The Hottest Forest in the World
With Wagner troops hovering, the woods between Poland and Belarus have become kindling for a heated election campaign.
Cans of food and bottles of water marked with Cyrillic script. A thick glove, one finger torn off. A flip-flop sandal.
Cans of food and bottles of water marked with Cyrillic script. A thick glove, one finger torn off. A flip-flop sandal.
These are just some of the hastily discarded possessions Mariusz Kurnyta finds on a sunny July afternoon cleaning up the woods near the Bialowieza primeval forest that crosses Poland’s eastern border with Belarus.
“We pick up the stuff they leave because they can’t do it themselves, because they run for their lives,” Kurnyta said. Agnieszka Gryz, a recent university graduate spending the summer volunteering with Kurnyta’s team, steps in to translate from Polish: “[It’s] just a small gesture.”
Thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants each year enter the European Union from Belarus. Some of the most vulnerable—from Syria, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Afghanistan—make their journey surreptitiously through the Bialowieza Forest—548 square miles of grassy wetlands, river valleys, and centuries-old trees. Deer flit between the tall spruce, alder, and oak, and the sound of a woodpecker hammering through an old tree occasionally fills the air.
The number of crossings along this border has fallen since the beginning of the border crisis in 2021, but activists and the Polish Border Guard suggest it may be increasing once again. The head of the Polish Border Guard said that so far this year 19,000 people have tried to cross the Polish-Belarusian border illegally, up from 16,000 for all of last year.
The migrants make this journey with the tacit support of Belarus. The country has been accused of being complicit in human smuggling operations, maintaining an easy visa scheme to aid in their journeys, and using border guards to push refugees on the Belarusian border toward Poland if they try to give up on crossing. And while Belarus has not explicitly encouraged refugees as of late, in June, dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko offered blanket visa-free travel to Belarus through much of July for many of the countries from which refugees flee, ostensibly for a world arts festival in Vitebsk.
In Poland, asylum-seekers face new difficulties. They talk about dodging Polish border guards who block migrants from crossing into the country or even send them back to Belarus. That’s despite a 2022 Polish court decision that made such “pushbacks” without due process illegal. The forest becomes a place to hide while they wait for smugglers to take them west to friendlier member states.
Kurnyta is a lean, bearded man who moves through tangled branches as easily as the summer breeze. He used to work in construction, but he now works full-time with the Wolno Nam Foundation and its subsidiary, Podlaskie Voluntary Humanitarian Rescue, the latter of which sprung up as a result of the wave of migration on the border. He has received awards in Poland for helping dehydrated, exhausted refugees.
Earlier this summer, Podlaskie Voluntary Humanitarian Rescue got a WhatsApp message from a woman in Syria. She hadn’t heard from her husband, Tarek, for nine days since crossing the border into Poland. The last dropped pin he had sent her from his phone was still deep in the Polish side of the woods. Kurnyta hadn’t eaten lunch yet. He grabbed an energy bar and headed out with his friends. But he was not optimistic. “You can’t last out there more than a week without water,” he said.
Kurnyta followed the trail from that dropped pin to find Tarek lying in tall thickets of wet grass. In several days, he had only managed to move 260 feet from his last location.
Today, the question is whether migrants like Tarek will face an even more difficult path going forward as tensions between Belarus and Poland run high. Belarus is amping up its support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and now hosts Russia’s Wagner paramilitary force; Lukashenko jokes with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Wagner mercenaries itching to visit Poland. Meanwhile, the steady flow of people across its border from Belarus has focused Polish politics on the issues of border protection and migration. This week, the Polish president announced that Poland’s parliamentary elections had been scheduled for Oct. 15.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, in particular, has made the border a focal point of its reelection efforts. In late July, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki drew a direct link between the migrants and Wagner mercenaries, positing that Wagner could facilitate refugees’ crossing as a form of “hybrid warfare”—or even that the mercenaries could pose as migrants themselves to enter the EU. “[We are] defending the whole border … so that illegal immigrants do not flood Poland,” he said. In the capital of Warsaw, a banner promising “Bronimy Polskej Granicy” (“we defend the Polish border”) is draped over the Ministry of the Interior, portraying border guards across a fence holding back a faceless crowd.
Law and Justice has long maintained a lead in the polls, but that lead has been fluctuating in recent months. “Migration is one of the topics, they assume, that can mobilize their voters,” said Tom Junes, an assistant professor at the Polish Academy of Science’s Institute of Political Studies in Warsaw. “It’s an opportunity the [Polish] government sees to publicize the potential migration issue and link it to the war.” Morawiecki has promised to spend 4 percent of GDP on defense this year, up from 2.4 percent last year.
The governing party is not alone in seizing on the border as campaign fodder. Early this July on social media, de facto opposition leader Donald Tusk called for “control” over Poland’s borders and accused Law and Justice of allowing in too many immigrants from countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
The anti-migration rhetoric may be heated up for public consumption, but experts say that the fear of Wagner at the border, and what the group’s mercenaries might do, is not unfounded. In July, Minsk announced hundreds of the mercenaries were training Belarusian special forces in the west of the country, near its approximately 250-mile border with Poland. Recently, Wagnerites were seen moving toward Poland’s northeastern border with Lithuania, a small strip of EU land that separates Belarus’s northwest corner from Russia’s seaside territory of Kaliningrad, as Belarus also sent low-flying helicopters into Polish airspace.
Liam O’Shea, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said the bigger threat of Wagner is not as an overt tool of the Russian or Belarusian state but as a group of thugs with too much time on their hands who might try to get involved in various money-making opportunities such as organized crime. The possibility that they’d help with human smuggling is not implausible. “They’ve proven to be unpredictable,” O’Shea said. “I can see why the Poles would be worried.”
In response to Wagner’s recent moves, Polish officials assigned 500 police officers and sent 1,000 additional troops to the border region of Podlasie, home to the forest where so many migrants cross. (This week, the country’s interior minister promised they would send up to 10,000 more toward the border.)
Anna Alboth of Grupa Granica, a group that provides aid and monitors the situation at the Polish border, believes this is “just a rhetorical, symbolic move.” Migrants will often do anything to find a way across, Alboth said. Instead, what she asks herself is whether Poland will once again implement movement restrictions in the area around the Belarusian border that prevent humanitarians from helping migrants—and journalists from witnessing their work. That happened in 2021, when the migrant crisis at this border was at its peak; Alboth said Polish rhetoric about migrants today is reminiscent of that time.
In Podlasie, where Kurnyta lives, soldiers stroll along small-town sidewalks while police pull over cars to look for migrants inside. Michalina, who volunteers with several organizations in the region and declines to give her last name, is asked to stop. She unceremoniously pops her trunk and moves on. Michalina has spent the day sweeping for trash with Kurnyta and Gryz and is of two minds about the buildup of Polish forces in the area. She thinks Poland needs to defend itself from Wagner, but she also worries that more security services in the area might make the journey more difficult for refugees. “When the soldiers are there, it’s really difficult … to find them, to give them food and water and to fulfill these needs,” she said. On the other hand, she said, “this is connected with our national safety.”
Belarus has become a key asset to Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, while Poland is one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters in what has become an existential war for survival. Unlike refugees from farther afield, Ukrainian refugees streaming in on the southeastern border have been welcomed in Poland, with more than 1.3 million Ukrainians still in the country a year and a half after Russia’s full-scale invasion began.
Even before Russia’s war in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland had an increasingly fraught relationship. After Poland supported Belarus’s grassroots opposition movement in 2021, Russia’s ally weaponized the dreams of desperate people looking for a better life by flying planes full of asylum-seekers from various countries in the global south to Minsk, then depositing them at European Union borders. These migrants often found themselves trapped in a game of ping-pong between two state forces. After negotiations between Belarus and European leaders, the rush of manufactured migration slowed somewhat, and in 2022, Poland completed a 115-mile border wall. But even with the wall, some people still find a path to Europe by digging tunnels or climbing over the barrier, often with Belarusian forces pointing dogs at their backs.
In the manicured border town of Krynki, 40 miles north of the forest, a job ad for Polish border guards is stapled up beside ads for newly built barns on a board in the town square. Cameroonian refugee Njenguoue Livine is buried in the Catholic cemetery; she died earlier this year trying to make the crossing from Belarus. In spring, her body was fished out of the Swislocz river that demarcates the border between Poland and Belarus nearby. Miroslaw Miniszewski, a writer and professor who lives there, helped organize her burial and raise money for her parents to attend and say their goodbyes.
“You can drown in the swamp, and from October to May, in the night, you just freeze,” Miniszewski said. “Winter is horrible.”
Miniszewski is haunted by the bodies he has seen. According to Grupa Granica, 48 people are confirmed to have died since the crisis began in 2021, and 300 people are still missing.
But not every journey ends in tragedy. When Kurnyta and his team went looking for Tarek in June, they were sure they would find a corpse. They didn’t. Tarek’s ankles were injured, and he was stuck in the swamp. His skin was breaking and white from moisture—trench foot, but also on his hands. Kurnyta changed his clothes, wrapped him in a foil blanket, and carried him out of the forest on his back. “We made the impossible happen,” Kurnyta said.
Tarek went to the hospital and is now in a locked detention center in Poland, waiting to be considered for asylum. His wife and kids remain in Syria. And Kurnyta keeps heading into the forest, looking for people near dropped pins.
Katie Toth is a journalist and Erasmus Mundus scholar with the Vaclav Havel Joint Master Programme in European Politics and Society. She is based in Krakow.
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