I would rather die here than go back to hell. Even the police officer at Damascus airport asked me about my destination, and whether it was Germany or the Netherlands, and then said to me: Lucky you. I wish I was with you.”
Those are the words of “Fouad”, a young Syrian man, who has been stuck in Belarus since his arrival in Minsk on Oct. 28.
The fear of this young man and five of his “new friends” prompted them to contact “Arab brokers” in search of a “way out of this trap” between the inability to cross into European Poland, and the fear of “falling” into the hands of the Belarusian authorities who would send them back to Syria.
As for “Rafik”, he was among the lucky ones who left the “Syrian nightmare” and reached the “European dream”. When he arrived at the border, “six great soldiers of Belarus came and raised the barbed wire for us, while one of them pointed to Poland, and told us: "Go, good luck.”
Indeed, “Rafik”, his father, and others arrived in Germany. “The risk is worth it,” he says. “I will never return to our country.”
How did it all start?
“Fouad” is a young man who lived in Damascus. He graduated from university years ago and worked for a short period with a salary that did not cover the minimum cost of living with the deterioration of the Syrian pound rate against the dollar. But then he lost both his modest job and hope and began dreaming of travelling abroad.
He contacted a government-licensed travel and tourism office in central Damascus, borrowed money from his relatives and paid $3,600 to obtain his visa to Belarus. The deal included a visa, flight fare through the Cham Wings airlines, and a reservation in a hotel in Minsk for a few nights.
Meanwhile, “Fouad” called a relative to arrange contact with a smuggler from Minsk to the Polish border. For this purpose, he paid the amount of 2,500 euros. He says he was lucky because others paid the smuggler 10,000 euros per person.
He collected his basic needs in a bag, and put a mobile phone and $1,000 in his pocket. At nine o’clock in the morning of October 27, he received the visa at the tourism office, which was crowded with dozens of applicants looking for the “European dream”, or “exit from the Syrian nightmare.”
They took the bus to Damascus airport.
“Fouad” recounts: “We got to the window of the border security official… who then asked me: Where are you going? Germany? Then he added, “Lucky you, I wish I was with you.””
On board were about 200 people, mostly young men, and some families. They arrived in Minsk around seven o'clock in the evening. When the plane landed, a bus came and took them all to the terminal building. They went upstairs, where the shock was.
“All the world was here. Young people and families from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon,” he says.
Many hours later, a security man came and “led us like cows. He was walking at the head of the queue, in front of about 200 people. He was leading us left and right, until we reached a hall,” according to “Fouad.”
He adds: “There they took each person’s mobile phone. They recorded his serial number with the passport, most likely to monitor us.” After that, each person goes alone to the checkpoint to confirm the passport, phone and visa, with an eye print. The process took a long time.
Upon leaving the airport at the dawn of Oct. 28, a bus transported the arrivals to their hotels. While few of the people spent the night in the hotel, many headed straight to Poland’s borders, according to prior arrangements with smugglers, he recounts.
When Fouad arrived, the Belarusian mood changed from “raising the wires to facilitate the passage of migrants into Poland, to beating them and returning them to the capital.”
Rafik had better luck. He says: “There, the Belarusian army men lifted the barbed wire and encouraged us to cross to Poland…A big soldier raised the wires, and another hit the Polish soldiers with stones so that we could cross without them seeing us.”
Some migrants crossed, while about 1,000 people gathered at the border, amid the worsening political crisis between Belarus and European countries.
On his way back to the capital, “Fouad” contacted another “Arab broker” whom he had known in front of the hotel. He arranged for his group to rent a basement in a building and promised to try to smuggle them again.
Fouad says: “We heard that a plane belonging to Cham Wings will come to Minsk on Nov. 28 to return a group of us to Damascus. We all decided that we would not go back to Hell.”
He adds: “We rented an apartment for a month, for $1,000, waiting for one of two solutions; either we cross to Poland, or we go to Moscow, and from there we take a taxi to Finland and then Europe, according to what one of the Arab brokers promised us.”