A State of Exceptional Cruelty: How the Militarization of EU Borders is Turning Refugees into “Weapons”

The Belarus-Poland border crisis must be understood as an ongoing crisis sparked by the militarization of EU borders. Unsurprisingly, such a dehumanizing context enables the instrumentalization of refugees as “weapons.” In her contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” the photographer and a researcher Karolina Gembara asks: How to find a way out of this hell? And what is actually happening on the ground?


I do not know how to tell this story. In the recent issue of the Strike Newspaper (an interventionist publication by the Polish group Archive of Public Protest) we quoted activists and people found in the forest at the Belarus-Poland border. As an editor I had zero words of wisdom. A lot has been already written in international media, yet it amazes and terrifies me that this nightmare doesn’t stop.

Perhaps I could start by sharing some vapid sentences with substantial information and numbers or rather: estimations. Providing facts requires an effort and critical reading as the Polish government imposed a State of Emergency in almost 200 towns and villages at the border. Nothing is clear because journalists, medics, activists or simply people who do not live within the areas subjected to the State of Emergency cannot enter, see or report from those areas and, of course, the border zone as such. But we know something.

Counting and accountability

Over 9.000 soldiers, border guards, and policemen patrol the Belarus-Poland border. It must costs a fortune, to feed them, accommodate them, and keep them warm. I saw their heated tents in a tiny village of Usnarz, where they kept a group of 32 Afghan men and women at a gun point for weeks. Helicopters fluttered at nights. During my night watch I made a simple calculation: one flight costs the equivalent of a yearly food ration for one asylum seeker. Since August a 130 km barbed razor wire fence has been constructed in fields and forests, but only as a provisional measure, as the ultimate goal is the construction of a 367 million Euro wall.

And I also know the other sort of numbers. Over last two weeks of October Grupa Granica – an informal consortium of pro-refugee organizations, individual activists, researchers, lawyers etc. – and Ocalenie Foundation received calls for help from more than 2.200 people. All stranded either in the border zone (some call it a death zone) or right at its edge, where volunteers can try to reach out to those in need of help. Officially ten people died of cold, hunger, hypothermia, and other diseases, which turned fatal under the extreme conditions. Nine seems to be an unreal number. Refugees speak about several bodies of adults and babies. They send pictures. A doctor friend asks a person in the forest “what happens with the bodies?”. “Polish soldiers throw them to Belarus.” “And what do the Belarusians do?” “They bury them.” Not all are being buried. A body of a young man was recently recovered from the border river.

There are over 12.000 people in a Facebook group called “Families without Borders.” They share fear, despair, sense of helplessness but also ideas, leaflets, and information. What else can we do? New group members ask this questions every day. Someone started a soup project (hundreds of jars filled with nutritious soups are being sent to the activists’ headquarters), someone organizes vigils in front of the Border Patrol building in Warsaw, someone goes from church to church asking Roman Catholic priests to take action, someone prints posters and even billboards, someone translates warnings about the deadly route via Minsk into Pashto, Dari, and Arabic in order to warn people who believe they can safely reach the EU, someone collects sleeping bags (synthetic, as cotton doesn’t dry), socks, chocolate, jackets (but in dark colors only, bright clothes might cause troubles), pampers and baby suits, flashlights, ibuprofen, thermos, power banks. Tones of items have already reached the border towns. Some people send money. Over 200.000 Euro have been collected in one of the online campaigns.

What else do we know? Over 7.000 people have been smuggled to Germany. One person costs around three thousand dollars. If you get caught trafficking people you could be sentenced to up to eight years in prison. Trafficking, too, could mean carrying an unconscious refugee to an ambulance.

The survey from the beginning of October says 52% Poles support push-backs. Every second person in Poland is okay with throwing children in the forest. Is my neighbor one of them? Maybe my student? My uncle?

The temperature at the border drops below zero these days.

Outrage and despair

If these numbers are not moving enough, there are hundreds of testimonies and daily reports from activists and refugees who have names, faces and voices so weak they can barely speak. So we know the age of children who reached Michałowo village and who, under the eyes of media folks and activists, were put back on a military truck and thrown in the forest: they are Aryas (8), Arin (6), Alas (4,5), and Almand (2,5).

The picture of Almand in her dirty onesie sparked an outrage and so far the biggest protest in Warsaw. We have seen the photo of little Daniel who was born on the pile of wet leaves. He and his family luckily received an interim. And we listened to Judith who was thrown over the fence by the border patrol, started bleeding and lost her unborn child. We also saw a man being taken to an ambulance. He was later “taken” away from the ward and thrown into the forest. We watched how a shattered and humiliated group of Afghans from Usnarz is being pushed to the ground, beaten and taken away. Among them Mariam, a 17 years old girl, who traveled to Poland with her cat. That gray fluffy cat who attracted so much attention in August when the group arrived at the border… But that was three months ago.

Three months without proper food, drinking water from a stream, in the cold, rain, in the same underwear. Now Mariam could look very different. If she’s alive. Since yesterday, I can’t stop thinking about Zaman and his brothers and sisters. Zaman is two, his family still has a battery in their smartphone. They are slowly dying but no one can reach them deep in the border zone.

We don’t know how many people are being stranded in the border zone. Hundreds? Thousands? Where is Aryas? What happened to that old lady who was found in Nomiki village two months ago? She was covered with mud and couldn’t walk on her own. These are the things I don’t know.

Hybrid warfare

The so-called “hybrid war” between Poland and Belarus is one of those weird wars. The Belarusian ambassador was not expelled from Warsaw. Both countries allow transit. And soldiers – instead of using weapons – throw children over the fence, there and back, up to sixteen times.

It is obvious that this hybrid war thrives on the State of Emergency that the Polish government declared. As such, the State of Emergency pretends to protect Polish territory and its citizens. But in fact it helps to suspend the legal framework that makes Poland a democratic country and member of the EU. It enables the government to turn the border zone into an “anomic space” – to use a term from Giorgio Agamben’s book “The State of Exception” (2004). In this anomic space, in which the government suspends human rights and international law, humanitarian help and freedom of speech are no longer guaranteed.

If there was a political will, the State of Emergency could be ended. And the “hybrid war” could be stopped through disarmament. How could this work?

Over a decade ago the political scientist Kelly Greenhill proposed that in case of “a war over refugees” (which, as she reveals, is a common pressure practice in the post-World War II era) the attacked country knocks the weapons out of the attacker’s hand. Alexander Lukashenko’s plan is to destabilize the EU at large and Poland in particular, who, in spite of being a sort of a dictatorship itself, does criticize the political situation in Belarus and hosts its dissidents. But the EU member could disarm the enemy by reactivating the legal framework that enables desperate people to apply for asylum. Poland has the means and the capacity not only to relocate but also to take care of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Cameroon and slowly develop a care infrastructure, shape friendly and supportive refugee policies, educate its citizens and correct xenophobic narratives. The recent civic mobilization additionally proves that this effort could be supported by society.

Unfortunately, there is no such will. For many observers and commentators it is clear that PIS, the ruling party in Poland, deliberately sustains the dramatic situation in the hope of winning the next elections. This evil strategy has worked before: in 2015, PIS promised its voters that Poland will not participate in the EU’s relocation plan designed to solve the “refugee crisis,” in 2020 president Duda attacked the LGBT community with unprecedented disgust. Targeting a minority that does not fit into the “traditional” set of values seems to guarantee a success not only among the conservative voters but also among those who are easily frightened or suffering from insecurity and precariousness produced by neoliberalism. Meanwhile, the Polish catholic church simply watches the drama and allows hateful narratives to unfold. The dehumanizing strategies deployed at the Polish-Belarusian border seemingly create a win-win situation for both tyrants – Kaczyński and Lukashenko. And it gets even worse. The EU receives a deal similar to the one with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (this time even for free?) and Frontex does not have to do its “job.”

A true real politik as we know it.

Can we, as people, accept this turn of events? Can we sleep at night knowing that Zaman is sitting on the ground in his wet clothes and an empty stomach? That he is chewing on young tree branches? How is that possible in a country where the population was locked during the Cold War and today enjoys freedom of movement?

“Perhaps Polish paranoia, widespread lack of social trust or manifestations of hate speech could also be explained by the way Poles cope, or rather fail to cope, with the trauma of World War II and its consequences, passed on to future generations.”, suggest psychologists Maja Lis-Turlejska and Paweł Holas.

Traumatized by not only witnessing the fascist “final solution” but also supporting it, the population indluged after World War II in mantra-like repetitions of the “Never again!”. However, the collective trauma goes perhaps even deeper as it is also linked to having been subjected to imperial politics, feudalism, occupations, and also our own sentimental traps, delusional decency and an awaited reparation. There is no time for healing, yet. Rather, it is time to run in the cold dark forest with bag packs filled with hot tea, bandages, powerbanks, and blankets – and to give someone perhaps another day of life.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

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