There was no Cuckooland last week, as I had to travel to Poland on family business. Unfortunately, the situation I am about to write is happening for more than two weeks now. And I don’t only want to write about it, I want to scream, as this is the biggest scandal taking place on the EU soil for years. This time, there will be absolutely nothing fun in this chapter, so if you are looking for entertainment, scroll along.
In the makeshift camp on the Polish-Belarussian border near the village of Usnarz Górny for nearly 3 weeks a group of Afghan refugees are imprisoned and, I am not afraid to use those words, tortured by the Polish army, police and border forces. Initially, while the Polish border guards refused them entry to Poland, they were passing them food and supplies, but when the media sniffed the case out, this had ended. Now the soldiers claim they have different orders. They created a safety cordon after one of the MP’s, Razem’s Maciej Konieczny spoke with the refugees and along with a few items of humanitarian help, passed them forms allowing them to claim asylum in Poland. After that happened, the camp is hidden from the public eye by the military trucks and another row of police vans and 4×4’s is preventing anyone from coming close. When another opposition MP, independent Franek Sterczewski, tried to break through the lines with humanitarian help, he was apprehended by the uniforms, despite his parliamentary immunity:
Franek Sterczewski tak szybko biega, że armia nie ma z nim szans pic.twitter.com/Q9YerO0KvQ
— Łanmen (@PrawdaJan) August 25, 2021
The activists from Fundacja Ocalenie, an NGO’s helping refugees, tried to contact trapped refugees using megaphones, but the uniforms obstruct even that form of communication by reeving their engines and putting the sirens on their vehicles to drown out the refugee’s answers. The soldiers and police officers are all wearing face masks and have their name tags removed, so it is hard to identify them. When asked, they just say they are following orders.
The Belarussians took pity and so from the initial group of about 50 people some elderly women and children were allowed back into Belarus (their fate remains unknown), but at least 24 (if we believe the government) or 32 people (if we believe the NGO) are still trapped in the border, the youngest of them being a 15 years old girl. It had been reported that they have a cat with them as well that refused to stay behind, so they took him with them. They are starving and sick, but the government refused the ambulance or a doctor to access them, even the attempts to communicate from the distance are obstructed as in the case above. The behaviour of the Polish uniformed services can be considered torture: while the refugees are trapped in the rain and cold with just a couple of tents delivered to them by Konieczny, there is a whole tent town for the uniforms who guard them. While they are forced to drink dirty water from a stream crossing a nearby bog, the soldiers wash their hands in bottled mineral water. While the women in the camp are afraid to go to the toilet, as with Belarussian soldiers on one side and Polish ones on the other, they have no chance for any privacy, the Polish border guards have a set of portable toilets delivered to them and placed in full view.
In an attempt to prove that the refugees are still on the Belarussian side (which is not true, their camp is at least partially in Poland!), the Polish government prepared a humanitarian convoy of trucks and attempted to send it across the border through a nearby border crossing. Belarus of course refused, and the trucks loaded with humanitarian help spend few days on the border, until someone spotted that the convoy uses a Red Cross symbol. Polish Red Cross, who actually tried to access refugees with their help and was not allowed to do so by the Polish border guard, strongly protested against using their symbol for this political farce.
Anonymous men in green uniform, fake humanitarian convoy – if that rings some bells to you, there is no coincidence. The behaviour of the Polish government in that case is criminal. They argue, that they cannot allow those people into Poland, because it is a part of a “hybrid war” waged by Lukashenko. This is true: Lukashenko not only refrain from stopping refugees travelling into Europe but actively facilitates their journey: there were reports of Belarussian planes bringing people from the Middle East and other troubled countries and then pushed at the gunpoint through Polish, Latvian or Lithuanian border – and charging them premium prices for this service – which is important for the Belarussian regime struggling for hard currency. Still, those are desperate human beings in need, and torturing them in order to win some political game with Lukashenko is simply inhumane. As I write those words, one of the people trapped in Usnarz Górny for the most part of the month now lost consciousness.
The situation there is just a little part of what is happening on the Polish-Belarussian border. There is a similar situation near Bobrówka where a group of Somali women have been trapped on the border as well. Thanks to the (illegal) decision of deputy home minister Maciej Wąsik (incidentally: one of the men sentenced to three years for abuse of power and illegally pardoned, along with Mariusz Kamiński – the chief of security – by president Duda back in 2015) the Border Force now refuses to accept refugee/asylum claims by the migrants and instead pushes them back into Belarus. This is a significant breach of the Geneva convention, the Polish constitution and other international laws, not to mention that by physically pushing or throwing them over the border, the Border Guard is basically smuggling people into Belarus. Those are tracked by NGO’s and Franek Sterczewski MP, according to their reports some of them were thrown back into Belarus up to four times. The Polish border guard, which is supposed to take them to safety and process their refugee claims, instead is putting their lives in danger by dropping them off into the forest, deep in Puszcza Białowieska nature reserve, where wolves, bears and other dangerous animals roam wild. Some claim they were chased by a herd of wisents. The people from the camp in Usnarz Górny also claim that they were already some way into the Polish territory before being forcibly removed back to the border. There are reports of the refugees being beaten by the Border Guards, the refugees also demonstrated their smartphones with charging ports destroyed – they claimed that their devices were damaged by the Polish Border Force.
The NGO’s organize lawyers to represent the migrants in their refugee claims, but the border guards do everything to make the lawyer’s work difficult. One of the lawyers told oko.press, that she was told her power of attorney is invalid because she didn’t charge any money for it. The activists do all in their power to prevent further removals from Poland or, when it is impossible, at least to document the human rights breaches carried by the Polish government by, amongst others, photographing themselves with the refugees in the way that would facilitate proving they were already on the Polish soil.
Meanwhile, the government is not showing any restrain. They are stretching miles and miles of barbed wire fence along the border (incidentally, nowhere near Usnarz Górny, as if they tried to put the barbed wire there, they would either have to cease some of the Polish lands to Belarus or admit, that the Afghans are already physically in Poland). The European Commission approves the construction of that fence, but at the same time, The European Court of Human Rights ordered Poland to provide humanitarian help to people trapped on the border, which the Polish government still refuses at the time of writing. But the soldiers and police officers participating in torturing people in Usnarz Górny are to receive special awards from the Minister of Defence.
But even those who successfully claimed asylum are not safe. Two Afghan kids were critically poisoned after their parents cooked them a mushroom stew from the mushrooms gathered around the refugee centre in Dębak near Podkowa Leśna. One of them received a liver transplant from a family member, the other one, at the moment of writing, is most likely to be deemed brain dead. Apparently one of the mushrooms gathered by their parents was a death cap – which is quite often mistaken for the parasol mushroom even by experienced local mushroom gatherers. And why were they trying to eat some mushrooms? Because they were starving – the refugee institution was not feeding them properly.
Meanwhile, the government is too busy to cover their crimes against humanity. With the NGO’s and opposition politicians searching the woods for the refugees hiding there from the Polish uniformed forces and documenting not only the fact that they are already in Poland (which means, they have the right to claim asylum) but also the crimes against them committed by the Border Force, the government decided to introduce the State of Emergency in the district bordering Belarus. Mind you, this is coming from the government that refused to introduce the State of Emergency during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic – the biggest medical emergency in the country since 1963 outbreak of smallpox in Wrocław – because they still wanted to go ahead with the election. True, recently PiS ratings have plummeted, so it is actually handy for them if they can prevent early elections (elections cannot be held for some time after the State of Emergency have been invoked), but the most important thing is that the hands of activist helping refugees and documenting government claims will be tied by the new laws.
And what the ordinary Poles make of all of this? Numerous protests were held across the country in support of letting refugees in, including the blockade of the Border Guard HQ in Warsaw, during which the protesters surrounded the building with the barbed wire and placing plaques saying “this is a border of human decency”. In the act of civic defiance, a group of 13 people destroyed a piece of the barbed wire placed at the border – they have been detained, but the court refused to arrest them. On the other hand, there is still some fear of refugees amongst Polish society (despite Poland taking nearly 120 000 Chechen refugees some years back without any issues) and the neo-Nazi militias came to the border, offering to “defend the motherland” from the “refuginvaders”, as they call those desperate people. The government seem to have plenty of online supporters – although it’s hard to tell how many of them are paid trolls.
I’ve been taking part in several discussions on the topic – face to face and on Twitter, and my adversaries – usually the government supporters – were doing everything to show me as an ignorant man, who does not understand politics and that Lukashenko is waging a “hybrid war” on Poland using those people as a weapon, or trying to prove me wrong by repeating government lies that none of those persons was ever on the Polish soil. Those discussions usually cease when I point out, that those people are still people in need, and it’s simple human decency to help them, no matter how they arrive at our border, and my adversaries disappear or change the subject.
Meanwhile, the Afghans trapped in Usnarz Górny are dying of hunger and disease. Those criminals in uniforms – both Belarussian and Polish – who stand by and watch them, preventing others from helping those people in need would like to do everything to prevent us from knowing the truth. And this is why, if we can’t help those Afghans, we could at least make sure, that the world knows about it.
This piece was written for Britské Listy
Picture: Public Domain.