An Iraqi mother, a football fan from Yemen, a teenager from Syria: At least 17 people have died since September in the border area between Belarus and Poland. Here are their stories.
The new dead are buried in the back, close together, in the farthest corner of the cemetery. Three men shovel soil onto the coffin. The only sound is the crunch of their shovels. Then they place a plaque on the grave. The date of death is noted on it, above the letters N.N., nomen nescio, name not known.
For the men in Bohoniki in eastern Poland, this is the second funeral in three days. All they know about the dead man is that he isn’t from the region and that he is said to be a Muslim. A person picking mushrooms discovered his body in the forest. Members of the local Muslim community have come to join the imam in praying for the deceased.
Poland’s largest Muslim cemetery is located in Bohoniki, on the border with Belarus. Since November, some of the people who died while fleeing Belarus have been buried here. The imam is hoping that the dead can eventually be repatriated to their home countries so that their relatives can visit their graves. For now, though, it is strangers who lay flowers here.
The border area between Poland and Belarus has become a death trap. Soldiers from both countries have been facing off against each other for the past several weeks, with thousands of refugees stuck in the middle. In the meantime, some have returned to their home countries, but there are still scores who are stranded in the border strip.
There has been an average of one death a week in the area since September, because both Belarus and the European Union have provided little to no support here. The victims have frozen to death or drowned in the Bug River, which runs along the border. The dead almost always remain nameless in media reports on the developments. European politicians have described the refugees as “weapons” of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s “hybrid war” against Europe. In fact, they were people with dreams, fears and aspirations.
Working together with the media platform Lighthouse Reports, journalists with DER SPIEGEL spent weeks researching the identities of the dead and the circumstances leading up to their deaths. They pursued clues on the internet and interviewed relatives, investigators, security forces and human rights activists in Belarus, Poland, Germany, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
DER SPIEGEL has been able to verify the deaths of 16 adults and one unborn baby. The true number is likely higher. The identities of 12 of the dead are known. Among them are a Syrian pastry chef, a football fan from Yemen and an Iraqi woman who was pregnant when she set out on her journey. This article is a testament to their lives.
The news spread like wildfire in September in the Palestinian refugee camp of Hama, a city in northwestern Syria. A young Palestinian had made it, successfully traveling from the camp to Belarus across the border and then onward to the Netherlands. Rajaa Hasan also heard the story, and thought: At last, this is it – the the opportunity for a better life in Europe.
Hasan had only known the world of overcrowded refugee camps. She was born further north in a camp and was now living in the cramped refugee neighborhood in Hama with her husband and four sons. Speaking by phone, her brother describes how she used to make the equivalent of around $2 a day doing embroidery.
Hasan got the number of a contact man from the young Palestinian in the Netherlands, who organized the trip to Minsk for $3,700. The onward journey to the Netherlands would cost an additional $2,500. With her husband ill at the time, Hasan would have to make the attempt on her own. Hasan believed she could make it, her brother says, in part because the smugglers had claimed: “It’s no problem at all. You get on a plane to Minsk. We’ll take you to the border in Poland, you will walk for three or four hours and then you’re in the European Union.”
Hasan stocked up on warm clothes and dried dates in Minsk. Then she drove to the border together with three other refugees. But they lost their way in the forest and got wet – and grew colder and colder. Hasan started walking more slowly and could hardly breathe. She wanted to take a break every 10 minutes, says a Syrian who joined the group in the forest. At some point, the Polish security forces spotted the group. They hoisted the refugees onto a truck, including an exhausted Hasan. But instead of taking her to a hospital, they dragged her back to Belarus.
Hasan could barely stand. She complained of chest pains. “The woman is dying!” the Syrian shouted to the Belarusian border guards. But he claims they only laughed. Hasan was already unresponsive and foaming at the mouth when Belarusian soldiers finally took her to Hrodna, the nearest town, on Nov. 8. Instead of immediately taking the woman to a hospital, they called a taxi. The refugees were told they had to pay 600 euros for the trip to Minsk.
Hasan’s heart stopped beating. The men took her out of the car and laid her on the asphalt. Even the paramedics who were called in were unable to revive Hasan.
Her family back in Hama learned of Rajaa Hasan’s death through her Syrian companion. He also delivered two audio messages that Hasan had recorded for her mother while she was still in the forest, but hadn’t been able to send them. “How are you, mama?” she asked. “We’re doing well. Pray for us.”
The Mother’s Boy
When his friends told him it was possible to enter the EU through Belarus, Kawa Anwar Mahmood al-Jaf didn’t hesitate for long. He worked in a market in the city of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq and set off on his journey at the beginning of November with a few acquaintances. Al-Jaf paid $3,500 for the trip to Minsk. A selfie video shows the young man outside a shopping mall wearing a blue winter jacket, with his scarf pulled up under his nose.
His sister says that as a child, al-Jaf had had a very tight bond with his mother. She can still remember how he would kiss her when she brought him gifts or new clothing. Later, al-Jaf would go to the mountains on weekends with his friends and eat grilled meat. Shawarma was his favorite dish. He dreamed of a life in Switzerland, and he had hoped to study computer programming once he made it to Europe.
Al-Jaf tried to cross the border six times in vain, says his father, who stayed in contact with him. The father says that Polish border guards pushed him back twice. It wasn’t until the ninth time that it finally worked – al-Jaf made it deep into Poland together with a group of Kurds. A short time later, al-Jaf’s companions called his father. They said a smuggler was driving them to Germany, but his son wasn’t well and couldn’t walk. Then another call: They were in the car now, and his son was getting worse. Al-Jaf’s father called his son-in-law, who lives in Denmark. He, in turn, begged the group to take al-Jaf to a hospital. But the young men from Said Sadik refused, apparently out of fear of getting caught. On Nov. 23, al-Jaf’s father got the last call. The group had made it to Frankfurt, but they said his son was dead.
The Quiet One
On a cold November day, Ahmad al-Ensi is sitting in a train station café in the city of Neumünster, Germany. It has been three weeks since he crossed the border from Belarus to Poland and he’s still in shock. His friend Ahmad al-Hasan is dead, drowned in the river, and al-Ensi just barely avoided the same fate.
Ahmad al-Hasan was the youngest of seven children. Speaking by phone, his brothers say he was the baby of the family, the favorite child. That he preferred to be called Amir because he thought Ahmad was too common. In photos, al-Hasan looks a bit like a gigolo with his thin mustache, plucked brows and provocative gaze.
Al-Hasan was just a child when his parents fled from the war in Homs, Syria, to Jordan, where they lived in a camp for several years. After the death of their father, the family moved to al-Mafraq, a desert town not far from the Syrian border.
Al-Hasan had wanted to become a lawyer. Alongside his schooling, he worked as a cleaner for the city administration. He graduated with very good grades, but his family didn’t have enough money for university. Going to university is cheaper in Turkey, where his brother Salman lives, but al-Hasan couldn’t get a visa.
Al-Hasan didn’t talk much, and certainly not about himself, his brothers say. They only learned by chance that he had a girlfriend in Damascus, who he had met on social media and wanted to marry. And he only told them shortly before his departure that he wanted to travel to Europe through Belarus together with his friend Ahmad al-Ensi. He told his brother not to worry about him, that everything would be very easy.
Al-Ensi flew a day later than al-Hasan. As he said his goodbyes to his family in Damascus, he recorded it for his TikTok channel. He cried and hugged his family.
The two friends booked a room at the Hotel Belarus in Minsk and then walked around the city taking pictures. One shows al-Hasan in checked trousers and a black jacket, his leg casually resting on a wall.
Although the two Syrians had paid for seven nights at the Hotel Belarus, they were told it was time to go to the border after only two nights. A man named Abu Adam was was organizing their escape across the border into Poland and he demanded $2,500 per person. An Iraqi man took the two young men to the border in a car, along with six other refugees. They were to cover the final few kilometers to Poland on foot, under the cover of darkness.
At around 3 a.m., the group reached the Bug River at the border. Four Belarusian soldiers with machine guns and shepherd dogs approached them and told the refugees to inflate their inflatable rafts, el-Esi would later say. Then they herded them toward the river.
The river is half a meter deep at its bank, and it is much deeper in the middle. Al-Ensi remembers warning al-Hasan: “We can’t cross.” But his friend had already climbed into the raft. Then, a soldier approached them. As al-Ensi said he wanted to turn back, the soldier ordered him: “Go to Poland!” Then he pushed the boat away from the shore.
The two friends paddled to the middle of the river. But then a current caught the boat and flipped it, spilling Al-Hasan and al-Ensi into the water. Al-Ensi banged his head against a log, which he then held onto and ultimately he managed to make it to the other side. He could hear al-Hasan gasping for breath. Then he went silent.
The Pregnant Woman
Avin Irfan Zahir and her husband Baravan Husni Murad have five children. The youngest is eight and the oldest is 16 years old. And then there was a fetus that the couple had no idea about when they left Iraq for Belarus.
The family spent days wandering through the Polish-Belarusian border area. Zahir’s health grew worse and worse, and at one point, she could barely walk. When Polish activists found the family in the forest, Zahir was lying on the ground whimpering. She hadn’t eaten for two days and she was spitting up bile. Her body temperature had dropped to 27 degrees Celsius (80.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The baby in her womb had already died by that point.
Doctors in a Polish hospital fought for three weeks to save Zahir before she passed away. Baravan Husni Murad named the unborn child Halikari. And now plans to return to Iraq.
A Good Heart
It has been more than a month since Issa Jerjos landed on European soil, and 300 people in the village he is from in western Syria are now gathering for his memorial service. Inside the church, according to participants of the service over the phone, the pastor prays for Jerjos, who was of Christian faith.
Issa Jerjos was the eldest son of a truck driver. Photos depict a strong young man with warm brown eyes, his hair slicked back and his beard carefully trimmed. Jerjos’ girlfriend, Bernadate, fell in love with Issa almost 10 years ago. At the time, the two were still teenagers and attended the same school.
Bernadate often thinks about Issa’s smell – the citrus fragrance of the cologne he always wore. She thinks back on the golden cross he gave her two years ago. And her initials, which Jerjos had carved into a tree as a token of love. “Issa never lied to me,” she says. “He had a good heart.”
Jerjos and Bernadate had dreamed of getting married one day. Jerjos had abandoned his studies in computer science to earn money for his family and had worked as a food delivery man in Beirut. He later became a street vendor in the Kurdish city of Erbil in Iraq, managing to send home $100 a month, sometimes even more. Ultimately, though, it was no longer possible to earn a living in Erbil, so he decided to leave for Europe. His new destination was Germany.
Jerjos arrived in Minsk on Sept. 15. He made it to Poland with two Syrians he had met along the way, but he wrote to his girlfriend over WhatsApp that Polish security forces had caught him and forced him back to the Belarusian side.
On the second attempt, he lost his companions and struck out on his own. At 3:30 a.m., Jerjos sent his girlfriend his final location. Then, Bernadate says, his mobile phone battery died. She never heard from him again.
In the days that followed, Polish NGOs searched for Jerjos. Weeks later, on Oct. 13, Polish police officers discovered his body in a field – not far from the location he had previously shared with his girlfriend.
Jerjos’ relatives still don’t know the cause of his death. The Polish public prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation, his family has hired a lawyer. They hope to be allowed to travel to Poland for Issa’s funeral.
The Family Man
Ahmed Hamed al-Zabhawi was married and his daughter Azal is two years old. He had a business degree, but had been unable to find a job. He wanted to go to Germany to earn money for his family, his brother Haidar explains over the phone. The trip to Poland via Belarus was to cost $5,000, money that Al-Zabhawi borrowed.
He spent several days in September walking with two Iraqi refugees through the forest between Belarus and Poland. One of the men traveling with him repeatedly sent their coordinates to family, but at some point, Haidar al-Zabhawi received a message back in Iraq that Ahmed was ill. He was throwing objects and had taken off his clothes. Haidar al-Zabhawi asked them to take his brother to the nearest hospital. “It’s too dangerous,” the man wrote.
The men wanted to leave Ahmed al-Zabhawi behind in the forest. Haidar ordered the smuggler not to take the men without his brother. The men responded: “We don’t know how we can help him.” The next day, they wrote to Haidar: “Your brother is dead.”
Gaylan Dler Ismail could barely speak as he sent a final message to his brother Goran on WhatsApp. “My brother. I swear on the Koran, I am not well at all. I don’t even have the strength to stand up anymore. But please don’t tell mom.” A few hours later, Gaylan Dler died of hyperglycemia.
Goran Dler Ismail and his father Mahmood are sitting in the family home on the outskirts of Erbil, in northern Iraq, one morning in November. They have drawn the curtains and switched off the phone ringer. Two days earlier, they laid Gaylan to rest, and now they are trying to come to terms with the grief – and the anger. “The Europeans claim they respect human rights,” says Mahmood Dler Ismail. “Then why did they leave my child to die in the woods?”
Fifty-three-year-old farmer Mahmood Dler Ismail lived a relatively carefree life, and he and his wife had four sons and two daughters. The war, which had devastated large parts of Iraq, had spared his family. He was only worried about his second-oldest son, Gaylan, who suffered from diabetes and a spine that had become inflamed such that he could barely move his right arm and leg. Mahmood Dler Ismail couldn’t find a doctor in Iraq who could relieve his son’s pain. He wanted to get treatment for him in Germany, but the consulate in Erbil refused to issue him a visa.
When rumors began circulating in Erbil in the summer that Iraqis could get to Europe via Belarus, Mahmood Dler Ismail believed Gaylan’s opportunity had arrived. He used up his savings and sold his house so he could send Gaylan to Germany. Two other sons, Arkan and Govand, and a daughter, Iman, and her husband and child, were to accompany him. Mahmood Dler Ismail paid a total of $20,000 to a smuggler in Iraq.
The Dler Ismails knew that Poland was blocking migrants from crossing its borders. Even so, they weren’t prepared for the force that they encountered at the border, as Arkan Dler Ismail, Gaylan’s brother, would later recount back in Minsk.
During the first attempt, the group made it as far as Poland, according to tracking data, but they were dragged back across the border by Polish soldiers. During the second attempt, Iman Dler Ismail broke her ankle. She was sent to a Polish hospital, but all the others were sent back to Belarus, where they were separated by security forces. Gaylan Dler Ismail’s brother-in-law was sent to a kind of penal camp. For Gaylan Dler Ismail, a diabetic, this was disastrous because his insulin, which could mean life or death for him, was in his brother-in-law’s backpack.
After days in the woods, Gaylan Dler Ismail could no longer walk. His brother Arkan carried him on his back. Arka says that Polish soldiers refused to help them. “They just watched as Gaylan died,” he says.
Gaylan Dler Ismail’s body was repatriated to Iraq, and his brother-in-law also returned to Erbil with the child. Arkan and Govand, on the other hand, are still stuck in Minsk. Their sister Iman has since been released from the hospital in Poland and continued her journey to Germany.
The Dler Ismails have to move out of their house in Erbil by the end of the year. Father Mahmood says he would still send his children off to Europe again. “What other choice do we have?” he asks.
The Pastry Chef
Farhad Nabo worked as a pastry chef in Kobane in northern Syria. On his days off, he would play football with his two sons. He told very few people about his plan to go to Europe and then bring his family after him.
After several unsuccessful attempts, he and another Syrian man managed to cross the border into Poland in October. In a TikTok video, a man introduces Nabo and his traveling companion, laughing and waving at the camera. Nabo thought he had already reached his destination when he got into the car of a smuggler in Poland. But while fleeing from the police, the smuggler crashed into a truck. Nabo was killed instantly.
“Farhad dreamed of being able to put his sons on a school bus without having to fear for them,” his father-in-law says over the phone. They now want to bring his body back to Syria.
The Football Fan
Mostafa al-Raimi had tried three times to enter the West the normal way, applying in vain for visas to the United States, France and the Netherlands before choosing the irregular route and traveling through Saudi Arabia to Cairo in the autumn. A smuggler promised to take him to Poland via Minsk. From there, the journey was to continue to Germany or the Netherlands. The final part of the trip alone was to cost 1,800 euros.
Al-Raimi comes from a wealthy family. His father was a judge, and his brother works in the Yemeni Consulate in Saudi Arabia. His family describes him as a quiet, friendly man who laughed a lot and loved football. Before the war, al-Raimi had studied accounting in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa and later got a job with a Saudi Arabian bank in Jeddah. But his brother Salah al-Din al-Raimi says by phone that the position had been insecure and that a growing number of foreign employees had been replaced by Saudi nationals.
Al-Raimi made his way to Europe alone. He promised his wife and two children that the would reunite as soon as he got to the Netherlands. Together with two other Yemenis and four Syrians, he tried to the cross the border into Poland, but the men got lost as they fled Polish soldiers. After several hours, they found each other again, except that al-Raimi was still missing. Three days later, Polish border guards discovered his body.
Salah al-Din al-Raimi traveled to Poland after learning of his brother’s death. He had heard that there had been gunfire at the border the night his brother died. He searched Mostafa’s body in the morgue for gunshot wounds, but determined that his brother had apparently died of natural causes. The doctors say it was a heart attack. Salah al-Din al-Raimi decided to bury him in Poland and was the only relative present at the funeral.
The Frustrated One
Kurdo Khalid just wanted to rest. He had returned to Minsk from the Polish-Belarusian border region at the end of October, worn out and exhausted. The Iraqi had tried for several days in vain to find a way into the EU with his younger brother. Khalid was frustrated – only a few years ago, he had managed to get as far as Britain, where he worked for a while.
He put down his backpack and sleeping bag in a shabby hostel in the center of the Belarusian capital and then went to the nearby Galleria mall, a major meeting place for refugees. He wanted something to eat and drink and sat down on the fifth floor at one of the bright tables between snack stands and cafés. Suddenly, he slumped over, fell off the chair and lay motionless on the floor, according to one Iraqi who witnessed it. Paramedics tried in vain to revive Khalid. It was later said that the Iraqi had died of a stroke.
Wafaa Kamal had hoped that her 11-year-old son would become a doctor in Europe, and she wished for her eight-year-old daughter to have a career as an architect.
Kamal loved beauty and lightness, her husband Haidar relays by phone. She had studied applied arts in Baghdad, spending her free time embroidering and going on outings with her six siblings. The family’s everyday life was idyllic. But Haidar Kamal says that he and Wafaa were threatened by Shiite militias after working for international organizations. They no longer felt safe in their home country. The family booked their trip from Baghdad to Minsk for $7,200. From there, they wanted to continue onward to the EU.
They got through the fence to the Polish restricted area near Hrodna, the city in Belarus, where they were supposed to be picked up by a smuggler for the trip to Germany. The Kamals had deposited another $1,800 per person with an insurance company in Turkey. But they would never reach the meeting point.
Wafaa Kamal fell ill after several days in the forest and could barely breathe. Haidar Kamal ran to the next road and after a few minutes, Polish security forces turned up. But instead of taking Wafaa Kamal to the hospital, they dragged the family back to the border fence, Haidar Kamal claims.
On the Belarusian side, the family spend another night in the forest. On Sept. 19, at 6 a.m., Wafaa Kamal’s heart stopped. Haidar ran from the scene and found Belarusian soldiers after hours of searching. He says they proceeded to blackmail him, saying they would only send help if he blamed the Poles for his wife’s death. A short time after, Belarusian investigators recorded two videos that they later posted online. In the videos, Haidar Kamal claims that Polish soldiers beat his wife to death. For a few seconds, you see the motionless body of his wife, who no longer has shoes on. The Belarusian security forces wrote that the Polish soldiers had taken them away from her.
After the video shoot, Wafaa Kamal was taken to the hospital. Her death certificate says she died of hypothermia. The children were sent to a shelter and Haidar Kamal to jail.
He was released after eight days. Of the $8,400 he had with him at the beginning of his detention, officials had given him back only half. They charged $4,200 for providing the family with “accommodations,” COVID-19 testing and flights back to Baghdad.
A shipping company was the last to earn money from the Kamal’s suffering. Haidar Kamal had to pay $5,138 for the return transport of his deceased wife.