One thought is a constant in my head: “I have kids at home, I cannot go to jail, I cannot go to jail.” The politics are beyond my reach or that of the victims on the Poland-Belarus border. It involves outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, getting through to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus. It’s ironic that this border has more than 50 media crews gathered, yet Poland is the only place in the EU where journalists cannot freely report.
Meanwhile, the harsh north European winter is closing in and my fingers are freezing in the dark snowy nights.
The border situation shows the chasm between what is legal and what is moral. It trumps the endeavours of those acting to save lives. All that we activists in the forests on the Poland-Belarus border can do is to bring water, food and clothes to desperate people. Yet to perform this basic humanitarian act requires stealth. We have to hide and sneak through the forests. Attracting the attention of the border guards, police or army would force another pushback.
I’ve met diverse groups among the trees: families, mothers with kids, fathers with disabled kids, elderly people and people from the world’s most vulnerable groups – ethnic, religious and LGBTQ+. They sought freedom, but find themselves being pushed backed into Belarus five, 10 and even 15 times since August until now, December.
On my night walks, I’m equipped with a big backpack full of flasks of warm soup, socks, boots, jackets, gloves, scarfs, hats, plasters, medicines and powerbanks. I walk in the darkness and hide behind trees when I hear helicopters or see the bright touches of the police. I hear the splash of the soup in the containers on my back, I hear the shortness of my breath – nobody taught me to be stealthy and invisible like a professional soldier. I have worked in human rights for years, visited most of the EU’s borders and refugee camps, but I was never afraid of crackling sticks underfoot or rustling the trees above my head as I move.
From personal stories and evidence collected by Minority Rights Group International with colleagues at Grupa Granica, an alliance of 14 Polish civil society organisations responding to the crisis, we know at least 5,000 people have been in the forests and that at least 1,000 are there currently. We’ve been in touch with all: desperate victims of a disgusting power game between states.
Every time we respond to a call from someone in need, or their mother still in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a cousin in Berlin, we shoulder our backpacks and go. Day and night – long after the world has lost interest. Sometimes, we look for people for hours. Sometimes, because of security issues, they change their location many times Sometimes elderly grandmothers or the little kids with no more energy to walk are stranded in Polish swamps. Now, since snow covers the forests and people cannot call us, because their phones have been destroyed by the Polish army, we use thermal imagers.
We meet scared eyes, exhausted faces, bodies destroyed by the cold, desperately short of immunity after weeks in the icy, wet forest. Freezing, thirsty, hungry humans. I had no idea what hunger meant. I’ve given a piece of chocolate to my kids when they complain before dinner. I’ve read poverty statistics and history books. I knew nothing about hunger.
People on the Poland-Belarus border have not eaten for weeks. Every few days, after a violent pushback over the barbed wire fence, they may get an old potato from a Belarusian soldier, if they have money. They will share that with the kids. They have nothing to drink for days. Or drink swamp or rainwater, which causes stomach cramps and a deadening headache, further weakening them.
We wish them care and luck at the end of our interaction. Leaving them with enough food and water supplies for a few days is impossible: no one has the strength to carry that much. We cannot take people with us or drive them to a safe place. That would be a criminal act. But it is not a crime to leave these people to their slow death.
Where is the Red Cross, the UN’s International Organization for Migration and the UN refugee agency? Those organisations that operate even in war zones? That take food and water to the most dangerous criminals? Is Elina, 5, more dangerous or less worthy? She has epilepsy but no medicine. I met her in the forest with nine other Kurds, all without boots. They survived wars and airstrikes back home but may freeze to death in the Polish forest. During every pushback Polish and Belarusian officers take away everything: money, clothes and footwear.
There was the group of nine women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably trafficked. When I explained the situation to them, they just cried and cried . Or the Yazidi sisters, who escaped genocide in Sinjar, Iraq seven years ago, but are still trying to find a safe place. Or the boys from Yemen, speaking perfect English. Or the three gay men from Iran, desperate not to be sent back to Belarusian soldiers.
We stay in touch. If they manage to hide their phones, we can communicate after a pushback. They share pictures and videos of Belarusian dogs. Show me bite wounds if we meet on the Polish side. They cry. They ask for advice. They don’t want to tell their families about their plight, but they need somebody to talk to.
“The fifth pushback. At six, I’ll kill myself.”
“I lost my son, he has asthma. [The] last time he called [was] three days ago. Do you know where he is?”
“When do you arrive? Do you have water? Even a drop?”
Subjected to a disinformation campaign, the refugees receive conflicting reports from Belarusian services, which distribute forms about the settling in Poland or Germany. This fosters hopes for a safe journey. But the real aim is to camp them on the Polish border to put pressure on the EU. Some disturbing reports suggest migrants are being forced to participate in violence as part of Belarusian attempts to provoke Polish officials.
With the risk of an escalation of violence, we, the activists in the forests, would like to remind the world that refugees are not aggressors. They are hostages to the Lukashenko regime, which is using them for its agenda.
Poles send me messages: “Where should I send warm and dark clothes?” “How is the situation on the border? Media shows us only videos by [the] Polish ministry or Belarusian authorities.” “I cry when I put my children to sleep. Please, write something that can help.”
Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, spent four days in Poland and came to the field with us. She said: “The greatest strength of the aid movement for refugees and refugees from the Poland-Belarus border are the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns – in the zone of emergency and next to it. It is their compassion and empathy that prolongs the life of people in the forest. Their courage and selflessness. Their good saves lives.”
Of course, others see it differently: people helping on the border are “enemies of the nation”, “agents of Lukashenko”, “guilty of destroying European values”, “inviting terrorists here”.
We are guilty of leaving water packs in the woods for the thirsty. We are guilty of sharing soup. Of putting shoes on cold feet that couldn’t move any more. If helping is illegal, do we even understand what crime is?
The Kiev regime has, essentially, already started selling off the country, giving priority in this “business project” to Polish neighbors, the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation stated on its website.Poland’s aspirations are being facilitated by newly-adopted legislation in Ukraine.
Previously, Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Sergey Naryshkin said that Warsaw and Washington were plotting to “reunite” Poland with western Ukraine, with the statement branded “false” by the Polish secret service.
The Kiev regime has, essentially, already started selling off the country, giving priority in this “business project” to Polish neighbors, the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation stated on its website.
Poland’s aspirations are being facilitated by newly-adopted legislation in Ukraine.
“The new legal framework adopted by the Rada at the end of July offers special guarantees for Polish citizens and allows the sale of Ukraine’s industrial enterprises at a 50% discount, according to the SVR website.
On June 29, five days after the US Supreme Court struck down federal protection of abortion rights, Emily Diament, pregnant with her second daughter, was due for her 20th week checkup. Everything was going well in a pregnancy that “could not be more desired.” She will always remember it: it was Wednesday, at two o’clock in the afternoon, when the doctor told them that the fetus’s heart had stopped beating. “It was terrible. At that time, Ram [her husband] and I had to think: Where does the Supreme Court ruling leave us now? “All of this was new”, adds this 33-year-old public relations officer in an email: “a panorama full of unknowns and fears”.
The gynecologist explained the alternatives. The first, “induction,” was the least safe. It essentially means giving birth to the stillborn baby. The second, more reliable and less onerous for her, was to undergo a D&E operation, an acronym for “dilation and evacuation”. “The process is also faster,” explains Diament. The couple opted for the latter.
The couple live in New Orleans, “the best city in the world”, as Diament likes to define it. The Supreme Court ruling, which overturned the half-century precedent of 1973 by the ruling Roe v. Wade, gave power to regulate women’s reproductive health back to the States. Diament’s legislators in Louisiana, anxiously awaited the moment of a “trigger law”, ready to take effect since 2006. Three days after the ruling, a judge blocked the activation of that rule, one of the most restrictive in the country. But it was just a mirage: on July 8 abortion was outlawed in Louisiana even for rape and incest. And so it goes: after several comings and goings in the courts, the ban holds up, pending new legal battles.
Among the restrictions contemplated by the law is the veto on D&E unless the mother’s life is in danger, or the baby has already died. Diament’s case fell into the permitted categories, but her ordeal compelled her to tell her story. “After going through that process and talking to several doctors about their concerns,” she explains, “I know this happened to me at this exact time for a reason.”
Bhavik Kumar is one of those nervous doctors, pushed into legal limbo by the new rules. He is a consultant in the largest provider of abortions in the United States, Planned Parenthood, in Houston, Texas, another of the epicenters of the restrictive tsunami that hits the United States. He explains that an “induction” can last “from one to 12 or 24 hours”, carries more risks (“the same as childbirth”) and generates more hospital expenses, causing serious debt among less well-off patients. Some, however, prefer it, because “the baby comes out intact, and they can bond with it,” adds Kumar. With D&E, which uses forceps, mothers do not see the dead body.
Conversation between doctor and patient
And that is all that Kumar asks: that the matter be resolved in a conversation between doctor and patient, “without political interference.” “Since the law came into force [in Texas], the only cases in which we are allowed to intervene after six weeks is if the life of the person is in danger, or if there is no doubt that the pregnancy is not viable.”, he warns.
Kumar, like many of his colleagues, has doubts around the idea of “life in danger”. “It’s not exactly a scientific concept,” he clarifies. “Every doctor, every ER, every clinic, and every hospital may have their own theory of what that means. Now, instead of looking at the data and talking to patients to decide what’s best, doctors, hospitals and clinics have to consult with lawyers, ethics committees or administrators about what they can and can’t do. Meanwhile, they also remain in limbo. The precautions seem justified: both Texas and Louisiana threaten prison sentences of between 10 and 15 years to those who perform abortions outside the supposedly permitted limits.
A gynecologist thus defined the new dilemmas of her practice during an interview with EL PAÍS held at a reproductive health center in Des Moines (Iowa): “It’s terrible,” lamented the doctor, who asked to speak anonymously. “They make us choose between the Hippocratic Oath [the famous “Do no harm”] and the penal code.”
This week, Attorney General Merrick Garland decided to take matters into his own hands with a Justice Department lawsuit challenging a new Idaho law that, when it takes effect at the end of the month, will allow prosecutors to “indict, arrest and prosecute a doctor merely by showing that an abortion has been performed, regardless of the circumstances.” The rule thus endorses the burden of proof on doctors (that is, to prove whether the woman’s life was in danger or not, for example, or if there was incest or rape, in cases where the law contemplates those exceptions). According to Garland, who warned that it would be the first in a series of legal actions by the Biden Administration to mitigate the effects of the new state laws, that provision conflicts with a federal regulation, The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA).
“D&E requires training that many physicians lack,” explains Diament. “With the new laws, it is likely that there will be doctors who prefer not to learn the technique to avoid its possible consequences. It’s not that we don’t have autonomy over our bodies, it’s that doctors can’t watch over our health either. This is not protecting life, quite the contrary. It’s completely surreal.”
“We must not forget that we are facing cases in which pregnancies are absolutely desired. First they have to accept terrible news, and then they are forced to go through a process that is very traumatic for many, and after that, a few weeks later, they have to relive the experience when the hospital bill arrives”, argues Gabriela Benazar Acosta, spokesperson from Planned Parenthood Latino, New York.
Kumar warns, for his part, that “medicine is a science with vast gray areas, no matter how hard these legislators insist on the contrary. No one better than doctors, in an empathetic dialogue with patients and their families, can know in each specific case what is the best way to act.”
These days, stories like Diament’s are emerging in the United States (“there have always existed,” says Kumar, “but now the spotlight is on them”). Stories of women who are sent home by hospitals with instructions to return when they get worse and are “really” bleeding (“And that, even when it is clear that there is no turning back,” warns the doctor). A patient in Texas whose water broke at week 18 and was advised to stay in the hospital until week 24 to keep her pregnant until then, which is when “viability” outside the womb is set to begin. Maybe then, the baby might survive (the chances, Alan Peaceman, a professor of maternal-fetal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told NPR that the chances are “as close to zero as far as medicine is concerned”).
“All this means that some have to travel to other states because they do not want to wait to get even more sick,” adds Kumar. Since the Supreme Court toppled Roe, class and race are two factors that have surfaced in the debate on reproductive health in the United States. With this regressive wave, which comes after half a century in which women took for granted a protection that they are now denied, began an exodus of patients from their places of origin to States in which abortions can be performed. This has created yet another gap, between those who can afford to take vacation days, often unpaid, from their jobs and pay for the trip and the intervention, and those who simply cannot afford it. In the case of miscarriages, inevitable in between 10% and 20% of pregnancies, this different position in the wheel of social fortune can become, if things get complicated, deadly.
When the US government signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, the Afghan-Iranian artist, photographer and activist Fatimah Hossaini thought little of it. People warned her, of course. The Americans will leave Afghanistan, they said, and all kinds of trouble will follow. But she hardly listened. Life in Kabul, where she had been working since 2018, felt so full and free, it was all but impossible to imagine the clock turning back.
The simple fact was that she had lived with more day-to-day restrictions in Tehran, where she was born and grew up, than she had ever had to put up with in Kabul (her Afghan grandparents fled to Iran in the 1980s, during the Soviet-Afghan war). “Life was good,” she says. “In Tehran, people are a little depressed with the situation. But in Kabul there was so much hope and desire. A new generation was burning with it. I could see women in every sector: musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians. I could teach my classes at the university without a hijab. I could show my students any image I liked. These things would never happen in Iran.”
But life really was about to change. When a newly elected Joe Biden confirmed in April 2021 that American troops would be withdrawn by 11 September, Taliban insurgents began to intensify their attacks on the Afghan state; in May, for instance, a car bomb outside a Kabul school killed more than 60 people, most of them schoolgirls. “Even I could see that the security situation was different,” Hossaini says. “I lost two journalist friends [to Taliban attacks] during those months. When my mum called, which was every day, she would say: Fatimah, use a different entrance each time you come home.”
At one point she did go back to Tehran, largely at her parents’ behest. (Her mother is a housewife and her father runs a small business. The oldest of three sisters, Hossaini, ever independent, moved to Kabul when she graduated from university.) “But I only lasted a month and a half.” She struggles to explain it. “I just had to be in Afghanistan. I was there in the bright days; I felt I should be there in the dark days too.” Ahead of an exhibition of her photographs in the US, she had an American visa, and this was her insurance policy. “I thought: if the worst happens, I can use that visa.” She shakes her head. “My parents couldn’t believe I was going to go back. They said I was crazy. But I didn’t listen to them.”
In Kabul, things seemed calmer. She told her mother the media were exaggerating the situation, and that she was not to worry. But her mother did worry, and no wonder. Across Afghanistan, cities were falling to the Taliban: Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif. It was now August. A friend called and said, book your seat to the US; in three weeks, commercial flights will be no more. “Imagine it,” says Hossaini. “I had heard my grandparents’ stories. I knew about all the people that got stuck in Afghanistan in the communist years, even those with visas. But still, I couldn’t believe it would happen to me. My mind turned away from it. The night before Kabul fell [on 15 August], I did an interview with CNN. I said: ‘People will never let the Taliban claim this city.’”
On the same evening, she and 10 friends went to a cafe to drink tea. “One of them invited me to her sister’s wedding! We were just drinking and talking. We didn’t know, then, that this would be the last time we would meet.”
The following morning, having at last booked a flight to the US, she got a taxi to take her to a clinic for a PCR test. The driver thought she must have lost her mind. The Taliban are at the gates of Kabul, he said. Looking out of the car’s windows, she noticed that in the streets people were running. What kind of person runs in Kabul in August? “It wasn’t normal. I began to think something might actually be going to happen.”
At home she made some green tea and took it on to her balcony, with its view of her city, and it was then that she saw them: “Down below were Taliban fighters on their motorcycles, waving their flags. They’re here, I thought. I shouted it: ‘THEY ARE HERE!’ But there was no one to hear me. I was alone.”
She isn’t sure how she got through the night. She couldn’t cry, she couldn’t eat. She had missed her flight, if it had, in fact, left. The next day, another friend called. “She said: ‘They’re going door-to-door looking for journalists, musicians, teachers; make sure you’re not alone.’ I got my backpack, my laptop, my camera, and a hat that’s traditional to my tribe [Hossaini is an ethnic Hazara, a group that has often been persecuted in Afghanistan], and I went to stay with friends.” She spent the next two days with them, deleting all her social media, begging journalists who had any footage of her to take it down. Her voice is full of contempt. “Those fucking terrorists. One day, early in the morning, we had three Taliban at the door. They were only looking for food, and when we gave it to them they left.”
But her mind was clear now: it was, she finally conceded, time to go. Like thousands upon thousands of other desperate Afghans, she pitched up at Kabul airport. She would spend the next four days there. “It was crazy,” she says. “Mothers abandoning their children; lovers abandoning each other. People were so desperate, they would do anything to leave.”
It wasn’t, she tells me, as we might have seen it on television. She wasn’t in the military section of the airport, where British and American soldiers were filmed by news crews lifting tiny babies over wire fences. She was in the commercial part, a chaotic realm that could only be accessed through seven Taliban checkpoints. Inside, people stood in long lines, each one corresponding to the country to which they hoped to travel seeking asylum. It was frightening, and surreal. Looking around, she saw several Afghan politicians, and the singer and TV personality Aryana Sayeed, one of Afghanistan’s biggest stars.
At first, Hossaini joined the American line. She knew that to go to the US would make it almost impossible for her to see her family again: travel between the two countries is extremely difficult. But she was desperate, and she had her visa, after all. Wouldn’t it help her? Apparently not. “Get back, get back!” the Americans shouted. This made her very angry. “I thought: you betrayed us. We’re about to lose everything. You have ruined our country. At least be a little nice.”
Like others in the airport, she began to call out to embassy staff, irrespective of which country they represented. Germany, Italy, Poland: four days in, and she would have gone anywhere.
It occurred to her that in France, artists are admired, even revered. “Just take me,” she yelled, in the general direction of the French. “I’m an artist!” She was duly allowed to move from the American line to the French line – and it was at this moment that the miracle occurred. “David Martinon, the French ambassador in Afghanistan, used to come to my exhibitions in Kabul. I was wearing that crazy outfit with a scarf; only my eyes could be seen. But he recognised me. ‘Fatimah?’ he said. He put his arms around me. ‘You will be welcome in Paris,’ he told me.”
Some hours later, she flew alone to France, relieved but sorrowful, grateful, but in mourning (her friends were eventually all dispersed to other countries). “It was very hard,” she says. “Afghanistan didn’t only give me pain; it gave me love too. I was connected to it by my heart, and when France gives you asylum, the arrangement is that they take your Afghan passport and your ID card, and you must sign a paper that says you won’t ever travel there. Can you believe it? My heart. I had to promise them not to go back to Afghanistan.”
I meet Hossaini in Paris on a hot July day. She is wearing a sleeveless, pleated dress – it’s so fine, you could probably pull it, Fortuny-style, through a wedding ring – and a brilliant smile that only rarely dims. A year on, she is living in the city in a tiny attic, a bona fide garret at the top of an artist’s colony on the edge of the Marais. And how she has made it her own. The building’s wide, sweeping staircase and peeling plaster walls are so very belle époque they might have come from the pages of a novel by Colette. But step inside her rooms, which smell deliciously of roses and cardamom, and you find yourself in a little bit of Afghanistan: low seating, striped throws, a bowl of nuts to welcome the visitor.
On the walls hang some of her own photographs and – I notice it straight away – the brightly coloured hat she grabbed on that fateful day when she left her home in Kabul for the last time. “Women make these with their hands, out of nothing,” she says, taking it down to show me. “Textiles are an important part of Afghan culture because the country was on the Silk Road, and they have many meanings. You can tell by looking at these whether their owner is married or single. It’s a beautiful thing for me – a symbol of resilience.”
In Afghanistan, women must currently draw on every available ounce of their resilience. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, in the year since the Taliban took over, Afghan women and girls have experienced a “suffocating” crackdown on their rights. They are banned from attending school and restricted in the ways they can work; should they dare to protest against such infringements, they are inevitably arrested, and often tortured and abused in custody. The burqa, a garment that covers every part of a woman’s body, including her face, has been widely reimposed. There has also been a surge in child marriage.
Is Hossaini surprised things turned so bad so quickly? She shakes her head. “The Taliban are exactly the same as they were 20 years ago,” she says, her voice scornful. “The only difference is that they have Twitter accounts now.” She knew they could not be taken at their word, and she isn’t optimistic that things will change any time soon. “They are stupid, idiot terrorists, incapable of governing properly. On the other hand, so much talent has left the country, and I am not sure that even half of it will ever go back. I am with those women who protest. Their resistance is very brave. But no, I don’t feel very hopeful.”
Hossaini, who is 29, was a well-known (and well-connected) figure in Kabul – a photographer, a curator, a university professor, and the founder of Mastooraat, an organisation that supported artists and performers in Afghanistan. Leaving was agonising. From childhood she had longed to see the land of her grandparents, and from the moment she first visited Afghanistan in 2015, she fell passionately in love with it. She had so many friends there. “This crazy connection with my roots,” as she puts it.
But in terms of her work there was a particular wrench. Inspired by the fact that whenever she travelled abroad, people would inevitably ask about the burqa, she had spent several years photographing the country’s supposedly “unseen” women with their faces uncovered, their bodies swathed in fabrics of every imaginable colour – a project she would now never finish.
In Paris, though, her mind turned to it again. Why shouldn’t she complete it with a series of portraits of women just like herself? After all, a person is no less an Afghan just because they are in exile. And what better way to celebrate aspects of a culture – singing, painting, acting – that are now banned by the Taliban? (In Kabul, people are struck now by the absence of music; the city’s soundtrack has no melodies.)
To her original collection, then, she gradually added portraits of some of those who had fled Afghanistan in August 2021: women such as Aqila Rezai, a film star who had worked in Afghan cinema for 30 years, and Shegofa Ibrahimi, a theatre actor who left the country with nothing but a dress made for her by her mother; women like Anarkali Kaur Honaryar, a Sikh doctor and one of the first non-Muslim members of the Afghan parliament, and Marzieh Hamidi, a member of the Afghan national taekwondo team.
“My aim has been to break the stereotype of the Afghan woman,” she says. “I have worked to portray all backgrounds, and all ethnicities. In every province, faces are different, some fair-skinned and some dark, and traditional dress is different in every province too. This project is all about the face: its power, its individuality, its ferocity.” But the series has also taken on extra meaning – a new resonance – since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan once again. “It’s the most valuable thing, because the pictures preserve things – ways of being, and of dressing – that are important culturally. To see a woman’s face at all …” Her voice trails off. There are no words. Even now, it all seems so unbelievable.
And what of her own exile? The past year, she says, hasn’t been easy. “When I arrived I was in shock. It took two or three months to accept what had happened.” She knew no one, and spoke no French. “I’ve struggled a lot. But I have been made welcome, in a very honourable and respectful way. I hear that in England, Afghans are still living in hotel rooms. Here, I’m respected as an artist, I’ve been able to continue my work, and I have a platform from which to speak about the women of Afghanistan.” Will she stay? She sounds uncertain. “I love Paris. It’s amazing. I do feel France can be my home. But maybe I will go back to a central Asian country to live, just to be somewhere close to Afghanistan.”
What does she miss most? If I were able to visit, where would she tell me to go? She looks out of the window, towards the shimmering Seine. “I really miss my house,” she says, softly. “I miss the nights when my friends came over and we cooked food together. I miss the mountains. I could see the Hindu Kush from my window. I miss being able to travel to Bamiyan [a province in the highlands noted for its carved buddhas, the most famous of which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001]. That’s where I would tell you to go. To Bamiyan, for the buddhas, and the lakes, and the amazing food; and I would tell you to go to Herat too, to see the Citadel, and to eat an orange and some small fishes from the river … Yes, I really do miss every inch of my home.” Does she think she will see it all again one day? She nods. “One day.” It’s a matter of circumstance, not desire. When – if – the chance comes, just let them try to stop her.