TTwo desperate Syrian refugees who risked their lives to cross the border to Poland say they only succeeded because Belarusian soldiers helped them cross.
Abu Mohammed, 41, who had made the long journey from war-torn northern Syria, says the soldiers even charged $ 2,000 (£ 1,500) to transport them to the perfect location and cut the razor wire.
“They took us to what they called ‘no man’s land’ before the Polish border where we stayed four days without food or water, awaiting their orders,” said Abu Mohammed. The independent from Germany, where he arrived two weeks ago and is now seeking asylum.
“After that, a soldier came and told us to prepare to move. They put me and fifteen or twenty other people in a small car and took us to the border. There I saw a soldier with pliers, he cut the razor wires and we passed each other.
Saad, 24, who crossed three weeks earlier than Abu Mohammed, says they were also approached by the military when their first attempt failed and they were deported to Belarus.
“The soldiers took us to another point where we could cross. The problem is, they put twelve of us in a small car that can only accommodate five or six people. I have an old leg injury from an airstrike in Syria, and the wound has opened again and started to bleed, ”Saad said, sharing photos of his gaping wound.
“Eventually the car reached the point where we could cross, the military cut the wires and we ended up in Poland again,” he adds.
Thousands of people, mostly from war-ravaged Syria and Iraq, have been lured to the gates of the European Union in recent months by easy visas offered by Belarus. Most are fleeing conflict or destitution at home and targeting Germany or other European countries. They paid thousands of dollars to travel agents, smugglers and apparently Belarusian soldiers.
In total, there have been more than 36,000 attempts by vulnerable asylum seekers to cross the border since the start of the border crisis, according to Polish authorities. The most recent was on Wednesday evening when the border guard said a group of 200 people attempted to cross. The Polish authorities accused the Belarusian soldiers of having “blinded the Polish services with flashes and lasers” to help the passage.
The European Union and other Western states have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of deliberately encouraging migrants, using them as pawns in retaliation for sanctions imposed after claiming victory in the contested 2020 election.
The Belarusian president has vehemently denied orchestrating or being responsible for the crisis, but admitted in a BBC interview last week that it was “entirely possible” that his soldiers helped asylum seekers to cross to EU countries. In the same interview, he said: “I won’t even look into this.
Migrants and refugees are caught in the crossfire as countries continue to clash.
Conditions are so dire at the border that at least 13 people have died since September, according to Polish border guards.
It will only get worse, as the first snow of winter has fallen in recent days, according to Maciej Mandelt, who works for Grupa Granica, a network of 14 Polish charities rescuing people in border areas.
“It’s extremely cold, we still find people in terrible conditions. We have seen hypothermia, thirst and hunger, ”he adds.
He says in addition to the nightmare, doctors often have to walk for an hour on foot to locate migrants who are camping deep in wooded areas.
Saad, from the town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon, describes how his group came close to death. After passing through Poland, they ended up camping in a freezing swamp, where they ran out of food and water. “We were exhausted and thirsty in the middle of the desert. We used an umbrella to collect the water and lick the leaves from the trees to get water drops, ”he adds.
He says he only survived when a humanitarian organization rescued them and took him to a hospital where his injury was also treated.
Many more failed to cross. As conditions deteriorated and security increased, many were forced to return home. Kurdish authorities in Iraq have said The independent so far they have repatriated 400 Iraqi Kurds who were trying to reach Europe in Kurdistan and have 700 who are on the waiting list for the next flights.
But there are still large crowds stranded in Belarus: 2,000 people are currently staying in a warehouse near the border with Poland. President Lukashenko said a total of 7,000 migrants remained in the country. On Friday, the Belarusian leader visited a migrant center near the Polish border and did not force anyone to return home.
Among the migrants at the border is Qasim, who arrived in Minsk from Beirut on November 8, via a free tourist visa.
Like Saad, Qasim initially fled Syria for Beirut, but said he was forced to leave when food and medicine prices more than quadrupled as Lebanon slipped into one of the world’s worst economic collapses of modern history.
United Nations officials said The independent in summer about 99 percent of the million Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line. It pushes people to take the dangerous road to Europe.
The moment Qassim arrived at the Belarusian border with Poland, he was caught by Polish border guards trying to tunnel under the razor wire and was sent back to Belarus. There he is essentially homeless, penniless and desperate.
“I spent seven days in the border area looking for a chance to cross. It continued to rain in the last days of my stay there. My clothes get wet, and so does my mattress. The weather, of course, was extremely cold, ”he said from Minsk.
“My visa has expired and I returned to Minsk a few days ago. People in the street were looking at me. I was covered in mud. I’ve seen people take videos of me on their phones.
There have also been crackdowns on smugglers and travel agents who have organized trips from countries like Lebanon and Iraq, making passage more difficult. On Thursday, the Lebanese government ordered travel agents to stop promoting Belarus as a destination.
The European Commission, meanwhile, said on Tuesday it aimed to blacklist and sanction transport companies involved in human trafficking, in apparent reference to the crisis at the Belarusian-Polish border.
Abu Mohammed tells The independent he paid $ 15,000 (£ 11,200) to a smuggling company in Qamishli, northeastern Syria, for him and his brother to travel from Syria to Germany, which included a flight to Belarus, a hotel in Minsk and transport. He then says he had to pay the Belurisian soldiers $ 2,000 on top of that.
Saad said he and his brothers paid $ 12,000 (£ 9,000) to smugglers he found on a Facebook group.
“I’m still desperate to go to Germany,” says Qassim from Minsk where he is camping in an apartment rented by a friend as they all desperately try to extend their visas.
But he actually knows he might not get the chance.
“It’s not easy, can you imagine going back to Lebanon after going through all of this and reaching this point and up to here? “