For 13 days in November, Haitham, his wife, Dalia, and their daughter, Qader, camped out in woods along Belarus’s border, waiting to enter neighbouring Poland. Like many other Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority in Iraq, they were trying to reach Europe. Instead, they found themselves trapped between countries, in frigid conditions with no food or water.
“Believe me, it’s not a good feeling when you see your daughter caught between life and death,” said Haitham, 24, last month as he watched one-year-old Qader fall asleep on the floor of a friend’s house back in Sharya, a village in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
“I was trying to get water by digging in the ground, but there was nothing,” said Dalia, 24, recounting their time in the no man’s land along the border. She also tried chewing leaves. The lack of water and food meant she couldn’t breastfeed her daughter, and the family couldn’t get diapers so they reused the ones they had, cleaning them with tissues. In a photo they took of Qader in the woods, her hair is messy and her big brown eyes look tired. She is lying on the ground, wearing a red coat and pink socks with no shoes.
A Syrian boy the same age as Qader died in November on the Polish side of the border. He is believed to have been the youngest victim of the continuing migrant crisis on Europe’s eastern frontier.
The flow of Middle Eastern migrants to the Polish border was reportedly orchestrated by Belarus in retaliation for European Union sanctions, which were imposed after a crackdown by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko on opposition activists. Mr. Lukashenko appears to have calculated that migrants can be used as political pawns to put pressure on European countries whose populaces are divided over accepting refugees.
It began last year when several state-owned travel agencies in Belarus made tourist visas easier to get upon arrival. Many migrants and asylum seekers were enticed by the prospect of a quicker, safer route to Europe – an alternative to walking through the Balkans or risking a dangerous sea crossing to Greece.
They fled to Belarus, then made their way to the Polish border, where many of them soon discovered they were unwelcome. Poland had mobilized about 15,000 troops and border guards to prevent them from entering.
Haitham and his family, whose full names The Globe and Mail is withholding because they fear for their safety, left their tent in Sharya Camp, a dusty makeshift village in Kurdistan’s Duhok Governorate in September. They travelled to Turkey, where authorities processed their visas, then flew to Minsk. They sold their car to pay for the journey, which altogether cost them US$16,000.
Ziad, Haitham’s neighbour in Sharya Camp, accompanied him to Belarus with his parents and siblings and three other families. “We stayed there for 10 days. There was no water – not even dirty water available – and no food,” the 24-year-old said.
During that time, Belarusian police were “pushing us and hitting us with sticks to get us to go to the Polish border and forcing us closer to the Polish border. The Polish police were firing tear gas at us, and it was getting in our eyes. We were being pushed by both sides and we were trapped in the middle,” he said, shaking his head.
They eventually managed to cross the Belarusian border into Poland by cutting a fence. A smuggler had arranged for a car to take them to Germany.
“We stayed waiting for three days in Poland for the car, but it didn’t come,” Haitham explained. “We were 30 people all together staying in the woods, camping. We even called the Red Cross for help, and they said, ‘We will come in three hours,’ but they never showed up. We called them again, and they said, ‘We will be there in half an hour.’ And in half an hour the Polish police turned up instead of them.”
He said the Polish police hit him for speaking English and separated him from the rest of the group. “I said I want to stay with my family and they kicked me.”
The Polish government did not respond to a request for comment.
The group of families offered to pay the Belarusian police US$500 each to let them back across the border, but they refused. Eventually, the families dug under the fence and walked for three kilometres before getting taxis to take them back to Minsk.
Afterward, Haitham saw an advertisement on Facebook that told them to call the Iraqi embassy in Russia to arrange a plane back to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Evidence gathered by Amnesty International backs up both Ziad’s and Haitham’s accounts of their experiences at the border. The human-rights organization interviewed 75 people who were trying to cross the border between July and November, 2021. The research revealed “horrific torture or other ill-treatment, inhumane conditions, extortion and other abuse” from Belarusian authorities against asylum seekers and migrants.
Amnesty also found that Polish officers were conducting mass expulsions, forcing asylum seekers or migrants back over the border without considering individual circumstances or allowing them to apply for asylum – a measure known as a pushback, which is illegal under international law.
Efforts are under way to return the asylum seekers and migrants stuck at the border, estimated to number about 4,000 people at the height of the crisis in early November. Both Haitham’s and Ziad’s families returned to their homes in Sharya Camp on Nov. 18.
More than 12,700 Yazidis have lived in this maze of tents for seven years since fleeing Sinjar, their ancestral homeland in northern Iraq. Islamic State invaded the town in 2014 and began massacring the ethno-religious minority, killing thousands and using women as sex slaves. The United Nations declared that the atrocities amounted to genocide.
Inside the camp, the Feast of Ezi was held before the winter solstice in December. It involves three days of fasting, then a feast on the fourth day. Goats were chosen for slaughter, and Haitham’s mother was busy making piles of naan outside their small tent, the smell drifting in as Qader played with her doll.
“You see my house – it is not a house, it is a camp. We’ve lived here for seven years. What can I do to make a better life for my family? For my daughter? I want the best for her,” exclaimed Haitham when asked why he wanted to go to Europe. “I cannot go back to Sinjar – Turkey is bombing there. Sinjar is not safe for us.”
Tensions between the Iraqi government and the regional government of Kurdistan have left Sinjar caught in the middle, and the resulting security vacuum has been exploited by Turkey and Iran, as well as several militia groups in the region, explained Haider Elias, the executive director of Yazda, a charity that helps Yazidis affected by the Islamic State genocide. “Yazidis do not believe that this country will get any better, and they’re terrified – not just about ISIS. There was al-Qaeda in 2007, and there was Saddam before that,” he said. “Yazidis think that this repeated persecution will not stop any time soon.”
He lamented the lack of support for Yazidis from the European Union. “They are dealt with like any other refugees trying to cross the border [into Europe], but for the Yazidis it’s different, it’s specific, and it’s a community that is running away from a genocide.”
A scarcity of work is also a problem across Kurdistan. Ziad pointed out that there was only one car in his auto repair shop. It “was better in 2016 and 2017 – there was no security then, but there was more work.”
He was captured by Islamic State in 2014 when they invaded Sinjar and was held for five days before he managed to escape. He has tried twice to get to Europe through Turkey and once through Belarus – the latter attempt cost his family more than US$30,000. His experience in Belarus has not deterred him from trying again. Four of his siblings managed to get to Germany through Greece in 2016. “I would risk my life to join them. There is no future for us here in Iraq,” he said.
The Kurdistan regional government has not responded to a request for comment.
As for Haitham, he returned home to find he had been suspended from his job at a hospital laboratory in Mosul due to his two-month absence. “My job is gone and my money is gone,” he said.
“We came back to nothing,” Dalia added.
Despite everything they’ve been through, Haitham said he’s optimistic about his family’s future. “I am positive. I will try and try. I will go to Europe or, if I cannot go to Europe, okay, I will try to find a house here and find a job and live here,” he said, smiling, as Qader woke and sleepily clutched at her mother.