• The San Juan Daily Star

Belarus offers shelter to migrants: ‘My kids were freezing and about to die’

Migrant families prepare to camp for the night on the border with Poland in Belarus, Nov. 16, 2021.

By Andrew Higgins and Marc Santora

Belarusian authorities moved to ease pressure along the country’s frontier with Poland on Wednesday, a day after the main border crossing erupted in violence — with desperate migrants hurling stones at Polish border guards who responded with tear gas and blasts from water cannons.

Hundreds of migrants are now being sheltered in a sprawling red brick warehouse a few hundred yards from the crossing, a much-needed bit of relief for scores of families who have spent weeks camped in freezing and fetid fields with little more than the clothes on their backs.

“Thank you Belarus. Thank you Belarus,” said Rebas Ali, 28. “Beautiful Belarus.”

Western officials have called the migrant crisis a “hybrid war” engineered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to punish Poland for sheltering some of his most outspoken opponents and to pressure the European Union into lifting sanctions on his country.

But if it is a battle where migrants are used as pawns, it is also an information war. On Wednesday, the Belarusians sought to portray themselves as the humanitarians.

Yuri Karayev, an aide to Lukashenko, said 1,100 migrants had already been moved from the area near the crossing known as “the jungle.” Some 800 people remained camped along the border, he said.

Asked whether they wanted to shut down the encampments entirely, he said, “That is our plan; that is our hope.”

Reporters from international news organizations, including The New York Times, were invited to witness the squalor and desperation at the border. Belarusian officials insist that the humanitarian catastrophe has been created by the EU’s refusal to abide by international law and give people fleeing war and despair the right to at least apply for asylum once they enter Poland, a member of the bloc.

Poland, eager to keep the migrants’ suffering out of the public eye, has sealed off its side of the border, barring aid workers, journalists and even doctors. On Tuesday, hundreds of migrants tried to rush into Poland, but Polish border forces used water cannons and tear gas to drive them back.

After the melee, the nationalist governing party in Poland sought to portray it as a great victory.

“Thank you to the soldiers for stopping today’s assault,” Mariusz Blaszczak, the minister of defense, tweeted Tuesday. “Poland is still safe. All soldiers currently serving on the border will receive special financial rewards.”

He said that while the pressure at the main crossing eased overnight, there were attempts to cross at multiple other points along the 250-mile border.

“The situation at the Belarusian border will not be resolved quickly,” the defense minister said Wednesday in an interview with the Polish Radio One, the national broadcaster. “We have to prepare for months, if not years.”

The total number of migrants at the border is estimated between 2,000 and 4,000, many of them from Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Poland has now deployed more than 15,000 soldiers, joining scores of border guards and police officers.

Across the border, the number of Belarusian security forces deployed has not been made public. But scores stood guard outside the warehouse, their faces covered by black balaclavas. As the crisis escalated, migrants reported being beaten by Belarusian soldiers and being directed to different areas along the Polish border.

Even as hundreds of people were grateful for a warm meal and children were given milk and juice, many in the warehouses voiced uncertainty about what would happen next.

Balia Ahmed, 31, was in the warehouse with two children — 8 and 10 — and her husband. She said she was very nervous about being there for fear of being deported but felt she had no other choice.

“My kids were freezing and about to die,” she said.

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