Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities
Sokolka, Poland – When 28-year-old Shirin *, an Iraqi Kurd, crossed the border from Belarus into Poland with her seven-year-old son Ali *, she did not expect to end up unconscious and immobile in the icy forest.
“My son and I only survived by miracles,” Shirin told Al Jazeera from a hospital in a Polish border town, a day after she was loaded into an ambulance.
Her body was covered with injuries and blisters from the cold.
“I will never forget what I saw in the forest,” she said. “I saw so many children and babies there. Their mothers screamed and prayed for a miracle. The adults could barely survive, so what chance do babies have?
“These images will haunt me until I die.”
On October 22, Shirin fled Ali, her only child, and her husband Afran * from the Kurdish region of Iraq.
But when Belarussian police saw them trying to cross the border into Poland, they intervened and pushed Afran deeper into Belarus, according to her testimony.
Shirin crossed the border alone and spent 21 days with Ali in the forest.
“My son cried, ‘Please, my father, please, my father,’ but we did not know if he was alive or dead. We ended up alone, freezing, without food. “
Shirin cried and trembled as she told Al Jazeera her story. Both her legs and one arm were connected. She could not walk.
She still does not know where her husband is.
“I do not know where she is”
Thousands of women and children have made efforts in recent weeks to reach the European Union by entering Poland as a migration crisis that began in August escalates.
Crowds of people are now stranded between the border separating Belarus and Poland. They traveled to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, with a promise that they would be able to break through the fence and enter the EU country.
Poland and its Western allies say Belarus has encouraged people, mostly from the Middle East, to enter the country in an effort to push them to the border and destabilize Europe – an act of revenge for Western sanctions on the administration of President Alexander Lukashenko.
There are no official data on the numbers of people at the Belarus-Poland border, but Agnieszka Kosowicz, head of the Polish Migration Forum, an NGO that supports refugees and migrants in Poland, told Al Jazeera that “2 666 women applied for asylum in Poland this year alone, out of a total of 6,697 ″.
She said that although women’s stories are less frequently covered by the media than those of men, women represent a significant percentage of the migrant population.
“We know for sure that women are present at the border based on the everyday testimonies of local volunteers.
“Volunteers talk about women who are so weak that they can not walk or look after their children, about women who cry over their children who are hungry, and women who grieve over lost babies – children who have lost them due to miscarriage , or literally lost their children while walking. in the woods at night, ”she said.
Azin Govand *, a 27-year-old asylum seeker from the Iraqi Kurdish region now in Minsk, has not seen her three-year-old daughter Shewa * or her husband since Belarussian authorities allegedly separated the family at the border.
At the same time, Azin said the authorities had pushed her back to Belarus.
“I have not heard from my husband and daughter for more than seven days,” Azin told Al Jazeera by telephone from a Belarusian number.
“I recently saw a photo of a baby girl dressed in the same clothes as my daughter on social media. “The girl was lying on the floor with her face down near the border,” she said. “It could have been my daughter. I do not know where she is. “
Kosowicz said several families were divided at the border or separated in the forests.
This includes, for example, when a parent is taken to hospital while the children are left in the woods, or people get lost, or when people are pushed back by border officers on both sides of the border.
Amid the chaos, cases of miscarriage have been documented. Other women were found with young babies with serious medical problems.
A one-year-old Syrian baby boy is apparently the latest victim of the refugee crisis at the border. The cause of his reported dead has not yet been determined.
Nazanin *, an Iraqi Kurdish woman who was recently rescued from the Polish bushveld near the Belarusian border after spending a month there, told Al Jazeera that “only God saved her. [seven-month-old] baby from dying. ”
She and her husband fled from Zakho, a region near the border with Turkey and Syria, because they were exposed to gunfire and gunfire.
“The baby froze,” Nazanin said. “She cried every night over the cold.
“We only had one T-shirt and one sweater for the baby, no other clothes and no nappies,” she said.
“We were told that the trip would be short and quickly ran out of food. “We did not eat for 10 days, and walked seven or eight kilometers (four to five miles) without shoes,” she said, pointing to her frozen feet.
“During all that time we had to drink dirty water given to us by Belarusian guards, or water that we got in the swamps. We were all sick. “
Karol Wilczynski, director of the Salam Lab NGO working against Islamophobia in Poland, which helped the stranded refugees, told Al Jazeera that he had seen several women and babies in need.
“The most horrific and moving scene I have ever seen was that of a 49-year-old grandmother with her two-year-old granddaughter,” Wilczynski said. “When we found them, the grandmother was unconscious and had severe hypothermia – only 34 degrees (93.2F) body temperature. “By some miracle the baby survived.”
He said an emergency services operator refused to send an ambulance and threatened to call border guards “to deal with the refugees”.
“We then called Border Aid, a group of paramedics who said the grandmother would have died if she had stayed longer. “I can not imagine what would have happened to the baby,” said Wilczynski.
He volunteered at Grupa Granica, an umbrella organization that provided assistance at the border, supporting 1,000 people from 8 to 12 November.
“Of the 1,000 people, 10 percent were children and more than 25 percent were women,” he said. “Of the remaining 65 percent of men, a large portion were vulnerable.”
Sarkawt * (36) spent about a month in the forest with his wife Nazdar * and their three children aged six, eight and nine.
The cold and lack of potable water hit Nazdar, who collapsed and was taken to hospital.
The children were frozen.
“Even though we do not know what will happen to [Nazdar]”I thank God every day that He saved all three of my babies,” Sarkawt told Al Jazeera.
“In the forest I took off my jacket and put on my babies. “Sometimes I tried to make a fire, but sometimes it was too swampy, and I could not,” he said.
“In the forest, we saw a lot of women and children,” he said. “On the Belarusian side, the guards would sell us food and water, but would charge astronomical prices. “They would sell us a bottle of water or one cookie for the children for $ 50 because they knew the mothers would pay,” he said.
Kosowicz said she was in contact with one woman who gave birth to premature twins after crossing into Poland.
“I also remember women who could not take a few steps away from the group to urinate, and women who had their periods and could not take care of their basic hygienic needs in private,” she said.
“Every time we hear a new story, it’s dramatic.”