Cold and abandoned in a police state as desperation sets in

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Follow our live coverage of the migrant crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland.

BRUZGI, Belarus – He spent 28 nights, each colder than the last, choking in the smoke of a campfire and despairing at the gates of Europe. He crossed the razor’s edge in Poland three times, only to be caught in the forest and forcibly returned to Belarus. His visa to Belarus expired 12 days ago, leaving him at the mercy of a repressive police state.

On Tuesday, Rawand Akram, a 23-year-old Iraqi Kurd, took a snapshot.

He and hundreds of other desperate and increasingly angry migrants stranded at the border – and encouraged, he said, by Belarusian security officials – rushed to a border checkpoint, throwing stones and debris at the Polish security forces massed a few meters away. What started around noon as a simple attempt to cross the border fence turned into a dangerous melee, and Polish officers responded with bursts of water cannons and tear gas explosions.

“I am angry. Everyone is angry. This is the last thing we can do. There is no other way if we ever want to go to Europe,” Akram said.

Hours later, Belarusian border guards suddenly began moving hundreds of migrants from their frozen encampment to the shelter of a nearby warehouse. Authorities’ plans for the displaced were not immediately clear, but many feared that resettlement was a prelude to deportation, and not just a human gesture.

Tuesday’s clash, the worst in a months-long standoff on the European Union’s eastern flank, underscored the dangers of a standoff between Russia’s close ally Belarus and member Poland. NATO and the European Union, each determined not to bow. At least 11 people have died at the border in recent weeks.

“We are just a stick that they are fighting with,” Akram said. “We are in the middle of their fight.”

He said Belarusian security agents started the fray, telling migrants stranded in a frozen and foul encampment just yards from Poland that the hardline nationalist government in Warsaw would never let them in. unless you are forced to.

But he also criticized Poland for putting its determination to resist pressure from the Belarusian authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, before the lives of desperate people.

“No one wants to look weak,” he said. “We have become a ball in their great political game. “

EU officials called the crisis a “hybrid war” designed by Lukashenko to punish Poland for sheltering some of its most vocal opponents and pressuring the bloc to lift sanctions against his country . Belarus, for its part, insists that it is a humanitarian catastrophe created by Europe’s refusal to respect international law and to give those fleeing war and despair the right to ask at least asylum.

To give credit to its own version of events, Belarus has allowed a few foreign news outlets, including the New York Times, to visit the border and witness the misery and despair. Poland, eager to keep desperation out of public sight, has cordoned off its own side of the border, preventing aid workers, journalists and even medics from approaching miles from the site of Tuesday’s unrest.

Instead, Warsaw left it to government officials to describe the events and blame Belarus for all the suffering. “All aggressive behavior is coordinated by Belarusian services and monitored by drones,” Polish authorities said, posting videos of the clashes. They said a policeman was seriously injured and being treated in a hospital for what was believed to be a fractured skull.

A migrant on the Belarusian side lost consciousness, apparently after being hit by the explosion of a Polish water cannon, four of which are lined up by a closed border checkpoint decorated with the emblems of the European Union and Poland.

Poland’s firm stance – “we are not talking about a humanitarian crisis but a threat,” the head of the National Security Bureau said at the weekend – has garnered strong support from its allies. The European Union decided on Monday to extend the sanctions imposed on Belarus earlier this year, after Lukashenko’s army forced a landing of an airliner carrying a prominent dissident.

The Warsaw hardline also performed well at home, especially among supporters of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party. The Polish National Bank announced this week that it will issue new commemorative coins and notes to honor “the defense of the eastern Polish border”.

But the Polish government has been criticized by aid organizations for a legal amendment it adopted in October that allows for refoulement of migrants at the border and for asylum claims made by those who entered illegally to be ignored.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday described the treatment of migrants by Polish forces as “absolutely unacceptable”. Lavrov told a press conference that the forces “violate every imaginable norm of international humanitarian law and other agreements of the international community.”

Belarusian authorities have silenced almost all independent voices since a disputed presidential election last year that was widely seen as rigged. But they have become more open to border control than Poland, a democracy with a vibrant media, now blindfolded in the border area.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday the alliance was “deeply concerned about how the Lukashenko regime is using vulnerable migrants as a hybrid tactic against other countries, and it is in fact life-saving migrants in danger “.

There are, however, limits to the extent to which Mr Lukashenko can increase tensions and even some signs that he may be trying to calm them down. The flow of migrants is slowing as airlines cut off flights to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, or ban Iraqi and Syrian passengers.

In Minsk on Tuesday morning, dozens of migrants were still staying at the Yubileiny Hotel, run by the president’s real estate department, but some said they had been forced to leave and feared deportation.

The Lukashenko government has denied allegations, including from the United States, that it organized the crisis and led the migrant movement.

“We cannot let this so-called problem lead to a heated confrontation,” Lukashenko said at a government meeting on Tuesday, according to Belta, the state news agency.

“The main thing now is to protect our country and our people, and not to allow clashes,” he added. Belarus has said it is investigating the actions of Polish border guards but has avoided its previous belligerent speech about an impending NATO attack.

The Iraqi government is organizing an evacuation flight later this week from Minsk to Iraq.

“I would rather die here in the cold than go back to Iraq,” said Rekar Hamid, a 32-year-old Iraqi Kurd who spent around $ 10,000 to take his wife and 2-year-old son to the seaside. ‘EU and still hopes to take the last few meters. He sleeps in a fragile green tent next to the road leading to the border post. Behind her stretches an apocalyptic sight of campfires and shivering people in dirty clothes.

Belarusian border guards estimate that there are at least 2,000 people stranded in the Bruzgi region.

The decision to house some migrants in a warehouse on Tuesday could indicate Belarus wants to ease border tensions. Some of those who walked to the warehouse – through a narrow corridor guarded by Belarusian soldiers with automatic weapons – appeared to give up.

Bilal, 23, a migrant from Iraq who gave only his first name said: “It’s too impossible to go to Europe, we want to go home.”

Mr Akram also said he’s had enough, despite spending $ 4,700 to get closer to his goal. With nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing, he said he could no longer cope with days of waking up feeling like a mummy trapped in a stiff sleeping bag of ice. “It’s over, it’s all over,” he said.

But by nightfall, hundreds more could still be seen in the open air near the border post, dragging logs and straw as they prepared for another freezing night.

Andrew Higgins reported from Bruzgi, Belarus, and Marc Santora from Warsaw. Sangar Khaleel contributed to reports from Erbil, Iraq, Anatol Magdziarz from Warsaw and Valerie Hopkins from Moscow.

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