On 26 November, riots broke out in the guarded centre for immigrants in Wędrzyn. The media write about the incredible, unjustified aggression of the migrants. „The most aggressive foreigners came out in front of the building. They started chanting slogans, demanding to be released, tugged at the fence. Windows in the centre were broken.”- reported TVP.info. A dozen men rebelled against isolation, crowding and lack of access to information about their legal situation, against being locked up. They came out in front of the building, chairs and stones flew. Wędrzyn was closed to visitors and the media. The only footage available online is a shot from an internal camera. The picture was published by the Border Guard.
The rebellion was very quickly suppressed by the army and the Border Guard. After all, the centre is located on a training ground. No one was hurt, no one escaped, no one gained anything. The men returned to barracks to spend the next idle months there.
On 6 January, the Border Group reported that a hunger strike was underway in Wędrzyn. „This is a response to the deprivation of their freedom, the protracted procedures and the terrible living conditions in the centre”. That same evening I got the number of an Afghan man, one of the refugees confined to the training ground in Wędrzyn. According to the information provided by the Border Guard, there are about 600 men from various countries there. According to my source – twice as many.
The first conversation with Rohin Nishat ends in tears. His – and mine. The hunger strike had just ended and no one in charge of the centre was impressed. Except for one person who fainted.
On 21 January it was reported that another hunger strike had been initiated by several Syrians. Rohin knows nothing about it. The inmates staying in different barracks probably do not have such frequent contact with each other that he could confirm this information.
Rohin is sitting in conditions worse than a prison cell. He has already spent long weeks here. He has lost hope and broken down. „Nothing is good here. Still no news as always”- he writes. Already two months ago he should have received his papers and left the closed centre. A lawyer from the Border Group is unable to jump through the paperwork and speed up the procedures, which have dragged on for far too long. I have not been able to contact her.
The training ground in Wędrzyn has no address. The guarded centre for foreigners does not have a website. Who should I contact? Who should I write my applications to? It will take some time before I get my head around it and then it will turn out that I sent the wrong thing and the wrong place. And then something unprecedented happens.
For months, I have been trying to contact the services, press officers and a whole host of institutions operating on different sides of the barricades of the ongoing humanitarian crisis. My emails go unanswered, my calls unanswered. Nobody has time.
And then, for the first time in months, one of the cogs of the state machine decides to help me. On her own initiative and on a private phone call, a Border Guard official calls me back to inform me that I filled in the application wrongly and got the sequence of actions wrong. She did not have to do this, she could have ignored me and my humble request to visit Rohin in Wędrzyn would have been lost in the bureaucracy. The lady is firm, specific and is on my side. She explains to me three times where to enter what, gives me advice that she does not have to give. If I could, I would fall on my face in gratitude.
The delegation of Die Linke MEPs that is to be in Wędrzyn a while before me has already received two refusals. The first because of the pandemic, the second because the counterintelligence did not agree. Nevertheless, they are going to the place. Both in Krosno and in Wędrzyn they bounce off the wall. Foreigners are not allowed. Germans are not allowed.
Permits from the Border Guard and the army arrive on time. I am allowed to visit.
On the spot I am wandering around, looking for a pass issuing point. The soldier at the window takes a long time checking my documents, he has not heard of any permits, I have to show him my emails on my phone as a proof. Finally we come to an agreement, he writes me two paper receipts that I have to return later. The safety of the Republic of Poland depends on it.
From the main road one travels a few kilometres through a forest. The barracks area is surrounded by a high fence. Concertina, or razor wire, is laid at two heights. At the ground, in case someone wanted to dig an undercut, and at the top, in case someone tried to climb up. In front of the gate, by the car park, lies a dog. A large German Shepherd, working line. He is loose, growling on the grass and playing with a stick. I wonder if I can get out of the car. I have seen police dogs at demonstrations more than once – stable character and good training are out of the question. They are given the command to sit, and yet they throw themselves at every passer-by. I fear that it will be the same here. I take the risk and get out. However, the dog prefers the stick to me and continues to play. He is beautiful and joyful. – Take care of your jacket,” says the attentive border guard letting me in.
The gate is made of concertina, my jacket would be thrown away if I rubbed myself. I have a package of food for Rohin, although I read on the Border Guard website that due to the pandemic it is not allowed to bring food or tobacco products. Most officers don’t know what to do. It is not up to them to decide whether I can bring three chocolates, a coffee and a book into the training ground. In the end, six of them surround me, all of them with guns, and there is a fuss over passes and permits. We stand in the cold for a long time.
I see yellow low barracks and a canteen where they serve three meagre meals a day. Apparently, the daily amount of food is a few Polish zloty. The inmates take turns going there. Before 11 a.m. another group was leaving. I see a dozen or so men going to breakfast, assisted by armed guards. They are walking slowly, looking at the ground. I see an elderly gentleman with no teeth, under arms they lead him in the opposite direction. The Ombudsman was here before me. Conditions are worse than in prison, he writes in a statement. The main problem is overcrowding.
The visiting room. For two hours I do not take off my jacket, the temperature does not allow it. I inform the guard that I have come to see Mr Rohin Abdulla Nishat, from barrack 205B. – The number? – the guard asks.
The number of what? Name and 'address’ not enough? No. I have to give the number.
Rohin Abdull Nishat, number 887. I feel cold, I feel sick. In this country people already had numbers, they lived in barracks. Who allowed this again?
I am waiting for them to find him. Before they bring him into the visiting room I think they search him, it goes on and on. I stand on tiptoe to see his face behind the guards.
He is thin. He speaks softly and slowly. He suffers from depression. When he talks about his family, his voice breaks and his eyes turn red. His wife is saved on his phone as „Love”. Texting is their most frequent form of contact, and sometimes they manage to talk to each other.
„Love” has been left behind in Afghanistan. She has to go into hiding, moving to a different flat every few weeks. Rohin worries about her and misses her. They don’t know what to do next, they have no plan. The absurd situation is crushing them. I have to look away, I don’t look him in the eye when he talks. I breathe through my nose, I want to be professional and supportive, I cannot cry with him. He has already written 6 applications asking for psychological help and medication. He has not received a response to any of the letters.
The Border Guard claims that everything is in the best order. „In the Guarded centre for foreigners, foreigners are provided with medical care, including access to a doctor and appropriate treatment, as well as consultations and diagnostics in accordance with reported ailments and current health condition. Foreigners also have access to a psychologist. Psychological assistance is provided by a clinical psychologist for several hours a week.” – reply to „Wyborcza”.
He is 26 years old. When the Americans fled Afghanistan, his family’s situation deteriorated and they found themselves in danger. Both he and his wife are educated, he studied abroad, she graduated in literature from an Afghan university. Now the Taliban have banned the girls’ education.
The centre accommodates more than a thousand people. There are more than 20 men per room in low yellow barracks surrounded by barbed wire. No intimacy. Zero books, zero activities, zero contact with the outside world.
The Border Guard claims otherwise: „The foreigners also received board games at their exclusive disposal last year, such as chess (100 pieces), 280 packs of playing cards, dominoes (50 pieces), jigsaw puzzles with 1,000 pieces (50 pieces). They have at their disposal 6 folding badminton courts, about 60 balls for volleyball, basketball and football, as well as tennis tables with nearly 30 sets of rackets and balls for this game.” I don’t know where these recreation rooms, playing fields and ping-pongs are. All I can see are the barracks and the canteen where meals are served.
There are constant fights, thefts and violence, including sexual violence. Crowded people, who do not even know their legal situation and have no idea when they will get out and start living normally, go crazy. Depression and aggression are the order of the day. And again, the Border Guard tells a fairy tale about legal aid, which is not there.
In the meantime, I make contact with inmates in the Krosno centre who beg for a contact to a lawyer and ask me to intervene about their money locked up in the Border Guard depository. There, too, they live twenty to a room. – Save us from this hell – writes Sivan, a young Iraqi. He is in Krosno, he has no idea what his legal status is.
At designated times they can go out on a tiny walk. Three times a day for a meal. Access to computers is limited. Each person is theoretically entitled to use the equipment for two hours a week, with no guarantee that there will be Internet. Often there is not. Just like hot water in the showers. Electric razors are used for shaving, disposable razors are banned. Similarly, camera phones or other equipment with which you could record what is happening in the centre are forbidden. This is what the regulations say. The safety of the Republic of Poland is paramount.
The regulations also say that two months ago Rohin should have received his papers and left the centre. However, nothing of the sort has happened. He has been sitting there for over four months and does not know when he will get out. On 26 June 2021, he began an unplanned journey from Afghanistan to Poland via Belarus, like thousands of other refugees.
One day in June, he left for work as usual. The Americans had already wrapped up, the Taliban had taken over the country. Rohin’s family tries to live as before, but they don’t suit the Taliban. They are educated and believe that men and women should have the same rights.
Despite Afghanistan having been trashed by foreign empires for decades, Rohin says he had a decent life. A wife, a job, a salary, a car. He graduated from an engineering college in Moscow two years ago, speaks Russian and English, Farsi at home. An ordinary day at work is interrupted by a phone call from his mother. She tells him not to come home. The Taliban have come for his uncle. Neither Rohin nor anyone else will see him again. He will be murdered.
The mother tells them to flee immediately. Let them go to a neighbouring province, to an aunt in Mazar-i-Sharif, she will help them. There they get money and move on. They have no documents, no idea, they have nothing. They leave as they stood, in one pair of trousers. They run away because they fear for their lives. Europe seems to me to be the only sensible option. It seems to them that the European Union will welcome them, will apply procedures and human rights.
They think about a lot of things.
The border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan is the Amu-Daria River. It flows from the Hindu Kush and is formed by the merger of the Panjsh and Vakhsh rivers. It flows between the Kara-kum and Kyzyl-kum deserts. Today most of the water is drained through leaky canals into Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and the river dries up before it reaches the lake. The Afghan-Uzbek border is also leaking. The boys manage to cross the river on a metal hulk, as the legal crossing without documents will not let them through. In Uzbekistan they find smugglers who, for a few hundred dollars, will deliver them almost 4,000 kilometres further, to Moscow. The journey takes about 12 days, Rohin does not remember exactly.
They travel in different cars, under tarpaulins, on trucks, sleeping in cold burrows, in empty rooms with linoleum on the floor, like the one we are sitting in today in Wędrzyn. He doesn’t want to stay in Moscow, even though he speaks good Russian, knows the city, and studied there. But racism was the order of the day, Rohin has no good memories of that time. He wants to move on, to Europe.
More smugglers take him to Belarus, together with several Afghans they meet on the way. The traffic on the Polish-Belarusian border is just beginning, no one knows yet how difficult it will be. They take a taxi from a Belarusian town, the name of which he cannot remember, to the Polish border. There are three of them. They are not prepared for the journey through the forest, they do not know what will happen to them. Good thing it is still summer.
They cross the border somewhere in the forest. They are hungry and thirsty. They have prepared poorly for this journey. The first people they meet ask for water and food. The women they meet help them. They call the Border Guard so that the boys can apply for asylum and start the official procedures. One of them is Dorota, whom Rohin will remember for the rest of his life. The Border Guard takes them to one of their posts. Everything seems to be going in the right direction.
The Afghans think they are just starting a new life in Europe, the capital of human rights. But late one evening, the officers pack them into a truck and drive them without a word in an unknown direction.
They already know that there will be no asylum, no international protection – there will be an outing. The guards dump them in the forest and drive away. This is the first pushback. Public opinion in Poland does not yet believe that this is possible, that this is really happening. Later, no one will be surprised, and the activists will stop calling the Border Guard. You can wipe your shoes with asylum applications.
The guys are left alone in the forest. Rohin calls Dorota: they’re left alone, they don’t know where they are, they don’t know what to do next. Dorota, save them. And Dorota rescues. They find each other and this time they will not give up the Afghans so easily. They ask MP Frank Sterczewski, who happens to be on the border, to intervene. He makes sure that they do not end up in the forest again. They end up in the closed centre for foreigners in Wędrzyn and stay there much longer than anyone would expect.
In the centre, the inmates were vaccinated against COVID-19 for the first time at the end of January, shortly after my visit. One dose of Johnson’s – no one had thought of it before. Somehow the pandemic has not spread among the inmates, or at least Rohin knows nothing about it. Apart from being dramatically thin and battling depression and insomnia – he is healthy. He can’t sleep because of his nerves and the conditions in his barracks.
He shares a bedroom with twenty Iraqis. Almost all of them smoke cigarettes, are loud, and there are constant fights. Ethnic and class conflicts escalate, testosterone boils over.
– This is hell. Afghanistan wanted to take my life, Poland took away my joy and hope. This is unbearable,” he says quietly.
He has been away from home for six months, in constant fear and uncertainty. His only personal possession is a book he got from someone on the way. A book in English, but written by an Afghan author. He brings it to the meeting and hands it to me with dedication.
Time is up. We hug each other goodbye. Two guards escort me to the gate. Two guards escort Rohin Abdulla Nishat back to the barrack. Surrealism. The wires. Barracks. Long guns. Short guns. Handcuffs on the guards’ belts.
Waiting for transport to the world of free people, I try to talk to the officers. How many people are here? They do not know. A lot, and they are all men. They deal with them, but you know how it is, so many guys in one place. What do you think, that we should also bring girls here, at our expense, so that they don’t get bored?
Border guards and soldiers rotate all the time. Shifts last a week. So they don’t get used to these people? So that they don’t go crazy because of what they see here? The soldier I am talking to doesn’t give a fuck. He doesn’t know anything about what is going on here. He just came back from the border. How was it, I ask. – It’s going well, a little cabaret,” he answers with a laugh. He finds the whole situation amusing.
In general, one gets the impression that everyone here is having fun. At war. They drive military trucks back and forth across the countryside. They give orders, they follow orders, they keep an eye out for dangerous enemies.
They have serious tasks. They are defending Poland. A border guard with a long gun advises me against walking, despite the pass I have around my neck. The gendarmerie could mistake me for a boar or a terrorist and shoot me.
„The guarded centre for foreigners in Wędrzyn does not fulfil the basic guarantees against inhuman and degrading treatment of persons deprived of their liberty. It is necessary to drastically reduce the capacity of the facility to a number that allows proper work with foreigners. The current conditions are unacceptable in the light of minimum standards for the protection of foreigners’ rights,” informs the Ombudsman’s office.
In 2021, almost 40 thousand people tried to get to Poland through Belarus. More than 7 thousand asked for help from humanitarian organisations, mainly the Granica Group. Thousands of people are currently staying on the territory of Poland, waiting for asylum applications, international protection or deportation. Most of them have no idea when they will leave or what their legal situation is. They receive information on the day they are transferred from one centre to another. Their rights are trampled upon once again when they cross the border into the Schengen area and the European Union. The crocodile tears of politicians and MEPs change nothing. The European Community violates its own directives and uses torture. And all this for the common good – in defence of Fortress Europe.
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