“I asked them to help people in the forest”: Pushed back and forth between Lithuania and Belarus
In the forested border areas between Lithuania and Belarus, asylum seekers and migrants, including families with young children, are being subjected to repeated pushbacks with little to no access to basic needs or fair asylum procedures. In this testimony, a mother (unnamed for privacy) tells of her family’s experience being pushed back and forth by authorities between both countries over 30 days.
“The Belarusian border guards forced us to enter Lithuania. We told them ‘we don’t want to go any more’, but they came with full gear and weapons, intimidating us. Their faces were covered. They put us in cars and drove us for two to three hours near to the border with Lithuania.
They did not give us anything to eat unless we asked, only toast that was as dry as a piece of wood. When we reached the border, they cut through the barbed wire of the fence with a tool and then we crossed into Lithuanian territory.
The Belarusian guards made sure that we walked through into Lithuania until we had gone some distance, and then they left.
Once in Lithuania, we were in areas where there are CCTV cameras. We waved to the cameras as we knew the guards could see us on the screens and they turned up in less than three minutes.
They took photos of us with our passports and then confiscated them along with our mobile phones. They put us in a car and took us back to the border crossing. They gave us some food and water and handed back our passports and mobile phone. Then they opened the door (the official border crossing) and let us walk back to Belarus.
We managed to return to Minsk. In the second attempt, we took a route to Poland, but we were caught by the border guards and beaten up in a very violent manner. My 19-year-old son was physically attacked. Even my husband, who is in his fifties, was kicked and punched.
We spent 30 days in the forest in this loop, going back and forth. There are so many people in the forest, on both sides of the border. When we were in some parts of the forest, it was really dark. Once, we heard people nearby – it was a Kurdish family with children who were whispering because they were so scared. They were in a very bad condition and didn’t have mobile phones or chargers. We helped them by giving them some food and charged their phones.
For the 30 days, we didn’t settle in one place. We went back and forth around 10 times between Belarus and Lithuania during that time. The guards kept moving us in and out, in and out, and back and forth. Once we were captured, we were given some tinned food which was expired and dry. I couldn’t even eat that, as I kept it for my children. Then they would put us back in cars and take us back to the border. It was a cat and mouse situation. I was traumatised and I just wished to go anywhere there was shelter so it would put an end to our suffering.
One time we were pushed back to Belarus. We were so shattered, it was raining heavily, we couldn’t attempt to move any further. We had no more energy, so we stayed in that spot. We lit a fire and slept there until the next morning. My husband was desperately calling out for help from everywhere to reach us, as we were in a dire condition.
Our family were all together first. In our last attempt to cross, we had to split our family. Me and three of my children and our adopted adult son found a taxi and asked the driver to report us to the border guards because my daughter needed medical help. My husband and two of my other children, a 10-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, remained in the forest, where they were stranded for a week until they managed to get back to Belarus.
The next day two people from (an NGO) spoke with us and then we were sent to a camp in Lithuania. We were initially put in an area that looked like a prison with high fences and barbed wire. Then we were moved to a bigger place with more space to walk, but we still can’t go out of the camp.
It has been a very traumatic situation.
We didn’t expect any of this to happen to us – we wanted protection. But we’ve been subjected to a horrible journey and now my family is split. Half of my family is in Belarus – my husband, a ten-year-old daughter and 12-year-old boy. My other children are here with me.
I am devastated and I cannot bear being split from my children. We Facetime every day. My daughter cries, we both cry, and we desperately want to be reunited.
People are torn apart between Belarus and Lithuania. When we had our interview with the Lithuanian migration department, the official asked if I would like to add anything. I asked them to help people in the forest.”
Asylum seekers and migrants, including families with young children, are being subjected to repeated pushbacks between the borders of Lithuania and Belarus with little to no access to basic needs or fair asylum procedures. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is appalled by the medical humanitarian impact of Lithuania’s hostile migration policies on people on the move, as well as the use of inhumane practices such as pushbacks in response to people seeking safety.