As It Happens·Q&A

Polish volunteers head into the forest to help refugees stranded along Belarus border

It was only a few weeks ago when Poland's Kasia Wappa looked to her local woodlands near the Belarus border as a relaxing place to walk. But now she sees people suffering inside the forest without any food or shelter as they hide from border patrol agents on both sides. 

As refugees die crossing from Belarus, one Polish woman blames her own government's xenophobia

Iraqi refugees talked to NGO Grupa Granica's representatives on Oct. 14 while surrounded by border guards and police officers after they crossed the border in Hajnowka, Poland. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Story Transcript

It was only a few weeks ago when Poland's Kasia Wappa looked to her local woodlands near the Belarus border as a relaxing place to walk. 

But now she sees people suffering inside the forest without any food or shelter as they hide from border patrol agents on both sides. 

At least seven people have died trying to cross from Poland Belarus, the Guardian reports, and others remain stuck along the border, which marks the European Union's eastern frontier. 

When Belarusian President Alexander Lukachenko cracked down on protesters after his disputed re-election in August 2020, the EU sanctioned his country. 

Many EU states now accuse Lukashenko of flying in refugees to send them across the border and destabilize the bloc. Lukashenko denies this and has blamed the West for what he says is a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

Poland's treatment of those trying to cross has drawn condemnation from activists, leading thousands to protest in Warsaw on Sunday. 

Wappa and other like-minded Poles are visiting the people stranded along the border to provide necessities like clothes and water. She says they've told her stories about escaping war and famine. She met people from Yemen, Iraq and Syria as well as Congo, Cameroon and Iran. 

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Kasia, first of all, can you just describe the conditions [of] these people who are in the forest?

The conditions are very hard because they have to cross a big piece of wilderness — [a] big forest full of swamps and difficult grounds. 

We have cold weather now, temperatures dropping below zero at night, sometimes rain with no possibility of getting dry during the day because of the humidity, and so it's really very hard.

And are these individuals or families? Can you describe what you're seeing?

Both.… I have never met a family, but many of my friends, they did.

Sometimes even individuals that are complete strangers, they just don't want to travel separately and [so] they get together. Even if one of them is Kurdish from Turkey and the other one is Iraqi and they do not speak the same language.

An Iraqi migrant woman with children sits on the ground as they are surrounded by border guards and police officers after they crossed the Belarusian-Polish border. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

What do they have with them?

If they have food or any water, this is because they brought it with them.

Usually these are very small amounts because they think that the journey that they are going to take is not very long.... They also don't want to attract attention. So very often they have scarcely any belongings. Just a little backpack, for example. 

If they get lost somewhere, and especially when they are pushed back to the border, they have no food left and they are hungry and they have no drinking water, sometimes for many days. So some of them decide to drink water from the swamps, which gives them stomach problems. 

When I went to the forest to help some refugees ... a group from Yemen ... I could see men that had no shoes. They were barefoot and sleeping on the frozen ground just like that, so we brought them some sleeping bags.

Sometimes they light a fire, but most often they are afraid to light it because they don't want to be seen. So if they have no fire, they have no possibility of warming themselves up as well.

Piotr Bystrianin of the Ocalenie foundation covers the wound of a man who crossed Belarusian-Polish border in the woods near Sokolka, Poland. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

You just mentioned [them] being pushed back over the border…. What's going on?

They say: "When I feel really exhausted and I feel crushed and I say, 'Let me come back home, I don't want to go on anymore,' the Belarusian border guards say, 'No, you are not allowed, you have to go to Poland. This is the only possible direction,'' so they are pushed into this razor wire. 

Some of them even have some scars and cuts on their faces. So it happens, really. Sometimes they are beaten and sometimes even quite badly, and pushed to the Polish side. 

There they get into another trap because there are the Polish guards and the police and the dogs ... and they have to escape. They have to hide. If they are caught by the guards, they are brought again to the border and they are told: "Go back to Belarus because Poland is no place for you."

[As It Happens has reached out to the Belarus State Border Committee for comment.]

People in Warsaw, Poland, join a protest in solidarity with those who have been pushed back at Poland's border with Belarus. (Czarek Sokolowski/Reuters)

You're not an activist. This is not what you normally do. How did you get involved with helping them and ... are lots of Poles against these migrants coming in?

Because our societies are very often quite xenophobic, we are a more or less quite monolithic country.... We fear different cultures in many, many situations, and this is also the propaganda of the present government that is quite conservative. 

But there is a huge wave of people that want to help — and they started organizing. Help, for example, collecting sleeping bags, boots, clothes ... that might be needed at the border…. Answering one of such calls … is how it all started for me. 

But once the things were taken from my house ... [I went on] aid missions, trying to find the people in the forest and bring them what they need. 

This is really a different story when you see it with your own eyes than when you just hear it being told about.

I could not stop. Not because I like the thrill — because I don't like it — but because I cannot forget about the suffering that I've seen.

Your country is now moving forward with multi-million dollar plans to build a wall to prevent people from coming in. What message do you have for your own government right now?

I'm crushed by the idea of building a wall because I think that the wall that is going to be built is just one of the incarnations of new walls that our government has been trying to build in the human minds to divide people, to somehow make them prejudiced against other people in need. 

I don't want to be an activist.... And as long as there will be people in the forest dying there on the cold ground, people like me will have to be doing it.

This should be our state that should deal with the problem, but really and deeply in a human way. 

They are depriving people of their humanity. And this is something unbearable for us to live here and to watch it every day.


Written by Mehek Mazhar with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

 

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