Belarusian border crisis: Syrian refugees who I know to be angels are in real danger after being trapped in the forest because of the dirty game of Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin – Professor Nigel Osborne
Omar, who had seemed to me, unsurprisingly, quite depressed but at the same time insightful and empathetic, was eager to work and had a professional background in junior football, so we invited him to resume our sporting activities.
We weren’t able to provide a football pitch, but Omar not only worked effectively on ball skills in a small playground, but also created an extraordinary hybrid of Swedish gymnastics, acrobatics, dance and musical theater.
Children whose lives had been shattered worshiped and enjoyed it. I caught Omar’s attention the moment he realized he had created something really special. The depression lifted and Omar never looked back, eventually graduating from the American University of Beirut.
For several years, our project was part of a small educational and therapeutic paradise in the midst of the sufferings of war and tents made of tarpaulin and match wood held together by rusty nails. And this little paradise had its angels, including Omar, Ammar and Hjeij.
Belarusian regime survivor pleads with Scotland to oppose tyranny in his homeland …
Several things prompted Ammar, his 15 year old daughter Israa and Hjeij to bid for a better life. The way the war ended in Syria (the West could have helped it end differently) dashed any hope of a return. The family had been bombed from their homes in Homs and Damascus and were on Syrian President Assad’s blacklist. Their father was a political prisoner. His death not so long ago, alone in a cell, without contact with his family, was a breaking point for the brothers.
And life in Lebanon had become even more impossible. Aid projects, a source of work and modest income for some refugees, have been hit hard by the Covid. The international aid effort has continued to fail, unaided by things like Westminster’s massive doctrinaire cut in its aid budget, despite promises by former Conservative ministers to support refugees “where they are.”
Finally, Lebanon, which in some ways has been extraordinarily welcoming to refugees despite some disastrous upheavals, is now in the throes of hyperinflation, reducing the value of meager humanitarian support to ten percent of its previous value.
It was in this atmosphere that Ammar, Israa and Hjeij traveled to Belarus. In their case, they officially applied for an expensive visa at the embassy. But as a rule, for the equivalent of the price of a ruined house in Syria, President Lukashenko’s agents (unfortunately encouraged by Moscow) fly refugees to Minsk.
They are accommodated at the Sputnik Hotel and other accommodations, then driven to the Polish and Lithuanian borders and told to walk. If they try to come back, they are “driven back”, a euphemism for barbed wire, baton charges and dogs. When Ammar showed his visa to the Belarusian police, he was ignored.
They are also cruelly “pushed back” from the Polish and Lithuanian borders. It’s a game designed to destabilize the borders of the EU, morally compromise Western governments and to arm the suffering of some of the most damaged and abused people on Earth.
On Saturday, Omar received a desperate message from Ammar that they were stuck in a forest near the village of Stalai in Lithuania, near the Polish and Belarusian borders, with little water, only a few dates to eat and a phone battery. weak. Israa was not doing well with fainting spells.
I left Scotland immediately for Lithuania, via Poland, knowing that there was no humanitarian aid in the region, that they would not surrender to the authorities fearing a violent “refoulement”, and that there were already severe frosts in the forests.
My hope was to provide them with food, water and clothing, and to try to negotiate with the locals to rent accommodation which I could then quietly use as a safe home.
I knew the area well many years ago and can get by in languages so I was confident that I could do basic things. Fortunately, the excellent Lithuanian Institute for Human Rights in Vilnius was already on the case.
Goda Jurevičiūtė had left with journalists to find the place Ammar had given. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was also involved and had informed the State Guard Service. When Goda arrived, there was a helicopter flying over the forest. She found no one there, only abandoned clothes.
There has been no contact from Ammar since then. I arrived 12 hours later. I was deeply worried about everything and troubled that Israel had left her boots in the forest.
They certainly weren’t detained by the police or the border guards; Goda has contacted them and is sure of it. I hope they were picked up by human traffickers; it is ironic that there is more hope of humanity in criminals than in the murderous indifference of the modern state.
I went home until we got more information. There are thousands of square kilometers of forest along these borders. A search and rescue operation would require helicopters, tracker dogs and the resources of the same state apparatus currently in use against the refugees.
That’s way beyond the capabilities of a retired Scottish Borders music teacher. Of course, I shouted “Ammar” in the forest at nightfall. I felt sad, stupid, helpless, and alone – probably more than ever in my life.
I had a number of conversations with taxi drivers along the way. They were all sympathetic to my Syrian friends, but also feared opening the floodgates and attracting a flood of refugees. My response was that it was not an “one or the other”.
It is possible to defend borders and facilitate emergency humanitarian aid to prevent people from dying, without prejudice to asylum and visa issues. The many “pushed back” search helicopters could be used for aerial drops of food, water, tents and blankets.
Right now, Lukashenko and Putin are winning this dirty game. The way to stop it is not to reproduce their cruelty but to cut off the Hydra’s head.
A general publicity campaign targeting vulnerable communities in the Middle East and Afghanistan, including clear warnings at departure airports, as well as relevant sanctions and the non-violent neutralization of Lukashenko Mafia operatives – they are easy to find – would cut off the flow.
Of course, we also have to talk about stick and (very important) carrot to the Russians. Seven more refugee planes landed in Minsk on Monday.
In the meantime, Omar, his family and friends and I must wait and hope for news. Back in Warsaw, I slept for two hours and had one of those “everything is fine” dreams. In it, Ammar, Israa and Hjeij appeared to be in good health and said they were safe in Germany.
We can only hope for the best and be prepared for the worst. If there is any news or a place we can act on, I promised Omar that I would be back in the forest like a gunshot.
Nigel Osborne is Professor Emeritus of Music and Humanities at the University of Edinburgh