The air in the Belarusian forest is thick with the smoke from scores of small fires. People cough and choke but they keep burning the sticks of wet wood: it’s the only way to warm up as temperatures start to fall sharply.
This coming week, the mercury will dip close to zero degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) at night; rain is also forecast. Winter is coming and they are stuck out in the open, caught up in a geopolitical storm that shows no sign of abating.
There are 200 children and 600 women among an estimated 2,000 people massed along the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing separating Belarus from Poland, Belarusian border officials told CNN on Friday. Some of those are only babies or toddlers.
The migrants — most of whom are from the Middle East and Asia — are seeking to cross illegally into Poland, and from there into other European countries, particularly Germany, in search of a better life.
Razor wire erected by Poland along the border prevents the migrants camped out in the Belarusian forest from crossing.
A lucky few have small tents; others have made rough shelters from the boughs and branches of the coniferous trees around them. Behind them is the forest; in front the razor wire fence erected by Poland to keep them out, patrolled by Polish police, border guards and soldiers.
Some have been waiting weeks now to try to cross the border and there’s a sense of brewing anger and frustration in the air. Some migrants have already died in the cold; hypothermia is a real risk.
Four-year-old Azhi Ali Xder and his mother Shoxan Bapir Hussain, 28, have traveled to Belarus from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Twenty-eight-year-old mother Shoxan Bapir Hussain said she had embarked on the journey from Iraqi Kurdistan with her husband and four-year-old son, Azhi Ali Xder, because the boy needs surgery for a back condition. Azhi, who has splints on his legs, can’t walk, she said.
Asked why Azhi didn’t have the surgery in Kurdistan, his mother replied: “Because not very good and maybe the operation fail … the doctor told me the operation in Germany is very good.”
The CNN crew, which was escorted to the straggling camp by the Belarusian authorities on Friday and Saturday, saw minimal infrastructure to support the thousands of people gathered there, with only two small water tanks and no toilet facilities visible.
The Belarusian Red Cross is delivering food and water but migrants who spoke to CNN said the deliveries were insufficient and uncertain. There’s barely enough to keep those already here alive — and Belarusian state border officials estimated the number of people in the border region would increase to 5,000 within a week.
As desperate people scrambled to get firewood, logs to sit on and other supplies from trucks bringing aid, armed Belarusian forces tried to push them back. Those crowding around one such truck delivering water were made to kneel down on the cold ground before some were allowed through to pick up bottles.
“I’m hungry, I’m hungry,” said a young girl in English.
Parents Ahmed and Ala, with their 15-year-old daughter Reza, told CNN they had traveled from Iraqi Kurdistan in search of a better life in Europe. They had been there for seven nights, they said, and still hold hope they will make it to Europe.
Another man, who gave his name only as Binar, said he had paid $2,000 to make the journey from Iraqi Kurdistan. “Our people want to go to Germany,” he said.
Western leaders have accused Belarus of manufacturing a migrant crisis on the European Union’s eastern frontier as retribution for sanctions over human rights abuses.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s government has repeatedly denied such claims, instead blaming the West for the crossings and accusing it of poor treatment of migrants.