SOKOLKA, Poland — For the past 10 days, Doniel Machado Pujol and Raydel Aparicio Bringa say they’ve been surviving on river water and kernels of raw corn, plucked from dying stalks among the frozen fields of eastern Poland. Sleeping under piles of leaves and hiking through forests and farmland for days was more than they bargained for when they left Cuba three weeks ago.”We flew from Havana to Moscow, and then a man picked us up and drove us to Belarus, and that’s where our journey got a lot worse,” says a malnourished and injured Machado Pujol,who has just been caughtby Polish police after sneaking into the European Union. The two men are among an estimated 16,000 migrants stopped by Poland’s border patrol for illegally crossing the country’s 250-mile-long border with Belarus since August. Leaders in the EU say Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s government is organizing the illegal passage of migrants from war-torn and impoverished countries into Poland and other EU neighbors. They suspect this comes in retaliation for EU economic sanctions placed on Belarus after the bloc accused the authoritarian leader of stealing last year’s election and ordering human rights violations. Now humanitarian groups are criticizing Poland for pushing some migrants back to Belarus rather than reviewing their asylum applications. But for Machado Pujol, the crisis is more personal. After Polish border guards arrive to take him back to Belarus, he struggles and cries, screaming, “Don’t send me back! They’ll kill me! Look at what they’ve done to my legs!”The 29-year-old’s legs are cut, bruised and swollen, and he walks with a limp. Polish border guards have already sent him back to Belarus twice, he says, and he accuses Belarusian soldiers of beating him with metal pipes and threatening worse if they saw him again.”They have no respect for human dignity or human rights,” he says. “We are like footballs in a game between Poland and Belarus. Nobody wants us.”The two men are not alone. “There are many Iraqis, Kurds, there are people from Yemen, Syria, there are people from African countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, and now we’ve got people from Afghanistan,” says Kalina Czwarnog, who works for the Polish humanitarian organization OcalenieFoundation. The group is delivering food and water to migrants and helping them with asylum applications. She says the government of Belarus is orchestrating this humanitarian crisis. “They are inviting them to Belarus, saying that they can cross the EU border from there. And they are getting a seven-day visa or stamp,” she says. From there, Belarusian soldiers escort them to the border and help them across. Czwarnog says when Polish border guards catch them, they’re supposed to allow migrants to apply for asylum. Instead, she says, they’re putting most of them in vans and taking them back to Belarus, where soldiers often beat them and send them back to Poland again.
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