The asylum seeker saving lives on Poland’s 'death zone' border

After being turned away from the EU’s doorstep, Bahadin Muhsin Qadr is helping to save lives of migrants who followed in his tracks

An Iraqi-Kurdish asylum seeker who was repeatedly caught by border guards on his quest to reach Germany is using his experiences to help rescue migrants stuck in the frozen forests on the fringes of the EU.

Bahadin Muhsin Qadr, 47, is receiving daily calls from stricken Syrians and Iraqis stuck between border guards of Belarus and Poland in an area that has been called the “death zone" by migrants.

Mr Qadr, who speaks good English, spent more than a month in the border area and has used contacts built with Belarusian soldiers at a makeshift accommodation block to organise military pick-ups for people struggling to survive the bitterly cold conditions.

Thousands of migrants – predominantly from Kurdish regions of Iraq – have travelled to Belarus after visa restrictions were eased by the authorities earlier this year. European officials have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of carrying out “hybrid warfare” by helping migrants to make their way to the country’s western borders before pushing further into the EU.

Many have given up and returned home after failing to evade security guards on the Polish side and being stuck amid increasingly harsh winter conditions where temperatures regularly plunge below zero.

Mr Qadr said some soldiers at a warehouse opened by Belarus to accommodate several thousand migrants had urged people to return home via the airport in the capital Minsk to avoid risking their lives in the border lands. He said the soldiers urged him to tell other migrants "not to go - tell them their kids will die", he said.

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Saving lives is more important than getting to Europe
Bahadin Muhsin Qadr

But hundreds of others have refused and renewed their efforts to get across despite a rising death toll of at least 19 at the border.

Mr Qadr said he received calls from members of two separate groups last week, totalling 15, who had become lost and stuck in the area and needed help.

He phoned a contact from the Belarus military who arranged for them to be collected. Mr Qadr then arranged taxis to take them to safety in Minsk.

“Saving lives is more important than getting to Europe,” said Mr Qadr, who was talking to The National from a location outside Poland, Belarus and Iraq. “They were telling me ‘we’re all wet and frozen’ so I told them to make a fire and sit around it as long as they didn’t get too cold.”

Mr Qadr’s contact details have been passed between migrants after he helped interpret for guards and migrants at a warehouse in the Grodno region of Belarus, close to the border with Poland.

The National has been in near daily contact with Mr Qadr for a month since he was billeted at the warehouse after a series of failed attempts to cross the border.

The political activist, from Sulaymaniyah, lived in the UK for a decade but returned to Iraq in 2009 inspired by the hope that the new Movement for Change party could break the two-party duopoly of the Barzani and Talabani families in Iraq’s Kurdish region.

His outspoken criticisms of the authorities resulted in politically-motivated attacks which saw him shot in his car in 2018 and stabbed by four unknown attackers outside his home in 2020, he believes.

He finally left the country in fear of his life after the Movement for Change failed to win any seats in 2021 parliamentary elections. He said he hoped to get to Europe and provide a better life for his four children, aged three to 11.

Foiled at the border

An early attempt to reach Poland through a border fence was foiled by Belarus border guards and he was badly beaten. Soldiers at the warehouse encouraged him to try again on December 5 and accompanied by 15 others he waded chest-high through a river that marked the border with Poland.

His mobile phone suggested the temperature was around -13C, he said. The group was stopped by Polish border guards within 45 minutes. The were taken back to the border after spending a night at a military checkpoint in Poland where their phones and papers were checked and their photographs taken, he said.

The group then walked for 53 kilometres from the Belarus border in an attempt to reach the warehouse before he called soldiers from Belarus. The soldier arranged for them to be picked up as members of the group suffering from exposure to the extreme cold, he said.

Defeated by the cold, the group returned to Minsk by taxi to take flights back to Iraq. Mr Qadr initially refused to return to Iraq but a Baghdad-based family agreed to arrange a flight for him back out of the country after he helped a member of their family in the forests.

The family member, Sajad, 44, told The National that he agreed to help Mr Qadr because he “helped everyone in Poland. He knew English, was interpreting for them and was very kind and helpful”.

“Bahadin could not return to Kurdistan because of his vocal criticism – the situation here is really bad."

Mr Qadr left for a third country – which is not being revealed by The National because of security concerns – where he is helping others in Belarus, and seeking help from the UN refugee agency to help him reach a safe country.

“If I go back to Iraq, I go there for what?” he said. “I was told if I go back there I will be arrested. And I can save nobody.

“But here it might save my life. I can apply for asylum, I can work, make a living and a life for myself and my family again.”

Updated: December 23rd 2021, 12:30 PM