By Brian Dooley
Tucked away on the edge of a forest on the Polish side of the Poland-Belarus border is a cottage with a green door. Inside is a small group of volunteers from the Catholic Intelligensia Club (known as KIK).
Since August of last year they’ve been based here, helping people stuck in the forests between the two countries. As Human Rights First has previously reported, tens of thousands of people have tried to get into the EU from Belarus over the last nine months. Many have been met with violence by the Polish authorities who push them back to the Belarus border, where they are often met with more violence by the Belarussian guards. Many have been left to freeze to death in the forests.
Poles taking food and clothes to those who have crossed the border are themselves targeted, including volunteers from KIK. Polish police have raided the house and have harassed volunteers, accused them of being people smugglers, fined them, and summoned them for questioning in connection with their humanitarian work.
One of KIK’s volunteers was arrested and charged last month in connection with her work helping people near the border, and if found guilty faces a sentence of up to eight years in prison.
“We’re just helping people who are desperate in the forest,” Anika Dowgiallo told me. She’s been volunteering at the border for KIK for many months. “We stick to the rules and operate outside the 5km [3 mile] No-Go Zone the government has imposed along the border, but we’re still targeted by the border guards, even when we’re just bringing people tea and socks.”
There is a small group from KIK at the cottage virtually all the time, and those there this week estimate that in the last nine months about 100 of the group’s volunteers have had at least one stint there, usually lasting about a week. From the cottage they make trips to the forests to help those in need. KIK estimates they have provided humanitarian aid to at least 600 people who have crossed the border, including desperate families with sick children trying to get help.
KIK has a long history in Poland, and is rooted in the anti-Soviet dissident culture from the 1950s, when it encouraged the Catholic Church to agitate against repression. Its admirable tradition makes it hard to write off today.
“KIK can’t just be dismissed as crazy kids running around the forests. We don’t fit the government stereotype of how they present activists, it’s hard to discredit us when we have this strong reputation, when we have these strong ties to the Catholic Church,” said KIK activist Marianna Komornicka.
The KIK human rights defenders want the No Go Zone to be lifted, so journalists can report what’s really happening in the forests and humanitarian workers can reach those in need. A few weeks ago, for example, the Belarussian authorities brought hundreds of people, including many women with young children and people with disabilities, to the Polish border and encouraged them to cross into the EU.
The cynicism of the Belarus government in using those fleeing from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Cuba is clear. They have a deliberate policy of pushing people into the EU to cause problems there. But those seeking protection, used as pawns in the conflict between Belarus and the EU, are suffering, often dying, in the forests as neither Poland nor Belarus wants to accept them.
“We see people dying from hunger and hypothermia. What are we, as Christians, supposed to do?” asks another KIK volunteer, Katarzyna Rokicka-Muller. The KIK group also brings soup and sleeping bags to those freezing in the forests.
The issue has split the country, with Poland’s largely pro-government media often demonizing the refugees and those who help them. Many families are now politically polarized, and many of the KIK volunteers face difficult conversations with their relatives about their humanitarian work. “Most people in Poland don’t believe this is happening, or just don’t know it’s happening,” said Rokicka-Muller.
There is also the double standard of how Polish authorities have reacted to those fleeing the war in Ukraine compared to how they treat those fleeing wars in Syria or Yemen.
KIK also operates a hostel near Warsaw for those escaping the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It mostly caters for non-Ukrainian refugees from Ukraine. KIK estimates there were about 80,000 foreign students in Ukraine before the war, mostly from Africa and India. It says in the first days of the invasion many of these students were not helped to leave the country and were forced to camp on the border with Poland. Now things are better, and the hostel provides temporary shelter for many people leaving Ukraine.
Dowgiallo is one of the KIK volunteers who helps both at the hostel and at the cottage. “You have to ask yourself in such a situation what is the right thing, the moral thing to do, when you know people are freezing and starving to death nearby,” she said. “For me, what I’m doing here near the border this week is core Christianity. This is how we prepare for Easter.”