Desperate, frightened and begging for help, they emerge from the darkness: a group of Yazidi migrants, lost in the forests of eastern Europe.
It’s a surreal sight – and one that has been repeated over many recent nights.
Having survived persecution by ISIS at home in Iraq, here on the Belarus-Lithuania border the Yazidis find themselves caught up in a breathtakingly cynical plot.
Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has been accused of using these desperate souls as pawns in his high-stakes game with the European Union.
“Don’t send me back to Belarus!” pleads Rimon, one of a group of eight migrants, gripping a Lithuanian border guard’s arm in fear.
The Iraqis call out to another of their countrymen, Abu Osama – still wandering through the dark forest with his 10-year-old son – to submit to the relative safety of arrest.
The tearful pair emerge through the trees, the son wailing in fear and the father throwing himself to the ground and crying out “Allah!”
In the sky above a helicopter buzzes; the guards hear on their radios that its monitors have picked up the heat signatures of another 15 migrants nearby, waiting to cross the border.
Over the course of 24 hours from July 27 to 28, a record 171 people were caught on the border – many of them Iraqis. A total of more than 4,000 have been caught so far this year.
European officials say Lukashenko’s bureaucracy is extracting thousands of euros from each traveler then “weaponizing” them – according to Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis – in order to burden Belarus’s neighbor Lithuania.
Officials say the migrants are flown from the Middle East to Minsk, and then guided to the Belarus-Lithuania border by unspecified facilitators, where they are allowed to cross, unimpeded by Belarusian border police.
A Western intelligence official told CNN the scheme could not function without the permission of the Belarusian state, and that Lukashenko was likely using the migrants as a way to pressurize the EU into negotiations on lifting the sanctions against him.
Belarus’ key ally, Russia, plays a role in this dark trade, the Western intelligence official said, adding that the Russian government used a similar migrant scheme in Norway and Finland in 2015. The official said it was highly likely that Belarus benefited from Russian advice, information and assistance to establish this latest transit route.
In June, as the number of migrants arriving in the country escalated shortly after the sanctions were imposed, Lukashenko said: “We will not hold anyone back. We are not their final destination after all. They are headed to enlightened, warm, cozy Europe.”
On Wednesday, Belarusian officials took CNN and other media to their border, as part of an organized tour. Officials said migrants who came to Belarus did so as tourists, and paid no money to facilitate their crossing. The officials said Belarusian border guards were busy preventing criminal activity and the migrants slipped through gaps in their border fence.
Roman Podlinev, deputy chairman of the state border committee, said Lithuania was unable to control the situation and has resorted to “radical methods.” He told journalists, including CNN, that: “Despite our agreements the Lithuanian side is trying to bring illegally to the Belarusian border the refugees who asked for an asylum in the EU and push them to the Belarusian territory with force and violence.”
The border committee presented videos filmed by their personnel which they said was evidence of their claims the Lithuanian border guard are using force to repel or return migrants, and denying them medical treatment. They also took journalists to a hospital where they introduced one migrant, Hussein, who said he had been forced back and tasered by Lithuanian border guards. Lithuanian officials deny using force.
In response to the increase in migrant numbers trying to enter the country, Lithuania has begun building a thick fence along its border; previously it relied on dense woodland to deter anyone from crossing.
This weekend, Lithuanian officials said, the number of migrants crossing into the country dropped to zero, after Lithuania sent reinforcements to the border area and began broadcasting warning messages in Arabic, Kurdish, French, Russian and English on loudspeakers.
EU officials also applied diplomatic pressure on Iraq; in response, the country suspended flights to Minsk, and sent a plane to collect migrants from Belarus. Ahmed Al Sahaf, spokesman for the Iraqi foreign ministry, told CNN the plane returned with 130 of its 400 seats full.
But while Lithuania has seen some success in its handling of the crisis in recent days, the threat has shifted. Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has warned that Belarus is now seeking a liberal visa regime with Pakistan or Morocco, in order to continue the flow of migrants.
And the issue has spread to Lithuania’s neighbors, as those already in Belarus seek alternative routes. On Monday, Poland reported that it had detained a record 349 undocumented migrants over the weekend, many of whom were Iraqi.
Another of Belarus’ EU neighbors, Latvia, detained 140 migrants on Monday, and dozens of others over the weekend. Its interior minister has proposed a state of emergency, and officials have expressed the need for migrant camps.
Police stations overflow
The stories of those who do cross, are achingly familiar. CNN spoke to another group of a dozen Yazidis apprehended in that dense woodland that day.
None of them was carrying a physical passport – instead they had scans of the documents on their phones. Some bore Yazidi names and showed they were born in the city of Dohuk, a stronghold of the Iraqi minority whose members were brutally targeted by ISIS.
ISIS murdered thousands of Yazidi men and enslaved thousands of Yazidi women and children between 2014 and 2017, in what the United Nations has called a genocide.
One of the men had a $542 return plane ticket from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, with him.
They say they took a taxi from the Belarusian capital, and then followed GPS through the forest and across the border. The border guards then found them in the forest, before they were taken to a local border guard station, for further processing and then transport to a detention facility.
Their country of origin raises another pressing concern for Lithuania: a potential influx of terrorists. The intelligence official told CNN there are real fears that jihadists from the Middle East could infiltrate these routes.
There have already been several cases that caused concern, the official said, but these may have been individuals who were previously highlighted for links to terror groups and then made the journey not for terrorism but for economic reasons.
The flow of people is relentless; it has transformed many of Lithuania’s quiet border towns – their police stations now overflow with newly arrived migrants.
In the settlement of Poškonys, the border guards have handed over their station’s kitchen to the new arrivals.
In Dieveniškės, local residents are protesting the conversion of an old apartment block into a detention center for up to 500 migrants. Those in the crowd say they are not against migrants, but argue that they should not be housed so close to the village nursery school.
Another camp at Druskininkai brims with Africans and Iraqis, furious at being crammed into military tents and locked into the center during the pandemic.
Many here insist they did not pay traffickers to get this far. But Ali, from Baghdad, said some pay 5,000 to 6,000 euros ($5,900-7,000), even as much as 15,000 euros to a facilitator or trafficker for a VIP service to the most prized destination in Europe: Germany.
Ali said the Belarusians “push us, they use us like guns, because Belarus has trouble with Lithuania. Like weapons. They use us, but we need this.”
Another camp resident – also from Baghdad – added: “We need this as our life is in danger. We do not have a life in Iraq.”