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April 11, 2022

Poland's Secret Heroes

By Brian Dooley

For now, their real names must be kept hidden: locals along Poland’s border with Belarus who are secretly helping refugees in the forests that straddle the two countries.

Since August 2021, tens of thousands of people have attempted to cross from Belarus into Poland. No one knows how many have succeeded. Most come from the Middle East or Africa, they are often fleeing conflict. Many are women and small children.

The Belarussian government, a close ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, has encouraged the migrants to come to Belarus, promising to take them to the border of the European Union. Belarus aims to cause problems for the EU by spilling the migrants across its borders with Latvia, Lithuania, and -- most often -- Poland.  In response, the Polish authorities have imposed a three-mile exclusion zone on their side of the border with Belarus.  Journalists, humanitarian aid workers and others aren’t allowed to enter.

The migrants, in stark contrast to those fleeing the war in Ukraine, have been met with hostility and violence by Polish border guards and other security forces.  Also targeted by the authorities are the local activists who give humanitarian aid to the migrants, many of whom are forced to spend days or weeks in the freezing forests.

People living near the border are faced with a difficult choice. It’s dangerous and unlawful to help the migrants. In recent weeks, five people have been charged in relation to their work helping the migrants, and if found guilty they face eight years in prison.

“We saw what was happening to people left starving and frightened in the forest,” Anna*, who lives near the border, told me. “We had a family discussion at the table and talked about the risks, what might happen to us if we were caught helping people. But we all agreed we had to. As Polish people, we were brought up with stories of those brave families who helped Jewish people during the Second World War. We decided to help.”

She said they have to keep what they are doing secret.  Their neighbors don’t know what they do and wouldn’t approve. “Their political views are very different to ours,” she said.

Up and down the border Polish families are deciding if and how to help the people stranded in the forests. Many of the migrants are desperate. At least 21 people have frozen to death in these forests, trapped between Polish guards who prevent them moving west, and Belarussian guards who beat them if they return east to Belarus. 

Scattered along Poland’s border towns and villages I have met many people taking enormous personal risks to secretly help the migrants. 

They take food and warm clothes to those in the forests. Some find medical help for the sick. Others hide refugees in their homes.  Hearing these stories, it’s hard not to think of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Underground Railroad in the United States, where those fleeing slavery were hidden in safe houses as they escaped to freedom.

Locals along the Polish border who help migrants tell of being stopped, detained and harassed by the security forces suspicious of their humanitarian work. “The police shine lights into my house,” Marianna* told me. “They suspect me, I’m sure. I’ve been given various fines for being in the Forbidden Zone, been detained by police for hours at a time, and accused of being a people smuggler.”

These locals are helping the unpopular migrants, those running from the Taliban in Afghanistan, not those escaping Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It’s hard when the refugees from Yemen or Syria who are fleeing conflicts and wars ask why they’re being treated so differently in Poland from the refugees leaving Ukraine,” said Anna. 

She and her family have no deadline for when they will stop helping those in need. “It’s stressful, not knowing if those we help will be caught, not knowing if we will be caught, but we will continue doing this, we have to, for as long as it takes,” she said.

These local heroes are largely unknown. One day they should be national icons, but for now their work is too risky for their identities to be revealed.

*The names of those quoted have been changed for their protection.