In Poland’s forests, refugees fall gravely ill amid border row

Two Syrian brothers were found shivering and barely conscious in the woods overnight, as a punishing winter looms.

Medics and activists give first aid treatment to a young Syrian man who was found unconscious in the Polish woods, 25km from the Belarusian border [Vincent Haiges/Al Jazeera]

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Sokolka, Poland – Late at night, it is dark as medics rush to treat two Syrian men on the forest floor, 25 kilometres from the Polish-Belarusian border.

It is freezing cold and both are hypothermic, barely able to communicate.

One man is loaded into an ambulance as the other shivers under shiny medical blankets as he struggles to get any words out.

They are brothers, aged 39 and 41 years.

They had managed to make it across the heavily securitised border and walked through the exclusion zone, which only local residents are allowed to enter.

When members of Fundacja Ocalenie, a Polish NGO that is helping refugees trapped in the Polish forests, found the pair, they were unable to walk and could barely utter their names.

Thick coats and sturdy shoes are often not enough to keep out the freezing temperatures in this reporter’s experience. Most people walking through the forest who have made it across the border often do not even have these.

Temperatures are hovering around zero and, in the woodland, it feels colder.

“We found two men in the woods, they are in a really bad condition, we couldn’t get any information out of them apart from their names, so we decided to call an ambulance,” said Agata Kołodziej, a coordinator at Fundacja Ocalenie.

Kołodziej said that the organisation would be present to assist as long as there were people trapped in the woods.

“We will stay here as long as we are needed,” she said, adding it was likely that they would spend the entire winter in the area.

Fundacja Ocalenie, like other groups working to support people who have made it through the border, can only help people once they have reached the edge of the exclusion zone, which is accessible only to local residents now.

“It’s only a fraction of people who need help,” she said.

Kołodziej confirmed to Al Jazeera that the two men were taken to hospital and were asking for asylum in Poland.

Activists and volunteers told Al Jazeera they have recorded several more cases of hypothermia, which occurs when the body temperature drops so low that the heart, nervous system and internal organs cannot function properly.

Left untreated it can be deadly.

It was reported last week that a 14-year-old boy had essentially frozen to death on the Belarusian side of the border.

There is no official data on the numbers of people who have crossed and Al Jazeera has heard many anecdotal reports of pushbacks.

Traces of those who successfully made it across the border can be found in the Polish woodlands.

In a thickly forested area, Al Jazeera found a small camp which had clearly been abandoned in a rush.

Extensive documents left behind showed the routes to Belarus people had taken, including boarding passes from Emirates Airlines to Minsk, negative COVID tests issued in Erbil and papers for health insurance.

Some PCR tests left behind were for children as young as seven.

Items scattered throughout the woods tell many stories – shoes with soles falling apart, empty packets of Belarusian cigarettes, Belarusian Snickers bars, sleeping bags, a baby’s bottle and a pink strawberry-patterned baby’s outfit litter the forest floor.

The crisis has grown in recent weeks, when more people joined the crowds stranded at the Belarus-Poland border.

The numbers of people arriving had been growing for months. Refugees and migrants hoping for a chance to enter Europe have become pawns in an East-West row, with Poland and its European Union allies battling Belarus and its main ally Russia.

Warsaw, the EU, London and Washington are at odds with Belarus after last year’s disputed election that handed President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term, a vote that dismayed the opposition. As the Belarusian leader cracked down on dissent after the election, the West slapped sanctions on Minsk.

Lukashenko is now accused of encouraging migrants and refugees to travel to Belarus and pushing them towards the Polish border in an attempt o destabilise Europe. Belarusian guards have reportedly given migrants tools to cut through the barbed-wire fence.

As the chaos extends into another week, Belarusian authorities are reportedly becoming increasingly violent.

Kochar*, who messaged Al Jazeera by WhatsApp, said that soldiers had been threatening and hitting him and those around him for refusing to cut the border fence with Poland.

Polish authorities have heavily fortified the border, deploying additional troops and are even trying an SMS campaign to halt the flow.

A text message was sent out to foreign phones in the Polish border area over the weekend saying people would not be able to enter EU territory in order to get to Germany.

“Poland won’t let migrants pass to Germany. It will protect its border. Don’t get fooled, don’t try to take any action,” it read. An earlier SMS read: “The Polish border is sealed … Go back to Minsk!”

Grupa Granica, a collective of organisations monitoring the situation at the Polish border, said: “We have been receiving more and more disturbing information of attempts at forcing the migrants to take part in Belarusian provocation and to use violence against the Polish officers. The migrants refuse to take part in this instigation.

“Considering their current situation and status as hostages of the [Belarusian] regime, we can expect that at a certain point they may be forced to do so.”

The group said that they were urging Polish authorities to create a humanitarian bridge to Poland for people trapped at the border.

As temperatures continue to drop, Kochar in Belarus typed in a WhatsApp message: “Every day is bad, I promise you we will die today.”

Source: Al Jazeera