On the main street of Szudzialowo, a village in eastern Poland, uniformed soldiers walk back and forth between the village store and two container warehouses, carrying bags with buns or Coke.
Some wear balaclavas, carrying weapons that send a shiver down visitors’ spines.
After five months, residents got used to the sight of heavily armed soldiers, said Hania, who lives in a nearby village. “At first I associated it with war, but now I don’t react at all,” she said.
Some neighbors even feel safer since the soldiers are there, she said. The villagers may assume that the army is there to defend them. But against whom? Against migrants. Or against Lukashenko. Or Putin. It doesn’t matter: the main thing is that the locals feel protected.
At the local health center, a sign hung in the window says “thank you”. Everyone here knows who it is for. Next to it, on a fence in the center of the village, hangs a banner with the inscription “#muremzamundrem”. Loosely translated, it means: “We stand behind you like a wall.” Again, this is for soldiers.
Szudzialowo is a village in eastern Poland, just 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the border with Belarus. Just behind is the forbidden zone, where the state of emergency imposed by Poland has reigned since September 2.
Since then, only residents, utility companies, emergency services, police and military have been allowed to enter the area. Refugee aid workers, journalists and humanitarian organisations, including the Red Cross, are barred from entry.
‘safari’ media border
Since early December, authorities have allowed members of the press to make “journalistic visits” to the restricted area on the border with Belarus, but only under strict controls.
Polish journalists who visited the “embedded” region in this way described the experience as a “safari”: a strictly supervised visit with a fixed route, during which participants are allowed to “get to know” the border area through the car window. We went.
Jeeps used by Polish border guards in the restricted area near the border with Belarus
In Szudzialowo, we received passes that allowed us to be in the restricted area at a specific time and only in the company of Polish border guards. Then we got into a military jeep which raced along country roads and through frozen fields as if we were being chased. Speed limits and other traffic rules don’t seem to apply here.
The uniformed driver wore a mask that covered his face and remained silent for the entire ride. When we asked questions, he referred us to the Polish border guard spokeswoman, who was in a jeep ahead of ours.
New EU fence
The spokeswoman decided where we stopped and what we saw. During our first stop, soldiers were standing in a field in front of a barbed wire fence. In the past, she said, such barriers were not needed at the border because there was good cooperation with Belarusian border guards. In a private conversation, she even told us that guards from opposite sides of the border even went on canoe trips together.
Polish soldiers at a barbed wire fence near Usnarz Gorny
But now, she said, Belarusian guards are working with migrants to cut barbed wire together and blind Polish soldiers with mirrors to allow illegal border crossings. The barbed wire will soon be replaced by a tall fence, she said.
This high fence, commonly known as “the wall”, has been officially under construction since January 24. It will consist of 5-meter (16.5-foot) poles topped with barbed wire and equipped with motion detectors and infrared cameras.
Around 180 kilometers of the border will have to be tarred, at a cost of around 355 million euros ($396 million). Environmentalists and local residents have long protested the installation because the fence will cut through the rainforest at the border, disrupting the habitat of several wild animals.
Warnings to migrants
We stopped in front of a car parked in the middle of a field. From the loudspeaker on the roof, messages rang out in English, French, Arabic and a Kurdish dialect, telling migrants on the Belarusian side of the border that they had been cheated, that crossing the border into Poland is an offense punishable and that they should return to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
An image from November shows migrants in the forest near the Polish-Belarusian border
We have reached Usnarz Gorny. It was near this village that refugees from Afghanistan were stuck in limbo for two months on the Belarusian side of the border in the summer of 2021 – blocked on both sides by national guards.
The refugees received help from activists and lawyers, they even applied for asylum, but they were not allowed on Polish territory.
Violent border control
We saw the remains of the makeshift camp that housed the refugees: tents, blankets and bags. The area has not been cleaned. “We are not allowed to do this,” the Polish police spokeswoman said. “It’s all on the Belarusian side.” This was also the argument used in the summer of 2021 to explain why Poland could not help people sleeping rough in the forest.
The remains of a makeshift camp that housed Afghan refugees in Usnarz Gorny
Now the place is deserted. “One day they suddenly disappeared, probably taken away by the Belarusian authorities,” the spokeswoman said. In October, the Polish border agency reported that a group of Afghans had crossed the fence into Poland and been arrested.
Activists say pepper spray was used against migrants. They would then have been taken back to Belarus. We asked the spokeswoman what she knew about it.
“Anyone who needs help will get it,” she said, “and anyone who wants to apply for asylum can do so.”
Agata Ferenc, from the Ocalenie Foundation, which supports refugees, was in Usnarz Gorny before the area was closed. Since then, she and other volunteers have been trying to help from outside the restricted area.
Aid workers still receive around a dozen calls a day from people in need who are stuck somewhere along the border. “The first thing they usually ask us is not to tell the border guards,” Ferenc said. “They know the border guards will send them back to Belarus if they are found.”
This article has been translated from German.