them die in the forest. It’s us, the activists. And we’re bloody tired because you, the protectors, aren’t doing your job.
Refugees are suffering because these were the orders
At the peak of the Poland-Belarus migrant crisis, before the war in Ukraine, there were 5,000 officers at the border: Territorial Defence Forces, the Polish Army, Border Guard, Railway Police, police and fire brigade. Despite this, thousands of people crossed the border. In Germany alone, an asylum application was filed by 14,000 refugees, 80% of which were approved. Apart from that, refugees applied for asylum in many other EU countries: in Italy, Spain, France, Great Britain, and my “zero” refugee, for example, in Luxembourg. Thousands of unverified people pass through our country, often many times. They could theoretically be Russian spies, Islamic terrorists and God knows who else, and if any of them would want to, for example, blow up the Palace of Culture and Science, they would have no problem with doing so.
As we were speaking, the boy asked an intelligent question. “Why are we standing there at the border, then?” For the same reason the wall was built, I replied. For the sake of appearance. If any of the people in power wanted to stop unregistered migrations, it would’ve been done much more effectively. But it isn’t.
During the conversation, the boy repeated several times that “these are the orders”. I told him that the Nazis said exactly the same thing in Nuremberg. But in order not to go that far in history – those who fired at the “Wujek” mine also explained themselves with those words. These were the orders.
Activists are held accountable, not the Border Guard
“One day, somebody is going to hold you accountable for this,” I said. This is a crime. It is a violation of human rights. In Poland, there is no tradition of punishing those who give orders. The ones responsible for the crimes are a number of uniformed officers who carry out these orders.
“This was the oath. For God, honour and the homeland” he said. Though we quickly came to the common conclusion that pushing people, often women and children, to Belarus, where soldiers will charge them $100 for a bottle of water and $10 for recharging one percent of the battery at best, is not very honourable. And has little to do with God. The safety of the homeland we’ve already discussed.
At the end, I gave him the testimony of a young Syrian woman to read. I adjusted her broken shoulder many months ago. Somehow, the limb is functional, and the girl has arrived in Germany, where she now works. She described the border crossing and pushbacks from her own perspective.
The boy handed me back the phone. He was terribly pale and had scarlet stains on his cheeks and forehead. I haven’t seen anyone so shocked since my high school teacher caught a couple in an empty classroom on second base. Before he got out of the car, I asked him a question. “Do you still think you will call the Border Guard when you see a refugee?”. “No,” he replied softly, “I’ll call you. I would like your phone number, please.”
When the state is not working
Maybe I’m naive, but I think the boy was honest. Even if he doesn’t call, he’ll turn his head. He knows someone will help.
Last August, I put my own life on hold for a year. I was treated like a criminal. Kept in a cordon. People lied about me. I learned how to pierce into sunken veins, treat hypothermia, dehydration and malnutrition, put on various types of splints and orthoses, suture wounds, examine gynecologically, and above all, control my mind during long, often later hours in the forest. Each of the volunteers, not only those from medical care, made decisions about life and death. I have spoken in public many times because people wanted to listen. I often used the wrong wording simply out of fatigue. Now the Polish state has the habit of bringing criminal cases against various activists, not only those from the Polish-Belarusian border. I now need to pass an exam to be able to leave the country and work in my profession if necessary.
As to the boy from the Territorial Defence Forces, I wonder what the dominant feeling in me is. These are just kids, they are nineteen or twenty years old and have no knowledge, but a rifle in their hands with which they go at civilians. After this conversation, I began to understand them, horrifyingly.
On the other hand, I’m furious. The average soldier is male. Statistically, a woman helps. We go to that damn forest with a heavy backpack so that someone can survive, when a soldier of the Polish army turns his head.
Guys, please support Grupa Granica. Everything is missing, especially people, but also money. If you don’t want dead bodies in the woods, then you have to help us a little.
This will be my last entry on the border crisis. Keep your fingers crossed for my exam.
Paulina Bownik – doctor helping on the Polish-Belarusian border.
Translated by Alicja Czarnocka.