Maryla Ancipiuk likes to show how many items have been collected in the barracks of the Michalowo Volunteer Fire Department, half an hour from the border with Belarus. “Heres our water supply. Thats the most important thing at the border. We meet people in the woods with bottles full of green and brown water, which makes them sick of course.”
People are sending aid for migrants from all over Poland. The warehouse is loaded. Food, gloves, scarves, blankets, even a box of books in Polish. “We also have a lot of diapers, because there are a lot of babies among migrants. And look here: bottles, porridge, baby milk and baby clothes.”
The government? “We dont have to expect anything from that,” says the deputy mayor of the town. “They dont help, theyre just opposing. They impose all kinds of bans. They should act differently.”
Michalowo is a small municipality in the border area, with about 7000 inhabitants. The place stretches the neck for the migrants trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland. Belarusian border guards drive them to Poland, Polish soldiers try to prevent them from crossing the border with man and power. In doing so, migrants are unceremoniously pushed back. There is no need for them to apply for asylum. International law does not allow this, but under Polish law now.
Despite all attempts to stop migrants, groups succeed in crossing the border with Poland. Theres no telling how many there are. They wander for days, sometimes weeks through the vast forests of Podlachia province. Poland introduced a state of emergency at the border; a three-kilometre zone is a prohibited area for journalists and emergency workers.
Ill never lose imageagain
Ancipiuk is allowed to enter the zone as deputy mayor. Tears pop her in the eye as she talks about her daily encounters with migrants. “Here, look at this picture. Theres a little girl in my arms. I gave her some candy. She hugged me and kissed my hands. Ill never lose that image again.”
The crisis is changing its own health. “Ive been taking sedatives for a month, otherwise I wont hold it up. I dont close an eye at night. I keep looking at the thermometer how cold it is outside. I cant think of anything but those kids, those women and men in the woods. People die from the cold. I have to help them. The crisis has ruled my whole life.”
The government sees nothing in helping migrants. Those are the responsibility of Belarus, is the reasoning. After all, that country brought them to the border.
President Aleksandr Lukashenko wants to retaliate sanctions against his country by creating a migration crisis at the borders of the European Union. They were instituted after the brutally knocked down protests that followed fraudulent elections. Lukashenko once again proclaimed himself president, thousands of people were arrested.
In May, he forced a plane to land in Minsk on his way from Greece to Lithuania. On board were the opposition journalist Roman Protasevich fleed abroad and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. The EU introduced new sanctions and Lukashenko came up with a new asset: aircraft full of migrants.
But geopolitics has not been devoted to Maryla Anciupiuk. She just wants to help the migrants, even though the Polish government does not want to. Thats why she also has a green lamp in the window of her house. “Thats a sign of hope for the migrants,” she says. “A safe haven, where they can warm up, get a cup of tea. Where they can charge their power bank. And perhaps most importantly, where theyre sure the owners dont call the authorities to click them.”
The deputy mayor estimates that there are about a hundred green lights on in homes along the border with Belarus. But outside of Anciupiuk, no one in Michalowo wants to tell out loud why they want to accommodate migrants. “People fear that their neighbors call the police to tip them, that there are strangers who can come and get them. Were a divided country.”
Why do migrants take this trip? News hour spoke to migrants about their choice: