A Belavia airline boarding pass from Dubai to Minsk left under a birch tree. A child’s overalls abandoned next to the old rail track, linking Belarus with Poland. An eye shadow palette hidden among brown, damp leaves.
These are not regular sights in the Bialowieza Forest, one of the last remaining swathes of a primordial forest that used to stretch across Europe, home to bison and deers. The people who come across them are not regular hikers, either. They are residents and activists looking for asylum seekers from the Middle East, victims of a standoff between a Belarusian government trying to funnel them into Poland, and a Polish government, supported by the European Union, adamant at keeping them out.
“We used to come to the forest in search of the beauty of nature,” said Iza, a local resident who has been helping asylum seekers, and who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of repercussions from authorities and far-right groups. “Now we are looking for things that seem out of place.”
In the face of a growing humanitarian crisis and a near-total absence of state support, locals have stepped in, providing migrants with food, water, warm clothes and power banks. They relentlessly patrol the forest, looking for people in need.
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