BRUZGI, Belarus – Belarusian authorities on Thursday cleared out camps at the main border crossing with Poland, where thousands of migrants lived in cold and increasingly squalid conditions, addressing the current hot spot that has exacerbated tensions in Europe.
The patch of land dubbed “the jungle” by migrants – just a few days ago at the site of violent clashes between asylum seekers trying to push their way through barbed wire and Polish security forces firing at them with water cannons – quickly turned into a desert of debris, abandoned tents and smoldering lights.
The clearing of the camps eased the immediate suffering of the migrants, who lived in the open air in dire conditions, as the Belarusian authorities moved them to a giant warehouse. And it took pressure off the border, which the European Union has watched with growing dismay, fearing that it will be disrupted by a new wave of migrants, even if Western leaders – and Poland – are skeptical that the volatile standoff is coming to an end. …
The situation has also presented Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko with an alarming dilemma: what to do with all the people he lured to Belarus but who, blocked from entering Europe, quickly become a heavy burden on his own country?
Zana Ahmed, a 26-year-old Iraqi Kurd who spent about $ 5,000 to get to the border with Poland, just yards from entering the European Union, has promised to stay in Belarus “until I die,” if he is any- It will thus not gain access to Europe. …
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the lead in trying to find a diplomatic way out of the crisis by speaking to Mr Lukashenko, but did not hint that she would repeat the welcome offer she made to migrants in 2015, when a million people flooded into Germany.
On Thursday, accompanied by Belarusian guards in black balaclavas and Kalashnikov assault rifles, a battered procession of migrants moved away from the border, leaving their camps on the border like a broken army. Hundreds of others were removed from the site and moved to a warehouse on Wednesday.
By nightfall, what used to be an impromptu settlement with thousands of people desperate to enter the European Union turned into an eerily quiet wasteland. Scattered across the ground were the remnants of migrants’ attempts to infiltrate Poland in recent weeks – rubber boots, pruning shears, saws, crowbars and survival tools in the freezing forests on both sides of the border.
Despite the fact that they left the area in the immediate vicinity of the border to shelter from the piercing cold in the warehouse, many migrants hoped that they would still be able to reach Europe and, otherwise, settle in Belarus instead of being forced to return. home, which for many is Iraq.
Yuri Karaev, an aide to Mr Lukashenko representing the Grodno border region, declined to answer questions about what awaits the migrants now that they relinquished their ownership of a piece of border forestry they had occupied for several weeks. but not their desire to get to Europe.
Poland, backed by other members of the European Union, shows no signs of softening its tough stance against migrants trying to enter the country. The Polish Prime Minister told a German newspaper that “by defending our border, we are defending the whole of Europe.”
On Thursday, in the gray gloom of the November sky, phalanxes of Polish soldiers lined up in formation around the Bruzgi border crossing, still covered with water cannons, which were used on Tuesday to repel the onslaught of migrants from Belarus to Poland. The government in Warsaw has repeatedly portrayed migrants as an invading horde, but now they have suddenly disappeared, at least from sight.
Nov 18, 2021 12:10 PM ET
On Thursday, Polish officials said they had recorded 501 attempts to cross the border from Belarus in the previous 24 hours and, echoing a statement made daily by Warsaw, accused Belarusian security officials of leading groups of migrants trying to cross the border. Migrants talk contradictory about whether Belarus helped their forays into Poland, almost all unsuccessful.
Poland, unlike Belarus, has banned all journalists and humanitarian workers from approaching the border, making it impossible to assess the veracity of its often bellicose claims.
On a dirt road on the Belarusian side of the border, a few hundred yards from the Bruzgi checkpoint, a red-and-white Polish flag fluttered near an abandoned pine-tree migrant shelter. A fire was still smoldering near the hideout, where freshly cut logs were piled, as if preparing for a long siege.
The migrants’ retreat from what the European bloc has called the front line of the “hybrid war” unleashed by Mr. Lukashenko is likely to ease tensions at the border, though it is unclear for how long.
A group of seven leading industrial powers criticized the Belarusian leader in a statement on Thursday, accusing him of “organizing illegal migration across its borders.”
For now, most migrants housed in a warehouse less than a mile from the Bruzgi border crossing say they have no intention of returning home.
A flight of Iraqi repatriates took off from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Thursday with several hundred migrants who refused to enter the European bloc. The Boeing 747, operated by Iraqi national carrier Airways, touched down Thursday evening in Erbil, in northern Iraqi Kurdistan, and then proceeded to Baghdad.
However, many Iraqis are still crammed into the warehouse, but say they have no future plans to fly back to Iraq.
Understand the crisis on the border of Belarus and Poland
The migrant crisis. The gathering of migrants along the eastern border of the European Union has led to an acute crisis between Belarus and the EU. Here’s what you need to know:
“I will stay here for months or years, and if they try to deport me to Iraq, I will return to the jungle,” promised Suleiman Sabah, an Iraqi Kurd who arrived at the warehouse with plastic bags filled with dirty clothes and clean blankets provided by Belarusian aircraft manufacturers.
Dalia Ahmed, another Iraqi Kurd, said she had been desperately trying to get out of the border camp since Tuesday, when her two young sons were fired by ice cold water from Polish water cannons and shivered convulsively all night.
Grasping at a thin straw of hope spawned by wild rumors circulating among migrants about an imminent airlift to Germany and the possible intervention of the Vatican to persuade devotedly Catholic Poland to relent, she said, “Maybe the Pope can help us get to Europe.”
Mr Sabah said he agreed to leave the border camp on Thursday after hearing unsubstantiated rumors that Germany will soon be accepting people from the warehouse, believing that leaving the camp is the best way to get a ticket.
According to him, the Belarusian security forces did not use force to persuade people to leave the border, but made it clear that “if you don’t go alone, you will be forced to leave”.
For 35-year-old Masoud Mahdi, who spent 11 days in the “jungle” with his pregnant wife and little daughter, it was enough to simply get out of the cold. “We were worse off than dogs,” he said, walking toward the warehouse.
“It was impossible last night,” he added. “It was raining and freezing, and we had to leave.”
However, Mr. Mahdi said he does not want to return to Iraqi Kurdistan. He wanted to go to Germany. “If they send me back to Iraq, I will kill myself,” he said.
Mark Santora and Anatol Magdziarts provided a reportage from Warsaw; and Jane Arraf from Baghdad and Sangar Khalilfrom Erbil, Iraq.