The devastating ways women suffer at the Poland-Belarus border
Women refugees say they have miscarried, been separated from their children by border guards, and been hospitalised.
Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities
Sokolka, Poland – When 28-year-old Shirin*, an Iraqi Kurd, crossed the border from Belarus into Poland with her seven-year-old son Ali*, she did not expect to end up unconscious and immobile in the freezing woods.
“Me and my son survived only by miracle,” Shirin told Al Jazeera from a hospital in a Polish border town, a day after she was loaded into an ambulance.
Her body was covered in injuries and blisters from the cold.
“I will never forget what I have seen in the woods,” she said. “I have seen so many children and babies there. Their mothers were screaming and praying for a miracle. The adults could barely survive, so what chance do babies have?
“These images will be haunting me until I die.”
Shirin fled the Kurdish region of Iraq with Ali, her only child, and her husband Afran* on October 22.
But when Belarusian police saw them attempting to cross the border into Poland, they intervened and pushed Afran back deeper into Belarus, according to her testimony.
Shirin crossed the border alone and spent 21 days in the woods with Ali.
“My son was crying: ‘Please, my father, please, my father,’ but we didn’t know if he was alive or dead. We ended up alone, freezing, with no food.”
Shirin cried and shook as she told Al Jazeera her story. Both her legs and one arm were bandaged. She was unable to walk.
She still does not know where her husband is.
‘I don’t know where she is’
Thousands of women and children have made attempts to reach the European Union by entering Poland in recent weeks, as a migration crisis that began in August escalates.
Crowds of people are now stranded between the border that separates Belarus and Poland. They travelled to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, on a promise that they would be able to breach the fence and enter the EU country.
Poland and its Western allies say Belarus encouraged people, mostly from the Middle East, to the country in an attempt to push them towards the border and destabilise Europe – an act of revenge for Western sanctions on the administration of President Alexander Lukashenko.
There is no official data about the numbers of people at the Belarus-Poland border, but Agnieszka Kosowicz, head of the Polish Migration Forum, an NGO supporting refugees and migrants in Poland, told Al Jazeera that “2,666 women have applied for asylum in Poland this year alone, out of a total of 6,697″.
She said while women’s stories are covered less often by the media than those of men, women represent a significant percentage of the migrating population.
“We know for sure that women are present at the border based on local volunteers’ everyday testimonies.
“Volunteers talk about women so weak they cannot walk or attend to their children, about women who cry over their children who are hungry, and women who mourn lost babies – children they lost as a result of miscarriage, or literally lost their children while walking in the forest at night,” she said.
Azin Govand*, a 27-year-old asylum seeker from the Iraqi Kurdish region who is now in Minsk, has not seen her three-year-old daughter Shewa* or her husband since Belarusian authorities allegedly separated the family at the border.
At the same time, Azin said the authorities pushed her back into Belarus.
“I haven’t heard from my husband and daughter for more than seven days,” Azin told Al Jazeera by phone, from a Belarusian number.
“I recently saw a picture of a baby girl dressed in the same clothes as my daughter on social media. The girl was lying on the floor near the border, face down,” she said. “It could have been my daughter. I don’t know where she is.”
Kosowicz said several families have been split up at the border or become separated in the forests.
This includes, for example, when a parent is taken to hospital while the children are left in the forests, or people getting lost, or as people are pushed back by border officials on both sides of the frontier.
Amid the chaos, cases of miscarriage have been documented. Other women have been found with young babies with severe medical problems.
A one-year-old Syrian baby boy is believed to be the youngest victim of the refugee crisis at the border. The cause of his reported death has not yet been established.
Nazanin*, an Iraqi Kurdish woman who was recently rescued from the Polish woodlands near the Belarus border after having spent a month there, told Al Jazeera that “only God saved her [seven-month-old] baby from dying.”
She and her husband had fled Zakho, a region near the border with Turkey and Syria, because they were exposed to shooting and shelling.
“The baby was freezing,” Nazanin said. “She was crying because of the cold every night.
“We only had a T-shirt and one sweater for the baby, no other clothes, and no nappies,” she said.
“We were told the journey would be short, and ran out of food quickly. We haven’t eaten for 10 days, and walked seven or eight kilometres (four to five miles) without shoes,” she said, pointing to her frostbitten feet.
“During all that time, we had to drink dirty water given to us by Belarusian guards, or water that we found in the swamps. We were all sick.”
Karol Wilczynski, director of the Salam Lab NGO working against Islamophobia in Poland, who has been helping the stranded refugees, told Al Jazeera that he has seen several women and babies in need.
“The most horrific and moving scene I have ever witnessed was that of a 49-year old grandmother with her two-year-old granddaughter,” Wilczynski said. “When we found them, the grandmother was unconscious and had severe hypothermia – only 34 degrees (93.2F) of body temperature. By some miracle, the baby survived.”
He said an emergency services operator refused to send an ambulance and threatened to call border guards “to deal with the refugees”.
“We then called Border Aid, a group of paramedic volunteers, who said the grandmother would have died if she had stayed there any longer. I cannot imagine what would have happened to the baby,” Wilczynski said.
He has been volunteering with Grupa Granica, an umbrella organisation providing aid at the border which supported 1,000 people from November 8 to 12.
“Out of the 1,000 people, 10 percent were children, and more than 25 percent were women,” he said. “Out of the remaining 65 percent of men, a huge part were vulnerable.”
Sarkawt*, 36, spent about a month in the woods, with his wife Nazdar* and their three children aged six, eight, and nine.
The cold and lack of drinkable water hit Nazdar, who collapsed and was hospitalised.
The children suffered frostbite.
“Even though we don’t know what will happen to [Nazdar], I thank God every day for saving all three of my babies,” Sarkawt told Al Jazeera.
“In the woods, I took my jacket off and put it on my babies. Sometimes, I tried to make a fire, but sometimes, it was too swampy, and I couldn’t,” he said.
“In the woods, we saw many women and children,” he said. “On the Belarusian side, the guards would sell us food and water but would ask for astronomical prices. They would sell us a bottle of water or one biscuit for the children for $50 because they knew the mothers would pay,” he said.
Kosowicz said she is in contact with one woman who delivered premature twins after crossing into Poland.
“I also remember women who could not take a few steps away from the group to urinate, and women who had their periods and could not attend to their basic hygienic needs in privacy,” she said.
“Each time we hear a new story, it is dramatic.”