Trapped in the forest between Poland and Belarus for seven days in subzero temperatures, Aryan Wali Zellmi had no access to shelter, sanitation or medical assistance, and was forced to survive off the little food he had.
“On one side, in front of them, were Polish security forces, hurting them, shouting at them. They didn’t let them sleep during the night in the forest,” Aryan’s uncle in Iraq told the Standard.
“On the other side, the Belarusian police didn’t allow them to go to get wood for making fires, the situation for them was like a prison. In front of them, police, behind them, police”.
Finally, on reaching the Kuznica checkpoint–the official border crossing into Poland from Belarus–the 25-year-old Kurdish graduate and the group of migrants he was with were turned on by Polish security forces, who doused them with water cannons and pushed them back into no-man’s land.
Speaking from the camp, he said: “Unfortunately I, and those here with me, have become pawns in the wider issues between Poland and Belarus.
“We have not come with the intention of being invaders, but to establish ourselves in the EU, to work and contribute and lead a meaningful life.”
Aryan made the decision to travel to Europe with his sights set on finding work after not being able to find opportunities in his hometown of Halabja, in northern Iraq.
He, like thousands of other young people, are leaving the Middle East because they have no trust in their governments and feel like they don’t have a good quality of life, Aryan’s uncle, Momen Zellmi, said from his home in Erbil, northern Iraq.
Aryan knew the journey wouldn’t be easy. He had already made one attempt, which saw him stranded in Minsk airport for three days before being forced to return home.
Undeterred, two weeks ago he flew again from Baghdad, via Dubai, to Belarus. Aryan spent a few days in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, before travelling with other migrants to the border with Poland.
There he spent a week in the dense forest before getting caught up in the border confrontation and ultimately ending up in the camp.
At the camp he ate his first full meal in ten days–rice–and slept. The temperature improved slightly, providing brief respite.
His family say they are sick with worry; his father has not been able to work since Aryan left Iraq, while his mother waits by the phone for news.
It is difficult for Aryan to communicate with his family without access to electricity to charge his phone and he can lose contact for days at a time.
They have not heard from him since Wednesday morning, but are less frightened now he is out of the forest and in the camp.
His uncle said the situation is “exhausting” for them all.
His nephew saw young children with no milk or food to eat while in the forest, and went for 10 days without access to sanitation or medical assistance. His health is ailing, having developed an infection and he was struggling to breathe.
“The tension between Poland and Belarus is increasing dramatically,” Mr Zellmi, a Kurdish researcher and analyst, said.
“Our relatives on the border will now become a victim of that tension, which is a political tension between Belarus, Russia and the European countries. We believe [migrants] are paying with their lives in that situation,” Aryan’s uncle said.
All Aryan’s family say he can do now is wait in the “prison-like” camp until the European Union decides his fate.
“They believe there is some kind of hope from the EU to decide. They are just waiting, waiting and waiting,” he said.
Migrants gather on the Belarusian-Polish border
Since mid-September, tens of thousands of migrants have attempted to cross into Poland from Belarus. Figures show there have been 24,500 attempted crossings this year, compared with 120 in the whole of last year. Most are from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East and Africa.
At least eight people, including a 14-year-old Kurdish boy, are believed to have died at the Poland-Belarus border. All non-residents including aid workers, foreign observers and aid workers have been banned from entering a 1.9-mile strip along the border, effectively cutting off those who are stuck there from any help.
Poland and the EU have accused Belarus of pushing migrants to the border to destabilise the EU, in retaliation to sanctions imposed on the country following last year’s disputed presidential election of Alexander Lukashenko. President of the European Council, Charles Michel, described the situation as a “hybrid attack” in Warsaw last week.
“We think that is totally outrageous,” he said. “It’s in violation of all the principles and norms of international law, and yet a further demonstration of outrageous behaviour of the Lukashenko regime.”
Belarus denies the claims.