In the attic of a cottage in the woods near the Polish village of Narewka, a young Iraqi Kurd crouches, trembling with cold and fear. Through the skylight, the blue lights of police vans flash on the walls of his hiding place. Outside, dozens of border guards are searching for people like him in the snowstorm. Downstairs, the owner of the house sits in silence with his terrified wife and children.
The young Kurd is one of thousands of asylum seekers who entered Poland across the border with Belarus, where countless others have become trapped on their way to Europe. The Polish family have offered him shelter. But if the Polish police find him, he risks being sent back across the frontier into the sub-zero forests of Belarus, while his protectors risk being charged for aiding illegal immigration.
As people fleeing conflict or starvation have become trapped on the Poland-Belarus border in the middle of a freezing winter, Polish families have been secretly hiding hundreds of desperate people in their homes.
Fears of the knock at the door as border police launch a manhunt bring back terrible echoes of the second world war, when thousands of Polish Jews were given refuge by their neighbours during the Nazi occupation.
“Let’s make one thing clear, this is far from being the Holocaust,” says a Polish woman who has sheltered a Syrian family in her home for five days. “At the same time … when you have six people hiding in your attic forced to stay in the dark to avoid being sent back, as a Pole you can’t help thinking of the similarities with that time.”
Every day since early October, Jakub*, 38, from Narewka, has searched the forests near the border to find people in need of water, food and a safe place to sleep. With his dog, Jakub follows signs of the presence of people who attempted to cross the frontier: nappies, damp blankets, or makeshift huts built with tree branches.
During the war one of his uncles, who died a few years ago, helped dozens of Jewish families in Warsaw avoid deportation. Now, 80 years later, Jakub has hidden and helped at least 200 people who risked being herded back over the border to Belarus. “I’ve never compared what I’m doing today to what my uncle did,” Jakub says. “I help these people because they need help. It’s that simple.”
The European Union has accused Belarus of deliberately provoking a new refugee crisis by organising the movement of people from the Middle East to Minsk and promising them with safe passage to the EU, in reprisal for sanctions that Brussels has imposed on its regime. Poland, in turn, has been accused by human rights organisations of violently pushing back thousands of people across the border. People such as Jakub, seeing the desperate families huddled in the snow, have taken it on themselves to help. Often it is a race between local volunteers and police to find the border crossers first.
In his room in a small home a few miles from Sokolka, Bartek, 14, has invented a device to locate people at risk of being sent back into Belarus. “I opened accounts to connect migrants’ phones,” he says. “I set up their accounts on Google and WhatsApp and linked their phones to one of my accounts. This way I can see where they have recently logged in and send help.”
Bartek and his aunt, Ewa, aided a Syrian family whose oldest child was five. They had been pushed back to Belarus 17 times.
“What is happening here is totally unacceptable,” says Ewa, 40, whose grandmother smuggled pork fat and potatoes into the Jewish Ghetto during the second world war.
“My grandmother hid Jewish children in her house too,” she says. “The flap in the floor was covered with a bed on which my great-grandmother lay. I feel like I am carrying on my grandmother’s work.”
Ewa has bought thermal cameras to locate people at night. “When you go to the forest, you don’t know what awaits you, if someone is behind you,” she says. “Next year when you go to the forest to pick mushrooms, you don’t know whether you will find mushrooms or dead bodies. Some people said they found bodies of refugees torn apart by animals. In the area where migrants are camping, sometimes you can smell an intense smell of decay.”
At least 19 people have died since the beginning of the border standoff between Poland and Belarus. Most of them froze to death. Some of their bodies were buried in the Muslim graveyard in the village of Bohoniki, near Sokolka, in the heart of the forest that claimed their lives.
As temperatures dip near freezing, Bartek, Jakub and Ewa belong to a network of Poles who are working desperately to prevent more deaths.
“We’re doing something normal to help others,” says Ewa, “but they make you out to be a criminal.”
Since Poland imposed a state of emergency, all help for the people in the woods is on the shoulders of local residents and activists. In recent weeks more and more aid workers and citizens have been stopped by police forces, who have searched at least three homes looking for migrants.
“The situation seems to have escalated and officers became more violent towards aid workers,” says Witold Klaus, a professor at the University of Warsaw’s Centre for Migration Law Research. “This is part of intimidation and is probably calculated for its chilling effect – a discouragement to offer help to immigrants. Providing humanitarian assistance is not a crime. But this is the law in books and it doesn’t stop authorities from breaking it.”
On 14 December a group of activists were stopped by military personnel in the forests near the village of Zabrody. They were forced to lie face down on the ground and searched. On 15 December Polish armed police forces raided one of the humanitarian aid hubs in the border region of Podlachia, seizing mobile phones and laptops.
The Polish ministries of interior and defence did not comment when approached by the Guardian.
During recent pro-migration protests in Michałów and Hajnówka, young activists met elderly people who had sheltered fugitives during the second world war. Jakub says: “They said that they had hidden Jews during the war and that they had something in common with us.”
In 1939, Tatiana Honigwill, a young Polish Jew from Warsaw, was deported to the German concentration camp in Ravensbrück. After Russian liberation in 1945, Tatiana returned to Poland. She died a few years ago, survived by several granddaughters. One of them is Maria Przyszychowska, 43, a painter, who now lives near the border town of Hajnówka.
She and her husband, Kamil Syller, 48, have started an unofficial network of local residents and activists who have placed green lights in their windows to show that their home is a temporary safe space for refugees. At first it was a symbolic gesture. Then, suddenly, the first people started to show up at their doors.
The couple welcome them into their home and give them basic necessities. “We are trying to protect asylum seekers and now our activity has become a form of resistance,” says Kamil. “But we don’t want to be heroes. And it’s becoming really frustrating.”
For weeks, Maria and Kamil’s home has been under surveillance. Border guards patrol the streets around their building. Green lights have also started to attract the guards, who hide in the forests and wait for people to come out and then push them back.
Prohibiting an individual from the right to apply for asylum is an infringement of human rights. Despite individuals expressing their intention to apply for asylum, arrivals in Poland have been forced back in systematic mass expulsions.
“Maybe someday, when this is over, we’ll be able to talk openly about what the police did to migrants and what we went through to help them,” says Jakub. “I don’t know when, but I’m sure that day will come. Until then, we’ll continue to work in the dark. In the end, we are what they called us: secret guerrillas.”
(*Some names have been changed to protect people’s identities)