Death in the Forest: Poland’s Forgotten Migrants

Radio Télévision Suisse | 26min
Postproduction script


00:00:01,944 VO: -At the eastern edge of the European Union, on the border of Belarus and Poland lies a 14,000 year old forest, the oldest on the continent. The forest is a UNESCO heritage site, but it has become the theatre of a merciless hunt against migrants in search of a new life.

0’19 Source:

00:00:26,040 Migrant filming: -We go to the border. We are very close to a group, there, in front. We'll join them. There are about 300 people over there.

00:00:48,447 VO: -Since the summer of 2021, thousands of people, coming mainly from from Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, thought they could find here a safe access to Europe. Their hope was quickly dashed in the face of the determination of the Polish government to not let anyone in. So, some people take risks and make many attempts to get through. When they managed to enter Poland, the trouble continued.

0’52 Source: RURTR

1’00 Source: RUC1R

1’04 Source: FIYLE

1’06 Source:

00:01:27,822 Migrant filming: -A man asked us for money, otherwise he said he'd call the police. What a shame!

00:01:38,077 VO: -This situation revealed a fracture within Polish society. Many disputed the policy of the authorities; citizens, NGOs and residents work against the unacceptable: the rejection and death of migrants at the border of their country.

2’03 Title - Death in the Forest: Poland’s Forgotten Migrants

2’08 A report by Jean-Daniel Bohnenblust

00:02:13,100 VO: Along its 418km border with Belarus, Poland has established a no-go zone, the only one of its kind in Europe. This 3km wide no-go zone is closed to NGOs and journalists. The area is guarded by 20,000 soldiers, police, border guards and territorial militia. Jakub Sypianski is a coordinator in the coalition Grupa Granica, a border organisation. The protest organization is composed of 14 mostly Polish NGOs. Their mission is to rescue and assist migrants in their quest. Jakub knows the forbidden zone very well. He takes us there in the simplest way possible.

2’19 On map – Poland, Warsaw, Belarus

2’25 On map – Poland, Belarus

3’00 Source: Grupa Granica

00:03:22,480 Jakub: -It represents both a refuge and a dangerous zone. Now, the conditions in the forest are tough and atrocious. Even in the autumn, it was not a place to spend a few days, especially with children. And to sleep there while having to hide constantly from the police, at the risk of being deported back to Belarus. This kind of situation is unprecedented in Poland. As people who lived here, we were faced with the choice between mobilization and indifference. I talked with people who told us that they didn't expect the Muslims to be so ordinary.

3’30 Jakub Sypianski, Grupa Granica

3’54 Source: @Bacon227

00:04:15,736 VO: -Between September and November 2021, Grupa Granica came to the aid of to more than 2,000 migrants lost in the forest.

4’18 Source: Grupa Granica

00:04:24,069 Jakub: -We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis. We specialize in in legal aid, but regarding our work in the forest We're just amateurs. We learned a lot, but it's a big problem, and they have left it up to us to do this task.

00:04:46,053 VO: -Understand: NGOs had to substitute for a state that decided not to respect international law granting protection to asylum seekers. Poland has passed a law allowing migrants to be turned back, regardless of their status. Polish activists, as they are called here, do not accept it.

00:05:13,654 Agata: -The people who are still in Belarus need help. They will try to get through, they cannot return to their country. This is not the end of the story.

00:05:28,893 VO: -Agata works for the Ocalenie foundation, which has been involved from the beginning of the crisis. The foundation relies on a network of network active throughout the country. Agata comes from the west, on the other side of Poland.

00:05:48:150 Reporter: - Have you come to pick up goods?

00:05:49,600 Agata: -Yes, they have a lot of material. If you need something, you can find it here.

5’54 Agata Ferenc

00:06:08,122 VO: -We go up the border, near a road leading to Belarus. Unusually, the activists have opened the doors of their base camp to us. This is a secret place from where they plan the rescue operations in the forest. Agata and her colleagues store here what is necessary to leave for an intervention. Above, a simple apartment, is permanently occupied by teams who take turns every four days. But why so many secrets?

00:06:48,840 Karolina Szymanska: -It is not that we are afraid, but there are many nationalists here. And people who have little sympathy for what we do. We prefer not to say where we are staying.

6’52 Karolina Szymanska

00:07:06,696 VO: -First aid items, food, everything is ready. We still need to make contact with the migrants who cross the border. The phone numbers of activists are circulating to the refugee camps in Belarus, but it is not always easy to communicate.

00:07:27,480 Agata: -Oh dear, there is a big action there.

00:07:33,225 VO: -A group of six men and two women from Iraq have contacted the team, but the situation is unclear.

00:07:40,440 Agata: -We are struggling to understand what is really going on, because they write in Arabic and we try to translate. It's hard and there are unfortunately a lot of situations where you can't reach them. And now the weather is very bad, it is very important to bring them what they need. Because surviving at night is very difficult.

7’53 Agata Ferenc

00:08:15,304 VO: -At nightfall, we are informed of another rescue intervention concerning a migrant of Syrian origin. Grupa Granica take us to a village close to the forbidden zone. The night is freezing. We drive for an hour in the blizzard, pass the checkpoints and arrive to the indicated place, at the edge of the forest. To avoid arousing suspicion, we wait at the entrance of the village. One hour and twenty minutes later, headlights signal to us a presence. This is a team of Dutch journalists. Like us, they have just received the precise location of the activists. We are going to look for them. After half an hour of walking in the forest, we finally see a small red light, the signal we are waiting for. Out of nowhere, we meet Mussa, a Syrian tailor. He asks for political asylum.

00:09:41,215 Mussa: -Poland, Poland. Poland cold.

00:09:47,545 VO: -The first difficulty: Mussa only speaks Arabic. A translator helps us to understand that this is not the first time that he ventured through the forest.

00:09:58,721 Mussa: -The Belarusians cut the barbed wire and let us pass. The Poles turned us away.

10’04 Mussa

00:10:09,760 Mussa: -Some Belarusians beat us. Others were nice.

00:10:25,410 Karolina Wierzbinska: -Mussa is a special case as he was turned back only four or five times, which is not much. Because according to our experience in the forest, we met people who have been turned away sometimes more than twenty times. And it was total chaos. They'd met scary people. And they were traumatized, because everything was connected to violence and repression.

10’33 Karolina Wierzbinska, Grupa Granica

00:11:02,373 VO: -It is minus five, the intervention started more than seven hours ago. Karolina and Michal are assisting Mussa. Requesting asylum in a country that doesn't want to deal with it is not easy. You have to consult the European Court of Human Rights in order to obtain a document called Interim.

00:11:22,707 Michal: -The Interim is a document that gives temporary protection to the person seeking asylum. Unfortunately, people are arrested by the border guards without asking them if they want to fill in an asylum application. They are turned back to the Belarusian border. The Interim allows to avoid pushback until the clarification of the asylum application.

11’41 Michal Sutyniec, legal advisor at Grupa Granica

00:11:50,520 VO: -Michal will represent Mussa throughout the whole process. He contacts the border guards to report him.

00:11:59,240 Reporter: -What do you think will happen to you in Poland?

00:12:10,160 Mussa: -I don't know, I hope for a better life here.

00:12:13,720 Reporter: -Are you afraid of the police who will come to take you away?

00:12:29,857 Mussa: -I am afraid, but I hope that they won't send me back.

12’32 Mussa

00:12:38,879 VO: -This situation is unusual for a Syrian tailor comforted by a little music while waiting for his arrest. Everything is ready to receive the border guards. This type of intervention is meticulously prepared. The activists were in contact with Mussa as soon as he set foot in Poland. He had to wait two days, hidden in the forest, the time to get the precious document from the European Court. Mussa will be locked up in a detention camp until his fate is determined.

00:13:33,311 VO: But this forest can be a death trap when one is without help and without reference. Roger had left Cameroon to study in Russia. After four years in Moscow, not being able to finance his master's degree anymore, he tried to cross the Atlantic last October, with a friend and his two brothers. It ended up as a tragic odyssey.

00:13:57,520 Roger: We had no water nor food with us. Our phones that could have helped us for directions were turned off. So we had to stay two weeks in the forest.

14’04 Roger

00:14:13,759 VO: -With no way to find their way, the group got lost in the immense forest. Hunger and thirst were a trial, but the worst was to come.

00:14:27,280 Roger: My younger brother, who was only 19, while we were sleeping one night, got bitten by a snake, he was bleeding. At one point he couldn't walk as fast as we wanted him to so we had to walk more slowly because he was hurting. He needed help all the time so I held him in my arms. He couldn't see anything anymore. He kept walking like that for 3 days. And on Friday, the fourth day, he passed away. It happened around 5 or 6 PM. He asked me if we could rest a bit for some time. So I sat him down next to me and suddenly we saw him...He changed position and I understood it was all over. I spent the rest of the day and half of the night digging a hole to bury him. I had some dead wood to dig his grave. His grave wasn't properly dug. But I did my best so he wouldn't be visible at all. Then we started to walk again. My second brother then started to feel really bad. He said he needed water, he was thirsty, very thirsty. So at one point as we were crossing small ponds with stagnating water in the forest, so he drank that water so because of the dirty water and lack of food, he started to vomit a few days later, he started to vomit blood also as he'd had nothing to eat, He felt he was about to die but I couldn't believe it... because during the day when we were pausing he would tell me: ‘You need to keep going. You need to keep fighting. Because that was your goal to keep studying and complete your education.’ So he told me I had to keep going. But he didn't think he could make it at all. That's how it happened. At night, we went to bed. And the next morning, when I tried to wake him up, he was dead already.

00:17:29,528 VO: -At the end of their strength, Roger and his comrade finally found a trail that lead them to a village. He knocked on a door. Five minutes later, the police came to get them to turn them back away in Belarus. Roger refused and struggled. He got injured and was admitted to the hospital, then transferred to a centre. He has since received a notice of deportation. Roger preferred to remain anonymous. At the time of our meeting, he had not yet had the strength to tell his family what happened. How many similar stories does the forest keep secret?

00:18:20,835 VO: Some inhabitants near the border of the border protest that migrants die on their doorstep. They even house them, clandestinely, allowing them to regain their strength on the road to exile. This lawyer is one of them: since the beginning of the crisis, he has launched the Green Light movement. A simple gesture to show solidarity with the people in search of shelter. But this attitude of openness to foreigners, is frowned upon by the security forces.

00:18:53,117 Kamil: -The border guards are watching us. Police officers. Sometimes they are visible, near our house in the dark. We know they are watching us with their thermal imaging camera.

19’02 Kamil Syller, Lawyer

00:19:28,050 Kamil: -This is a disaster. My whole legal world just fell apart. They are openly breaking the law, the Polish Constitution. They violate the treaties of international law, European law, human rights, etc.

00:19:50,739 VO: Kamil Syller often goes through the woods with his small thermal camera that is capable of revealing the presence of human presence at a distance of one kilometre. With his group of locals, he covers a portion of 100 km of border. But their resources are very light compared to those of the security forces.

00:20:13,906 Kamil: -It's a kind of game, that involves life. Because if you're the first one, you can help, save the people in the forest. It's quite difficult to get there first, because the security services have a very high chance with their equipment. And the tracks in the snow are visible. So the refugees can be easily chased.

20’49 Source: Territorial defence force

00:20:49,031 VO: -Every night, the territorial militias fly their drones over the forest. Easily detected, the position of the migrants is immediately transmitted to teams on the field. Rescuing people who have illegally entered can then be risky in this part of Poland. Maria, Kamil's wife, knows something about this.

00:21:12:050 Maria: Once I was in the forest with my colleagues and we were actually attacked by masked people. They were not in uniform so we didn’t know who they were. And a guy just pointed a gun towards my head and shouted that I was a smuggler, that I was smuggling people. I was afraid afterwards and then I got sick, I think it was some kind of body response to the situation, so I had a break from going to the forest. But then I went again.

21’21 Maria Przyszychowska

00:21:55,502 VO: -According to the activists, Maria's experience is not an isolated case. The migration crisis stirs passions and promotes violence. Kamil is in constant contact with people waiting for the right moment to cross over from Belarus.

00:22:11:230 Kamil: We try to convince them not to come to Poland, because in Poland, it’s very sad, they are not welcome.

22’18 Kamil Syller, Lawyer

00:22:31,424 VO: -Those who have been arrested and who avoided immediate expulsion are sometimes housed in open centres, run by private organizations, such as the Dialogue Foundation. These five brothers and sisters have come from Iraqi Kurdistan. They arrived here last November with Baravan, their father. But someone is missing: Avine, the pillar of the family, the mother of the children.

00:22:58,559 Baravan: -She had no problem. She had jaundice, but she had recovered. She was in good health. But she was pregnant and we didn't know it.

23’07 Baravan Husni Murad

00:23:17,472 VO: -Everything got complicated during the crossing. She was on the pill and didn't know she had been pregnant for six months. She started to feel bad in the forest and was taken in charge by the Polish border guards during their arrest.

00:23:34,464 Baravan: -I was taken to a detention centre. And my wife went to the hospital. At the centre, after three or four days, a policeman called me and told me that I'd had a son, but that he was dead. I prayed hoping my wife would be okay. But she wasn't: they told me she was dead too.

00:24:04,390 VO: -Now alone with his children, Baravan appeals for more humanity for all migrants.

00:24:12,877 Baravan: -God has given us eyes and ears to allow you to put yourselves in our shoes. Put yourself in my shoes. If it's good for you, it's good for everybody. If it's not good, don't do it to humans. We will all die one day. I hope that something will be done for all those people in the camps. They don't count for nothing. No one leaves his home country for pleasure. There are good reasons.

00:25:06,194 VO: -Not all stories are that dramatic. Since the beginning of the crisis, nearly 10,000 people have succeeded in reaching Germany and seek asylum there. Officially, about 20 of them lost their lives during the crossing. But activists in contact with the communities fear that that the number is much higher. Some have a burial in this Muslim cemetery belonging to the Tatar community. A little further away, we discovered four graves of migrants who died in the forest. The body of Avine, Baravan's wife, was repatriated to Iraq. The little one she was carrying did not have time to see this world. He only received a name, Halikari.

26’07 Credits:

Jean-Daniel Bohnenblust

Erwan Jagut

Emilie Spierer

Pierre Schlesser

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