Prawa autorskie: Fot. Eliza KowalczykFot. Eliza Kowalczyk

Publikujemy angielskie tłumaczenie tekstu Anny Mierzyńskiej „Ludzkie zwłoki w lesie nie przypominają ciała. Życie codzienne na podlaskim pograniczu [REPORTAŻ]” opublikowanego 2 kwietnia 2023 r.

The red dress is most striking. The woman with the long hair also has something red around her neck. A pendant? A bloody scar? Next to that is a fabulously coloured bird.

‘Lidka, who have you drawn here?’ I ask the smiling seven-year-old from Białowieża. She returned from school and the house immediately comes alive; there’s so much energy in her. She is proud of her drawing.

‘This is a lady who died in the forest. She’s lying by a tree,’ she explains calmly.

‘I would never have expected that,’ horror can be heard in the voice of her mother, Eliza Kowalczyk. ‘It was a study on the theme of “Your view of Białowieża Forest”.’

The worsted wool with which Dorota Sulżyk is felting a flower is also red. She combines individual fibres and colours and adds other materials in front of me. It takes a lot of work to make a fabric out of them.

‘I get my inspiration from the garden; I walk through it every day. Then, I take the worsted fabric and felt it. I don’t walk in the woods very much, I must admit. I rarely look into the forest.’

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That’s almost certainly why she doesn’t associate the forest with dying people today, even though she lives in the border village of Gródek. There have been fewer refugees here since the beginning of the Polish-Belarusian border crisis. The state border here is marked by the River Svisloch, while refugees usually chose sections where they could go through the forest, so life was quieter in Gródek.

Ludzie i policjanci

Białowieża, protest against the construction of a fence on the Polish-Belarusian border. Photo Eliza Kowalczyk.

There is no longer any discussion of pushbacks

The everyday life of the Podlasie border region has changed a great deal since August 2021. The words ‘forest’, ‘refugees’, ‘camp’, ‘body’ and even ‘raven’ or ‘walk in the forest’ have taken on a new meaning. Although the border crisis is no longer of interest to the outside world and most people have forgotten about it – it is still going on. Those who are closest to it know that.

‘In the Podlaskie Voivodship, where I live, the attitudes to the border crisis depend mainly on where the given person lives. There is no longer any talk of it in the capital of the region, Białystok. The further away from Belarus, the more often the stories about refugees are just memories.

‘People talk about it when something happens,’ I hear in a shop in Gródek. ‘They’ve got used to it.’ Do they talk about forcibly pushing refugees back into Belarus? No. Pushbacks are of no interest to anyone these days.

But for those who live close to the border, the refugee crisis is still current.

‘I go out into the forest when the pin comes. I’m constantly ready to go into the field because someone might need help,’ says Marta Kurzyniec from Krynki, who normally runs an antique shop. ‘When there are search operations for missing people outside my municipality, I go there too.’

Nawołocz and us

Dorota from Gródek produces textiles from individual fibres of various combed fabrics. Her works are like the borderland – colours and materials are mixed in them.

Or perhaps they are rather like the Polish-Belarusian borderland should be? Because the one in Podlasie is not usually like that. Instead of the free intermingling of people of various cultures, religions, nationalities and races – there is a closed, distrustful community. Any wanderer can get water here and, if necessary, people will also feed him. But the questions start immediately: ours or a foreigner? From where, for what and to whom? Fact finding.

This is not a trait of the character of the inhabitants, but experience. Changes of state borders, deportations, changing official languages and finally the border created artificially after the Second World War. It cut through villages and patrimony. Houses, churches and Orthodox churches were left on one side of the wire, while cemeteries, fields and relatives were on the other. People lost their natural connections, the social fabric cracked. All that mattered was who could be trusted: ours, a known person. A stranger was a threat.

‘Here we have a saying that you are our own if you buried your parents in the local cemetery. In other words, only in the second generation,’ says Rafał Kowalczyk, Eliza’s husband and Lidka’s dad. ‘We have lived here for several decades and we are still ‘navoloches’, or in other words strangers.

Perhaps because the strangers who appeared on this land in 2021 most frequently aroused fear?

They came out of the forest, they looked strange. They did not speak the local language.

‘Some were afraid. A rumour immediately spread that they rape, that they could kill. Complete nonsense! All this time, to this day, I have not heard of any such situation. They turned out to be completely harmless. And I know people here, I would have heard,’ reassures Krzysiek. He lives in Krynki. This is the municipality where it all started. Here lies the famous Usnarz Górny; here, a large group of refugees camped for a few weeks in the summer of 2021. They could neither enter Poland nor return to Belarus. Krzysiek remembers them very well: ‘An acquaintance has land near there. A nightmare, a real nightmare, what they did to these people.’

Krzysiek even now clutches his head when he talks about it.

The shape of the corpse

I meet Marta Kurzyniec in a small village near Krynki. She’s wearing a thick red turtleneck jumper – it’s still cold despite being almost mid-March – and she is surprisingly calm inside. She is one of those people who ‘go to the forest’ – to help refugees when they need humanitarian aid. Eliza operates in the same way in Białowieża, while Rafał joins her whenever he can. Recently, they have been searching for the bodies of missing people, who are being looked for by families from distant countries, just as often as for living people.

‘Human corpses don’t resemble bodies,’ says Marta. ‘They have the shape of I don’t know what. When I find an abandoned refugee campsite, I never know if that cluster of sleeping bags is a human corpse or not. Or that small hillock, strewn with clothes.’

But is that stench of rot rotting remains of food or a corpse?

However, the forest is still a friendly space for Marta, it does not arouse fear.

‘The forest is my space of freedom. My land. And nothing will change that,’ she says. ‘I try to get the best out of every situation. Even now. So I’ve learned to walk through the forest in the dark. I don’t need to use torches anymore. I’m increasingly more at home here.’

Normal abnormality

Marta understands why people in the Podlasie borderlands are closed to strangers. Her family comes from here. Her relatives left and she lived away from the borderland for a long time. She eventually returned. She calls herself a ‘repatriate’ and understands the local mentality quite well.

‘First of all: the borderland has a very short memory. It is repatriates like me who retain the memory,’ she explains. ‘But if someone lives here, yes, they remember that their grandmother’s neighbour is unmarried. But how did this grandmother’s son die? Well, he was walking through the pasture and something happened to him. But the fact that he was shot in the pasture, who did it and why – no-one remembers. Well, people live here from generation to generation, close to each other, close to the closed border, away from the big cities. They have to live together – with this murderer, and with the victim’s family, and with the looter, and with whoever was looted. Because where will they move to?’

‘Secondly: There are the words of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz: “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is the norm”.’

If you put people in an abnormal situation, they will behave abnormally.

We here are in an abnormal situation all the time. Of course, the borderland is here, but the border was completely blocked for several decades, under communism. The USSR and Poland were said to be brotherly nations, but the border had barbed wire. There was no way of going to family graves, although you could see the cemetery from the windows of your house, just that it was in another country. If this had been a real borderland, if people had been able to meet, build relationships, do business, the situation would have been different. But this border was – and is – a closed border. It is an abnormal situation. So people behave abnormally.

Transparent "Mury to bzduruy
Transparent "Mury to bzduruy

Białowieża, protest against the construction of a fence on the Polish-Belarusian border. Photo Eliza Kowalczyk.

Free barn

In this closed borderland, individual networks of contacts and good recognition of who is who are the most important things. Who among the locals helped whom depended on local connections – both before and now during the refugee crisis. The fundamental principle is: I help my own. Like Tomek, a construction worker from one of the border municipalities. He hasn’t personally encountered any refugees; there has been relative quiet in the area of his municipality.

‘But I have an old farm near the border. And there – an unused barn. An acquaintance called to see if people from the forest could stay in that barn overnight. What the hell, let them spend the night. After all, the barn is standing empty anyway; who’s going to keep an eye on whether someone goes in or not? I told the acquaintance how to open the door and that was all.’ ‘Did they spend the night?’ ‘I don’t know.’

Agata, Tomek’s wife, also helped refugees, but through... the Border Guards. She joined a charity collection for the migrants. It turned out that the gifts arriving there were most needed by the officers in the watchtower. It was to them that warm clothes and especially food went. Chinese soups were most needed – just pour water on them, they are hot and filling.

‘Did the Border Guard officers eat them?’ I ask.

‘Not at all, the refugees did! They first took these people from the forest to the watchtower. They gave them clothes to change into there and then they fed them. First, the guards brought all this from their homes, but how many people can you feed like that? At one point they had 70 people there under their care. The guards came to us and said: help! So we gave them the food we had collected,’ says Agata.

‘We gave it because, after all, the border guards are our acquaintances too. Our own. Maybe not the closest ones, but from the network of contacts. They needed help, so they got it.’ ‘And, later, after feeding these people, the same officers took them to the border and pushed them back to Belarus?’

‘But they fed them first. And they needed that food,’ Agata explains patiently.

The guard turns his head away

To outsiders, activists helping refugees and the Border Guard are two different sides of the same crisis. One and the other cannot be helped at the same time. But this is just an outsider’s view. It’s possible here in the borderlands.

Marta: ‘If I had to specify what has changed in the community since the start of the crisis on the border, I primarily see a change among the people associated with the Border Guards. They are tired, burnt out and feel resentment to their work. Many people would most like to retire or start doing something different.’

I try to talk to the local Border Guard officers. Whenever I reach anyone, they refuse to talk. They refer me to the press officer, to the commandant or simply hang up. The only one who doesn’t hang up straight away is a colleague; we have known each other for a long time. He doesn’t want to talk either, but at least I get a chance to ask him a question:

‘Do you try to help these people in the forest somehow? Or do you go straight away to the watchtower and then pushback?’

The friend is silent for a long time. Finally, he answers in a voice that is drained of energy:

‘Sometimes all I can do is to look the other way.’

He apologises for not saying anything more.

I help, but I don’t tell my neighbours

‘I know locals who have helped and are helping refugees, but they don’t show it to the outside world. They pretend it doesn’t apply to them,’ says Marta. ‘They don’t enter into conversations, they didn’t take part in the vilification of strangers, but they didn’t say they were helping them either. I was one of the few people here who admitted this directly. But I am one of the repatriates, I was not born here. Besides, only the newcomers still speak openly about helping.’

In other words ‘navoloches’, I add in my mind.

‘People wouldn’t be so scared, they would have a different attitude, if not for the attitude of the authorities to the whole of this situation,’

notes Krzysiek. ‘It was being said from up top that people from the forest are so dangerous. It was only when the locals realized that this isn’t the case that some of them started to help. But quietly, so as not to open themselves up to trouble from the authorities.’

Krzysiek was returning to Krynki along a road running close to the border. Suddenly, he saw them. Two men, one did not have an arm. Three women and three children. They were walking in the middle of the road, they were not hiding.

‘How could I help them? I wanted to give them a lift, but they all wouldn’t fit in the car. They just asked for water. And they wanted me to notify some services. I asked three times if they were sure they wanted the services. Yes. I called the Border Guards. They came. They jumped out of the car with rifles, aiming at these women, at these children! Like some sorts of fools! After all, they wanted to go to the services themselves, they were standing calmly in the middle of the road, why the guns? I was shaken inside!’

Marta: ‘The locals who are helping also needed support: to know where to call, to be able to talk normally, to cry, to finally be themselves for a while. They usually have an excellent understanding of their neighbours. They know that, on the right, they have the one who reports on them, and it is unknown how those on the left will react. That’s why you have to be constantly on your guard and never talk directly about the help you have given.’

Marta went for a walk with her dog in the evening. It was dark and empty. Suddenly a car stops near her. A man gets out, grabs her hand. ‘Marta, Marta, you’re doing the right thing! I can’t, because, after all, everyone knows me here, but when I look at you, I am warm inside! We’ll stick together!’

ludzie w kamizelkach odblaskowych stoją w tyralierze
ludzie w kamizelkach odblaskowych stoją w tyralierze

Searching for missing refugees. Photo Eliza Kowalczyk.

I walked like it was by the walls of a ghetto

The border crisis had various stages. The initial stage, which started with the appearance of a group of refugees in Usnarz Górny. Followed by the escalation, when a closed zone called ‘zona’ by the locals was introduced in the villages closest to the border with Belarus. No one except the locals could enter there without permission. A part of Poland was cut off from the rest of the world for ten months.

‘Surprising situations took place on the streets. And I’m not talking about those in uniforms with guns this time. People started to stop, close to each other,’ Marta recalls. ‘They talked to each other for a long time, embraced each other heartily, sometimes someone cried. They needed support to believe that they would survive, even though THAT was happening again.’

‘THAT?’ I ask.

‘The war.’ That time was like a war. You’re hanging up laundry and you see uniformed men with guns surrounding a man in the street. Another is being dragged into a vehicle.

Walking along the streets, I felt as if I was passing under the walls of a ghetto. How many people had similar associations!

The word ‘ghetto’ kept coming up in conversations. Krynki is an old Jewish town. The Jews disappeared from here in the Second World War. And now it was happening again: people were going into the town – and disappearing. Without a trace, in silence. And you keep going to work, you try to buy eggs and bread; you do your laundry.

Unexpectedly for Marta and her friends, the fad for songs by Jacek Kaczmarski and Przemysław Gintrowski, authors who were particularly well-known among oppositionists from the times of the People’s Republic of Poland, has returned. Although the association with the most popular song ‘Mury’ [English: Walls] immediately comes to mind, Marta quotes the words of Kaczmarski’s ‘Stalker’ to me:

‘It’s not us in the Zona – the Zona has been taken from us, We measure it with our uncertain but our own steps. Until hope is finally overcome by bitterness. That’s why – despite the wires, towers and watchtowers, We want to get there, where we were forbidden from going, To possess useless, ridiculous secrets.’

Białowieża 29.01.2022. Protest przeciw budowie muru na granicy
Białowieża 29.01.2022. Protest przeciw budowie muru na granicy

Białowieża, protest against the construction of a fence on the Polish-Belarusian border. Photo Eliza Kowalczyk.

Everyone was talking about war

Everyday life in the zona also meant heavy helicopters flying overhead, including at night, back and forth, right on the border line. Squawk boxes broadcasting messages in several languages. Men in uniforms. Weapons. Military vehicles.

‘These cars of theirs drove around without number plates for a very long time,’ says Marta. ‘And the men in uniforms had no markings. Anonymous vehicles, anonymous people with weapons. And in all this, here we were, people from here.’

She was driving her car to her friend’s house, down a side road, as usual. Suddenly, around the bend, a military offroad vehicle with no number plates blocked her path; uniformed men without shoulder markings surrounded her, pointing long guns at her. She does not know to this day if they were officers on duty and, if so, from which formation. They asked if she was transporting anyone, if she had seen anyone suspicious. They eventually let her go; she drove on. She held back her crying.

Militarized Białowieża. Snapshots from the state of emergency zone. January 2022

‘Did you have any help from the state here: psychologists, therapists to help the residents get through it all?’ I ask other people.

‘No,’ answers Marta.

'From the state? No, nobody,’ answers Rafał.

‘I hadn’t heard that there was such a possibility,’ says Tomasz.

Nobody. Just a restricted zone, people in uniforms, guns, heavy helicopters overhead, squawk boxes.

‘War. Everyone was talking about war. This is a word that sounds particularly threatening in the borderlands,’ emphasizes Marta. ‘We have been at war for seven months longer than others,’ she says, referring to the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February 2022.

‘Have you seen the fence on the border yet?’ ask acquaintances from Krynki. ‘No? Then go...’

Detailed instructions follow, about which road to take to see the new ‘investment’ in Podlasie. I am going, but I don’t know if I want to see that fence. I used to come here often before – the area of Krynki is a vast open space, meadows and fields, interspersed with forests. Few people, few houses, it’s easier to come across a bison than a person. Was a huge fence with barbed wire erected in such a place?

When I arrive on site, I find that... nothing is visible. The March fog has hidden the fence from me. The image of places I had known for years remains unchanged for now.


Eliza and Rafal Kowalczyk, who live in Białowieża, are the hardest to arrange to meet. Eliza is an activist, who is involved in helping people in the forest on a daily basis. She responds to incoming pins, so she never knows when she will have to go into the forest again to look for someone in need. When I finally drive to Białowieża, the weather is beautiful. On the other side of Hajnówka, in the Białowieża Forest, a raven flies over my car, carrying something in its beak. Its black wings gleam in the sunlight.

‘While looking for bodies in the forest, we follow the signs from the distinctive smell. Or the ravens,’ Eliza tells me later.

‘Earlier, when I saw ravens circling over the forest, I was wondering what animal had died. Today, I immediately think they are circling above a human body.’

I can’t get the image of a raven carrying something in its beak out of my mind for days.

When I reach Białowieża, Eliza is not there. Only Rafał is there waiting for me.

‘A pin came, Eliza has gone, she’s looking for this person,’ he explains.

It was supposed to be quick and efficient: simple, familiar terrain, give him water and food and then go home. But Eliza cannot find the man who sent the pin. While talking to Rafal, we both wait for her to contact us. Has she found the refugee? No? What happened?

‘Eliza gets a lot of messages at various times of the day and night,’ says Rafał. ‘It can be frustrating at times. She mutes these notifications, but you can see the phone screen light up. We go to bed and these messages keep coming. It sometimes causes tension, I must admit. Although we both agree that these people should be helped.’

fioletowy śpiwór w lesie
fioletowy śpiwór w lesie

Białowieża Forest, a refugee search operation. Photo Eliza Kowalczyk.

An extra backpack

Rafał has lived and worked in Białowieża for 30 years. He knows the Białowieża Forest like the back of his hand.

‘I checked one site in the summer. We suspected that someone’s body might be there. And I, with all my experience, did not reach that site. The terrain was too hard: the heap, the heat, I was alone, with no phone reception. Pushing through such heaps is exhausting. I was afraid that a little more and I would be the one left there. I withdrew, we went again with two colleagues. We combed the whole area. We didn’t find a body.’

This is their daily routine: looking for corpses.

‘These are terrible things,’ admits Rafał. ‘We expected that people could die here. There are animals in the forest that can eat their bodies. You know, these people are missing, their families don’t know what happened to them. So it’s at least about being aware: if someone died in this forest, that they can be found, that they can be buried, that their family can be informed....’

Fortunately, it is not always about the need to look for bodies, the living can also be helped. They take an extra backpack every time they go out into the field. Rafał takes one from the vestibule. A green, medium-sized tarpaulin bag. He takes things out of it and lays them out on the kitchen table: water, energy bars, warm socks, NRC foil, canned food, sultanas, a torch, wet wipes, a mobile phone, bandages, chocolate and a powerbank. Eliza went on today’s search with a similar backpack.

‘It’s really uncomfortable,’ she sighs later. ‘But it’s important.’ ‘I can leave it in the woods if I need to.’ ‘Perhaps it will save someone’s life.’

Kalosz w lesie, przy kałuży, należał do migranta, zmarł w lesie
Kalosz w lesie, przy kałuży, należał do migranta, zmarł w lesie

The wellingtons found in the forest belonged to a refugee who died in the forest. Photo Eliza Kowalczyk.

I look at the bones

I was talking to Rafal for two hours. Finally, Eliza called.

‘I haven’t found him,’ she is very worried about that. But she immediately asks her husband: ‘Did you pick Lidka up from school?’

Their everyday life is a constant merging of worlds: the ordinary one – children, school, work, home. And the crisis one – rescuing people in the forest or looking for their bodies. The abnormal situation in which they are living for the second year.

When Eliza returns, she is engrossed in the search. She describes where she went, leaning over the map with Rafał. After all, it’s a simple forest, there’s a road not far away. What could have happened to the person who asked for help?

‘Should we stop helping? What do you mean stop?’ Eliza is surprised by my question. ‘These people are still here, they still need help. What I am doing arises from my disagreement with the way they are being treated by the Polish authorities.’

This is my rebellion. As long as things stay as they are now, I will keep going out into the forest looking for them.

The next day promises to be exceptionally hard – a search for a missing person, for the first time together with the police. Everyone knows it’s a search for a corpse and not a living person. The evening after the event, Eliza shares a Facebook post by Agata Kluczewska, a fellow activist who also took part in the search:

‘Here you are, Man. Noticed. Seen. With your story. A tattered jacket. Shredded clothing. Your body!

(...) And the clash with reality. There is no body. THERE IS NO BODY. Exactly what this person is lacking, other than life, is a body. I look at the bones. A pelvis, I feel like it would fit in two hands. And these were someone’s hips once. They were full then. Now a fragile bowl. The skull is so small too. I think there’s still skin on it. The person is so small and fragile.’

A dress, cappuccino

Several weeks later, Eliza shares the following on Facebook: ‘NRC foil, energy bars, a powerbank, woollen socks, a compass and a headlamp have taken up a permanent place in my backpack. I can’t remember when I wore a dress last. And I like wearing them so much. I wear field trousers and wellingtons. When was the last time I sat somewhere carefree in a café, drinking a cappuccino? I don’t remember. I drink tea from a thermos flask that was supposed to be given to a man who is no longer alive.’

‘What do you dream of?’ I ask Eliza and Rafal.

‘About peace and quiet. And to be able to enjoy the forest again,’ Rafał replies.

Lidka is playing with the cat. Dinner will be ready soon.

Eliza’s phone screen lights up every now and again. New messages keep coming in.

The names of some of the characters have been changed.



Anna Mierzyńska

Analizuje funkcjonowanie polityki w sieci. Specjalistka marketingu sektora publicznego, pracuje dla instytucji publicznych, uczelni wyższych i organizacji pozarządowych. Stała współpracowniczka OKO.press