‘Then I understood what they want’: Unmasking the Belarus border attack

[LRT Investigation / LRT]

Belarusian officers used migrants as pawns to attack the EU border, handing out axes and pelting Polish guards with stones. The investigation team of EURACTIV’s media partner LRT.lt has pieced together a chronology of events with exclusive witness testimonies revealing the scale of the Belarusian regime’s involvement.

8 November saw irregular migrants in Belarus head en masse to the border with Poland. Although it appeared as a self-organised action, LRT Investigation Team has established the key actors who coordinated the process, with the help of the Minsk regime:

– Belarusian officers assisted the migrants by supplying them with axes, wire-cutters, and other equipment.

– Visual data reveals that Belarusian officers were mixed in among the crowd of hundreds of migrants, mostly Kurdish.

– A key organiser and coordinator of the border action said Belarusian officers were trying to instigate a mass attack on the Polish border on the night of 13-14 November. The migrants were given protection from tear gas, face covers, and other equipment.

– Belarusian officers were liaising directly with at least five migrants, with the aim of coercing them into attacking the border fence. The plan did not work out as the asylum seekers feared for the lives of their families.

– People who introduced themselves as leaders and organisers of the Kurdish migrants in Belarus were activists associated with one of the largest opposition movements in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The middleman

Ghalib, one of the migrants, was under pressure to return to Iraq but he tricked Belarusian officers by buying stopover tickets to Baghdad via Dubai and then cancelling the second flight to board a plane to another country.

LRT spoke with him for the first time in early December when he, together with other migrants, was still at the Belarusian logistics centre next to the Bruzgi checkpoint on the Polish border.

He introduced himself as one of the people leading and helping to organise the irregular migrants stuck on the border. Ghalib also said he was the liaison between the predominantly Kurdish migrants and Belarusian officers.

“I am an organiser. But why am I an organiser? Because everyone in Iraq, especially in the north, they knew me. I am popular in northern Iraq. I am a person who has always opposed the government. And I am always against this Kurdish government,” he said.

Previously, Ghalib was connected to Gorran, the largest opposition movement in Iraqi Kurdistan. He said that his departure for Belarus was also coordinated with local politicians, members of the Gorran movement and that he had been taken to the airport in Baghdad by a Kurdish politician.

“I met the Belarusian officers here,” Ghalib told LRT while he was still in Belarus. “They saw how I communicate with people, how I speak with them. [But] I have nothing to do with [the Belarusians].”

The Belarusian officers said “people respect you, you can make their situation better”, added Ghalib. “We can help you, we can bring you food, water, everything.”

“I asked them for toilets, and they brought us toilets. I asked them for everything,” he said.

Ghalib was also one of the first people to arrive at the Polish border, before the collective push by migrants to force their way into Poland.

He was seen organising people on that day, appearing at the front of the crowd, handing out food and water from Belarusian officers to other migrants, and speaking with Belarusian border guards.

Belarusian officers instigated unrest

On 8 November, when hundreds of people gathered by the border, some tried to break the fence with tree branches, shovels, and wire cutters. Later, when the migrants moved to the border checkpoint, the Polish forces were pelted by bottles and stones.

“They helped, the Belarusians helped. They said – you have 3,000 people. We say that the road was long, the border is long, it’s difficult, [there are] children,” said Ghalib. “They told someone that ‘we will give you tools to cut down trees, we will give you wire cutters’. And they gave us everything.”

LRT’s Investigation Team analysed hours of video footage posted on social media by the migrants. The recordings suggest that Belarusian officers were already mixed in among the crowd when it moved toward the Polish border on 8 November.

Later, the same Belarusian officers are seen in videos sent to LRT by Ghalib, which were recorded covertly by his friends. In them, the Belarusians speak to Ghalib inside the logistics centre at the border.

According to Ghalib, the Belarusian officers had his phone number and were constantly in touch. On 13 November – a few days before the most violent border clashes – the Belarusian officers called Ghalib “some 15–16 times”.

With Belarusian guards behind him, Ghalib was pushed to ask other migrants if they would take part in an organised attack.

“They wanted me and four or five other people, who were given goggles, hats, and scarves to cover our faces, to break the fence and push through,” said Ghalib.

The Belarusian officers were plotting for the attack to take place on the night of 13-14 November. According to the plan presented to the Kurds, a group of migrants would cut through the fence and the others would follow.

KGB officers maintained constant contact

At the logistics centre, communication between the Belarusians and the migrants continued to go through Ghalib. He said he would usually speak to a man named Alexey, who claimed to have worked for the Belarusian security service, the KGB. Another officer would usually accompany him, known as “boss Sasha”.

According to Ghalib, the Belarusians would always push for people to head to the border at night.

“The Belarusian strategy was not to let the Polish stay calm at night. I saw it myself,” said Ghalib.

There were also Belarusians dressed in civilian clothes who would guide the migrants toward the Polish border, according to Ghalib. They were also the ones who would throw rocks at the guards on the other side.

“A large group would go, around 16–18 people. Then four or five soldiers would come. They breached the fence, and when the Polish guards came, they started throwing rocks,” said Ghalib. “They made sure to keep the Polish busy, fighting them with rocks until people crossed the border.”

Preparation for the attack

The LRT Investigation Team pieced together the chronology of the events at the border.

On 5 November, three days before the collective march to the Polish border, several dozen migrants gathered in downtown Minsk, near a popular shopping centre, Galleria.

On the same night, Kurdish social media and Telegram groups lit up with video footage, where a young man – Amanj – calls out to his compatriots in Belarus: “On [November] 7, all Kurds, Arabs, need to gather together because smugglers take 7,000–8,000 dollars, but they trick us and play with our fates. Let’s all gather together and go in a big group.”

A  Facebook group called Refugee Office was one of the groups that coordinated the departure for the border. It issued another announcement: “We all gather tomorrow at midday in front of Galleria in Minsk.”

On 6 November, the migrants started gathering in central Minsk. In the morning, more videos emerged showing people shopping at markets to prepare for the trek. Others posted pictures from inside their hotel rooms with prepared tents and sleeping bags.

Around a hundred migrants then gathered in front of the Galleria shopping centre.

Amanj sends another message: “From the thousands who should have gathered, only a hundred arrived. If everyone would come, we’re not saying women and children, it would be better for everyone. The people who are afraid to get hit, or are afraid of bullets or water, and will turn back, it’s better they do not go at all.”

Across social media, the Kurds share the location of the gathering – a Belorusneft petrol station next to the Bruzgy-Kuznica border crossing.

On the night between 7 and 8 November, migrants in taxis and buses head toward the meeting point. They stay in the forest until the morning.

On 8 November, they head to the Polish border, where they attempt to break through to Poland. The Refugee Office Facebook page publishes video footage, saying that “tens of buses and cars are taking [people] to the border”.

A day later, the same Facebook page issues another announcement: “Those migrants who are in Belarus, this is your last chance. Tomorrow at 10:00, in front of the Galleria shopping centre. The organisers are waiting for you.”

‘I thought of the idea myself’

Although the Belarusian regime helped the migrants, the idea to organise the collective departure for the border originated from the migrants themselves.

“I am very proud that I have organised the people and brought them here,” Pshtiwan Hajy Esa, a migrant who came to Belarus from Iraqi Kurdistan together with his family, told LRT.

LRT sources confirmed him as the person responsible for organising the collective departure. Pshtiwan was also seen at the front of the crowd and appeared in interviews and video reels published from the border.

“Everyone who had a choice to come here, they came here. No one gave me this idea. Like I said, people didn’t want to pay smugglers so much money,” he said.

Pshtiwan said he came to Belarus together with his wife and three children, paying smugglers $30,000 in total.

“There are more than 3,000 of us,” he said. “I know that people do stupid things, they burn things, but we all came here and we will all die here. Everyone who came here has chosen this path. We came here, to Europe, we have left our country for certain reasons.”

Pshtiwan was still at the logistics centre when LRT spoke with him. He said he had not coordinated his actions with Belarusian officers.

Number of flights increased before the attack

On 31 October, Minsk Airport announced additional flights for the autumn and winter season. According to the published timetable, flights from Baghdad were to increase to four per week and would include an additional direct flight from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Up to two flights per day were also scheduled from Dubai to Minsk, as well as a daily flight from Damascus. The sharpest increase was reported via Istanbul – at least one flight per day.

It is likely that the Belarusian regime was preparing to increase the scale of irregular migration to pressure the European Union in what Baltic officials and Brussels called a “hybrid attack”.

On 1-3 November, the Belarusian Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, Victor Rybak, met with representatives of the Kurdish government, including Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, who is also the head of the ruling KDP party, as well as with the former president of the region, Masoud Barzani.

The Belarusian ambassador also met with Interior Minister Rebar Ahmed Khalid and the head of foreign relations at KDP, Safeen Dizai.

On 3 November, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikalai Barysevich met with Syrian ambassador Mahomed Al-Amrani. According to their official statements, they discussed solidarity amid sanctions imposed by the West.

Later, on 20 November, Belarus sent humanitarian aid to Syria, including medicines and food.

On 2 December, the European Council adopted a sanctions package against Belarus which included the state-owned carrier Belavia and the Syrian airliner Cham Wings, which were implicated in transporting migrants to Belarus.

Pushing people across

The warehouse on the Belarusian–Polish border is being emptied out. The Iraqi ambassador to Russia has claimed that more than 3,000 people were brought back from Belarus. Until then, they stayed at the logistics centre for more than three weeks.

The Belarusian regime is again pushing those who would not return, or have arrived from countries other than Iraq, toward the EU. This was confirmed to LRT by at least five migrants who have remained in Belarus.

Ahmad came to Belarus from Syria together with a group of 12 people. They tried unsuccessfully to cross into Poland and Lithuania. The first time, Belarusian officers stopped them on their way to the Polish border, stole some of their belongings, and brought them back to the logistics centre.

“Among us, there was a migrant who could speak Russian and could communicate with the Belarusian soldiers. They said they could help us,” said Ahmad. “A few hours later, they took us to an unknown location in a military truck.”

There, more buses were waiting for the migrants, he continued.

“We were driven around for four hours, we couldn’t see anything because the windows were covered with black tape. There were around 70 people in one bus. People were shouting, crying,” Ahmad recalled.

“Finally, when it was already dawn, they brought our group to a forest, where there was a small river. They forced us to wade across, and those who didn’t agree were beaten.”

Why Kurdistan?

Most of the irregular migrants attempting to cross the Belarusian border with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mera J Bakr, who researches Kurdish migration at the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said the scale of migration from the area grew in 2014. Back then, however, there were no easy routes – crossing the Mediterranean was too dangerous for families.

Last spring, the Belarusian regime eased visa procedures for Iraqi passport holders – and information about the new route to Europe started trending on Kurdish social media, according to Bark.

The situation was aggravated by the deteriorating political situation in Kurdistan, which was also exploited by the opposition, including the New Generation Movement. Its leader, Shashwar Abdulahid, also controls the most popular Kurdish opposition media group, NRT.

The government in Iraqi Kurdistan is concentrated in the hands of two clans. The most important posts are held by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), headed by the Barzani family. Meanwhile, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by the Talabanis, is now being shaken by an internal crisis.

The opposition NRT media have devoted extensive attention to migration and the situation on the Polish border. People interviewed by reporters said that internal Kurdish problems were the reason for their departure.

“The rule of the two parties has left our country without hope,” said a migrant, Peshawa, adding that the people who are stranded at the border would never return to Kurdistan. “Even if we have to die here,” another Kurd added, who was seen at the Polish border together with a wife and three small children.

One Facebook page administered by an NRT journalist living in Germany, Halgord Omar, became the main streaming platform from the camp at the border.

The page, Halgord Omar Presse, would routinely report that the migrant influx would cease as soon as the two ruling families in Iraqi Kurdistan stepped down.

Alongside the border crisis, mass student protests were taking place across Iraqi Kurdistan. Supporters of the demonstration also formed the core of the New Generation Movement.

Mera J Bakr told LRT that the New Generation Movement is extremely populist, which contributed to extinguishing the Gorran movement, pulling over voters from the movement that was the main hope for opposition supporters.

The fall of Gorran dispelled illusions for many that the situation in Kurdistan, considered one of the most stable in the region, would improve. The two ruling parties also began persecuting former opposition activists, as well as regular Kurds who criticise the ruling parties.

The Kurdish migrants who introduced themselves as the key organisers and coordinators of the border action were formerly linked with the Gorran movement.

At present, what’s left of Gorran, as well as the New Generation Movement and opposition media, use the migration crisis as a tool to pressure the ruling clans.

The Kurdish government, after coming under international pressure, was forced to react. Although they put the blame on smuggler networks, Kurdish officials started encouraging people to stay and helping those who wished to return.

Representatives of the Kurdish government, the PUK and KDP parties, did not respond to repeated emails and calls from LRT.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox]

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