Sokolka, Poland – On Tuesday, three photojournalists went on their usual journey around villages near the Polish-Belarusian border to take photos of the escalating migration crisis.
Under a state of emergency, Poland bans reporters and aid workers from the 3km (2 miles)-wide border zone, where dozens of asylum seekers who manage to cross from Belarus hide from Polish guards.
So those like Maciej Moskwa and Maciej Nabrdalik, two Polish photo reporters, and Martin Divisek, their Czech colleague, have been covering the story from where they have access.
About 4pm local time, the reporters approached a military camp located in Wiejki, a village. They left their car and informed guards that they are journalists.
“Good evening, we’re here at work. We know that you are too. We’re allowed to take photographs here. Even if you turn your back to us,” one of the journalists can be heard in a recording from the scene, obtained by Al Jazeera.
“We don’t want to mess with you, but we need to know what the situation is and we know we have the right to take pictures here. Please respect that because we respect your work.”
The guards did not know that one of the journalists had a recording device that was switched on, just in case.
The guards asked the journalists to wait, but sensing that the situation was getting tense, the three reporters asked if they were being detained.
The answer was “no”.
They returned to their car and wanted to leave to avoid trouble, but chaos erupted.
“Get out of the car! Get out of the f*****g car, now!” an unidentified uniformed man shouted in Polish. “You’re getting out now, for f***’s sake, you have a minute!”
One of the photojournalists could be heard repeating that they were journalists, but the plea was ignored.
The guard forced them out of the car. The journalists were ordered to stand separately, take off their jackets and put their arms above their heads.
“They didn’t give us any reason for taking off our clothes,” Moskwa told Al Jazeera. “It was very brutal and we felt threatened, armed people lined up behind us. They completely restricted our options to move. When I turned my head back to see what’s happening with my colleagues, I heard that I can only look straight or down.”
“After some time, we got handcuffed. I started feeling pain in my wrist and had to put my arms up behind my back to improve blood circulation. I asked the officer to loosen the handcuffs a bit, but he didn’t do that. At the time, the officers went through all our journalistic materials on our cameras and tried to check messages on our phones. This is illegal, it is contravention of powers.”
The recording obtained by Al Jazeera confirms this version of events.
The incident comes a week after Al Jazeera reported on the growing concerns among rights groups and journalists regarding the ban. Critics have said the restrictions are “arbitrary and disproportionate”, and called for measures to allow the media to report near the border for the sake of transparency.
Regarding the incident, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement: “The soldiers reported that on Tuesday afternoon, soldiers stationing in a camp in the town of Wiejki saw three masked men photographing the camp and soldiers … These persons walked along the camp, had white masks on their faces and hoods on their heads, they did not have any outside signs identifying them as journalists.
“The car also did not bear any signs that it belongs to journalists. When asked to stop photographing, the men went back to their car and tried to leave. In the meantime, relevant authorities, including the police, were called. The soldiers received an order to detain these persons until the situation is clarified by a relevant body. The persons presented documents confirming their identity but showed their press cards only after some time.”
But the recording, which the Polish authorities were not aware of when they made the statement, does not confirm this version of events. Moskwa also denies their narrative.
“The Ministry of Defence claims that they didn’t know who they were dealing with, which is untrue. I also want to state that I wasn’t wearing a hoodie. I only had a mask because of the pandemic,” he said.
“We didn’t get a chance to present our press cards, we were taken out of the car amid shouts and forcibly, under arms, taken to the enclosure although we never hid our identities. I had a press card hanging on my neck, under my jacket. They didn’t ask us for press cards. They only said: ‘You will no longer want to take f*****g pictures.’”
According to the journalists, the soldiers removed the handcuffs before the police arrived. The detention lasted about 90 minutes.
When Moskwa asked the police to inspect the wounds on his wrist, they suggested he might have done that to himself with a watch. The police refused to identify the soldiers who attacked the journalists.
From the recording, it is clear that the soldiers knew that the journalists were working outside the restricted area.
“They can file a complaint. Unfortunately, we’re not in the zone of this f*****g state of emergency,” one soldier can be heard saying in the recording.
Since the humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border began, Polish authorities have restricted access to the crisis area to journalists and NGOs, which makes it impossible to know exactly what is happening in the woodlands covering the borderlands.
Local initiatives set up by people living in the restricted zone have sought to support refugees and migrants, by providing humanitarian assistance to people wandering the forests looking for a way out of Poland.
But such help could lead to charges of helping in undocumented border crossings.
Polish authorities have mobilised thousands of their forces to protect the border. This includes not only the border guard and the army, but also the Territorial Defence Force, a paramilitary structure formed in 2016 made up of professional and part-time volunteer soldiers.
It is unclear whether military police will investigate Tuesday’s incident. Moskwa is currently undergoing a medical examination of his wounds.
“I’m planning to report the issue of course,” Moskwa said. “I don’t know the names of the people who attacked us, they didn’t introduce themselves and didn’t inform us about their ranks. From our perspective they were masked, uniformed people bearing long weapons.”
The crisis began in August and since then, thousands of refugees have tried to enter Polish territory, the eastern frontier of the European Union.
Those who manage to breach the frontier spend weeks in the woodlands in the borderland, allegedly facing pushbacks to the Belarusian side by the Polish guards.
The international community has held Belarus responsible for the deteriorating situation, claiming that Minsk is trying to destabilise Europe.
Earlier this year, Belarus removed visas for citizens of a number of Middle Eastern and African states and opened numerous tourist agencies offering an easy and cheap way to get to Europe.
Critics have said the move might be an act of revenge against Poland, which supported last year’s protests against longtime President Alexander Lukashenko.
While many of the tourist agencies have been forced to close down, and as countries such as Turkey now refuse to let citizens of Iraq, Yemen and Syria, on Belarus-bound planes, the chaos is far from over.
Polish forces sprayed tear gas and water cannon on refugees earlier this week, and aid workers have warned of a looming humanitarian disaster.
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