Along Poland’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine, March 2022
The moment a soldier in a black uniform offers me a cup of soup because he thinks I am a refugee from Ukraine, I understand that Europe still hasn’t figured it out. That one question remains unanswered.
He is heavily armed. He smiles. The tiny Polish flag on his sleeve is the only badge he wears. Would he shoot me here and now, no one would be able to identify the killer. I politely decline. That soup is meant for others.
Lake Hrebenne sparkles in the sun. It’s a quiet afternoon, here at the border with Ukraine. Most of the people who want to flee the war have already crossed over. The antique barrier goes up sporadically to let a car through, sometimes a bus. The nuns, cooks, soldiers, journalists and aid workers get up for a moment, their tents and stalls stacked with everything they imagine a war refugee might need when taking the first steps on safe soil. Soon, when the sun goes down, there will be a curfew on the other side. Traffic will cease altogether and these tents will be taken down for the night. A macabre silence. A border holding its breath.
Inaudibly, that one question booms: Who belongs here? Accompanied by all the other connected questions: Who claims the right to call a place home, who is allowed to say he belongs, who doesn’t have that right, who is the outsider and who decides whether he will stay so.
Take that soldier. Is he here to refuse or to welcome people? Who tells him what to base that distinction on? What makes him decide I’m a stranger here? What gives him the right to decide that: the uniform, the language he speaks, the birthplace of his parents, the ground under his feet, the color of his hair, the weapons he carries? And who pays for those weapons? When would he put them down, and for whom? How little does it take to make him, the sentry, an outsider?
Two hundred kilometers to the north, along the border with Belarus, the same soldier would not give me a glance. He would order me to turn around. The primeval forest of Białowieża that he guards has been a militarized zone since September. Access is prohibited for anyone who does not live or work there, including aid workers, journalists and doctors. Somewhere in this forest, 150,000 hectares of world heritage, migrants wander, lured by the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko with the promise of free passage to Europe. If I’d have sleeping bags and shoes in the trunk of my car, the soldier would arrest me: complicit in human smuggling. If I’d arrived here from Syria, Afghanistan, Congo or Ethiopia, in short: if I was black or brown, he would shove me into a military van and throw me out at the barbed wire on the border with Belarus.
Two border crossings, two faces of Europe. They say exactly the opposite at exactly the same time. You are welcome. You are unwanted. Together they disrupt some of the key ideas on which the European Union was built.
The idea is that everyone has the right to shelter, health care, work and education. More than six million Ukrainians now have that right. It starts with shelter. These refugees don’t need to be in camps, the government has defiantly proclaimed, so Poland pulls out all the stops. I can’t find a hotel or airbnb within a hundred kilometers of the border. But how long will that last? Hotels that first survived corona are now being told to release rooms to Ukrainians, and they are doing so generously, but they have been waiting for the promised government compensation since February 24. Three million Ukrainians have now traveled further into Europe. In the few hours that they are not glued to the phone, for news from home, they go looking for hospitals, jobs and schools. They have arrived in cities like Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam, where inflation has risen to 12% and the war is skyrocketing gas, grain and petrol prices, where healthcare workers are burning out and decent housing is just as hard to find as decent teachers. Germany is preparing priority lists for which factories and companies should close first once an embargo on gas and oil from Russia is in place. In France, almost half of the voters voted for a far-right party that is committed to protecting its ‘own’ jobs when the great recession hits. And those Ukrainians who make it to England will end up in an economy that, according to the Center for Economics and Business Research, is in danger of incurring war damage of more than a hundred billion. Who will succumb first: the market, the refugee or the rights for everyone?
There is also the idea of a strict but fair asylum policy. In order to prevent electoral battles within the member states, this has been increasingly moved outwards. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is now the largest and most expensive agency in the Union. It specializes in surveillance, manhunts and pushbacks. But even Frontex is not welcome at the border with Belarus. We’ll take care of this ourselves, boasted the Polish Deputy Minister of the Interior, we already have 26,000 soldiers and border guards covering the area. What remains of the asylum policy is just strict. Very strict. Fair is out the window. The emergency law announced by the Polish government in September makes many things easy. To drive freezing people (pregnant, crippled, with bite marks, hypothermia, dying) back and beat them through the barbed wire. To forget about asking for a passport or registering someone’s name. To refuse asylum applications. To imprison the few who actually make it through the forest in closed camps. For an indefinite period, without access to a lawyer. To ignore statements of the UNHCR, the European Court of Human Rights and even the Catholic Church, which is ubiquitous in Poland. To build a wall of 186 kilometers, right through the ancient forest. (To ignore UNESCO.) Cost: almost 400 million, ten times the national asylum budget. Contractor: Budimex, a Polish company with 70% shareholders registered in the Netherlands.
The founding idea is, of course, that the European Union rests on laws and agreements. But those suddenly feel very light and capricious, when the Polish soldier offers me soup because he thinks I’m a Ukrainian refugee. The six million will be admitted – with the same rights as anyone already in – because the Temporary Protection Directive, which the European Commission signed and immediately shelved in 2001, has been activated for the first time. This did not happen for the refugees from Syria in 2015. Or for the Afghans last year. And the 30,000 migrants that the Polish border guard has so far caught ‘attempting to cross the border illegally’ can be beaten back under the new emergency law. Because the uniforms on both sides swat them back and forth, the real number is a lot lower: every attempt is counted, and because no one gets registered, it does not say how often it is the same person. “Polish border guards send them back to Belarus over and over again,” says Amnesty International’s Jelena Sesar, “sometimes twenty or thirty times.” Laws and conventions – they are introduced, dug up, deleted or ignored as the wind blows.
It’s racism. Pure, one-dimensional racism. A forest ranger I meet says it very simply: ‘Everyone should be received like the Ukrainians.’ Mikolai is a sturdy man with a bald head. His gaze grows softer the longer he talks. He has looked them in the eye, the desperate wanderers in the woods. “People from Iraq or Congo are also fleeing war. It’s hypocritical. As a Westerner, I also feel responsible for the crisis there.” And so he offers them help as he would with anyone else.
His family has lived and worked in the forest for generations. For him and many of the other residents of the red zone, the people who feel they belong here, the border is not a protection but an obstacle. An obstacle to the familiar way things go. This area, now the heavily guarded defense line of the European Union, has changed its flag so many times over the centuries. A grand duchy, a commonwealth, a kingdom, the Nazis, the Soviets – no matter who was in power, the people here visited their families or traded in what is now called Lithuania, Belarus or Ukraine. They knew their way through the primeval forest as if it was their backyard, just like the bison, the lynx and the wolf. That natural border traffic will now run into a barricade of steel and electric fence.
And along this new wall, a simple gesture of hospitality is now a crime. Anyone who even dares to reach out to a refugee is called a criminal. Heavily armed men in black uniforms will drive your car off the road and break into your shed in search of relief supplies. It is these ‘criminals’ who receive a message in the middle of the night: people in the forest report their location via a secret emergency number and ask for help. (Because that too is the European Union: 4G even in the deepest primeval forest.) They pack their things and head out into the dark. They mobilize a clandestine network of lawyers, doctors and shelters. They are mothers, farmers, foresters, artists. During the day they embroider pillowcases, write dissertations, plant young birches or design wine bottle labels. They call themselves activists. Not that they ever started out like that, they have become it simply by staying who they are.
Except for the student of economy from Senegal, who lost his two younger brothers on the way (one got poisoned when he drank swamp water, the other was bitten by a snake that crept into his coat while he was sleeping), I can’t find a refugee to speak with. He is currently being taken care of by a Catholic aid organization. The others have been beaten back to Belarus, are wandering through the forest, got transported to Germany by smugglers or activists, or sit trapped in closed camps. So far 19 have been found dead, 12 of which have been identified.
Mohamed, the economics student, is a cropped young man with a gap between his teeth and a handsome, measured face that shows no emotion. I am the third journalist to ask him about his story. He lays down his demands: if I don’t help him reach a European country where he can continue his studies, he won’t tell me anything.
“Help is more than just first aid,” Karolina, coordinator of human rights organization Homo Faber, told me yesterday. “It is only when you start a conversation, take the time to listen, that understanding arises. As long as you keep throwing things at them, you don’t get to know them. Only when they refuse something (no, I’m not going to wear this dress, no, I want to go to Berlin) do they restore their dignity and find their voice.”
Mohamed tells his story. “My brother couldn’t walk after that snake bite. His eyes turned yellow. I carried him on my back. My phone went dead. We got lost. After three nights we were back where we started from. We crossed a river in the dark. On the other side I put my brother, soaked and feverish, against a tree to rest. That’s where I had to bury him.”
A few nights later he found a house with a light on. He knocked on the window. A man opened the door, looked him up and down – and called the police. They took him to the border with Belarus, where, standing in front of the coils of barbed wire, he refused to take another step. Then they took him to a hospital, where they tied his hands and feet to the bed to prevent him from committing suicide.
At the border with Ukraine I see no more than a handful of cars crossing. At the border with Belarus I am not allowed to enter the forest. The drama remains out of sight. War, I realize, is also absence. The absence of people and things. Of noise, in the moments when everything and everyone is holding their breath. Of a time that keeps to the clock. The moments of deepest horror and humiliation rarely have witnesses. I mean: witnesses who survive.
Still, the drama here is tangible all the time. I wear shoes that are too light; my feet are getting colder on the dirt tracks between the endless rows of pine trees along the red zone. Impossible not to think of the people a few kilometers away, invisible to me, barefoot, making their way through those same trees. The faces of the activists I speak to, often women, in their forties, are taut. In toneless monotone, their voices recount the scenes they encounter in the dark. That night, says Anna, a tough villager with sandy hair, she found an Iraqi family in the swamp: father, mother and seven children.
“Along the Belarusian border,” writes Lidia Zessin-Jurek in Eurozine, “there is no shortage of children sleeping on bedding under the open sky. They don’t get any toys, nor juice, they warm themselves around bonfires in a place where, 83 years earlier, Jewish refugees fleeing from the Germans lived under the open sky in a strip of no man’s land fenced off from the other side by the Soviets. This coincidence of refugee geography is uncanny, it’s a devastating repetition of history.”
These are the bloodlands, as the American historian Timothy Snyder has called them: the rolling hills and deep forests where first the Soviets, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again hunted down hundreds of thousands of Jews, left them to starve in fenced-off swamps, executed them, and had them buried in mass graves. The dirty work was sometimes done by Poles from the villages and farms here, who often did not survive it themselves. Snyder wrote his book in the stately wooden room where I’m staying for a few nights, within walking distance of the border. Bloodlands, I can’t not think the term at the sight of the night frost on the lakes, the twilight creeping through the birches.
Kasia, a researcher at the University of Warsaw, has lived at the edge of the forest for twenty years. A resolute woman with short black hair, her voice too is toneless, exhausted. When she discovered that the Jewish history of Białowieża had never been documented, she managed to place a monument herself, in 2019, for the Jews who were executed here. “Thirty descendants, who traveled here from all over the world, attended the unveiling. In exactly the same place where refugees are now dying.”
In the years when she organized children’s activities here, the old ladies from the neighborhood said: You are one of us. But since she took part in the protests against the logging of the primeval forest, in 2017, which split the local population, some of them refuse to look at her anymore. “It’s the old battle all over again. The battle over who really belongs here. But everyone is new here! We all moved here sooner or later.” When this was a grand duchy in the nineteenth century, no one was allowed to live there. It was only later that the ancestors of the ladies who first hugged Kasia and now ignore her moved in. “They behave as if they own the forest. And every stranger is suspicious.”
This is the issue that Europe is still unable to resolve. The issue over which laws and agreements are introduced, dug up, deleted or ignored. The issue of home, and all the questions connected to it. What exactly does home mean, if the country where your house is located changes its flag every (half) century? Europe bends over backwards to welcome six million Ukrainians, “because they look like us” – but who is us, and who determines that, when we live in big cities where half of the residents really look nothing like Ukrainians? Cities that now derive their identity from the outsiders of the past? Who belongs somewhere, who does not and what that distinction is based on, it is all very light and capricious. In Białowieża, the Jews, whose absence cannot be erased, no matter how hard successive regimes try, are given a monument after eighty years. The Ukrainians who arrived in Poland after the 2014 war were treated as second-class citizens. They were exploited on the labor market, their children were only allowed to go to school if they spoke Polish. Now they are being received as brothers and sisters. This time around, black and brown men, Muslims moreover, are the specter.
On the dirt road leading out of the woods, last summer, black and brown people staggered into the daylight, dazed and startled. The road runs past the large, two-storey blackwood building where Kasia lived and worked until the logging protests. This building itself, sturdy enough to weather the seasons, tells a story of how Europe has fared. At the beginning of the last century it was built as a Jewish school in Białowieża. After the war, it was moved here, to Teremiski, to function as a rural primary school. Later, it was turned into a tourist hostel, before it stood empty for a long time, slowly decaying, until it was bought by nature journalist Adam Wajrak, who made it available to the Common University: an informal, open academy for students from all over the country who had received insufficient education, a concept developed by Jacek Kuron, the dissident known as the Václav Havel of Poland, his wife Danuta, young Kasia and her husband. This was followed by study programs for young adults. When Kuron died and Poland joined the EU in 2004, young people increasingly opted for a future in Western Europe. The mayor asked Kasia and her husband to organize summer camps for local children. In 2005, they moved three houses down the road. Today, the old school is used by various groups defending the forest and other activists. Towards the end of my visit a cold wind sweeps through the backyard. But I’m not invited to come in. The reason: something to do with corona measures. I don’t persist. Here, some questions are better left unasked, so they don’t need to be answered.
Bohoniki, a little further on, is one of the last villages where Tatars, Muslims, who have lived in Poland for centuries, still reside. Along the country road, enclosed by a low white wall, is an Islamic cemetery against the hill. At the very back are five fresh graves, covered with fir branches and a single white flower. At the head of the last grave is a small placard: NN, 10/22/2021, spocziway w pokoju – rest in peace. A life that ended anonymously in the primeval forest. NN was told he didn’t belong here. Now, he will never leave.