Prawa autorskie: Agata KubisAgata Kubis

Publikujemy angielską wersję wywiadu z Miroslawem Miniszewskim, który opublikowaliśmy w OKO.press

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Tekst przetłumaczyła pro bono nasza czytelniczka, mieszkająca w USA, która chce pozostać anonimowa. „Nie oczekuję niczego w zamian – traktuję to jako możliwość pomocy osobom na granicy” – napisała. To juz drugi tekst, który dla przetłumaczyła.

Nasz tłumaczka dodała od siebie wyjaśnienia w kwadratowych nawiasach, jak pisze, dla większego zrozumienia angielskiego czy amerykańskiego czytelnika. Czasem to parę słów, a czasem całe zdanie np. wyjąśniające, co stało się w Usnarzu.

Bardzo doceniamy włożony wysiłek i dziękujemy w imieniu czytelników

Mirosław Miniszewski is a philosopher and writer who lives within a couple hundred yards of the Poland-Belarus border. Every day, he meets migrants who are trying to cross the border and who are pushed back into the forest by the border guards; the migrants are hungry and cold, and their medical condition is dire. [The Poland-Belarus border runs partly through a primeval forest, an unforgiving terrain with thick undergrowth and swamps where walking half a mile can take several hours.]

“I resent the Polish state for putting my humanity to the test. I cannot indifferently pass by a person who is dying. If the Polish state thinks that I will presume this dying person to be a terrorist, they are mistaken,” he told OKO.press.

“I do not believe that we are unable to at least partially help these people. I appreciate that in the big picture, there are no solutions to the problem of immigration, but I also understand that it is us, the Western countries, who have destabilized the Middle East. The UK, France, and the USA have been destabilizing this region since World War I. All because of the oil. The colonialism devastated these lands, whose people want to come here now. When I look at this problem at such a level of abstraction, I am not able to offer any solutions.”

“But it is unacceptable to expect me to watch people die just because somebody thinks that aiding them destabilizes the Polish state, that my help challenges its security.”

Mirosław talks about the pain and bitterness he feels, and about the effort he shares with a group of acquaintances and friends to help people crossing the border. His story makes for an exceptional testimony.

Agata Szczęśniak, OKO.press: Every day, you meet people crossing the Polish-Belarusian border.

Mirosław Miniszewski: They’re simply around us here.

There are moments when I just want to cry. One day I met a young Iraqi. He told me about his life. Looking at him, I saw a little kid who had rotten shoes on almost rotten feet; we were barely able to put dry socks on those swollen feet. He devoured three chocolates, drank two bottles of water, and then he laid on the ground, breathing heavily and looking at me. After this encounter I wept for three hours. I simply couldn’t get myself together - and I’m not a particularly emotional person.

For me, there is no going back to what was before. This experience has changed everything.

People can delve into some theoretical considerations based on what they see on TV. But no account can do justice to what is happening here, not even those by the independent media that do report on this situation.

When you’re standing in a cold, damp clearing and you hear a child wailing all night long, there is no medium that can convey what it’s like. This is why I say: have the courage to come here and look these people in the eyes.

You give aid to these people. What exactly do you do?

Unfortunately, the truth is that we are becoming ever more afraid of providing help. In general, we prepare kits containing basic supplies such as food to quickly replenish calories, socks, hats, and gloves. When one of us encounters a migrant, we give them a few kits. It’s not like we’re driving around searching for people, we meet them by chance. Often, we only have a few minutes to hand over the kit before the border guards arrive.

Emergency blankets, socks, rain boots

What does such a kit contain?

Bars, most often protein bars, or ordinary chocolate bars such as Snickers. These people are so worn out that they need to immediately replenish calories. It would be best if we could give them liquid glucose, but we have no capacity to prepare it. So, we have chocolate bars, nuts, things they can travel with, what they can eat on the go or when they’re stopped by the border guards, or pushed back to Belarus.

We also include emergency blankets; sometimes, if we don’t have them, we put in a raincoat instead. There are hats, gloves, personal hygiene items such as wet wipes, activated charcoal, and painkillers.

We also have clothes, most often second-hand winter jackets. We have some number of winter boots and rain boots.

Some of these items come from organizations that work here on the ground, from the “Granica” [“Border”] group. They cannot enter our region [which is in the emergency zone established within 2 kilometers of the Poland-Belarus border where only residents can enter], but they make these items available to us. I get lots of things from friends. They ask what we need, then they buy these items and bring them here.

We don’t collect money. We don’t want to provoke any suspicions, so we only accept material donations.

Some of the things we get are not appropriate for this terrain. For example, we cannot hand out cotton socks, as they can become a hazard [to one’s health] if they get wet. We use sport socks, thermal socks that wick away moisture, or wool socks. Things that are deemed not appropriate are handed over to organizations that pass them on to [immigration] centers, where some of these people end up. These centers, likewise, have great needs.

The items are put in a string bag so that they can be easily carried. We also have some number of backpacks.

How many of such kits have you handed out so far?

I don’t know, I’m not counting them.

Would say 15, or 50, or 500?

I have personally handed out a few dozen. How many of them have been handed out altogether – I have no idea, we don’t ask each other about it. We also hand these kits out to our neighbors, to people who want to have them in case one of the migrants knocks on their door at night asking for food; when this happens, they are able to quickly offer the kit.

I’m carrying these kits around openly: they are stacked on the back seat of my car, so that when the border guards or police pull me over for inspection, they can see them. So far there have been no questions asked.

Don’t they comment? Don’t they ask what do you need these for?

No. And I’m not hiding anything. I consciously decide for the kits to be visible so that the officers can easily spot them. I do not want to act like I’m in a conspiracy or undercover. All I do, I do openly.

You say “we”. You wrote in your Facebook post: “We don’t belong to any organization, we just live here”. Who is “we”?

We’re a group of about a dozen friends. We know each other as we’ve been living here for years. We decided, given the situation in which we found ourselves, to do something. We meet to sort and pack the donated items, sometimes we deliver the kits if one of us runs out of them.

We don’t have any leadership or guidelines. We just do what we deem necessary and natural in this situation.

Who are the migrants that you meet? Do they come alone, or are there groups, families?

All of the above. There are solitary travelers, there are groups, and there are families. Some of these people actually ask us to alert the Border Guard. I’ve had a situation like that myself: a man asked to call the Border Guard and I did it. I believe this was a well-informed adult who spoke fluent English. They hope that in this way they’ll be able to apply [for protection].

The vice-spokesperson for PiS [Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), the ruling party in Poland], Radosław Fogiel, said that there is no humanitarian crisis on the border. “Poland provides help where it is needed,” he said. Which we can take to mean: the people who are there don’t need any help.

It is incompatible with my experience and with what I’m witnessing.

When did you start [to help]?

In principle from the very first day, when the media broke the news on what was happening in Usnarz [Usnarz Górny, a town in Podlaskie voivodeship close to the Poland-Belarus border; events that took place in Usnarz, including the detention of migrants within make-shift camps, in bad weather conditions and without access to urgently needed medical assistance, started a broader coverage of the immigration crisis]. Already that night we managed to provide these people with items such as diapers. At that time providing help was still quite straightforward, as the Border Guard was itself ensuring that the migrants were fed. That first night we simply handed the items over to the guards, who then gave them to the people.

Later we started to run into people, already in awful condition, here in our neighborhoods, and we decided it would be worthwhile to always have some items on hand and at the ready. In the beginning we just stored basic items loosely in our cars. However, the worsening situation forced us to do it more efficiently, before the Border Guard arrives. At this point we are able to hand out one of our kits in about a minute. Sometimes we manage to do that, sometimes we don’t.

This is happening on my doorstep

Do you remember the moment when you thought that this is something one has to do?

I don’t think it was a conscious thought. My urge to help did not occur in my mind, I felt it in my body. I don’t think too much about this, I’d have gone crazy multiple times by now if I did.

Besides, most of us are in a miserable mental state even without that; then again this is not the time for us to complain. But I keep thinking about my colleagues, and often one of us needs some support.

Sometimes we call each other in the middle of the night to talk, this is how much it affects us.

There’s a guy that I became friends with. He used to work as a press photographer in Syria, in Afghanistan, he’s been all over the world. He tells me: “You need to distance yourself or you won’t survive.” To which I answer: “Man, how am I supposed to distance myself? You managed to do it because you were able to go back home, to get back to the hotel, to say: I’m not working today.” I can’t do that.

This is happening on my land, on my doorstep, on my way to the store. I cannot distance myself when electronic intelligence aircraft fly right over my head, when helicopters fly over my head, when everywhere here there are military and police. How am I supposed to distance myself? If the Polish state expects me to be indifferent...

Even if we don’t go anywhere, we don’t meet anyone and nothing at all is happening, this still disturbs us. We constantly see planes and helicopters, there are security check points and a general feeling like we are in a war zone. One’s head is not getting better from all of this.

I don’t use the word “refugees”

Please tell us a bit more why this situation is such a burden.

I’m feeling extremely bad in a situation when I need to carefully consider every act of help. I need to do this in a way that doesn’t lead to my actions becoming unlawful aiding and abetting. As a result, I have this constant fear that I’m doing something illegal, something that is wrong or that can be seen as wrong. I’m afraid of penalties and legal consequences... That’s to begin with.

I’m afraid for my family. I live here with my loved ones, with my child. Maybe, if I were alone, I’d be willing to become more involved, but I can only do as much as my position allows.

And then I have never ever suspected that I would be doing things I wrote about in my PhD dissertation about a dozen years ago. I am a philosopher; I did doctoral research on the Holocaust. I never thought that I would witness these processes [leading to the Holocaust] with my own eyes. Of course, this is not the same, both in scale and in lasting effects. I am not making a comparison with the final aspect of the Holocaust embodied in the extermination camps. However, the beginning looked more or less like this. People were being persecuted.

What are the specific aspects of this situation in which you see this similarity?

There are people who are deemed as unwanted, and we are dehumanizing them with our language. This language that we’re employing is a key component. At first, I used the word “immigrants”, then it turned out that these are not illegal immigrants but refugees.

And currently I don’t use the word “refugees” anymore, and instead I use the word “people” whenever I can. I don’t think one should stigmatize them with such a label [refugees]. There is no adequate expression in our language to describe them. For me these are people who need help.

I’m trying not to think about where they’re from, what is their goal, what are their intentions. They are in a state of complete exhaustion and they deserve to be helped because they are human. In Poland, we have this culture of feeding stray cats. It’s brutal, but if we are able to feel compassion toward animals, then as humans we have an obligation to help others. It’s our imperative as a species.

There are good people, there are bad people, and there are indifferent people

Your neighbors and friends know what you’re doing. What are their reactions?

Most of them know. I’m not hiding anything, I am quite known in this region, and I write openly on Facebook. I speak to the media. A policeman who was stationed near my home recognized me: “That was you on the TV,“ he said.

I try not to engage with people who don’t want to talk about it.

There is this narrative out there that we [people living in the emergency zone] are a bunch of szmalcowniks reporting [the migrants] to the border guards [“szmalcownik” is a pejorative Polish word, used during the Holocaust in occupied Poland and referring to a person who blackmailed Jews who were in hiding, or who blackmailed Poles who aided Jews during the Nazi occupation]. Naturally, there are people who call the Border Guards out of their own volition, there are those who don’t call, and there are those who prefer not to see anything. I think this array of attitudes follows the statistics exactly. There’s no reason to generalize [the behavior of people who live here] as everyone reacts in their own way. I am not here to judge the conscience of other people.

I think there are good people, there are bad people, and there are indifferent people. Exactly like in the rest of the human population in the world. There is no particular hatred here. I have read Facebook posts by well-educated people that wrote things much worse than what I’m hearing here. People behave in different ways; how could it be otherwise?

One of the [Polish] politicians told me recently that people from your region and similar regions call them to thank them for [declaring] the state of emergency, which they credit with maintaining relative peace.

Maybe some people say that; I can’t tell. I don’t see any peace. A dozen or so inspections at check points a day do not tend to increase one’s sense of safety. When I drive with a 5-year-old child, our boy, when I open the window, I see police officers with machine guns. This is not a situation that makes me feel safe. The sight of rifles is not something that I wish to see, and it is not something that I wish my child to see.

The law of war

I’ve watched TVP Info [a news program broadcasted by a state-sponsored station] today. They were saying that those people crossing the border have connections with terrorist organizations. When you help these people, do you take into account that this may be the case?

Yes, I do take that into account. However, I am not in a position to verify this one way or another.

When I see a group of barefoot people lying on the ground, including little children, then it’s hard for me to perceive them as terrorists.

But, I will say something that eludes everyone: there is something called the law of war. Imagine people who are outwardly hostile towards us. They shoot. The armies shoot at each other. When one of these armies prevails, we are dealing with prisoners of war. When they are captured, disarmed, or wounded, they are granted immunity, we cannot kill them anymore. They become subjects of the law of war and, according to the Geneva Conventions, they are guaranteed to be given first-aid, medical assistance, a dry place to stay, and sustenance.

Our civilization has constructed the law of war through a very long process of making our attitudes towards other people more humane. Even if we were dealing with people who indeed would have a hostile attitude [towards us], if they are not armed, if their lives are in danger, those people also deserve our help.

I resent the Polish state for letting a situation happen in which I need to think about things like that. It puts my humanity to the test. I cannot indifferently pass by a person who is dying. If the Polish state thinks that I will presume this dying person to be a terrorist, they are mistaken. I don’t understand this.

If they want to secure the border, then they should do it in a such a way that the boarder is impenetrable. There are ways and means for doing that.

But if I’m dealing with a human being, even an enemy, that is lying there dying, then as a human being myself I have the obligation to help. We can judge or investigate them later. This is what the law of war says.

Now then, given that the Polish state employs war rhetoric, they should consider these people to be prisoners of war. When they are arrested, they cease to be enemies and become captives. In a real war, were someone to capture and disarm the enemies, and were they then to leave them, barefoot, in a forest, in a situation constituting a direct danger to their lives, where they could freeze to death, then the International Criminal Court would judge this as a war crime. [To see this] All you need to do is read the statute of the International Criminal Court in the chapter on war crimes. It is all clearly written there.

You wrote that you hope to be a witness in front of that Court someday.

Yes, I hope that one day I will be a witness in front of the International Criminal Court.

I think that what Europe is doing (here I am speaking not only of Poland, but of all of Europe) is simply extermination. This is my opinion.

They are throwing little kids out beyond the border, at night, toward a thuggish state. For on the other side we are not dealing with Germans or Czechs, or Ukrainians, but with Belarussian state thugs who shoot at these people. Some of the refugees tell us that they are shot at there, naturally nobody can really verify this, but these people claim that there are dead bodies on the Belarussian side. If we know this and we are sending them back there, for me it fulfills all characteristics of an extermination.

Saying that these people are raping cows, that they are pedophiles [this relates to a press conference from September 27, 2021, where the Polish Ministry of Defense alleged that some immigrants’ phones contained photos and videos of pedophile, zoophile, or terrorism related activity], such information has no value as nobody can verify it or prevent the situation [in which these people are dying]. The border runs right along my house. Every 200 meters [about 650 feet] there is an outpost where our border patrol officers are stationed, you can see them from the road. These people [migrants] still manage to get past these outposts. The border is simply not secured effectively.

People from a different culture are annoying

You also wrote that the presence of the refugees annoys you. Why?

Those people who are coming here should not be here. They’re in a place in the world which is completely unsuited for receiving them. Their presence here disturbs an equilibrium. They were not expected here. I was not waiting for these people.

Refugees are not welcome anywhere in the world – let’s be clear about that. It’s not like we’d say: “Oh, how wonderful! Some people came, now I can show them how good I am and that I will help them.” It’s not like that. I wish all of this to stop.

Human beings are not one-dimensional and on some level I wish I could be at peace. I do not want this situation; I would like for things to be like before. Of course, we can only dream about a world in which people do not need to flee. I will say even more: I was an illegal immigrant myself. With a group of friends, before Poland joined the EU, we went to Great Britain on a tourist visa. We worked there for many years, even though we all had a stamp in our passports stating that we were forbidden to work. We were there longer than the law allowed. An awful lot of my friends worked in Britain illegally for many, many years. Even today I know some Poles who work in the USA illegally, who are there without a visa. Poles were a source of great frustration for people in Great Britain. I witnessed it.

People from a foreign culture are annoying because they behave in ways that we don’t understand. You have to be open and exhibit a lot of good will to live in another culture, or with people who come from other cultures. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have something against them. I’ve travelled around the world, I’ve been also to the Middle East, and it’s not like I’m rating [different cultures]. It’s not like that.

You know, think of an unwelcome guest. If a friend, even a dear friend, pays me a surprise visit, if they suddenly enter my home and prolong their stay, it’s also annoying to me. This the level I’m talking about. When your mother-in-law or father-in-law pop in unexpectedly, that’s also irritating, because we don’t want their presence now, at this very moment. This is what it’s all about, that’s the right analogy.

When you read a survey which says that 52% of people [in Poland] are against letting the migrants in and for turning them back if they manage to cross the border – do you understand the motivation behind opinions like these, or do they anger you?

I’m going to respond like a philosopher again: it depends. I understand it at the level of a certain sociological conditioning. I understand these processes and I know how they occur. I know that there are people to whom political values as well as fetishization of the border and of the army are important.

On the other hand, on an everyday, human level I think that if somebody had an experience like mine, if they had to look into the eyes of a human who is terrified, hungry, and cold, and who knows that they’re in danger of dying...

I would like for people who have such opinions to come here and accompany me on a night when I’m trying to help [the migrants]. I would like them to look such a person in the eyes and to then try going to sleep peacefully. Myself, even though I take the position in which I’m trying to help, I haven’t been sleeping peacefully for many weeks. I’m having nightmares. I constantly see those eyes. When I look at these starved, exhausted people, their eyes carry the very same expression as those of people in the concentration camps, or of Jews in the ghettos during the war. They have the same facial expressions. So, I would like for such a person, who proclaims such radical judgements, to have the same experience and then to think once more before speaking out again.

If after such an experience somebody sleeps through the night, then I don’t have anything to talk about with a person like that, this person ventures beyond any of my considerations, for this situation is the ultimate limit.

We’re not talking about politics here, we’re talking about life, about biological survival.

My catholic friend says that there is a catholic order of charity: first family, children, home, sisters, cousins, friends, and only then those people. What a nonsense! I’m a little overweight, my partner is a little overweight, our child is well fed, we live in a warm house. What order of charity are we talking about if, as a civilization, we throw away one third of all of our food? Every Polish family could donate thirty percent of their food to the refugees.

You spoke about the law of war, which is not mentioned in the current context. What else are we missing?

Our biggest issue is misinformation. Not only in the sense of what the Polish media are doing. There should be a push for the involvement of international organizations. In countries such as Iraq and Pakistan from which these people are coming, which are, after all, rather normal at this time, the UN should put volunteers at the airports who would hand out flyers and explain to people that they are going to fly into a trap. These people should be informed there [in their own countries] that there is no possibility of getting through to Europe. ‘Cause they think they’re in Germany. When I tell them “You’re 600 kilometers from the German border,” they just look at me and don’t believe me.

These people have been cheated by someone. One should arrange a large-scale information campaign: “Don’t fly here! Don’t believe what Belarus tells you. You won’t be able to get out of there. They will take all of your money, they will steal all of your belongings, and you’ll be left in a forest.”

And what is your reaction when you hear that safety is a fundamental priority?

At what price? What price are we supposed to pay for this safety?

I do not believe that we are unable to at least partially help these people. I appreciate that in the big picture, there are no solutions to the problem of immigration, but I also understand that it is us, the Western countries, who have destabilized the Middle East. The UK, France, and the USA have been destabilizing this region since World War I. All because of the oil. The colonialism devastated these lands, whose people want to come here now. When I look at this problem at such a level of abstraction, I am not able to offer any solutions.

But it is unacceptable to expect me to watch people die just because somebody thinks that aiding them destabilizes the Polish state, that my help challenges its security.

In a Facebook post from October 3rd, 2021, Mirosław Miniszewski describes what he feels as a person living at the border, and what he does to maintain his own humanity. You can read this post below:

„Good people send to the border packages filled with items that save lives. Every day I am collecting new ones. A woman drove all the way from Warsaw today, bringing a whole trunk of precious donations. We couldn’t even offer her a cup of coffee or something to eat, as she couldn’t enter the [emergency] zone. The Homo Faber organization [a Polish organization fighting for human rights and against discrimination] received substantial amounts of monetary donations. We offer our thanks for all this. All items will be used at the border. Items that will not find their use here will be handed over to [immigration] centers devoted to people seeking refuge in our country.

You don’t have to be here to help. Besides, no one [who doesn’t live here] can enter the emergency zone anyway. Even charitable organizations are not really on the ground, but in regions adjacent to the restricted area. A few private and non-organized people are active here [in the zone]. We don’t belong to any organization. We simply live here. What we do stays within the limits of the law: offering food, personal hygiene items, pieces of clothing and shoes is not illegal, so far. This is all that can be done at this moment.

None of us challenges the right of our country to protect its borders. I am personally of the opinion that if this border was professionally secured, Łukaszenko’s regime would not be able to pull off such an operation. However, there is a difference between securing the border and extermination. It is my opinion that driving exhausted, starved people who have been cheated by Belarussian fascists back across the border to that thuggish country where they are robbed, beaten, and some probably also killed – this is something that the Refugees talk about – it is my opinion that this is an extermination.

For that reason, although I personally find the presence of the Refugees to be annoying and I don’t see their presence here through rose-colored lenses, nobody can prohibit me from being human. In case of a human being who is on the verge of dying, I don’t care where they’re from, how they got here and what their plans were. To the best of my abilities, I will help every person who needs to be rescued from hunger, cold or death. Whoever challenges [my decision to do so], they venture beyond any of my considerations.

Many people have their own opinions about the situation at the [Polish-Belarussian] border. My unconditional stance is that you are only granted the ultimate right to judge when you’re looking into someone’s frightened eyes, eyes full of fear of imminent death, and when you know how little can be done to help. You then come back home, and those eyes visit you in dreams. They haunt you. Because really you haven’t done much. You provided some calories and dry socks. You secured maybe 24 hours of someone’s survival. Nothing more. You feel shame, anger and hatred knowing that you are a part of a society, of a whole civilization of white man, which violently deprives you of your right to offer meaningful help. You have to live with that. If you did more, you could expose your loved ones and yourself to unpredictable consequences. It’s a sort of violence impinged upon you by the system, by Poland, by all of Europe. One cannot come back from that to one’s former life. This will stay with me forever.

Members of charitable organizations who traveled the world of refugee camps across the globe advise us to distance ourselves, to not get involved too much. They say that they saw a lot as well. I think their situation is different. They went there as part of their job or as volunteers. They could come back at any moment. My perspective is different, for all this is taking place on my doorstep, in the place where I live, among my neighbors, in my forest, on my land and in my world. I cannot go away, I have nowhere to come back to in order to distance myself.

I have no chances to get any distance! I’m afraid to look out the window, drive down the road. Someone has “destroyed” my home, shaken local relations and structures. Someone inspects me 20 times a day to check whether my urge to bring help hasn’t become an illegal aiding and abetting, a crime against homeland. Someone monitors my phone, knows where I am. Every day someone persistently works on me in hopes that I become an ordinary son of a b****. Taking on such role would ensure that the government of my county looks favorably on me. I am supposed to be dutifully indifferent and, following the catholic order of charity, mind my own business and leave the rest to the officers. I’m supposed to turn my eyes away from death and suffering, because it’s not my business. Unfortunately, the problem is that in my life, I’ve had many teachers who taught me to think for myself. Perhaps a lobotomy would make me into an exemplary citizen of Poland as ruled by PiS [Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), the ruling party in Poland]. I’d prefer death.



Agata Szczęśniak

Redaktorka, publicystka. Współzałożycielka i wieloletnia wicenaczelna Krytyki Politycznej. Pracowała w „Gazecie Wyborczej”. Socjolożka, studiowała też filozofię i stosunki międzynarodowe. Uczy na Uniwersytecie SWPS. W radiu TOK FM prowadzi audycję „Jest temat!” W OKO.press pisze o mediach, polityce polskiej i zagranicznej oraz prawach kobiet.