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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Belarus border: Scrambling for facts in Europe’s new crisis


At a checkpoint near the Polish border, soft rock blared out from a patrol car blocking our path as the police radio channel sporadically burst into life.

This discordant cacophony rang out to the freezing woods where Europe’s latest crisis is unfolding – and where it’s difficult to establish hard facts and cut through the noise.

This is because the bleak spectacle has so far been played out in an area where journalists and aid agencies have been barred from entering.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, has been reluctant to allow independent observation of the human misery conveyor belt he is accused of creating.

This Polish interior ministry screengrab shows children behind the razor-wire fence

However, EU member Poland is under fire for maintaining a state of emergency on its own border, preventing journalists and humanitarian organisations from entering.

Polish authorities claim this is due to a lack of safety, a claim that opposition politicians are challenging. After all, media freedom is one of the European Union’s fundamental rights.

Both sides are filling the on-the-ground void left by journalists with well-crafted social media posts, each accusing the other of human rights violations. Poland’s defence ministry is in an online battle with the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus for retweets and views.

This bizarre yet telling storey of our times was exemplified by one example released on Friday.

Warsaw released an official video showing Polish troops filming Belarusian troops across the barbed wire border while filming a group of children.

The same scenario is told in two very different ways. According to Minsk, this captures the compassion of Belarusian troops playing with children. According to the Warsaw explanation, this is yet another example of young migrants being manipulated for a shameful photo op.

It is frequently impossible to confirm what is going on in these state-sponsored social media volleys, but they cannot be ignored. As a result, we’ve used some in our reports while labelling who wants you to see them – a reminder that this could be ammunition in a raging propaganda war.

This is one of many images provided by a Belarus state news agency photographer at the border

What distinguishes this migration crisis from previous ones is that the people at the heart of what is happening are making their voices heard – and not through the lens of the media. There were Facebook Lives at the start of this week’s surge to the border, documenting what was happening on the ground.

Phone batteries appear to be running low in some cases now, so the initial flood of images has died down. However, this has been the primary source of information for international media outlets attempting to report on what is going on.

Aziz told us daily by video call what was going on at the border

Producer Bruno Boelpaep, cameraman Xav Vanpevenaege, and I had to use a variety of methods to explain a storey that we were close to but ultimately unable to complete.

We’ve recorded daily video calls with people like Aziz, an Iraqi Kurd scientist. He’s been our virtual tour guide through the makeshift camps, showing us the border police, tents, and fires that not only provide warmth but also light up this depressing scene.

“We don’t have any food. Nobody is doing anything because it is so cold “Aziz told us in his most recent voice call that he hoped to move along the border soon in the hopes of finding a way to Polish and EU territory.

What happens in the forest between these two countries has geopolitical ramifications far beyond their borders.

The United States and six other members of the United Nations Security Council have condemned Belarus’s welcoming of migrants as an attempt to destabilise Europe, an accusation the EU has levelled for months.

Russia has retaliated, accusing Western powers of hypocrisy and dismissing Poland’s claim that President Vladimir Putin is orchestrating the chaos.

Moscow has publicly joined the growing social media conflict, posting videos purportedly showing two of its bombers patrolling Belarusian airspace in a show of solidarity and not-so-subtle show of strength.

On the ground, at the epicentre of the crisis, we found Urszula Zielinska, a Green MP, trying to get her own message out with the help of a colleague streaming live on their phones.

This was the Bialowieza forest checkpoint where messages from police headquarters as well as hits from the 1990s reverberated from the patrol car.

She, too, as an elected MP, is barred from entering the restricted area.

“We’re in the midst of a humanitarian crisis,” she explained. “The situation is undeniably difficult for Poland; no one disputes that, but we should deal with it in a humanitarian manner consistent with the Geneva Convention and European law, rather than pushing people back and playing ping-pong with human beings, as is currently taking place.”

That ping-pong game was something we heard firsthand when we visited this area in September and discovered a group of ten men who had managed to cross the border and were afraid they were going to freeze to death.

They came from a variety of countries, including Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Cameron, and Sri Lanka, and they all described how Belarusian forces stole their phones and passports and led them to a hidden crossing before being beaten and pushed back by Polish forces.

According to Kelly, a Nigerian, both countries were kicking them back and forth like a football.

Belarus is accused of enlisting thousands of people, mostly men, and using them as pawns in a cynical geopolitical game. Poland is accused of illegally rebuffing them.

If this is a macabre spectator sport, it is being curated in a carefully calibrated way for global consumption, far from public view.

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