Poland: The fear of helping –
“we don’t want people to die in the forest”

Voices from the Polish civil society at the border with Belarus 

As aid organisations and volunteer groups are prevented from accessing the Polish side of the Belarus border zone, residents of the restricted areas and those living close to it are the only people who can reach those in need, although for them providing such assistance is also considered illegal.

Helping these women, children and men who are stuck in the freezing cold has become a clandestine and dangerous undertaking.

Although Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) decided to withdraw from the Polish border area after being blocked for months by the authorities to enter the restricted zone, we want to share the concerns of those who are left to help the most vulnerable people hiding in the forest under extreme conditions.

These are the voices of some people we spoke to:


How has your life changed since the current situation on the border began? 

Swamps everywhere

"The biggest change was when people started coming to our neighbourhood. At first we just heard about people crossing the border and saw photos, because people couldn’t pass through our area as there are swamps everywhere. But I’m afraid there are some bodies in these swamps." 

“Then the state of emergency was established. I live outside of the state of emergency zone, but close to the area and so I crossed the zone many times. But for my friends who live inside the zone I think it is much harder, because they meet armed soldiers all the time. The children are often scared.’ 

Zosia*, a resident of a village in the border region.  

Depressing situation

“If you open the windows in the morning, you can see heavy equipment. It is a depressing situation; we have to remember to carry all our documents, even while walking the dog."

"Every hotel, hostel, guest room – everything iss occupied by military services. "

"The fact that you cannot invite guests, family or friends here also makes it difficult."

"It is hard when you are separated from the rest of the country.” 

Sylwia*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone. 

Did you or anyone you know encounter problems while helping people on the move?  

Called an ambulance

"I was helping one group of people who were in very poor condition and we called an ambulance."

"We of course knew that the ambulance would come with the border guards, but it was impossible for us to leave these people alone [without medical care], knowing the attitude of the border guards towards migrants. "

Trapped and afraid

"A group came, they were border guards, but they didn’t have insignia or the signs were hidden and they started to threaten us. They said that we were there illegally, that we were smugglers. They were also very hostile towards the refugees."

Hostility and fear

"We felt like we were in a trap. We were afraid – not for ourselves, but for these people, that they would be pushed to the forest again.” 

Zosia*, a resident of a village in the border region. 

Pelted with eggs

“People have had problems because they were providing support to people on the move. Once I was accused of ‘supporting terrorists’ and ‘acting to the detriment of the Polish state".

"Someone cleaning in the forest was detained by uniformed servicemen and questioned. Someone's house was pelted with eggs."

"Outside the zone, right-wing activists congregated in front of a house of people helping refugees to intimidate them, but fortunately they did not beat anyone up. They were just trying to intimidate them.” 

Marek*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone.

Verbal aggression

"My family experienced verbal aggression [for helping] – they said that we were acting to the detriment of the Polish state. In the beginning they tried to tell us that it was illegal to help, to intimidate us. [...] "

"There are people who are ideologically "defending the borders of their homeland", those who are in favour of the protection by the soldiers, who believe that the people in the forest are criminals.”  

Sylwia*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone. 


That local volunteers are vilified and intimidated to stop them from providing support is utterly unacceptable
Frauke Ossig, MSF emergency coordinator for Poland and Belarus. 

You have distributed vital items to people on the move.

Do people in your community support this?  

Amazing support

“People in my village know what we are doing through word of mouth. We don’t talk about it and I can imagine what they think about it."

"But on the other hand, we have had amazing support from our friends, many of whom came here to help us. Many came to the forest with us, delivering things to people who are stuck there."

"This is very important for me, when I go to the forest, I feel that I’m not alone. I’m not doing it alone, but in the name of a really big group of people.” 

Zosia*, a resident of a village in the border region.  

“What surprised me was that the family with whom we spent Christmas did not even ask us about the situation at the border. People shy away from it, they do not want to spoil their well-being. They had the chance to ask us, people who live in a restrictive zone, and yet nobody was interested.”
Marek*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone.

Divided community

"The community is once again divided into those who are happy with the services that defend the border and those who cannot remain indifferent."

"The military would like no one to talk about anything and everyone to sit quietly and pretend not to see anything.” 

Sylwia*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone 

Do the children understand what is happening?

Do they understand why there are so many security personnel in your village? 

Many questions

“I don’t think my daughter understands everything, she came back from the kindergarten once and told us that we were supposed to help the soldiers and that the refugees would throw stones towards her kindergarten, and that refugees were bad people."

"My husband tried to explain to her it was not true, but she didn’t want to listen to him. So I had to tell her many things that I wouldn’t have told her because I’m not sure that a little girl should know that there are children in the forest. I had to tell her because she asked me many questions."

Not afraid of soldiers

“My daughter is not afraid of soldiers, I think my 11-year-old son has more problems with that."

"He also heard many horrible things at school and as he understands more I think it’s hard for him to hear us speak about dead bodies, but it’s impossible for him not to hear all these things living in a small house with many activists coming in."

"But he is like a young adult, he understands a lot.” 

Zosia*, a resident of a village in the border region 


“I don’t have young children myself, but I hear about other children drawing checkpoints and tanks. I see playgrounds ripped up by military equipment, and military cars parked right next to schools and kindergartens."
Sylwia*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone 

Difficulty explaining to children

"A friend of mine, a young father, who finds it very difficult to explain to his children what is happening, has the theory that we are to blame for our children’s trauma, in the sense that we may have not protected them enough. "

"But I am wondering how we could have done that better with everything that is going on…” 

Do you and people in the villages within the restricted zone get psychological support to cope with this situation? 

"The offer was passed on in Facebook posts, a list of psychologists and psychiatrists who are ready to help people with mental stress.” 
Sylwia*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone 

Psychological assistance

“My son is talking to a psychologist, he went twice and although he doesn’t speak much about it I think he’s fine to get this support. It’s free, we have support for ourselves and for the children and it’s easy to get.” 

Zosia*, a resident of a village in the border region 

“I know of several people who have been traumatised by seeing families hiding in the bushes, seeing them captured by border guards and later finding out that they had been taken behind the wire fences again… "

Mental stress

"People who work in cooperation with Grupa Granica (Border Group) have access to free psychological assistance. The Border Group helps the volunteers of the area. Without them the situation would be very difficult.” 

Marek*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone 

“There was no systematic support from the side of the municipality – neither informative nor psychological... there were meetings outside the zone with psychologists – group and even individual meetings."

Sylwia*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone 


What do you think needs to be done? 

Call for change

“The most important thing is that the government stops the pushbacks. And we need the government to change the law and to wake up. We need people to start thinking about what is going on here and we need big organisations to get into the zone despite the current law. It is outrageous that organisations accept these restrictions. It is against the law to let people die in the forest.” 

Zosia*, a resident of a village in the border region  

Need for medical assistance

“We need a decision by the government and the border guards that will allow assistance (medical and legal) to be given to those in need, in accordance with civilised standards and with respect for human rights. We also want a decision and an end to restrictions of movement for the local residents, and an end to the extreme militarisation of the border zone.” 

Marek*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone 

 Call for professional help

“We want the pushbacks to stop. We hope that the orders from above will change and that people will not be thrown into the forest. We need to let in professional help from organisations, such as medical organisations – and the media, too.” 

Sylwia*, a resident of a village in the restricted zone