Mirosław Miniszewski, 48, first encountered a group of foreigners wandering in a nearby forest in August, a rare image in the desolate area near the Belarusian border where he lives.
They were hungry, thirsty and, even though it was the end of the Polish summer, they were cold.
In the days and weeks that followed, the number of people entering Poland via the porous border with Belarus grew to thousands.
Miniszewski has devoted much of his spare time to saving the lives of refugees stranded across borders.
In early September, Poland introduced a state of emergency in the area bordering Belarus. Three kilometers from Belarus, the area includes 115 towns and villages in the Podlachia region and 68 in the Lubelskie.
Journalists and NGOs cannot enter that area under the rule, which basically banned reporting and providing aid there.
Thousands of police and border guards have been dispatched to the border to ensure undocumented migrants and refugees cannot enter Poland.
People like Miniszewski and other locals went out of their way to try and prevent a humanitarian disaster.
“We are at the forefront here and have taken on the burden of providing humanitarian aid. We replace NGOs and medical personnel because no one can enter the area, “Miniszewski said.
“I don’t ask questions. If I see that someone is hungry I give him food, if I see that someone is thirsty I give him water, if I see that he is cold I give him some sleeping bags. Is simple”.
“Action organized by the Belarusian authorities”
The migrant border crisis, which has been going on for months, intensified this week after hundreds more people poured into the border, trying to enter Poland from Belarus.
Poland and its allies say Belarus is attempting to take revenge on Western sanctions imposed on President Alexander Lukashenko’s administration by encouraging people to approach and breach the border.
Earlier this year, Belarus eased visa procedures for citizens of a number of countries, including Iraq and Lebanon. Belavia, the state airline, has opened connections to a number of new destinations.
Travel agencies offering travel to Belarus have mushroomed across the Middle East and Africa, promising cheap and quick ways to get to Europe. Facebook ads led people seeking a better life to spend their life savings on travel, which it promised to bring them to the EU within three days.
“We are facing an action organized by the Belarusian authorities, there is no doubt about this. Belarus does not border on Syria, Iraq or African countries, it is not even a tourist destination. We know from various videos available that migrants are being routed to the border by the armed security services of Belarus, ”Witold Jurasz, a security analyst and former Polish charge d’affaires in Belarus, told Al Jazeera.
The expert noted that the ultimate goal of the strategy depends on whether it was prepared in Belarus or in Russia, Minsk’s main ally.
If in Minsk, the aim could be to bring the West to the negotiating table with Lukashenko without any preconditions, which so far has included the release of political prisoners following last year’s brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in the country.
Secondly, according to Jurasz, by bringing Russia into the conflict, Lukashenko wants to extend his political life. Without any support from the West, it relies on Russia.
“If Russia is behind it, it is either to test NATO’s unity and organizational capacity or to lead to such an escalation at the border as a pretext for placing the Russian army in Belarus. It has always been Russia’s goal, but Lukashenko has held out for a long time. It now lacks any political independence, “Jurasz said.
Growing humanitarian crisis
Regardless of the geopolitical circumstances, the Polish government has been reluctant to provide humanitarian support to people arriving from Belarus.
“In 97 percent of the cases in the past three months that people wanted asylum, we called the border guard. They would have filled out the documents and then they would have rejected the people on the Belarusian side, “said Anna Alboth of the minority rights group.
“If such a person or family has been kicked out five or eight times already, they know it doesn’t matter what they say to the guards. Whether they have children or children with disabilities, they will still be rejected “.
According to activists, it is unclear how many people are currently trapped between the borders, where on the one hand Polish guards send them back to Belarus and, on the other, Belarusian guards make sure they do not re-enter the country.
Just last week, Grupa Granica was formed, a coalition of 14 NGOs to address the humanitarian crisis at the border, which was in contact with 1,500 people.
They provide them with warm food, water, thermal clothing, and sleeping bags, but they can only work outside the emergency zone.
“It is cold and some people remain in the forests for many weeks due to pushbacks. Hypothermia, lack of access to clean water, food poisoning are a huge problem. People can die because they drink dirty water, are dehydrated and have nothing to eat, “says Małgorzata Lojkowska, lawyer and human rights activist.
“There are many pregnant women, many children. Some people are injured because they have crossed a barbed wire. At the same time, I feel we can only reach a small fraction of the people who need help. “
At least 10 people have reportedly died so far, mostly on the Polish side, but activists and locals believe the forests between Belarus and Poland will soon reveal dozens of bodies.
The Polish government has no intention of organizing a humanitarian corridor believing that force is the only way to fight the Belarusian strategy.
In the emergency zone, the humanitarian catastrophe is faced only by locals, such as Miniszewski.
“I don’t want to judge the border guard, they have their job to do and I have my moral imperatives,” he said.
“People have become hostages of the situation, they have been fooled into this trap. I don’t care if they knew where they were going. Can you imagine what it feels like to spend several days in a forest without food, water and nowhere to sleep? “