After enduring a decade of war in Syria, Boshra al-Moallem and her two sisters seized their chance to flee. Her brother, who escaped years earlier to Belgium, had saved enough money for their trip, and word was spreading online that a new migration route into Europe had opened through Belarus.
But the journey proved terrifying and nearly deadly. Al-Moallem became trapped at the border of Belarus and Poland for 20 days and was pushed back and forth between armed guards from each side in an area of swamps. She endured cold nights, mosquitoes, hunger and terrible thirst. Only after she collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration did Polish guards finally take her to a hospital.
“I didn’t expect this to happen to us. They told us it’s really easy to go to Europe, to find your life, to run (from) war,” the 48-year-old said as she recovered this week in a refugee center in eastern Poland. “I didn’t imagine I would live another war between the borders.”
Al-Moallem is one of thousands of people who traveled to Belarus in recent weeks and were then pushed across the border by Belarusian guards. The European Union has condemned the Belarusian actions as a form of “hybrid war” against the bloc.
Originally from Homs, Al-Moallem was displaced to Damascus by the war. She said Belarusian officials tricked her into believing the journey into the EU would be easy and then used her as a “weapon” in a political fight against Poland. But she also says the Polish border guards were excessively harsh, denying her water and using dogs to frighten her and other migrants as the guards pushed them back across to Belarus, over and over again. For years, people fleeing war in the Middle East have made dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, seeking safety in Western Europe.
But after the arrival of more than a million people in 2015, European Union nations put up concrete and razor-wire walls, installed drone surveillance and cut deals with Turkey and Libya to keep migrants away.
The far less protected path into the EU through the forests and swamps of Eastern Europe emerged as a route only after the EU imposed sanctions on the regime of the authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashanko, following a flawed election and a harsh crackdown on protesters.
Suddenly people from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere were flying to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on tourist visas and then traveling by car — many apparently aided by smugglers — to the border.
The three EU countries that border Belarus — Poland, Lithuanian and Latvia — accuse Lukashenko of acting to destabilize their societies.
If that is indeed the aim, it is working. Poland denied entry to thousands of migrants and refused to let them apply for asylum, violating international human rights conventions. The country has had its behavior criticized by human rights groups at home and abroad.
Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesman for Poland’s special services, told The Associated Press that Polish forces always provide help to migrants if their lives are endangered. In other cases, while it might pain them not to help, Zaryn insisted that Poland must hold its ground and defend its border because it is being targeted in a high-stakes standoff with Belarus, which is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Poland is of the opinion that only by thoroughly securing our border with Belarus are we able to stop this migration route, which a route is artificially created by Lukashenko with Putin’s support. It was artificially created in order to take revenge on the entire European Union,” Zaryn said.
With six migrants found dead along the border so far and small children returned to Belarus this week, human rights workers are appalled. They insist Poland must respect its obligations under international law to allow the migrants to apply for asylum, and not push them back across the border.
“The fact that these are Lukashenko’s political actions directed against Poland and directed against the European Union is obvious to us,” said Marianna Wartecka with the refugee rights group Fundacja Ocalenie. “But this does not justify the actions of the Polish state.”
Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the head of Poland’s Roman Catholic Church, also weighed in, giving his support to medics seeking access to the border to help. “We should not allow our brethren to suffer and die on our borders,” he said.
Lukashenko denies that his forces are pushing people into Poland, but his state media have seized on Poland’s response to depict the EU as a place where human rights are not respected.
After traveling from Syria to Lebanon, al-Moallem, who was an English teacher in Syria, flew to Minsk, and from there took a taxi with her sisters and a brother-in-law to the border. Belarusian forces then guided the group to a spot to cross into Poland.
Crying as she told her story in English, Al-Moallem said that Belarusian forces told them: “It’s a really easy way to get to Poland. It’s a swamp. Just go through the swamp and up the hill, and you will be in Poland.”
“And when we were trying to get up the hill, Polish border guards pushed us back. Families, women, men, children. The children were screaming and crying,” she recalled. “I was asking Polish border guards, ‘Please just a drop of water. I’m so thirsty. I’ve been here without a drop of water.’”
But all they would do is snap back: “Go to Belarus. We are not responsible for you.”
That happened repeatedly, with the Belarusian forces taking them back, sometimes giving them nothing more than some bread, and then returning them the next night.
During her ordeal, she took videos of the desperate migrants with her phone and posted some to Facebook. Her videos and her account to the AP provide rare eyewitness evidence of the crisis at the border.
Such scenes unfold largely out of public view because Poland, following Lithuania and Latvia, declared a state of emergency along the border, which prevents journalists and human rights workers from going there.
The Polish government’s measures, which also involve bolstering border defenses with soldiers, are popular with many Poles. The conservative ruling party, which won power in 2015 on a strong anti-migrant platform, has seen its popularity strengthen in opinion polls amid the new crisis.
Despite Poland’s efforts, there are reports that some asylum-seekers have managed to cross into the EU undetected and headed farther west, often to reunite with relatives in Germany.
Al-Moallem says she and her relatives plan to leave the center where they are staying now and travel across the EU’s open borders to their brother in Belgium. They plan to seek asylum there. All she wants, she said, is for her family to be reunited after years of trauma and “to feel safe.”