A Belarusian airline pass from Dubai to Minsk departed under a birch tree. A children’s overall abandoned next to the old railway track, linking Belarus with Poland. A palette of eye shadow hidden among brown, wet leaves.
These are not regular sights in the Bialowieza Forest, one of the last remaining areas of forest that used to extend across Europe, home to bison and deer. The people who meet them are also not regular migrants. They are residents and activists seeking asylum seekers from the Middle East, victims of a conflict between a Belarusian government trying to channel them into Poland, and a Polish government, backed by the European Union, keen to prevent them.
“We used to come to the forest in search of the beauty of nature,” said Iza, a local resident who helped asylum seekers, and who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of consequences from authorities and for-. correct groups. “Now we’re looking for things that seem out of place.”
Faced with a growing humanitarian crisis and an almost total absence of state support, locals intervened, providing migrants with food, water, warm clothing and electricity banks. They are constantly patrolling the forest, looking for people in need.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t even look into their eyes,” said Maciej Jaworski, who lives near the border in what is known as the exclusion zone, which the Polish authorities designate as an outpost for non-residents. “I can give them food and water, talk to them. If they don’t need medical help, that’s almost it. “
Sometimes they spot migrants, trembling under ancient trees, hungry and desperate. Medical volunteers reported that on Wednesday night, they found a Syrian couple suffering from serious injuries who said their one-year-old baby had died in the cold weeks before they tried to make their way through forests on either side of the border. .
But more the helpers find objects: haunting traces of people who have passed through and disappeared. Some appear to have been abandoned in a hurry. A backpack filled with documents written in Arabic, one page carefully folded into a green-red jewelry box. Warm shoes scattered at the edge of the forest.
“This probably means they are running away from border guards,” said Iza’s husband, who asked to be identified only as Roman. “If they rushed to get into a smuggler’s car, they would take the documents with them.” Since the beginning of the crisis, many asylum seekers have been promptly pushed back into Belarus by Polish guards.
A pile of empty backpacks, sleeping bags and waterproof jackets left in a meadow, where the forest transforms into vast fields, betrays the place of a loading bay for smugglers who drive some of the asylum seekers who cross the forest further west, to Germany.
Some objects hang on trees – like a trouser leg, carefully folded on a branch, lying under an empty tuna box with a Belarusian label. Maybe that person came out of the woods. Iza recognized the pants as part of a rescue package she had hung on a tree a few days earlier. “We’re going to give them to someone else now,” she said. “Winter is coming.”