When Ruhi and Lorenzo Leonardi travelled to the Poland, Lithuania and Belarus border in November 2021, they described it as a ‘border crisis zone like no other’. Ruhi goes on to say:
‘It seemed like a warzone, with tanks, checkpoints, and military professionals wherever we turned in Poland. There was an emergency red area where the borders joined from Lithuania and Poland to Belarus, which meant volunteers, humanitarians, media, and journalists could not enter there.
We knew that people were being used as weapons in a hybrid war orchestrated by the Belarussian authorities and were being pushed into Lithuania and Poland. The Lithuanian and Polish authorities were in turn pushing people back. How many people were affected at the time, it is difficult to tell but reports suggest it is more that 3000 people. To this date there are still people seeking asylum stuck at this borders.’
The forests that people were stuck in, if they made it through the red zone are lethal, dark, cold with an uneven, muddy, wet terrain, worsened by ice and snow. These conditions are difficult for even an experienced camper to navigate or survive in, let alone people who had already been pushed back and forth between countries, beaten by authorities, without basic life necessities, dogs set upon them, with weakened bodies, minds, and immune systems.
During our time there we provided assistance with:
- Manning a 24 hour helpline to attend to distress calls and then mobilising emergency responses.
- We assessed and mapped area to enable us to find people in distress.
- With donations and funds raised we bought, prepared and distributed emergency backpacks with items such as food, water, foil emergency blankets, sleeping bags suitable for extremely low temperatures, camping cooking stoves, gas, matches, power banks, thermal clothing, hats, scarves, gloves, a thermos with hot tea, medical dressings, and antiseptic when attending to forest interventions to support people.
- We supported the local NGOs with aid management and warehousing, as well as filling up their shelves .
- With the experience and professional background we also provided training on how to assist people in these conditions as well as first aid.
- We supported raising awareness initiatives and attended a meeting with Italian MP’s who we then took to the forest so they could also witness how the situation was for people stuck there, as well as speaking to journalists and other stakeholders interested not present at site.
After our return we sent other volunteers to support the projects at these borders, and continued to support with our networks and resources as well as translation support for people in distress and for pushback testimonies, missing persons reporting and referred those wanting to seek asylum for legal interim measures.