Border crisis between Belarus and Poland: Families face bitter nights without protection

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There are 200 children and 600 women among an estimated 2,000 people gathered along the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing that separates Belarus from Poland, Belarusian border officials told CNN on Friday. Some of them are just babies or toddlers.

The migrants – most of whom are from the Middle East and Asia – are trying to enter Poland illegally and from there to other European countries, especially Germany, in search of a better life.

Some lucky ones have small tents; others have made rough protection from the branches and twigs of the conifers around them. Behind them is the forest; in front of the barbed wire fence that Poland erected to keep them out, patrolled by Polish police, border guards and soldiers.

Some have been waiting for weeks now to try to cross the border and there is a feeling of anger and frustration in the air. Some migrants have already died in the cold; Hypothermia is a real risk.
Four-year-old Azhi Ali Xder and his mother Shoxan Bapir Hussain, 28, have traveled to Belarus from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Twenty-eight-year-old mother Shoxan Bapir Hussain said she had begun the journey from Iraqi Kurdistan with her husband and four-year-old son, Azhi Ali Xder, because the boy needed surgery for a back condition. Azhi, who has splints on her legs, can not walk, she said.

When asked why Azhi was not operated on in Kurdistan, his mother replied: “Because it was not very good and maybe the operation failed … the doctor told me that the operation in Germany is very good.”

The CNN team, which was escorted to the meandering camp by Belarusian authorities on Friday and Saturday, saw minimal infrastructure to support the thousands of people gathered there, with only two small water tanks and no toilets visible.

The Belarusian Red Cross supplies food and water, but migrants who spoke to CNN said supplies were inadequate and unsafe. There is hardly enough to keep those already here alive – and Belarusian border officials estimated that the number of people in the border region would increase to 5,000 within a week.

While desperate people searched for firewood, logs to sit on and other supplies from trucks that provided assistance, Belarusian armed forces tried to push them back. Those crowded around such a truck that delivered water had to kneel on the cold ground before some were let through to pick up bottles.

“I’m hungry, I’m hungry,” said one young girl in English.

Parents Ahmed and Ala have traveled from Iraqi Kurdistan with their 15-year-old daughter, Reza, (center) in search of a better life in Europe.

Parents Ahmed and Ala, with their 15-year-old daughter Reza, told CNN that they had traveled from Iraqi Kurdistan in search of a better life in Europe. They had been there for seven nights, they said, and still hope they will get to Europe.

Another man, who only mentioned his name as Binar, said he had paid $ 2,000 to make the trip from Iraqi Kurdistan. “Our people want to go to Germany,” he said.

Western leaders have accused Belarus of creating a migrant crisis on the eastern border of the European Union in retaliation for human rights sanctions.

President Alexander Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied such allegations, instead blaming the West for the crossings and accusing it of mistreating migrants.

Russia, Belarus’s largest political and economic partner, continues to defend Minsk’s handling of the border crisis, while denying any involvement in it.

President Vladimir Putin said in an interview broadcast on Sunday by the TV channel Russia-1 that Russia is “ready to help in any way possible, of course, something will depend on us here”, the state news agency TASS reported.

Putin also placed the responsibility for the crisis at the door of the EU, accusing it of creating the conditions that caused the influx of migrants. “And now they are looking for someone to blame, to absolve themselves of responsibility for the events that are taking place,” he said according to TASS.

On Saturday, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski called the deteriorating situation “an attack on the entire European Union through an artificially created migration crisis.”

Belarus’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell spoke by telephone on Sunday, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said. “Vladimir Makei briefed his interlocutor on the measures taken by Belarus to reduce the flow of migrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East,” as well as the provision of humanitarian aid, the ministry said in a statement.

Borrell told the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that EU foreign ministers on Monday will extend sanctions against Belarus to include airlines and travel agents believed to be involved in bringing migrants to the Belarus-Poland border. Sanctions can also be imposed on about 30 Belarusian officials who are believed to be involved in the crisis, he tells the newspaper.

Poland: Force “on standby”

At the same time, the Belarusian authorities insist that they do what they can to support those stuck in the border region.

“The situation in the refugee camp on the Belarusian-Polish border is still difficult, yet the Belarusian side is doing everything to provide people and especially children with everything they need,” the Belarusian state border committee said in a statement on Saturday.

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“All measures are taken to provide assistance to refugees. The border service ensures the necessary order and protection of the state border.”

Poland has prevented journalists and international observers from entering the border region, making it difficult to assess the situation on the Polish side of the fence. But there are still no signs that tensions have eased.

The Polish border guard claimed on Sunday that dozens of migrants, with the help of Belarusian security forces, were preparing a “major attempt to break through” the Polish border.

“Some of the tents are starting to disappear. Foreigners receive instructions, equipment and gas from Belarusian services. You can see that the Belarusian side is getting ready today for a major attempt to cross the border. Our forces are ready for action,” the border tweeted guard.

Polish authorities also reported seeing more groups of armed Belarusian officers and a growing uprising among migrants. Belarus’s state television, ATN, reported that a group of about 100 or more refugees were on their way to the migrant camp.

The Polish Ministry of Defense tweeted earlier on Sunday that its forces in Kuznica’s border area had been put “on standby”.

Smoky fires fill the forest on the border between Belarus and Poland as people try to stay warm.

Late on Saturday, Poland sent a mass text message to telephones in the region to warn that rumors that the Polish border was not well guarded or that migrants would be allowed to cross into Germany were a “total lie and nonsense”. Another text message reads in part: “The Polish border is sealed. The BLR authorities said you were lying. Go back to Minsk!”

Messages contain a link to a Polish government website with a more comprehensive and blunt message, warning that any attempt to storm the border could lead to “dangerous development”.

The show of strength that is unfolding across the region continues to test a fragile political order, with accusations from the United States about Russia’s military build-up deepening concerns about the potential for a broader geopolitical crisis.

Neighboring Ukraine is also stepping up security and announced on Thursday that it will hold military exercises with about 8,500 military and 15 helicopters in an area near its borders with Poland and Belarus to counter a possible migrant crisis.

As long as the international conflict continues, those caught between the Polish security forces in front of them and the Belarusian security forces will have little else but hope and glowing fires to keep them going.

CNN’s Antonia Mortensen and Katharina Krebs contributed to this report.