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Every day, cold, hungry, and scared people are hiding in the forests and cornfields near Poland’s border with Belarus. Some local residents report them to the border guards, while others provide them with food and warm clothes.

A big man with a big heart

- This is a catastrophe, a tragedy, it makes me cry – says Anatol who contacted us. His weekend house in the village of Bachury in eastern Poland –  right outside the area covered by the state of emergency - is located near the migration route from Belarus. People cross swamps and marshes hoping to find a better life in Europe. Most are caught by the border patrol and taken back to Belarus, behind the barbed wire fence.

Anatol refuses to accept this: - If Frontex were on the ground, the Polish border guards could not do as they please. On Sunday, there were more than 30 people here in the forest, including small children. They packed everyone into a truck and took them to Belarus. Why are we doing this? What is happening to this world? It hurts me so much!

Anatol doesn’t seem like a man who gives in to emotions too easily. He drives a massive off-road car and says: - I am big myself, I have a big car, a big wife and children.

On Saturday (October 16), we learned that he also has a big heart. In a grove by the road, he spotted a group of some dozen people. He rushed home to get water and food. He sent his daughter-in-law for warm broth and meals in boxes, a bag of socks, and personal hygiene products.

- Don't be scared, everything will be fine – he assured the Kurdish children, stroking their heads.

Yezidi refugee family

The group of terrified people hiding in a grove near the village of Bachury is a refugee family. There are four children: the youngest, a girl, is 10 years old. There is also a 13-year-old girl, a 13-year-old boy, and a 15-year-old girl. They are accompanied by young men - brothers, cousins, neighbors. As we approach them, we see a mixture of fear and hope in their eyes. Two grown men are weeping.

There is a total of 13 people in the group. All of them come from Sinjar in Iraqi Kurdistan. All of them are Yezidis.

Husain is 24 years old and the only one who speaks English. He tells his story and the others add theirs, listing family members killed and kidnapped by DAESH, the so-called Islamic State. They speak the Kurmanji dialect.

- We suffer persecution because of our religious beliefs – they say.

- On August 3, 2014, my whole life has changed- Husain recalls. He was only 17 years old at the time.

On that day, jihadists from the newly proclaimed Islamic State invaded Sinjar, committing mass murders of Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians. Thousands of people died, cruelly murdered: burned, or buried alive. Thousands were abducted. Women were raped and sold into slavery. It was genocide.

Those who survived went into exile, living for the last couple of years in camps for internally displaced people, afraid to return to their ruined towns and villages, still traumatized. In addition to the completely destroyed infrastructure, the other problems haunting the province that was once home to Yezidi people are a shortage of job opportunities and lack of security.

And the camp itself? Multi-person tents, no work, complete lack of perspectives.

- DAESH kidnapped my dad and oldest brother. Soon my mom and siblings managed to leave for France, they were given asylum there- Husain tells us. - I was the only one left. I was looking for my dad and brother, I love them very much.

He was alone in Iraq for seven years. He went to a university, graduated in management, but he does not remember his college years very well: - You know, people like us were treated as inferior, different.

Grupa 13 Jezydów (w tym czworo dzieci) ukrywała się w lesie pod wsią Bachury. Nakarmili ich miejscowi mieszkańcy, a aktywistki z Fundacji Ocalenie opatrzyły rany na stopachGrupa 13 Jezydów (w tym czworo dzieci) ukrywała się w lesie pod wsią Bachury. Nakarmili ich miejscowi mieszkańcy, a aktywistki z Fundacji Ocalenie opatrzyły rany na stopach Fot. Agnieszka Sadowska / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Grupa 13 Jezydów (w tym czworo dzieci) ukrywała się w lesie pod wsią Bachury. Nakarmili ich miejscowi mieszkańcy, a aktywistki z Fundacji Ocalenie opatrzyły rany na stopachGrupa 13 Jezydów (w tym czworo dzieci) ukrywała się w lesie pod wsią Bachury. Nakarmili ich miejscowi mieszkańcy, a aktywistki z Fundacji Ocalenie opatrzyły rany na stopach Fot. Agnieszka Sadowska / Agencja Wyborcza.pl


After seven years, Husain's mother has made a decision: enough already, they will not come back, come to us.

The boy took up the offer with an invitation to Belarus- a supposedly safe option for crossing the EU border. He had no idea that he was in danger: - This is Europe, after all! - he was convinced that human rights are respected here.

I try to lighten up the heavy mood by half-jokingly asking him about the first thing he will do when he arrives in Paris: drink wine under the Eiffel Tower or buy the stinkiest cheese he can find? The boy glances at me as if I were an alien:

- I will learn the language and find a job. Maybe I'll become a flight attendant - he allows himself to say his dream out loud.

11 days in hiding. Walking through the woods at night

When we met them on Saturday (October 16), they had already been in the forests for 11 days and nights. The Polish border guard pushed them back four times (i.e. they were forcibly returned to Belarus). They managed to get quite far into Poland, but each time they were caught by the border patrol. They say they had food and cigarettes taken from them. Belarusian border guards push them into Poland, while Polish authorities take them to the border. They are trapped.

That is why they decide to move at night, in the dark, without flashlights. Each evening looks the same: they wrap themselves up in layers and sleeping bags, huddle together on the forest floor, the older brother hugs his 10-year-old sister. The little girl weeps very quietly so that no one can hear them. They don't build bonfires. They sleep a maximum of four hours and continue their journey, regardless of the weather. Their shoes are falling apart, their feet are scalded (when their shoes get wet, they wrap their feet in plastic foil).

Activists from the Ocalenie Foundation, who reached the Yezidi family on Saturday, treated the wounds on their feet. They were nasty: big blisters, running up with blood. Anatol gave them bottles of mineral water. All they had to drink was dirty water they collected from the drainage canal. They were coughing and sneezing but said they feel fine - I can't believe it, it seems as if they are embarrassed to make someone uncomfortable.

Grupa 13 Jezydów (w tym czworo dzieci) ukrywała się w lesie pod wsią Bachury. Nakarmili ich miejscowi mieszkańcy, a aktywistki z Fundacji Ocalenie opatrzyły rany na stopachGrupa 13 Jezydów (w tym czworo dzieci) ukrywała się w lesie pod wsią Bachury. Nakarmili ich miejscowi mieszkańcy, a aktywistki z Fundacji Ocalenie opatrzyły rany na stopach Fot. Agnieszka Sadowska / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Grupa 13 Jezydów (w tym czworo dzieci) ukrywała się w lesie pod wsią Bachury. Nakarmili ich miejscowi mieszkańcy, a aktywistki z Fundacji Ocalenie opatrzyły rany na stopachGrupa 13 Jezydów (w tym czworo dzieci) ukrywała się w lesie pod wsią Bachury. Nakarmili ich miejscowi mieszkańcy, a aktywistki z Fundacji Ocalenie opatrzyły rany na stopach Fot. Agnieszka Sadowska / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

- Are you sure you won't have any problems because of us? - Husain asks more than once.

- How can we help them? – Anatol asks.

We are unable to answer his question.

The Yezidis have moved on; we don't know where they are now.

***

Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

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