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The message came in at night. It read: "I found people in my yard, what should I do with them?".

The man who wrote it was terrified. He found cold and drenched Syrian refugees hiding under the shed on his property. They too were afraid. They no longer had the strength to wander through the forest, the knee-deep snow made it difficult to walk and they were leaving footprints. It was still snowing, and they needed to find a place to rest.

The owner of the property finally decided not to report his discovery to the authorities and instead reached out to volunteers who provide aid to migrants fleeing through the Belarusian border. He gave the Syrians a couple of blankets and left them in the yard. – Hide there- he told them, pointing at a dugout. If someone had asked, he’d say he didn’t see anything. He was afraid he would be prosecuted for helping them. He left. 

The stranded Syrians were eating snow. After dark, we set out to help them. Despite the fact that we were outside the emergency zone area, there were police patrols everywhere, even on forest roads. We couldn't just leave the refugees and drive on.

Activists playing "hide and seek" with border guards

The scenario repeats every single time. When volunteers carrying backpacks loaded with hot tea, warmers, thermal blankets, sleeping bags, rain boots, food, socks, and medicine venture out in search of refugees stranded in the forest, they have to hide from border guards, the military or the police. - We get down to the ground at every sound or flash of light.  They even have night vision goggles to spot us. As if we were criminals – the activists say.

This time was no different. In order to reach the family from Syria, we first had to wander in knee-deep snow for several kilometers, jump over a river, and force our way through bushes. Because a headlamp would be visible from far away and ultimately put people we’re trying to help in more danger, we did all this in complete darkness.

Eventually, we arrived at the location. The property was silent and dark. We found a small dugout shelter, opened the door, and pointed the red light of a flashlight onto a two-meter deep hole inside of it. Four frightened faces emerged from underneath a blanket. Syrians - two men and two women. - It's like World War II when people had to hide in pits and shacks hoping to stay alive. This is inconceivable- said one of the volunteers.

Thinking we were soldiers, the Syrians froze for a moment. They had been avoiding them for the past four days when, once again, Belarusian border guards pushed them through the wire to the Polish side. They also beat them up, took away their phones, and used tear gas on them.

 - We are exhausted. Our bodies are trembling and we can’t control it. We don't know whether it's the cold or the fear - Ali, only 25 years old, told us. He speaks fluent English. He graduated from university and is a pharmacist. He was hiding in the shelter with his brother and their wives. 

"We thought Poland was a country where human rights are respected"

Ali says President Bashar al-Assad is a bad man, a tyrant. If they stayed in Syria, they would be forcibly conscripted into the Syrian army. That would be their end. - They would make us shoot at our countrymen, our brothers. There is nothing in Syria, no future. There is no water, no food, no fuel. We just want to find a safe place to live - says Ali.

When asked why he came to Poland, he answered that people in Syria believe Poland to be a country where law and human rights are respected. It’s Europe.

They also had no plan what to do next. They knew they had to leave the shelter and move on, so as not to cause problems for the owner of the house. But where would they go? They had no idea.

We returned from the forest when it was already light outside. Another call came in immediately. Nine people were stuck in a swamp in the middle of the forest. One of them was not moving, with no signs of life. There were women among them. When we reached the place, after several hours of wandering through the forest, we only found abandoned jackets and footprints. Then the footprints broke off, and tire prints of a truck appeared on the forest road. It might have been a military truck that had taken the group back to the border. We never heard back from the people who called us. All contact broke off.

Human rights activists in Poland face persecution for helping refugees

A few days ago, four activists were detained for helping a family with seven children who had been wandering through the forest for days in search of a place where they could get warm and rest. The Polish activists were accused of helping to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country.

Activists working on the Poland-Belarus border are completely disillusioned. – Nothing has changed on the Polish-Belarusian border. There are still people here deceived by the vision of safe passage to Europe, used in a political conflict not of their making. The border strip between Poland and Belarus turned out to be a death trap for them - say the volunteers.

According to the Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH), the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is the largest the world has seen since World War II. More than 24 million Yemenis need support. - But many people don’t even see them as refugees, it’s not entirely clear why - the volunteers point out.

Amnesty International is actively monitoring the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border. - While on the border with Ukraine we see great gestures of solidarity with refugees, and authorities are working hand in hand with volunteers to help people fleeing war, on the Polish-Belarusian border, aid workers are facing increasing persecution. Just as refugees and migrants crossing this border are denied their rights, those helping them also face a range of challenges and attacks from the state- an Amnesty International activist explains.

- We will not leave. We will not be intimidated- say activists helping refugees on the Poland-Belarus border.

***

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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