Thirty-two Afghans and a pet cat have been trapped in a swath of grass between Poland and Belarus for almost a month after fleeing the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in hopes of reaching safety in Europe.
Now they are stuck between two countries that won’t let them in.
Their clothes are wet, so they are always cold. They have been drinking water from a stream and have had little to eat. There is nowhere to use the washroom without the constant gaze of border guards. Twenty-seven men, four women, a 15-year-old girl and a grey cat are among the refugees.
Kalina Czwarnog, a board member of Fundacja Ocalenie, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants in Poland, said the Afghans told her group that until her organization showed up with supplies, they had been eating grass and leaves.
Ms. Czwarnog spent two weeks camped at the border near the village of Usnarz Gorny, and said she left last week after Poland’s President declared a state of emergency at the border.
Poland’s emergency order, which covers two regions bordering Belarus, bans mass gatherings and limits people’s movements along a three-kilometre stretch. The order lasts 30 days and is the first of its kind since the country’s communist era. It also prevents aid groups, journalists, lawyers and others from accessing the area.
Poland and the European Union have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging hundreds of migrants to cross into Poland in retaliation to sanctions the EU has imposed on Belarus.
On Monday, Poland’s head of the ministry of the Interior, Mariusz Kaminski told the country’s parliament, the Sejm, “We must effectively counter illegal migration, including in the interests of those people whom Lukashenko cynically exploits.” He also told MPs that the situation is on the Belarusian side. Meanwhile, Belarus’s Foreign Minister, Vladimir Makei, blamed “Western politicians,” according to Belarusian state news agency Belta.
Ms. Czwarnog said that with the help of Polish MP Maciej Konieczny, border guards allowed them to give the Afghans seven tents, more than 20 sleeping bags and some food. They also provided them with paperwork from lawyers, so they could have legal representation. But when they returned the next day, border guards prevented them from handing over supplies, and eventually pushed them back 160 metres.
But Fundacja Ocalenie communicated with the Afghans with the help of a translator and a megaphone. Ms. Czwarnog said the Afghans would shout back, or respond to yes or no questions by holding up signs.
Ms. Czwarnog said some of the women asked for pads because they had gotten their periods – but the guards refused to pass them on. The women told her that Belarusian and Polish border guards watched them constantly, and they were ashamed to try to use the bathroom in front of them.
“So they tried for the longest time to eat and drink as little as possible so they don’t have to go. I think that’s torture,” she said.
Ms. Czwarnog said she’s worried about the group, because they are already in bad shape. In her organization’s last few days there, a man in his twenties lost consciousness because he was so weak and a 53-year-old woman could no longer stand. She said a doctor with their group tried to assess their needs and twice they called an ambulance for the 53-year-old woman, but the guards refused to let them help her.
In a matter of days, the Afghans could wake up to a fence on one side and Belarusian guards on the other, as Poland works to complete its border wall, said Sejm member Franek Sterczewski.
Mr. Sterczewski had joined Fundacja Ocalenie near the border for eight days. He said it is hard to describe the horrible situation, saying that when they tried to speak to the Afghans using a megaphone, border guards and police started car engines to block the sound.
“When I heard those people trying to scream louder than those engines, when you hear their despair and their weakness after many days of starving and sitting under the sky … that was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever heard.”
He said he wanted to learn about the people there and show who they are, “that they are just human beings.” But he also wanted to give them hope. “One evening we played Afghan music really loud … trying to cheer them up.”
Ms. Czwarnog said the night they played the music followed news that the European Court of Human Rights asked the Polish and Latvian governments to intervene to help people on the Belarus border. But she said since then, nothing has changed.
Initially, border guards allowed Mr. Sterczewski to approach the group of Afghans, he said, but when he tried to return with a bag of food and medicine, they stopped him. He said he made a run for it, and got close to the group when he found himself surrounded by soldiers with machine guns.
He said that once the border fence reaches the group, border guards and police will likely return to their offices and leave the Afghans behind in the forest.
With reports from Reuters.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.