Publikujemy tłumaczenie tekstu Romana Pawłowskiego „Mojżesz spoczął w Bohonikach. Kolejny pogrzeb uchodźcy zmarłego na granicy [REPORTAŻ]”, zamieszczonego w OKO.press 11 grudnia 2022.

On the photograph: Sidding Musa Hamid Eisa from Sudan, with his sister and cousins.

Mizar, the Tatar cemetery in Bohoniki, is located a kilometre outside the village. You have to turn left after the last houses and go along a tree-lined road and drive up the hill. The gravestones with crescent-shaped monuments start behind the wall, between the trees.

The refugee quarters are in the far corner, to the right of the gate, between the path and the fence. There are six graves between the birch trees, with stones laid around them in accordance with the Muslim custom.

There were five in November:

  • Ahmad from Syria, aged 19, drowned in the Bug River on 19 October 2021;
  • NN, aged about 30, died of exhaustion and hypothermia, found in a forest near Kuźnica on 22 October 2021;
  • Mustafa, 37, Yemeni, died of hypothermia near Gródek, found on 19 September 2021;
  • Halikeri, a six-month unborn baby, died in November 2021 in its mother’s womb, a Kurdish woman from Iraq;
  • Ahmed, 26, Yemeni, found in the Białowieża Forest, buried on 14 March 2022.

A sixth grave was dug on Monday 5 December. Sidding Musa Hamid Eisa from Sudan, aged 21, was buried there. He drowned in the Svisloch River, near Krynki, on 3 October. His body was found three weeks later.

‘SUNDAY WILL SURPRISE YOU’ is OKO.press’s series on the calmest day of the week. We want to offer our readers ‘food for thought’ – analyses, interviews, reports and multimedia that show well-known topics from a different angle, throw our thinking off the beaten path, and just surprise us.

The migrant sector

Since autumn 2021, Mizar in Bohoniki has become a burial place for refugees who died while crossing the Polish-Belarusian border.

‘This was a spontaneous reaction,’ says Aleksander Bazarewicz, imam of the Muslim Religious Community in Bohoniki. ‘We found that the only thing we can do as a Muslim community for our brothers and sisters in Islam who died on the border is to give them a dignified funeral. The families cannot afford to bring the bodies back to their homeland.

Together with the head of the community’s management board, Maciej Szczęsnowicz, they decided to designate a sector in Mizar to migrants in November. ‘We thought it would end with just one burial. But this sector is continuing to grow.

Bohoniki is one of the centres of Tatar life in Poland. Residents boast that Jan III Sobieski granted them the land in 1679. The village, with a population of 100, lies 9 km as the crow flies from the border with Belarus, outside the border zone. That is why it was not closed when the authorities imposed a state of emergency in September 2021 and prevented access to border villages and towns near the Belarusian border.

‘The other Tatar village, Kruszyniany, was within the closed zone. We wanted the families of the dead to be able to take part in the funerals. That is why we decided to bury them here, in Bohoniki,’ explains the head of the community, Maciej Szczęsnowicz.

He openly admits that he is opposed to the acceptance of refugees. But he believes that those who get through to Poland should be helped. ‘We want to show to the whole world that we, as Muslims, are not indifferent to human harm.

If someone needs support, we do not look at religion or skin colour. We help everyone.’

I couldn’t speak

The first funeral, which was organized by the Dialog Foundation, which runs an open centre for foreigners in Białystok, was held in the middle of November last year. Ahmad Al-Hassan from Syria was one of the first victims of the migration crisis. On 19 October 2021, Belarusian border guards pushed him and another man into the Bug River. The friend managed to swim across the river; the 19-year-old drowned. Divers found the body the next day.

‘That first funeral was a huge experience. My heart ached, to be honest. We cried when the coffin was brought in. To see a 19-year-old person who had drowned – I couldn’t say a word. The psyche is devastated,’ Szczęsnowicz recalls.

Several faithful from Bohonik and Syrians from Białystok prayed at the funeral. Dr Kasim Shady, a Syrian doctor living in Podlasie, who is himself a refugee, called Ahmad’s brothers living in exile in Turkey and Jordan via video chat. He graduated in medicine in Poland. He returned to Poland when war broke out in Syria.

Avin means love

Four more people, who died on the border, were buried at Mizar in Bohoniki in November 2021. They included a boy who died in his mother’s womb, 38-year-old Avin Irfan Zahir. Activists from the Border Group found a Kurdish woman from Iraq, together with her five children, husband and three other men in the forest near Narewka.

According to the activists, the woman was howling with pain. The doctors diagnosed hypothermia and acidosis. She was six months pregnant. The Border Guards separated the group: the woman was taken to the hospital in Hajnówka in a critical condition, the husband and children were placed in an open centre in Białystok. The other men were pushed back to Belarus.

Avin miscarried in hospital. She died three weeks later. Her body was transported to Iraq. Her son remained at Mizar in Bohoniki.

Avin in Kurdish means love.

Jesus died near Kuźnica

The last funeral of a refugee from the border took place in Bohoniki in March 2022. Ahmed al-Shawafi, a 26-year-old Yemeni, died in the marshes of the Białowieża Forest in late February. He had come into Poland with a group of Syrians who the Polish Border Guards pushed back to Belarus. Ahmed remained in Poland.

These are not the only burials of migrants in Podlasie. The bodies of the dead, who cannot be claimed by their families, are buried in cemeteries in communities near where they were found. Issa, namely Jesus, a 24-year-old from the Syrian town of Hama, was buried in the Orthodox cemetery in Saki near Kleszczele. A police patrol found his body in a field near Kuźnica in October 2021. According to his family, Issa had already been to Poland before, staying in a hospital in Sokółka, but had been pushed into Belarus by the Border Guards.

He died when he crossed the border again.

A refugee – who was initially unidentified – whose body was found in a forest by the Belarusian border, was laid to rest in November 2021 in the Orthodox cemetery in Wólka Terechowska near Czeremcha. It was only six months later that it was possible to establish his identity and inform his family, thanks to the efforts of activists working on the border. It was Mohammad Jasem, a 31-year-old Syrian.

Czaban makes a rumpus and searches for the missing people

A whole chain of people and organizations working on the border works on the preparation of each of these funerals. They provide information about the missing people, they try to locate where they were last, based on the pins that were sent. They contact other refugees at centres or on the Belarusian side to confirm the place of the disappearance. When a body is found, they make contact with the families and gather information enabling the corpse to be identified.

The diplomatic missions of the countries from which the missing people came, Yemen, Iraq and Sudan, take part in the search operations. As do minority organizations in Poland. It is only at the end of this process that state institutions, namely the police and the prosecutor’s office, step in. Official activities take a long time, sometimes several weeks. It is only after they are completed that the body is handed over to the Muslims from Bohonik, who prepare the funeral.

Most recently, all the threads of this network end up with one person: Piotr Czaban. He is a journalist from Podlasie, a blogger and an activist of the Podlasie Volunteer Humanitarian Service. He has been writing in his social media channels about the crisis on the border for a year and a half under the slogan ‘Czaban robi raban’ [Czaban makes a rumpus]. He is supported by donors from patronite.pl.

It was he who helped identify the man buried in Wólka Terechowska. The name of a man who drowned in July 2022 in the Svisloch River has been restored as a result of the efforts of Czaban and Karolina Mazurek, an activist who helps migrants from detention centres. This was the same border river where Musa died. A photograph in a phone case helped. The family of the deceased, who had been searching for him for some time, sent the same photograph.

A whole chain of people in Poland and abroad has to be activated, dozens of photographs need to be viewed, places and people marked with pins have to be connected before someone can be identified.

It’s like conducting an investigation. Except that the guilty are not punished in the end.
Ostatnie zdjęcie Musy

Musa’s last photograph, taken with a mobile phone in the forest on the Polish-Belarusian border. Photo: Czaban Robi Raban Archive.

A clue from Przemyśl

In the case of Musa, namely Moses, Piotr Czaban also played a key role. Had it not been for his efforts, the missing boy’s body would probably not have been found.

The journalist found out that a group of black migrants was moving within the border belt on 3 October. ‘I was on duty at the time. My source said there were three of them, from Sudan. They are extremely exhausted and wet. They informed us that their companion had drowned in the river near Krynki. There was no exact location.

After receiving assistance, the group went on their way. Unfortunately, the Russian phone number they gave proved to be wrong. Trying various combinations, Czaban reached some Russian who told him to “go f... himself”.’

‘On that same day, the Border Guards posted a tweet with information about a migrant lying motionless on the Belarusian side, under the border fence. The Belarusian services immediately brought a TV crew there to film a propaganda video. It showed the body of a dark-skinned boy, in a vest and briefs. I watched the video, thinking perhaps it was the same person the three spoke about,’ says Czaban.

But the lead proved to be false.

Two weeks later, Karolina Mazurek wrote to Czaban: ‘Listen, a boy will call you from the centre in Przemyśl who knows something about the body in the Svisloch.’

‘He was an Iraqi. He wrote that there was a boy from Sudan with him at the centre who had crossed the Svisloch in early October. There were four of them and one of them had drowned. He wants to pass on the location, he is asking to go and get the body.

First, we had to check that it was the same group. Czaban had a photograph of the three Sudanese men who had reached the Polish side. In the photograph, he recognized the Sudanese man from the centre in Przemyśl. Bingo!’

‘I asked where the rest of the group was. He wrote back that the Border Guards had detained them. He was sent to a detention centre in Przemyśl, but there was no trace of the other two. It was only a few days later that they sent word that they had been pushed back to Belarus and sent back to Moscow. They have had enough and want to return to Sudan.’

The dog loses the trail

During that time, Czaban made contact with the boy’s family, who were looking for him through their own channels.

‘I got the contact details from Magda Łuczak from the Granica Group, which operates the [email protected] e-mail. The Granica Group promotes this address among families of those looking for their relatives. I gave the family the phone number to the two boys who were in Moscow so that they could ask for more details. I already knew his name was Musa.

The day after receiving the information from Przemyśl, the journalist reported the matter to the police. ‘I trust them more than the Border Guards; they don’t ignore such reports.’

Indeed, a patrol car from the County Police Station in Sokółka went to the border the same day. The journalist directed them to an area near the village of Ozierany Małe, where they could most probably find the body. He himself remained outside the 200-metre zone, where access is prohibited.

The search was conducted all day. Two fire brigade units participated alongside the police and there was a police officer with a tracker dog. The firefighters probed the water with their bare feet. ‘I was sure they would find him. My sources informed me that the body was certainly there, because there had been a stink on the river for a long time,’ recalls Czaban.

The search continued into the evening. The body was not found.

‘It’s a vast area, marshy, there are reeds. The dog could have mistaken the trail, there are wild animals there.’

Despite the failure of the search, Czaban did not give up. He called the spokeswoman of the Border Guards in Białystok and asked her to tell the outpost in Krynki, which is in charge of that area, to ensure the patrols keep a close eye on the banks.

A week later, on 25 October, the journalist was again on duty in that area. He was informed in the evening that the Border Guards had found a body.

‘It was 9 pm, I called the police station in Sokółka and said that, if necessary, I had the missing boy’s passport, his family’s contact details and his photographs. The duty officer was not very talkative, but I deduced from the conversation that there had indeed been a report. I then reported on my social media that the body had been found.

Picturesque river of death

The Svisloch is a picturesque river, meandering through meadows on the border section from Jałówka to Kruszyniany. The Svisloch Valley is mentioned in guidebooks as one of Podlasie’s tourist attractions. A place that ‘the hustle and bustle of the city does not reach’, where you can ‘feel the atmosphere of the Tatar steppe’ and ‘be at one with nature’.

After the war, the border cut through local roads here, dividing families and entire villages. Both sides of the river are now deserted areas. The exception is Bobrowniki with its road border crossing.

After the construction of ‘Blaszczak’s fence’, namely a 187-kilometre-long, 5-metre-high metal barrier, the section of the Svisloch river to the south of Krynki remained the only natural barrier to the border. The fence ends near the village of Ozierany Małe. Here, the river is no more than ten metres wide. It appears that only a few swimming strokes would be enough to cross it.

An ideal place for desperate migrants trapped between Belarus and Poland to cross over. Nothing could be further from the truth.

‘It’s not enough for someone to be able to swim, there’s also fear. They don’t just jump over. This is a rough ride. Chaos, night-time, they run away like scared animals, they run blindly. There’s no planning there. It’s just long and you either escape or you don’t escape from the Polish services,’ says Piotr Czaban.

Another migrant drowned in the Svisloch River in July this year. His body had been drifting by the Belarusian bank for a long time. It was only when the current carried him to the Polish bank that the police arrived.

‘We don’t know how many people drowned there. A woman’s jacket was found in the river when the pushback took place at the Svisloch River near Bobrowniki from both the Belarusian and the Polish sides. The police then discontinued the case. But the search was something of a stopgap measure at that time.’

The Red Sea of Moses from Sudan

I look at the map and imagine these four twenty-or-so-year-old boys from Africa, who have been in the forest for several weeks, as they try and get into the water. I check the forecasts: It was 8 degrees Celsius in the Podlasie region on the morning of 3 October; a northwest wind was blowing, with gusts of up to 60 km/h. It was raining. Perceived temperature: plus 2 degrees.

Piotr Czaban: ‘Ahmed from Yemen, who died in the Białowieża Forest, died of hypothermia. He fell into a swamp, they pulled him out, but his body was hypothermic. Even in the summer, if you talked to the people who were in the Forest, they thought they were going to die after a week.

What happened on the night of 3 October on the Svisloch River? According to the Sudanese man from the centre in Przemyśl, Musa had a heavy backpack that was dragging him down into the water. Perhaps he slipped on the swampy bank? Didn’t he get his baggage off his back? We will never know.’

‘Musa is Moses and Moses is Musa. Just that the difference between them is dramatic,’

says Imam Alexander Bazarevich when we speak at Dom Pielgrzyma [the Pilgrim House] in Bohoniki a few days after the funeral.

‘The former is a prophet whose every step is supported by God. His namesake from Sudan, like Moses, wanted to escape from slavery. He was looking for a better life. The prophet Moses remained alive and crossed the Red Sea with his people over dry land. The pharaoh and his followers died, while a new life started for the people of Israel. Moses from Sudan ended his life here in Poland. But in the final reckoning, they are both winners. The fact that Musa died such a death does not mean that God abandoned him. It means that He chose a better refuge for him.

pogrzeb modlitwa

Praying at Musa’s funeral in the courtyard of the mosque in Bohoniki. Photo Eliza Kowalczyk.

A prayer for the refugee

Two months after Moses from Sudan drowned in the Svisloch River, Tatars, Poles and Chechens meet at his funeral in Bohoniki. There are activists from the Podlasie Volunteer Humanitarian Service and the ‘Ocalenie’ [Salvation] Foundation. There is a group of Chechen refugees living in Białystok. And representatives of the Muslim community.

Imam Bazarewicz, wearing a black robe with gold trimmings over his anorak, recites prayers in Arabic in the mosque’s courtyard. Chechens are praying in front of the coffin, which is covered with a colourful rug. Maciej Szczęsnowicz, the head of the Muslim community, is with them. They raise their hands together in a gesture of prayer and repeat after the imam: ‘Amin’.

Piotr Czaban broadcasts this online.

Eliza Kowalczyk, a Podlasie Voluntary Humanitarian Service activist, came from Białowieża. She has been involved in helping refugees since the start of the border crisis.

‘I hate funerals,’ says Eliza Kowalczyk. ‘But the situation here was different. I knew that nobody from his family would be there. I thought I could participate in this boy’s last farewell. But I didn’t expect it to be so hard. He is – he was just five months older than my daughter.

It’s shocking, a young man who simply wanted to start a normal life. Not some criminal or terrorist, just an ordinary boy who wanted to live a normal life.

The Namaz Janazah, the prayer for the dead brother, ends. The Chechens take the coffin on their shoulders and carry it to the car. A string of vehicles moves off to the northeast, towards Mizar.

Wind over Mizar

When Katarzyna from the Podlasie Voluntary Humanitarian Service connects with Musa’s family: his father from Sudan and his sister Refke, who lives in France, over the open grave, everyone has tears in their eyes. ‘Although none of us knew this boy, somehow, we all felt like we were a family at that moment,’ says Eliza Kowalczyk.

The wind breaks, a military helicopter flies over Mizar.

‘It was several degrees below zero, damp, wind, everyone was shivering from the cold,’ says Tomasz Thun-Janowski, a volunteer from the ‘Ocalenie’ Foundation, a few days later. ‘We were there for perhaps an hour and a half. We all had the same thought in our minds: that these people are being forced to stay in such conditions for long days, sometimes weeks. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like when you don’t have a warm house with a bath waiting for you, when you’re left in wet clothes in the woods, not knowing for how long. We have helped the soaked people who had been pushed into the river or who had crossed to the other bank by themselves, many times.’

You can’t imagine that. That’s what it’s all about.
telefon z wideo, na którym kobieta w chustce płacze
telefon z wideo, na którym kobieta w chustce płacze

Musa’s relatives: his sister and father take part in their brother’s and son’s funeral via video chat. Photo Eliza Kowalczyk

‘We’ll scrape out a coffin for you, boy’

After the ceremony, the imam asks those who are willing to say a few words about the deceased.

‘I had a sheet with the words the family wanted to pass on if the transmission didn’t work. I said that Musa had been very helpful, he wanted to build a better life for himself and his family, that’s why he came here. Everyone liked him. His death was a blow not only to his relatives, but also to his friends,’ says Piotr Czaban.

Dariusz Szada-Borzyszkowski, a director and actor from Białystok, reads ‘Rapsod żałobny’ [Funeral Rhapsody] by Jerzy Liebert:

...We’ll make you a coffin, boy, As you see – a small and tight coffin. Across mountain meadows and through humming forests We’ll carry the mortal chest on our shoulders. How can we give up our young And helpless, who trusted... We’ll leave the black pit faster – No, we won’t give him up, let him continue to trust. Pursued by weeping and crow cawing, With the carcass, paled, we will go forward.... Father will turn back and mother will stand back, With a crazy eye rolling across the sky....

Finally, Imam Aleksandrowicz offers his condolences to the family in Arabic. He translates the words of Refka, Musa’s sister, for those who are gathered: ‘Allah will reward you, may He surround you with closeness and mercy. We belong to Allah and to Him we will return.’

The Chechens leave, but the Tatars and Poles stay until the end of the funeral. According to Muslim tradition, it is only when the angels hear the footsteps of the relatives leaving the grave that they come for the soul of the deceased.

Who is responsible for this death?

Could Musa have been saved? Piotr Czaban is convinced that he could.

‘According to his sister, Musa tried to cross the border five times. The Belarusians took his money – 260 dollars. He got to Poland once, but was pushed out. I’m checking this information. Migrants often do not distinguish who is arresting them, Poles or Belarusians; to them they are all army. Who is responsible for this death? Belarus, of course – by bringing in migrants, cheating them, beating them, robbing them and pushing them out. But if Poland had respected the Geneva Convention and placed Musa in a centre after he was detained, checked his data and situation, whether he was in danger, whether we should leave him in Poland, in Europe, or deport him to Sudan, Musa would still be alive.

A similar situation took place a year ago. A Syrian, Mohammad Jasem, illegally crossed the border with his younger brother. When he fainted in the forest, his younger brother went to look for help. He was arrested by the Border Guards. ‘The boy was asking for help, but the guards ignored his request and pushed him into Belarus. Even though he showed them his and his brother’s passports. Three days later, Mohammad was found dead,’ says Czaban.

‘We are completely helpless in trying to describe this situation,’ believes Tomasz Thun-Janowski. ‘This means that all the “normal” life around seems to be a huge scandal. We, who go to the border, to the forest, return after a while to a normal life. We can go to the shop, have a cup of tea, we consider this as some kind of normality.’

It is inconceivable that, in the 21st century, in the middle of Europe, these people are condemned to risk their lives. Not because of the inability to help them, but because of politics.

A state of permanent mourning

‘It’s very difficult to live and function at all with the knowledge that people are dying in the forest,’ says Eliza Kowalczyk. ‘I had a birthday party this weekend; we were sitting at the table, eating, talking. I suddenly say, Oh dear, there are people here, 1500 metres away, because I live very close to the border. There are nomads at the level of the Wysokie Bagno nature reserve, on the Belarusian side. And there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t help them in any way as long as they are on the other side, because we would be smugglers. Waiting to see whether they will be able to cross or not, whether it will be possible to help them in some way, is terrible.

‘It’s a state of permanent mourning,’ says Czaban. ‘I’m a musician, I’ve been playing for many years, but I’ve literally had a guitar in my hand only a few times since the crisis started. I forced myself so that I don’t forget how to play.

Activists were recently struck by the news of Deputy Ombudsman Dr Hanna Machinska’s dismissal. – It was known that it was always possible to turn to her.’

Hanna Machinska gave her whole heart and help. We have been left alone,’ says Kowalczyk.

A world on crutches

On the day of Musa’s funeral, activists from the ‘Ocalenie’ Foundation received news of a group of seven people who had tried to cross the border. Of these seven people, three made it to Poland. The others had to go back to Belarus. One person died on that side.

‘If, God forbid, there are people again who need to be buried, we are open as a Muslim community. There will be enough land for everyone,’ declares Chairman Szczęsnowicz.

Several days after Musa’s funeral, Eliza Kowalczyk went to the hospital in Hajnówka with food for a girl who broke her leg while crossing the border. After the dam was built, there have been increasingly more people with limb injuries, sprains, fractures and dislocations.

‘I ask a fellow activist what else can be done to help, and she says crutches are needed for people who leave the centres. So now I’m collecting for orthopaedic crutches. I put up a post, I’ve already had a response.’



Roman Pawłowski

publicysta, kurator teatralny, dramaturg. Absolwent teatrologii Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego w Krakowie, w latach 1994-2012 dziennikarz działu kultury „Gazety Wyborczej”. Laureat Nagrody im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego dla najlepszego polskiego krytyka teatralnego (1995). Opublikował m.in. antologie polskich sztuk współczesnych „Pokolenie porno i inne niesmaczne utwory teatralne” (2003) i „Made in Poland. Dziewięć sztuk teatralnych z Polski” (2006), a także zbiór wywiadów z czołowymi polskimi ludźmi kultury „Bitwa o kulturę #przyszłość” (2015), wyróżniony nagrodą „Gazety Wyborczej” w Lublinie „Strzała 2015”. Od 2014 związany z TR Warszawa, gdzie odpowiada za rozwój linii programowej teatru oraz pracę z młodymi twórcami i twórczyniami.