BAGHDAD – The deadly crisis that Belarus was accused of causing on its border with Europe seemed to be easing this week, raising hopes for an end to what has become a spiraling confrontation between East and West.
Yet when those who risked the trip in hopes of a better future returned to Iraq with frustrated dreams, some reported that they were violently beaten by security forces on both sides and had to endure days without food and water in freezing conditions.
Several potential asylum seekers speaking to NBC News at the Baghdad airport said they would never try the trip again and warned others not to follow suit.
You were among hundreds of Iraqis flown home from Minsk on Thursday, while the main camps on the border with Poland were also largely evacuated. According to the Belarusian state media.
The apparent descent of the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko came after weeks of pressure from the leaders of the United States, NATO and Europe, who accused him of flying in thousands of people from the Middle East and forcing them to illegally cross the border into the European Union.
However, it was unclear what would happen to the large numbers of migrants now being relocated to temporary accommodation while Polish authorities accused Belarus of trying again on Friday to push crowds to the border.
Freezing swamps and heavy blows
Speaking to NBC News on Thursday, Hussein Saadi Ahmed, 25, said after landing at Baghdad International Airport on a flight from Minsk that he tried to flee Iraq due to the deteriorating economic and security situation.
“Life here is difficult and we cannot find suitable jobs,” he said.
Like other asylum seekers, a law school graduate Ahmed said he spent around $ 3,000 to get to the border and obtained a tourist visa through a travel company to reach Belarus.
Once there, asylum seekers said Belarusian troops helped them to reach the border, but left them to their own devices and, in freezing temperatures, passed through thick swampy forests where they were trapped for days without water or food.
The harsh conditions “had a bad effect,” said Ahmed – especially on the families, including young children, who risked the trip.
And when asylum seekers nearly reached EU soil, many said they had been repulsed by Polish forces – only to face further violence when they tried to return to Belarus.
“I lived without food or water for three days, and we had to drink water from the dirty swamps,” said Ahmed. “And when we tried to cross the border, we were badly beaten by the Polish forces … When we returned, we were beaten again.”
Ahmed said he wanted to warn others not to risk the trip “because it is never possible to cross the Polish border”.
“After having that experience, I decided not to do it again,” he said.
Muhammad Hadi, 30, who says he spent around $ 5,000 on the trip, agreed, telling NBC News, “I have no intention of following the ailment I suffered within a week of leaving the country to emigrate again in this way. “
Hadi, a graduate of anthropology, also described border violence.
“When we tried to cross the fence between Poland and Belarus, the Polish forces beat us to go back,” he said. “I saw an old man being badly beaten by the Polish armed forces in front of his family.”
NBC News has contacted both the Polish Ministry of Interior and the Belarusian government but has not received any feedback.
In a statement shared with NBC News on Friday, the Belarusian embassy in the UK said “Belarus is also concerned about the current tense situation on its borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia,” which has been “exacerbated by the constant demonstrations by Western politicians”. the willingness to take in migrants for humanitarian and economic reasons that only serve to encourage and reassure potential asylum seekers. “
It says: “In view of the complete inactivity of the EU and in view of the onset of cold weather, the President of Belarus has decided to look after the children and women by offering them safe conditions on the territory of Belarus”.
“A beautiful word instead of violence”
For months, humanitarian organizations have been alerting the plight of a growing number of migrants and asylum seekers at the borders that Poland and neighboring Lithuania and Ukraine share with Belarus.
Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who is a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has denied stirring up the crisis in retaliation for European sanctions against his regime.
Lukashenko repeated the denials in an interview with the BBC on Friday. When asked if Belarusian troops are helping migrants to enter the EU, he said: “I think it is absolutely possible. We are Slavs. We have hearts. “
“Maybe someone helped them. I won’t even look at this,” he added.
On Thursday, State Secretary Antony Blinken said the US would keep a close eye on the situation on the Belarusian-Polish border.
“It is deeply unscrupulous that Lukashenko and Belarus tried to turn migration into a weapon,” Blinken told reporters during a visit to Nigeria, according to Reuters. He also warned that the US has the power to add sanctions if deemed necessary.
While Lukashenko, Putin and Western officials exchanged allegations, some in the region took matters into their own hands.
Katarzyna Staszewa, an activist who works for the Polish grassroots group Grupa Granica, a collection of nonprofits that provide relief, told NBC News in a phone interview earlier this week that many who risked the trip were in “bad shape”, some being “20, even 30 days in the forest.”
Since September, journalists, activists and human rights defenders have been largely prevented from reaching the border following the declaration of the state of emergency in Poland.
The move made it virtually impossible to provide humanitarian aid, and the rest of the world relied on the often conflicting reports from Polish and Belarusian officials.
Staszewa’s group worked to deliver food, water, medical aid and warm clothing to migrants who manage to get to Poland.
“Sometimes they are so desperate, so alone, so depressed that they just ask us to be with them so they can meet someone who offers a nice word instead of violence,” she said.
While she said that the Belarusian regime was “instrumentalizing” migrants for political gain, she said it was also the responsibility of Poland, the European Union and the international community to help them by granting asylum to those who qualify .
The EU on Wednesday promised to send around $ 800,000 worth of food, blankets and other aid to migrants at the border.
Maciej Szczęsnowicz, a Muslim community leader in the eastern Polish village of Bohoniki, also rushed to support the migrants and provide them with food and assistance.
Szczęsnowicz said it was “not just my responsibility as a Pole or as a Muslim to help, it is my responsibility as a person”.
While much of the focus was on the Polish-Belarusian border, asylum seekers have also described being brought to the Lithuanian border by Belarusian armed forces.
Two of those who returned to Iraq on Thursday said they tried to reach Poland but were arrested by Belarusian forces and taken to the Lithuanian border instead.
Both said the Belarusian Armed Forces removed the SIM cards from their phones and broke them leaving them unable to reach others.
“When I left us without water and food, I was forced to drink from the water of the swamps,” said Ali Kazem Hussein (21). “At some point I expected that my end would be there.”
Hussein, who said he wanted to leave Iraq to “secure my future and raise a family,” warned against viewing Belarus as the gateway to the EU, saying: “My advice, especially to Iraqi youth, is to not to take this step because it is “. an experience full of risks. “
“If I had the opportunity to emigrate again, I would,” he added.
“But not through Belarus.”
Khalid Razak reported from Baghdad. Chantal Da Silva and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.