As the crisis at Europe’s borders eases, migrants face a return to the reality they sought to escape

BAGHDAD – The deadly crisis Belarus has been accused of creating on its border with Europe appears to have subsided this week, raising hopes for the end of what had become a spiraling confrontation between the East and the Where is.

Yet as those who risked the trip in hopes of a better future returned to Iraq with their frustrated dreams, some described being severely beaten by security forces on both sides and enduring days without food or water. in freezing conditions.

Several potential asylum seekers who spoke to NBC News at the Baghdad airport said they would never attempt the trip again and warned others not to follow their example.

They were among hundreds of Iraqis repatriated from Minsk on Thursday, while the main camps on the border with Poland have also been largely cleared, according to Belarusian state media.

The apparent descent of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko came after weeks of pressure from the United States, NATO and European leaders who accused him of bringing in thousands of people from Middle East and push them to attempt to cross the border illegally into the European Union.

But it was unclear what would happen to dozens of migrants now relocated to temporary accommodation, while Polish authorities accused Belarus of stepping up efforts on Friday to push the crowds back to the border.

Frozen swamps and violent blows

Speaking to NBC News on Thursday after landing at Baghdad International Airport on a flight from Minsk, Hussein Saadi Ahmed, 25, said he had sought to flee Iraq due to an aggravation the economic and security situation.

“Life here is difficult and we cannot find suitable jobs,” he said.

Like other asylum seekers, Ahmed, a law school graduate, said he spent around $ 3,000 to get to the border, obtaining a tourist visa through a travel agency. journey to reach Belarus.

Once there, the asylum seekers said Belarusian forces helped them reach the border, but left them to fend for themselves, navigating thick swamp forests in freezing temperatures, where they were trapped. for days without food or water.

The harsh conditions “took a toll,” Ahmed said, especially on families, including young children, who risked the trip.

Hussein Saadi Ahmed.Khalid Razak

And when asylum seekers nearly reached EU soil, many said they were pushed back by Polish forces – only to face further violence when they tried to return to Belarus.

“I lived for three days without food or water, and we had to drink the water from the dirty swamps,” Ahmed said. “And when we tried to cross the border, we were badly beaten by Polish forces … When we tried to come back, we were beaten again.”

Ahmed said he wanted to warn others not to risk the trip “because it is never possible to cross to the Polish border”.

“After going through this 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 migrating again in this way after the suffering I endured for a week. after leaving the country. “

Hadi, a graduate in anthropology, also described the violence at the border.

“When we tried to cross the fence between Poland and Belarus, the Polish forces beat us to come back,” he said. “I saw an old man being severely beaten by Polish forces in front of his family.”

NBC News has contacted the Polish Interior Ministry, as well as the Belarusian government, but has not received a response either.

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 it said , “has been exacerbated by the constant protests by Western politicians of willingness to accept migrants for humanitarian and economic reasons, which only serve to encourage and reassure potential asylum seekers.

He said that “in view of the total inaction of the EU and in view of the onset of cold weather, the President of Belarus has taken the decision to take care of children and women, offering them conditions of security in the territory of Belarus “.

“A kind word instead of violence”

For months, humanitarian organizations have sounded the alarm bells over the plight of a growing number of migrants and asylum seekers at the borders that neighboring Poland and Lithuania and Ukraine share with Belarus.

Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader who is a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has denied fomenting the crisis in retaliation for European sanctions against his regime.

Lukashenko repeated the denials in a BBC interview on Friday. But, when asked if Belarusian troops are helping migrants enter the EU, he replied: “I think it is entirely possible. We are Slavs. We have heart. “

“Maybe someone helped them. I won’t even look into that,” he added.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would closely monitor the situation on the Belarus-Poland border.

“It is deeply unacceptable that Lukashenko and Belarus sought to militarize migration,” Blinken told reporters on a visit to Nigeria, according to Reuters. He also warned that the United States had the power to add sanctions if deemed necessary.

As Lukashenko, Putin and Western officials exchanged accusations, some in the region took matters into their own hands.

Katarzyna Staszewa, an activist working for a Polish base Grupa Granica, a collection of nonprofit organizations providing aid, told NBC News in a telephone interview earlier this week that many of those who risked the trip were in “bad shape” with some having “spent 20, even 30 days in the woods.”

Since September, journalists, activists and human rights defenders have largely been prevented from reaching the border after Poland declared a state of emergency.

The move made the delivery of humanitarian aid virtually impossible and left the rest of the world to trust the often contradictory accounts of Polish and Belarusian officials.

Staszewa’s group has made efforts to provide food, water, medical aid and warm clothing to migrants who manage to make it to Poland.

“Sometimes they’re so desperate, so lonely, so depressed that they just reach out to ask us to be with them, so they can meet someone who can offer a kind word instead of violence.” , she said.

While she said the Belarusian regime was “instrumenting” migrants for political ends, she said it was also the responsibility of Poland, the European Union and the international community to help them by granting asylum for eligible persons.

The EU on Wednesday pledged to send around $ 800,000 in food, blankets and other aid to migrants at the border, after criticizing it for doing too little to help those who saw the bloc as a place where they could enjoy a better future.

Maciej Szczęsnowicz, a leader of the Muslim community in the village of Bohoniki in eastern Poland, also rushed to support the migrants and provide them with food and support.

SzczÄ™snowicz said it was “not only my responsibility as a Pole or as a Muslim to help, it is my responsibility as a human being”.

While much of the focus has been on the Polish-Belarusian border, asylum seekers have also described being taken to the Lithuanian border by Belarusian forces.

Two of those who returned to Iraq on Thursday said they tried to reach Poland but were apprehended by Belarusian forces and taken to the Lithuanian border.

Both said Belarusian forces removed SIM cards from their phones and broke them, so that they had no way of reaching others.

Ali Kazem Hussein.Courtesy of Ali Kazem

“Leaving us without food or water, I found myself forced to drink water from the marshes,” said Ali Kazem Hussein, 21. “At one point, I expected my end to be here.”

Hussein, who said he wanted to leave Iraq to “secure my future and start a family,” warned against seeing Belarus as a gateway to the EU, saying “my advice, in especially for young Iraqis, is not to take this step because it is an experience full of risks.

“If I had the option to immigrate again, I would,” he added.

“But not through Belarus.”

Khalid Razak reported from Baghdad. Chantal Da Silva and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.

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