BROZEJE, Belarus – Belarusian authorities moved on Wednesday to ease pressure along the country’s border with Poland, the next morning after violence erupted at the main border crossing – with desperate migrants throwing stones at Polish border guards who responded with tear gas and explosions from water cannons.
Hundreds of migrants are now housed in a sprawling red-brick warehouse a few hundred meters from the border crossing, a much-needed piece of respite for dozens of families who spent weeks camped out in frozen, stinky fields with little more than the clothes to wear. their appearance.
“Thank you, Belarus. Beautiful Belarus,” said Ribas Ali, 28.
Western officials have described the migrant crisis as a “mixed war” orchestrated by Belarusian leader Alexander G. Lukashenko to punish Poland for harboring some of his most outspoken opponents and pressure the European Union to lift sanctions on his country.
But if it is a battle in which immigrants are used as pawns, it is also an information war. On Wednesday, Belarusians sought to portray themselves as humanitarian workers.
Correspondents from international news organizations, including The New York Times, were invited to witness the chaos and desperation at the border. Belarus officials insist the humanitarian catastrophe has resulted from the European Union’s refusal to abide by international law and giving people fleeing war and desperation the right to apply for asylum at least once they enter Poland, a member of the bloc.
Poland, eager to keep desperation out of the public eye, has closed its side of the border, barring aid workers, journalists and even doctors. On Tuesday, hundreds of migrants tried to rush into Poland. Polish border forces used water cannons and tear gas to bring them back.
After the brawl, Poland’s ruling Nationalist Party sought to portray it as a great victory.
“Thank you to the soldiers for stopping today’s attack,” Marius BlaschakThe defense minister tweeted on Tuesday. “Poland is still safe. All soldiers currently serving at the border will receive special financial rewards.”
While the pressure at the main crossing eased during the night, he said, there were attempts to cross at several other points along the 250-mile border.
“The situation on the Belarusian border will not be resolved quickly,” the defense minister said on Wednesday in an interview with Radio One, Poland’s national radio. “We have to prepare for months, if not years.”
The total number of migrants at the border is estimated between 2,000 and 4,000, many of them from Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Poland has now deployed more than 15,000 soldiers, joining dozens of border guards and police officers.
Across the border, the number of Belarusian security forces deployed has not been announced. But dozens stood guard outside the warehouse, their faces covered in black masks. As the crisis escalated, immigrants reported being beaten up by Belarusian soldiers and directed to various areas along the Polish border.
Even as hundreds of people were grateful for a warm meal and the kids got milk and juice, many in warehouses expressed uncertainty about what would happen next.
Palia Ahmed, 31, was in the warehouse with two children – 8 and 10 – and her husband. She said she was too nervous to be there for fear of deportation, but felt she had no other choice.
“My kids were freezing to death,” she said.
It was easy to spot the green light in the window from the main road in Michallow, a Polish town about 15 miles from the Belarusian border, in an area that in recent months has seen thousands of asylum seekers stranded on their way to the European Union.
“This means that my home is a safe place for immigrants to seek help,” said Maria Ansibuk, resident and city council president.
Ms. Ansibok felt compelled to act after a news report about a group of Yazidi children pushed from her hometown by border guards into the frozen forest on the Belarusian side. “You just don’t forget about such things,” she said in a trembling voice, her eyes welling with tears. “I said to myself: I will do everything so that it does not happen here again.”
The European Union has accused Belarus’ dictator Alexander J. Lukashenko of moving asylum seekers from the Middle East through his country to Poland, in retaliation for the bloc’s sanctions against his regime after the disputed 2020 elections and subsequent crackdown. from the opposition.
As the standoff escalated in recent days, with clashes between Polish authorities and migrants instigated by Belarusian police to break through the heavily guarded border, those caught in the middle had to count on support from an informal network of locals, activists of all. Over Poland and volunteer paramedics have spread across the border area.
Only those who have been able to apply for asylum receive some form of state support. Help from local residents is most important within a two-mile-wide buffer zone surrounding the border, which Polish authorities have closed to all non-residents, including journalists, doctors and charities.
But most assistants prefer not to advertise their activities. “There are only a few of us actively helping,” said Roman, a resident who asked to be identified by first name only for fear of repercussions from the authorities and local far-right groups. The majority remain silent.
Until now, the placement of green lights as a sign of immigrants has been largely symbolic, and few are aware of this. But it is a symbol for asylum seekers as much as it is for its neighbours, Ms. Ansibok said.
“People are afraid to do that,” Ms. Ansibok said. “As soon as I put the light in my window, I started getting hate messages,” she said. “But I will not be afraid.”
Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, traveled to Belarus in the hope of reaching the European Union, but Poland and Lithuania, EU member states, denied them entry. They camp along the border with Poland, stranded in the bitter cold.