The residents living in border towns are welcoming refugees into their homes, keeping them warm and healing their wounds.
It is 05:00 pm on a mid-November day and it’s already completely dark in Hajnowka, Poland. It’s cold, between 2 and 5 degrees, and thousands of migrants are trying to cross the Poland-Belarus border.
In the forest surrounding the border, hundreds of migrants hide from the Polish military, hoping to avoid deportation. Some carry phones and dial the helpline number supplied by the solidarity networks that emerged in August to support the struggling refugees in border region. Migrants call on that number to ask for help in case they need to navigate their way out of the forest.
"Hey, there is a situation in the field: we have a Syrian by the ‘game’ road. Maybe he will be taken to the hospital, but we will let you know if any media can be ready to be there."
Activists write on the Signal group that Grupo Granica, a conglomerate of organisations has set up to inform the media.
At the same time, an unknown number calls me. "Hey, how long will it take you to come to the base. It's in Terminski, I'll send you a pin."
I get in the car and drive as fast as I can. On the road, I get another message. "Hey if u don't appear like in four minutes I will start the action without you. They are going to a person with hypothermia, so we don't have time."
I manage to get to the base - a house in the middle of a small village where a group of Anarchists organise the "actions," as they call them. These are rescue operations to get migrants out of the forest who for various reasons are trapped and can't move. The nights are freezing and the forest has small swamps. Migrants who cross here can spend weeks hiding, fearful in the knowledge that there are 20,000 Polish military and helicopters with thermal cameras looking to bring them back to Poland.
At the base, I park and get into another car with three other people. We drive as close as we can to a location of a man suffering from hypothermia. His location was sent by a group of migrants who had to leave him behind. The driver parks and leaves us in the middle of an unpaved road that leads into the forest. One of them has GPS and acts as a guide, leading us to the migrant via the pin.
We walk for hours and finally reach the location, but no one is there. It’s already 8 pm and several groups have gone out to look for him, but the night is pitch black and there is nothing in the forest. He is hiding and we can't find him. We go back to base and they send us another location that looks more recent. We run to the car and search for him again. There he is. His name is Walid Hamud. He comes from Syria and is suffering severe hypothermia. More people arrive.
"Lights off, lights off," the activist shouts from behind a fallen tree near Walid. They’ve covered him with thermal blankets but don't want to attract attention. They’re too close to the road where military trucks and police cars are constantly patrolling.
Despite being outside the "zone" - the exclusion perimeter created by the Polish government - Walid is still at risk of deportation.
Trying to get him out of there is complicated. They need an ambulance, but that would mean police could take Walid back to Bielorrusia after his stay in the hospital. His life is at risk. The ambulance arrives and rushes him straight to the hospital, where he is admitted.
Walid had crossed the border with a larger group of migrants, but due to freezing conditions he could not continue and they had to leave him there. The group sent his location and the activists set off. Actions like this one occur daily, even though in recent weeks the political escalation of the conflict has caused the border to be even more sealed.
The propaganda that is shaping the narrative of migrants in Europe only creates more difficulties for those who want to cross the border. For example, the anti-immigrant message promoted by the Polish government is constantly circulating on the mobile phones of those of us who are close to the border. "The Polish Border is sealed. BLR authorities told you lies. Go back to Minsk! Don't take any pills from Belarusian soldiers."
Access to the "zone" is restricted. Neither journalists nor humanitarian aid is allowed in. There are no large NGOs on the ground. Instead, it is the people - the locals - who are helping. They take migrants into their houses or distribute blankets in the forest because they know that the freezing nights in the Bialowieza nature reserve can be deadly. It’s called the "green light'' movement - family houses where at night residents put up a green light bulb to indicate to migrants that this is a safe place where they can spend the night.
Katia is one of the locals that welcomes migrants. Ordinary people who at a historic moment take responsibility and make the decision to help those who knock on their door during the night. "It's not easy for locals, '' she says. "They must choose between hosting a migrant or letting them pass the night in the cold, knowing the consequences this decision can have.''
It’s November 16th, her birthday. Despite this, that night a group of migrants comprised of 47-year-old Khalil, Abd (also 47), 24-year-old Kassem, and 25-year-old Nassir will spend the night at her house. She is a single mother and lives with her two daughters in the village of Hajnowka. In this moment, she has chosen to help.
The four migrants all come from Syria and arrive late in the evening. The first thing they do is remove the many layers of plastic bags that covered their bodies during a week spent in the forest. They shower, eat dinner, and go to bed. They are finally able to sleep without feeling the damp and cold of the forest where they hope never to return. Finally, they are in Europe.