BRUZGI, Belarus — The Belarusian authorities moved Wednesday to ease pressure along the country’s frontier with Poland, the morning after the main border crossing erupted in violence — with desperate migrants hurling stones at Polish border guards who responded with tear gas and blasts from water cannons.
Hundreds of migrants are now being sheltered in a sprawling red brick warehouse a few hundred yards from the border crossing, a much needed bit of relief for scores of families who have spent weeks camped in freezing and fetid fields with little more than the clothes on their backs.
“Thank you Belarus. Thank you Belarus,” said Rebas Ali, 28. “Beautiful Belarus.”
Western officials have called the migrant crisis a “hybrid war” engineered by the Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to punish Poland for sheltering some of his most outspoken opponents and to pressure the European Union into lifting sanctions on his country.
But if it is a battle where migrants are used as pawns, it is also an information war. On Wednesday, the Belarusians sought to portray themselves as the humanitarians.
Reporters from international news organizations, including The New York Times, were invited to witness the squalor and desperation at the border. Belarus officials insist that the humanitarian catastrophe has been created by the European Union’s refusal to abide by international law and give people fleeing war and despair the right to at least apply for asylum once they enter Poland, a member of the bloc.
Poland, eager to keep despair out of the public eye, has sealed off its side of the border, barring aid workers, journalists and even doctors. On Tuesday, hundreds of migrants tried to rush into Poland. Polish border forces used water cannons and tear gas to drive them back.
After the melee, the nationalist governing party in Poland sought to portray it as a great victory.
“Thank you to the soldiers for stopping today’s assault,” Mariusz Blaszczak, the minister of defense, tweeted on Tuesday. “Poland is still safe. All soldiers currently serving on the border will receive special financial rewards.”
He said that while the pressure at the main crossing eased overnight, there were attempts to cross at multiple other points along the 250-mile border.
“The situation at the Belarusian border will not be resolved quickly,” the defense minister said on Wednesday in an interview with the Polish Radio One, the national broadcaster. “We have to prepare for months, if not years.”
The total number of migrants at the border is estimated between 2,000 and 4,000, many of them from Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Poland has now deployed more than 15,000 soldiers, joining scores of border guards and police officers.
Across the border, the number of Belarusian security forces deployed has not been made public. But scores stood guard outside the warehouse, their faces covered by black balaclavas. As the crisis escalated, migrants reported being beaten by Belarusian soldiers and being directed to different areas along the Polish border.
Even as hundreds of people were grateful for a warm meal and children were given milk and juice, many in the warehouses voiced uncertainty about what would happen next.
Balia Ahmed, 31, was in the warehouse with two children — 8 and 10 — and her husband. She said she was very nervous about being there for fear of being deported, but felt she had no other choice.
“My kids were freezing and about to die,” she said.
The green light in the window was easy to spot from the main road in Michalowo, a Polish town some 15 miles from the Belarusian border, in an area that in recent months saw thousands of asylum seekers trapped on their way to the European Union.
“It means that my house is a safe place for migrants to ask for help,” said Maria Ancipuk, a resident and the head of the City Council.
Ms. Ancipuk felt she had to act after a news report of a group of Yazidi children who were pushed back by border guards from her town into the freezing forest on the Belarusian side. “You just don’t forget such things,” she said, her voice trembling and her eyes full of tears. “I told myself: I will do everything so it would not happen here again.”
The European Union has accused the dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of funneling asylum seekers from the Middle East through his country into Poland, as a retaliation against sanctions imposed by the bloc on his regime after the disputed 2020 election and the following crackdown of the opposition.
As the standoff escalated in recent days, with clashes between the Polish authorities and migrants incited by the Belarusian police to breach the heavily guarded frontier, those caught in the middle have had to count on support from an unofficial network of local residents, activists from all over Poland and volunteer medics spread across the border area.
Only those who manage to lodge an asylum application receive some form of state support. Help from locals is even more crucial inside a two-mile-wide buffer zone surrounding the border, which has been closed off by the Polish authorities to all nonresidents, including journalists, doctors and charities.
But most helpers prefer not to publicize their activities. “There are only a few of us that are actively helping,” said Roman, a resident who asked to be identified by only his first name for fear of repercussions from the authorities and local far-right groups. “The majority remains silent.”
So far, putting out green lights as a sign for migrants has been largely symbolic, with very few of them aware of it. But it is as much a symbol for asylum seekers as it is for her neighbors, Ms Ancipuk said.
“People are scared of doing it,” said Ms. Ancipuk. “As soon as I put the light in my window, I started getting hate messages,” she said. “But I won’t be intimidated.”
The confrontation along the border of Poland and Belarus is many things — a humanitarian crisis in the making, a geopolitical standoff and another testament to the hardships of migration.
But it has also become a battle to control the narrative.
Belarus — blamed by the West for luring migrants to the country and engineering the crisis — is eager for the world to see the situation it has created. Poland, which has mobilized to block the migrants, is trying to restrict media coverage, which led to the detention on Tuesday of a New York Times photographer.
Poland’s nationalist government is prohibiting journalists from working in a ‘red zone’ border area where migrants are attempting to cross into the country from Belarus. It has also mobilized more than 15,000 soldiers, police officers and border agents in what leaders portray as a sweeping effort to keep the country safe.
On Tuesday evening, the Times photographer, Maciek Nabrdalik, and two colleagues were trying to document the militarization of the eastern frontier when they were detained by Polish soldiers for more than an hour. They were handcuffed, their cameras were inspected and their car was searched.
For more than a week, Mr. Nabrdalik, had been driving along the border to document the buildup, and while police officers had often stopped him, asking for identification, they had allowed him to keep working as long as he stayed clear of the “red zone.” At dusk on Tuesday, the three photographers pulled up to a military encampment outside the tiny village of Wiejki, only a few miles from the border.
“It is close to the restricted zone but outside the zone,” Mr. Nabrdalik said. “We came to the gate and introduced ourselves and told them we would take photographs outside and just wanted to give them a heads up. This is completely legal in Poland.”
As the photographers prepared to leave, more than dozen armed soldiers surrounded them, ordered them to empty their pockets and remove their coats in the frigid weather, and then handcuffed them. Soldiers them emptied Mr. Nabrdalik’s car and inspected their cameras.
“I told them listen, we are journalists, what they are doing now is breaking the law in Poland,” Mr. Nabrdalik said.
The police arrived more than an hour later and the tone changed, Mr. Nabrdalik said. Police officers offered a flashlight to help them collect their belongings from the side of the road and, eventually, they were allowed to drive away.
On Wednesday, the Polish Press Agency, the national news agency, released a statement condemning what it called an “attack” on photojournalists. Poland’s Ministry of Defense posted a statement on Twitter saying that the detention of the photographers was not an “attack” but a legitimate operation by soldiers in a tense environment.
“It should be remembered that soldiers serve in conditions of escalating tensions and are aware of the increasing use of methods of hybrid combat,” the ministry said. “We all need to be aware of how to act in an emergency.”
The sudden surge of migrants to Belarus from the Middle East that is now the focus of a political crisis in Europe was hardly an accident.
The government of Belarus loosened its visa rules in August, Iraqi travel agents said, making a flight to the country a more palatable journey to Europe than the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.
It also increased flights by the state-owned airline, European officials said. And according to Latvia’s defense minister, Artis Pabriks, Belarusian intelligence agents then actively helped funnel migrants from the capital, Minsk, to the frontiers with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Several Iraqi migrants said that Belarusian security forces had given them directions on how to cross into European Union countries, even handing out wire cutters and axes to cut through border fences.
European leaders have characterized the moves as a cynical ploy by Belarus’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, to “weaponize” migrants in an effort to punish European countries for harboring his opponents and imposing sanctions.
Now, thousands of people are stranded or hiding along the border in freezing conditions, not allowed in the European Union countries nor, circumstances are making clear, wanted by Belarus, the country that lured them there in the first place.
The human tide has turned cities like Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, into bustling ports of departure for migrants eager to take an expensive and risky journey for the chance of a better life in Europe.
Asylum seekers from the Middle East arriving on the Polish side of the border, many of them in dire condition, are at risk of being pushed back into Belarus by the Polish authorities. Their best chance for getting food, water or medical assistance is reaching out to local activists.
Although providing help is legal, activists describe operating in fear of the authorities. They say it is like playing “a cat-and-mouse game” to get to stranded migrants before border guards.
The Polish government, led by the right-wing Law and Justice party, has been accused by human rights organizations of illegally pushing back asylum seekers who manage to enter Poland from Belarus.
Local roads and forests surrounding the emergency zone, which is off limits to anyone but residents, are being patrolled by the police and special army units.
In the absence of organized help, volunteers roam the forests looking for stranded migrants, leaving rescue packages containing food, water and warm clothes on trees. Support is coming from across Poland, with people sending send homemade soups, some of them attempts at Middle Eastern cuisine, and good wishes. Tamara, a 4-year-old from Torun, about 300 miles from the border, made a drawing wishing asylum seekers good luck that her parents put in an aid package.
At least eleven people have died at the border in recent weeks, according to the Polish authorities, but the real death toll might be much higher.
Medics on the Border, a team of volunteer doctors, has been providing aid to migrants stranded in the vast and damp forests straddling the Polish-Belarusian frontier. Even the doctors are barred by Polish authorities from operating in the emergency zone.
The doctors describe the dilemma of treating patients they then have to leave in the middle of the forest. Most asylum seekers do not want to visit a hospital because of the risk of being detained and pushed back into Belarus.
“There is no follow-up, and you cannot survive in the Polish woods for a long time in winter,” Jakub Sieczko, an anesthesiologist from Warsaw and a coordinator for Medics on the Border, said in an interview. “It is sick that we have to hide people from state authorities.”
Wojtek Wilk, the head of the Polish Center for International Aid, a charity that took over operations on Monday from Medics on the Border, called the situation “an unusual crisis.”
He said that he had 20 years of humanitarian aid experience in countries like Nepal, Ethiopia and Lebanon, but that he had never come across such legal uncertainty for the people he was supposed to be helping. The charity is currently negotiating with the authorities for access to the emergency zone, Mr. Wilk added.
With the news media barred from the border area, a growing misinformation crisis is contributing to the sense of confusion and insecurity among local residents. And as the standoff on the border has been escalating, some locals say it brings back bloody memories of World War II, still vivid in the border region of Podlasie, which suffered extensively under the Soviet and the Nazi occupation.
“During the war, I would face death by firing squad,” said Maria Ancipuk, who has been helping migrants in her hometown, Michalowo. “Today, in the worst-case scenario, I will go to prison. This is nothing.”
Mr. Sieczko said the situation reminded him of “the darkest moments in Poland’s history.”
In the small Polish town of Bohoniki, a young Syrian, Ahmed Al Hasan, was buried on Monday.
The 19-year-old man died in a river in late October in this freezing, forested buffer zone where thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have been sent by the Belarus government to try to break through into Poland and the European Union.
Bohoniki, the historic home of Poland’s Muslim Tatar minority, has a mosque and an imam able to conduct the funeral services for Mr. Hasan, who was from Homs, Syria.
Fida al-Hasan, a Syrian doctor who lives in the nearby town of Bialystok, came to the funeral with his father, who was visiting from Canada. “I came to Bohoniki mosque to pray,” Mr. Al-Hasan said. “We came here today because it is our duty to pray for the soul of this boy. He has no family here.”
Mr. Hasan’s fate was not unique. Two Syrians found late Sunday by aid workers, and seen by The New York Times, had been stranded in the forest straddling the Polish-Belarusian border for days and were in an advanced stage of hypothermia. With their faces half-frozen and their lips blue from the cold, they were barely able to utter a word to the aid workers who found them.
“They had been in the forest for at least four days,” said Agata Kolodziej from Fundacja Ocalenie, a Polish charity that has been helping migrants since September. “They only told us their names. We don’t know anything more.”
The brothers, Layous, 41 and Khedr, 39, were also from Homs. A medical worker helped to carry the brothers to an ambulance parked on the edge of an unlit road next to Orla, Poland, about 15 miles from the border, the aid workers said.
The Polish activists, whose phone numbers have been circulating among migrants at the border, said they were receiving several messages a day from migrants over the past two months, including from the Syrian brothers. But since last week, the activists’ phones have gone largely silent, and aid workers have seen few signs of migrants on the Polish side.
Instead, among the only sign of migrants managing to cross the border, passing through one of Europe’s oldest and densest forests, are objects that aid workers and residents have found on daily patrols: a backpack filled with documents and passport pictures; an empty tuna can with a Belarusian label; a Cham Wings boarding pass for a flight between Damascus and Minsk; an ophthalmologist prescription written in Arabic.
Still, as the funeral proceeded in Bohoniki, Belarusian forces were massing large groups of migrants and encouraging them to force their way across the border at Kuznica-Bruzgi, a 15-minute drive to the northeast. There, Polish troops and police officers were deployed in long lines to defend the border, which is festooned with large spirals of razor wire.
A video sent to The New York Times by Nishan Abdulqadr Mustafa, a 25-year-old Kurd from Iraq who is on the Belarusian side of the border, showed hundreds of migrants stranded outside the checkpoint at Kuznica-Bruzgi.
“We are going to Poland,” he said. “It is just too cold, we cannot take it anymore.”
Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have traveled to Belarus in hopes of reaching the European Union, but have been prevented by Poland and Lithuania, E.U. member countries, from entering. They are camped along the border with Poland, stranded in the bitter cold.
European Union foreign ministers have adopted new sanctions on the government of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the Belarus leader, who has already been sanctioned for fraud in claiming a sweeping re-election victory in August and for a subsequent harsh suppression of dissent.
The new sanctions, approved by European governments on Monday, would target “individuals and entities organizing or contributing to activities by the Lukashenko regime that facilitate illegal crossing of the E.U.’s external borders,” according to the European Commission, the bloc’s executive bureaucracy.
A list of those to be hit by asset freezes and travel bans under the new sanctions is expected to be finalized in coming days. Likely to be targeted are more than two dozen Belarusian officials; a Syrian airline, Cham Wings, for having transported migrants to Belarus; the Hotel Minsk in the Belarus capital, for housing migrants; and possibly Minsk airport, according to E.U. officials.
“Today’s decision reflects the determination by the European Union to stand up to the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes,” said the E.U. foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles. “We are pushing back on this inhuman and illegal practice.”
The European Union has called Mr. Lukashenko’s efforts “a hybrid attack,” saying that he has encouraged migrants to fly into Belarus from countries like Syria and Iraq with the express purpose of sending them on to the European Union in retaliation for the earlier sanctions.
The new sanctions will have to undergo legal vetting by the European Commission before being implemented and coordinated with Britain, Canada and the United States, which could take several weeks.
The growing numbers of migrants at the Kuznica-Bruzgi border crossing, which has raised fears of further tragedy and confrontation between the two governments, appeared to be a response by Mr. Lukashenko to the meeting of the E.U. foreign ministers. Mr. Lukashenko has vowed to retaliate against fresh sanctions, though his main supporter, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, has chastised him for threatening to cut off supplies of the Russian natural gas that flows through his country to Europe.