by Vanessa Gera | The Associated Press
Bialystok, Poland – After a decade of war in Syria, Boshra al-Moalem and her two sisters snatched away their chance to escape. His brother, who had fled Belgium years earlier, had saved up enough money for his trip, and word was spreading online that a new migration route into Europe had opened up through Belarus.
But the journey proved terrifying and almost fatal. Al-Moalem was trapped on the border of Belarus and Poland for 20 days and was carried back and forth between armed guards from all sides in an area of marsh. He endured cold nights, mosquitoes, hunger and terrible thirst. It was only after he collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration that Polish guards took him to the hospital.
“I didn’t expect this to happen to us. They told us it’s really easy to go to Europe, find our life, fight (to) run away,” said the 48-year-old as he recovered at a refugee center in eastern Poland this week “I never imagined I would live another war between borders.”
Al-Moalem is one of thousands who traveled to Belarus in recent weeks and were then pushed across the border by Belarusian guards. The European Union has condemned Belarusian actions against the bloc as a “hybrid war”.
Originally from Homs, al-Moalem was displaced by the war in Damascus. She said Belarusian officials convinced her that travel in the EU would be easy and then used her as a “weapon” in the political fight against Poland. But she also says that Polish border guards were overly harsh, denying her water and using dogs to intimidate her and other migrants as guards repeatedly pushed them back into Belarus.
For years, those fleeing war in the Middle East have made perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas in search of safety in Western Europe. But after more than a million people arrived in 2015, EU countries erected concrete and razor-wire walls, installed drone surveillance and cut deals with Turkey and Libya to keep migrants away.
A much less protected route into the European Union through the forests and swamps of Eastern Europe emerged only after the EU banned the regime of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a flawed election and harsh crackdown on protesters.
Suddenly people from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere were flying to Belarus’ capital Minsk on tourist visas and then traveling by car – aided by several smugglers – across the border.
Three EU countries bordering Belarus – Poland, Lithuanians and Latvia – accuse Lukashenko of acting to destabilize their societies.
If that’s really the purpose, then it’s working. Poland has denied entry to thousands of migrants and refused to apply for asylum in violation of international human rights conventions. The country’s behavior has been criticized by human rights groups at home and abroad.
Stanisaw Zarin, a spokesman for Poland’s special services, told The Associated Press that Polish forces always help migrants if their lives are in danger. In other cases, while it may pain them not to help, Zarin insists that Poland must hold its ground and defend its border as it is targeted in a high-stakes standoff with Belarus. supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Poland believes that only by fully securing its border with Belarus can we stop this migration route, a route artificially created by Lukashenko with the support of Putin. It is an artificial one. It was created to take revenge on the whole of the European Union,” Zareen said.
Human rights activists are shocked by the death of six migrants so far at the border and the return of young children to Belarus this week. They insist that Poland should honor its obligations under international law to allow migrants to apply for asylum, not push them back across the border.
“The fact that these are Lukashenko’s political actions directed against Poland and directed against the European Union is clear to us,” said Marianna Warteka with the refugee rights group Fundaja Okleni. “But this does not justify the actions of the Polish state.”
Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the head of Poland’s Roman Catholic Church, also extended his support to physicians seeking access to the border for help. “We must not allow our brothers to suffer and die at our borders,” he said.
Lukashenko denies that his military is pushing people into Poland, but his state media has captured Poland’s reaction to portraying the EU as a place where human rights are not respected. is done.
After traveling from Syria to Lebanon, al-Moalem, an English teacher in Syria, flew to Minsk, and from there took a taxi to the border with his sisters and a brother-in-law. Belarusian forces then directed the group to a position to cross into Poland.
Crying as he told his story in English, al-Moalem said that the Belarusian army told him: “It’s an easy way to get to Poland. It’s a swamp. Just pass through the swamp and over the hill, and you’re in Poland.” You will go.”
“And as we were trying to climb the hill, the Polish border guards pushed us back. Families, women, men, children. The children were screaming and crying,” she recalled. “I was asking the Polish border guards, ‘Please just a drop of water. I’m so thirsty. I’ve been here without a drop of water.'”
But all they will do is: “Go to Belarus. We are not responsible for you.”
This happened over and over again, with the Belarusian army taking them back, sometimes giving them nothing but some bread, and then returning them the next night.
During his ordeal, he took videos of desperate migrants from his phone and posted some on Facebook. Her videos and her account to the AP provide rare eyewitness evidence of the crisis at the border.
Such scenes are largely out of public view as Poland, after Lithuania and Latvia, declared a state of emergency along the border, preventing journalists and human rights activists from visiting there.
Polish government measures, including strengthening border security with troops, are popular with many Poles. The conservative ruling party, which swept to power in 2015 on a strong anti-migrant platform, has seen its popularity strengthen in opinion polls amid the new crisis.
Despite Poland’s efforts, there are reports that some asylum seekers have managed to immigrate to the European Union and are often heading west to reunite with relatives in Germany.
Al-Moalem says he and his relatives plan to leave the center where they are now staying and travel across the EU’s open borders to their brother in Belgium. They are planning to take refuge there. That said, she wants her family to be reunited after years of trauma and to “feel safe.”