Youssef Atallah, a 37-year-old Syrian, arrived in Poland recently after his third attempt to cross from Belarus. Speaking at a refugee center in Białystok, he recalled how upon reaching the border, Belarusian guards caught his group of four and beat him, leaving him with wounds to his face, a broken nose and bruised ribs.
“They took us into the forbidden zone. That was the first attempt to cross the border into Poland,” he told CNN. He said officials refused to provide medical assistance and were repeatedly told to head to Poland rather than return to the Belarusian capital, Minsk. While on the treacherous journey, Atallah said he had no food and drank water from a swamp. He added: “I saw things left by another group of refugees (and) I found a sugar cube. I start sucking it because I can’t chew, I can’t bite or anything.”
A Syrian woman with whom CNN spoke in recent weeks said she had flown from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, to Minsk. From there, she alleges that the Belarusian army helped her and a group of other migrants to reach the border area and cut the border fence.
When the Polish police repeatedly pushed the group back, the woman said they begged the Belarusian authorities to allow them to return to Minsk airport safely, so that they could return to their home countries. She said they refused.
The woman said she ended up trapped in the forest on the Belarusian-Polish border for 12 days before she was able to pass the Polish police and cross the border into Poland. From there, he headed to Germany, the desired destination for many of the migrants, after hiring what he described as a “taxi” for $ 2,000.
Speaking to CNN several weeks ago from a refugee center in the German city of Eisenhüttenstadt, the woman, who asked not to be identified, said: “I slept under a tree all the time. [The] the first days we have a sleeping bag. [But] we lost it all when we walked [between] the trees. “
“Five days later we drink water from the floor. We have nothing, they did not help us,” he said. “We put a bottle on the ground … we drank water from the puddles.”
“We can’t drink from it in the morning because it’s black,” she said, fighting back tears.
Thousands of people stranded between Poland and Belarus are caught at the center of an increasingly intense geopolitical dispute that has pitted the EU, US and NATO against the Belarusian government. Western officials have accused Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko of fabricating a migration crisis on the eastern border of the EU to destabilize the bloc in retaliation for sanctions for human rights abuses.
His government denies the claims and instead blames the West for dangerous, sometimes fatal border crossings and poor treatment of migrants.
The Polish border guard said Thursday that it had recorded around 1,000 crossing attempts in the past two days, including some “large-scale” efforts with groups of more than 100 trying to break through the fence. The Polish authorities have detained a small number of people and immediately sent others back to Belarus.
Polish authorities said that since the beginning of November, there have been 4,300 attempts to cross the border.
The migrants CNN has spoken with say they paid about $ 8,000 for their trip. “I went to Lebanon [from Syria]. From Lebanon, I went to the airport, on FlyDubai on a tourist visa to Belarus, “said Mohammad Nassar, a 27-year-old Syrian migrant.
“At the airport, they treat you like a tourist. There is a hotel. But as soon as you go to the border town of Harodnia, they start treating you very badly,” Nassar said. “For the last four days, we had no food. They didn’t give us anything. They only gave us water a few times.”
Jino, a 17-year-old from northern Iraq, said the Belarusian army loaded her group into the back of a truck and transported them to the border.
“Belarusians … sometimes they treated us badly, sometimes they treated us well,” said Jino, who did not reveal his last name for security reasons. “In my case, they took us to the border in a truck … and they cut off the [border] cable.”
Polish border guard press officer Katarzyna Zdanowicz said the situation in the Kuznica area was calm on Wednesday and the migrants had received food and hot drinks from the Belarusian military overnight.
Zdanowicz put the number of migrants camped out along the border at around 4,000, citing estimates from the border guard. He did not rule out the possibility that more people were heading to the border area from other parts of Belarus. However, the Belarusian State Border Committee said on Tuesday that there were about 2,000 migrants at the scene.
Several Polish officials have accused Belarus of assisting migrants in their attempts to cross the border. Deputy Interior Minister Bartosz Grodecki told Polish media on Wednesday that migrants are “constantly transported to the border by Belarusian services.”
Grodecki also claimed that “in addition to the Belarusian services, there are probably also representatives of the Russian services” among the immigrant crowd.
On Thursday, Russia denied it was helping immigrants enter Belarus.