Prawa autorskie: Agata Kubis/OKO.pressAgata Kubis/OKO.press
22 listopada 2021

$20 for 2 cups of hot water. That’s the price of human life. An OKO.press reporter on the refugee trail

I’m on the border. I’m constantly afraid. I’m afraid of pleading eyes, of exhausted eyes, of indifferent eyes. I’m scared to look into the eyes of a little Iraqi girl. I’m scared of good-byes and of the lump in my throat. And most of all, I am scared that we all have crossed a boundary and there’s no turning back. 

For English scroll few lines down.

Publikujemy angielską wersję czwartego odcinka reportażu Szymona Opryszka, który ukazał się w OKO.press:

Linki do angielskich wersji pierwszego, drugiego i trzeciego odcinka są poniżej, już w tekście angielskim.

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. 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 wyjaśniające.

Bardzo doceniamy włożony wysiłek i dziękujemy w imieniu czytelników.

This is a tale of a reporter who traveled on the refugee trail himself: starting in the Middle East, through Minsk, to the Poland-Belarus border...

I am afraid of this forest.

I am afraid to go into the forest. I am afraid to go out of the forest. I’m afraid of rustling leaves, breaking twigs, the sound of barking dogs, the sound of a startled deer running away.

I’m afraid of gunfire. I hear shots in the distance, and I make a run for it. The gun shots stop. Slowly, I come back. I listen. Shots again. I make an about-face. With relief, I realize it’s just the wind moving the limbs in a creaking tree.

I’m afraid of the silence. Of the border guards and their stern faces. Of procedures, of being discovered, of getting arrested.

I’m afraid of facing the migrants. And of asking questions, which are of no importance during these brief encounters, but which I have to ask: Where are you from? Where are you going to? Have you met any border guards? How did they treat you? When was the last time you ate? I’m still learning how to have these conversations, and I’ve recently started to begin them with: What do you need?

I’m afraid to hear the answer.

I’m afraid of pleading eyes. Of exhausted eyes. Of indifferent eyes. I’m afraid of the eyes of a 6-year-old Iraqi girl. I gaze at the blond hair of her doll. Her blue dress is muddy. “Is it Elsa?” I ask, thinking that maybe it’s the main character from “Frozen”, maybe she has the power to control ice and snow, which would be very handy in this grim forest. But it’s clear that I know nothing about dolls. The little girl ignores me, and she adjusts a cape that she made for the doll: a cinnamon-colored leaf.

I’m afraid of tears, of the lump in my throat, and of goodbyes.

I’m afraid of feeling powerless, like when Nazanin and her family, the main protagonists of the third episode of this series of reports, were being taken into custody by Polish border guards while I was standing a mere half a mile away, on the other side of a razor-wire border. Later, when they were being transported over another sixty miles and I was sitting at a bus stop in Kamieniuki [a village in Belarus, in the Brest Region, about 3 miles from the border], watching a few tourists milling about and a mother compelling a child to wear a hat, I was overcome by helplessness.

At that moment, I wrote a message to Anna Alboth, the co-founder of “Grupa Granica” [“The Border Group”],who is active on the Polish side and who I have been friends with for many years. She replied: “I know how fucked this is. Extremely fucked.”

There are no words. Only series of symbols denoting the pinned locations of the migrants. I’m afraid of these pins as well because they jab at my heart. Because they evoke the forest. Rustling leaves. Some people fleeing some other people [this is the opening line from a poem “Some People” by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, the recipient of the 1996 Noble Prize in Literature; translation by Joanna Trzeciak]. Questions. Answers. Tears. Goodbyes. Helplessness.

This is the fourth episode in the series of articles by OKO.press. Szymon Opryszek set out on a lone journey along the trail taken by thousands of refugees arriving at the Poland-Belarus border.

The first episode took place in Istanbul. [Istanbul. A smuggler assures me: „It’s 100% guaranteed.]

The second episode started in Minsk. [„I’m a hunted animal. They took away my humanity.”]

In the third episode, Opryszek sought to help a Kurdish family stranded on the Poland-Belarus border. [A border guard cries and transports them to the border.]

In this episode, he gets away from people in balaclavas and asks us all about our boundaries.

Three pins

52°57’08.9″N 23°57’27.5″E

Thursday, October 21st. Whenever my phone, tucked into my underwear, vibrates, I immediately check whether it’s a location pin. Yes! And just as I meet a Belarusian border guard. I again tell a story about a lost Polish tourist. Smiling, he asks whether it’s true that the prices of gas have soared in Poland. We carry on with this amiable conversation until I ask about the migrants.

“We’ve never seen any of them here,” he retorts and wishes me a pleasant stay.

Right after that I look up the location pin. A family with two children, one of them a boy with cerebral palsy. They’re in the forest near Tarasovka [a hamlet which is a part of the village of Nezboditsky in the Grodno Region, Belarus, less than a mile from the border with Poland]. I’m on a bike, my chosen mode of transportation around here. I’ve just happened to do some grocery shopping and my backpack is full of food. I set out in their direction. I send them messages. They don’t respond. I can’t find them. I go back.

Only later, I will read online that a family of Syrians – Mohammad, Alaa, little Lais and 7-year-old Ghaith with cerebral palsy – has been apprehended on the Polish side. Before that, on the Belarusian side, they were harassed by Belarusian border guards who jeered at their disabled son. The [Polish] Border Guard escorted them back into the forest that straddles the border four times; when they were caught for the fifth time, they were given medical assistance, and then again thrown out behind the razor wire. Over three days, all they ate was a single biscuit. Why didn’t I do more?

52°23’12.7″N 23°16’19.6″E

It’s Hamza, who is stranded in the border zone [between Poland and Belarus] south of Brest [a city in southwest Belarus on the Polish border] together with his mother, wife, and daughter. There are twelve children in a camp established in the border zone. “They will die from cold and hunger. Please, do something,” he begs. I check the schedules for marshrutkas [shared taxis following fixed routes] and I find that it will take me at least a few hours to get there, if I’m lucky. They send me pictures: they are guarded by Belarusian border guards, and on the other side of the razor wire one can see a Polish soldier. I have no chance. But how am I supposed to write that? “I’ll see what can be done.” Maybe it’ll be possible to help them in their next camp.

52°51’27.6″N 23°56’25.5″E

A family from Syria. They’ve been in the forest for four days, and they haven’t eaten anything for the last two. I’m contacted by their relative, who lives in the UK. She hopes that I’ll help them and inundates me with messages. But then she timidly lets me know that her family doesn’t want to meet me during the day. They are hiding in the bushes, and they’d like me to wait until dark. We establish that I will spend the night with them. I set out long after sunset, wearing five layers of warm clothes, carrying a sleeping bag suited for temperatures down to zero Fahrenheit, and having booked a room in a nearby boarding house in case I change my mind. It feels like I’m going on a luxury vacation, and I’m embarrassed.

I can’t find them. Maybe they’ve moved to another spot? Maybe they’ve been taken away? In the end, I sit under a fallen tree limb, all alone in the night. The air is freezing, but I am drenched in a cold sweat. At first, I try not to breathe. It seems to me that the trees are pointing their twigs at me. I don’t fall asleep even for a moment. After a few hours, when I get used to the darkness, I start browsing through celebrity gossip websites to kill time and to give my mind something else to think about.

Just before dawn, we exchange our location pins. Soon, a man appears out of the fog. He’s a Syrian whose name I will never get to know. He’s exceptionally well-prepared, like only a few others among all the migrants I’ve met. He’s got tall rain boots, a winter jacket, a headlamp. I give him a thermal blanket, not so freshly-made sandwiches, and water. He reaches out, but then he quickly draws his hands back.

“How much?” he asks. The question gets under my skin and into my bones, and it pokes at me more painfully than a gnarled tree branch that I leaned against all night.

Prices: humane and inhumane

$5 – a chocolate for a child

$10 – a bottle of fresh water

$10 – sharing one’s cellular connection to send a message

$20 – 2 cups of hot water

$20 – 4 sandwiches

$25 – charging a phone half of the way

$30 – a warm sleeping bag, likely left behind by other migrants

$30 – a packet of cigarettes

$50 – fully charging a phone

$50 – a call for an ambulance

$70 – 4 pounds of potatoes, apples, bread

$100 – Belarusian prepaid phone card

$100 – a call for a taxi

$150 – a taxi ride to Minsk

$400-$700 – permission to go back to Minsk

The above is a list of prices demanded by Belarusian border guards. Not all of them, it needs to be stressed. I noted here only the most expensive items, relayed to me by people I met, often those who were taken to migrant camps set up within the narrow stretch of land between Belarus and Poland. Some of them returned to Minsk, and some are already in migrant camps in Germany. The rest are still stuck in the death zone.

“My friend told me that he paid 50 dollars for a large bottle of water,” says Sangar. He crossed the border together with his wife and two children. They were forcing their way through the forest along with Ramiar and Paiwast, whose story I recounted in the second episode of this series. When Paiwast sustained a leg injury near Stare Masiewo [a village in Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about half a mile from the border], Sangar and his family continued on their own.

“We had no choice. She screamed terribly. She wanted Ramiar to call an ambulance. It was a tough decision, but we had to go on, if not for us then for the children’s sake. Every minute of delay was too dangerous for us,” Sangar recounts.

He sends me a video in which he traverses a swamp together with his daughter, who is 6 or 7 years old. The water almost pours into her tall rain boots.

[Video]

Today, Sangar and his family are in a German refugee processing center. He recalls being put in a migrant camp within the border zone after one of their failed attempts to cross the border. There, Belarusian border guards charged their phone and then brought them potatoes and apples to bake in a campfire.

“For free! I gave a cigarette to each one of them,” Sangar tells me with a smile. “This is why I wouldn’t divide the border guards into Polish and Belarusian ones. Rather, into humane and inhumane ones.”

[Photograph: Sangar and his daughter at the border. Today they are in a refugee processing center in Germany.]

Another Iraqi man explains to me that the Belarussian border guards are powerless. It surprises me that he’s trying to understand their position.

“After all, they have to follow their orders. There are authorities and people in balaclavas over them.”

I’ve heard various stories about the latter. In one, they came to cut the razor wire at the Poland-Belarus border. In another, they led the migrants to the Polish side. There was also the time when they arrived with an order to separate a group of over a hundred of migrants, placed in a camp close to the Polish town of Krynki [Podlaskie Voivodeship, Poland, about half a mile from the border with Belarus], and sent all men without families to the border with Lithuania. Finally, I’ve also heard that they’re the most unpredictable. And they never show their faces.

“Who are these people?” I ask again and again, but nobody knows.

50 euros, a special price for a Pole

The answer comes on a Saturday night. It’s dark but not pitch-black, as the sky has finally cleared up after a whole day of rain and sleet.

I get into a taxi cab at a bus stop in Brovsk [a village in the Grodno Region, Belarus]. Poland is about three miles west from here. We drive away from the border, toward Svislach [a town in the South-West of Grodno Region, Belarus, about 7 miles from the border]. The road, leading through the forest, is by now well-known to me. There is only one stretch, across the Narew River, where the forest gives way to a peat bog. At that point we pass a group of over a dozen migrants, who are walking single file, hunched under the weight of their backpacks. They wave at us and run after the car. The taxi driver speeds up. I manage to persuade him into going back. He turns his hazard lights on and puts the car into reverse. The migrants are all from Iraq: a dozen or so men and two women.

“We have been attacked by people in balaclavas. They took our passports and drove away. Please, let us use your phone,” the two of them that speak English shout over one another. Others yell, “Mafia!” They dial a number and call. Nobody’s picking up. Some of them light their cigarettes, one of the women sits down on the side of the road. Exhausted, she covers her eyes with her hand.

All of this takes about a minute and is reminiscent of a low-budget action movie. Suddenly, a border patrol car approaches, blinding us with their bright lights. I recognize one of the border guards: two hours before, he stopped me in the border zone. He gave me a warning and ordered me to leave Belarus. He wanted to escort me to the nearest official border crossing point, but I explained to him that I do not have an exit visa, which according to the government regulations requires me to leave by plane from Minsk. I managed to convince him only when I reached into a secret pocket in my belt and took out 50 euro, wrapped in plastic. I paid him and he called a taxi.

“A special price for a Pole, others pay a hundred dollars,” he joked as I left.

They must have followed me. Now the taxi driver is nervously trying to explain that he’s innocent, that he’s driving a tourist from Poland, that it would be impossible for him to fit 16 people in his sedan. With one leg in the car, I’m trying to talk with the Iraqis and find out what happened. Then a huge military vehicle arrives from the opposite direction. Several men in camouflage uniforms jump out of the truck bed. All of them wear balaclavas and wield machine guns.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect that it’s OSAM, an elite special unit among border guards, created for fighting terrorism. Already back in August, their involvement in the illegal migration business was reported by Tadeusz Giczan, a Belarusian journalist, who described the details of the “Floodgate” Operation. This decade-old strategy revolves around manufacturing crises and using them to put pressure on the European Union, coercing it to provide funds to strengthen the border.

The border guard orders us to leave. We depart with screeching tires. Through the rear window, I see the masked assailants shoving the migrants, with their rifles in their faces.

They’re professionals: they take no bribes, they push them across

A relative of one of the migrants sends me screenshots of messages that he exchanged with a soldier who drove his family from the border to Minsk.

“How much for guiding my family to the Polish side?”

“3,000 dollars for ten people.”

(...)

“At which location?”

“There are no perfect locations now. Even if you make it through, you can be apprehended by the Polish police on the other side, even deep within the Polish territory.”

“Where then?”

“We’re only able to try within the area where we are stationed. There are other people who work all along the border. But I am just an ordinary soldier.”

(...)

“What are we supposed to do then?”

“First, I need the money. I’ll find somebody to translate the conversation. Let’s talk tonight.”

“When I contacted him, he told me that his supervisor, who allowed my family to return to Minsk, broke the law. He did it out of compassion. He saw that the children were suffering,” my contact relates. “He explained that they are just ordinary soldiers that are stationed on the border. ‘We have no power,’ he said repeatedly. He told me straight that there are people from Belarusian special forces, tightly connected to the government, who are tasked with smuggling people over the border. They decide where they will take migrants from and at which point they’ll push them across. They take no bribes and they’re professionals concentrated on doing their job. Which is basically pushing the migrants stuck in the border zone over to the Polish side.”

I’m taken aback by the use of the past tense

I’m back in Poland. I try to concentrate on writing. I constantly look up location pins, which keep coming my way. I continue to help those I met: to renew an apartment lease or to see a doctor.

The first episodes of my story have already been published on OKO.press. Upon reading them, my friends write to me and my partner, asking “Is Szymon back yet?” It’s very nice. Warm thoughts come my way, and sometimes they reach me from completely surprising, not at all nearby places.

Someone’s always worried about the health and safety of those who try to cross the border, too. Someone far away, someone powerless, someone terrified who is worrying themselves to death, wondering whether their relatives survived the night and whether they had anything to eat over the last several days.

“What were you afraid of?” I am constantly asked. I understand the intentions behind the question, but I am taken aback by the use of the past tense.

I am horrified that a taxi driver can stop the car in the middle of the forest and demand a higher price from someone who over the last four days ate one baked potato.

That people renting their apartment in Minsk are not ashamed to threaten a family with children with eviction and to make racist remarks when they don’t pay more than agreed upon.

That a physician can snap at a suffering person that they have free healthcare in Iraq.

That border guards are not at all afraid to sneer and deride. To pour water out on the ground while thirsty people are watching. To beat them up. To frighten children. To demand 10 dollars for lighting a fire in the middle of an icy night. A then to threaten that they’ll use the fires to burn their passports.

That my series of articles is swarmed with comments devoid of compassion.

I’m horrified that all of us have crossed a boundary.

PS: This story is still being written

Do not delude yourself into thinking, dear Reader, that this is the end of this story. That together, we have gone through these difficult emotions. That now we will deeply exhale and get back to our everyday lives. That it’s a closed chapter. This story, which should not have taken place at all, is still being written.

One of the smugglers from Istanbul, where I started my journey along the refugee trail, sent me a picture of fresh visas issued by the Belarusian authorities with the dates of entry marked for October 24th and 27th. Business is still good.

The protagonists from the second episode of this series, Ramiar and Paiwast, will soon set out toward the border again. They can’t imagine going back to Iraq.

Ali from Tajikistan gave up trying to cross the border. He’s been largely influenced by photos and videos from Polish news websites that I showed him in Grodno [a city in western Belarus, located in the Grodno Region, about 9 miles from the Polish border and 19 miles from the Lithuanian border]. He has arrived in Yekaterinburg [the fourth-largest city in Russia, east of the Ural Mountains], where he’s going to look for work.

The Iraqi man who showed me how to squeeze water out of moss is already in Germany. He sent me a picture from his friend’s apartment.

70-year-old Nazanin with her daughters Sabri and Seyda and three grandchildren, whose story I told in the third episode, are still in Minsk, assessing the situation. They’re dreaming of applying for asylum in Poland. If they’re not successful, they will try yet again. Sabri is hurting very badly, we suspect that it might be appendicitis. None of the hospitals in Minsk, not even one of the private clinics agreed to see her.

Hamza and his family are still trapped in the border zone. Over the last few days, the border guards transported them twice to new locations. Currently, they are near the Polish town of Krynki, in a camp on the Belarusian side.

Sangar is in a refugee center in Germany. He has applied for asylum.

I have no knowledge of what happened to the group of Iraqis who were apprehended by people in balaclavas. The man that they were urgently trying to contact called me back. I told him what happened, but he wasn’t moved. It’s likely that he was a smuggler.

I do not know where the Syrians are: Mohammad, Alaa, Lais, Ghaith, Ahma, Fatih, and many more that I looked for in the forest.

I know that they have names, they have faces, they are exhausted and hungry, and that they have reasons to be much more afraid than I am.

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Szymon Opryszek

Szymon Opryszek - niezależny reporter, wspólnie z Marią Hawranek wydał książki "Tańczymy już tylko w Zaduszki" (2016) oraz "Wyhoduj sobie wolność" (2018). Specjalizuje się w Ameryce Łacińskiej. Obecnie pracuje nad książką na temat kryzysu wodnego. Autor reporterskiego cyklu "Moja zbrodnia to mój paszport" nominowanego do nagrody Grand Press i nagrodzonego Piórem Nadziei Amnesty International.

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