Summer 2022

Weapons of a Hybrid War

– Wil Sands

A photographic essay on Europe's disparate approach to families fleeing crisis

Refugees from Ukraine waited for buses in an abandoned dirt lot outside the Moldovan village of Palanca. The repurposed space was a de facto refugee reception center with its own makeshift kitchen, first aid clinic, and bathrooms. From here, buses left for Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, or directly on to other cities across Central Europe. To date, Moldovans have welcomed more than 473,000 refugees, making the small country the largest per capita recipient of refugees from Ukraine.

“Putin. Bomb. Syria,” the young osteopaths shook their heads as they explained why they fled. Evidence of their recent crossing of the Polish border with Belarus littered the forest around them: river waders hurriedly shed at the base of a nearby tree, wet socks hung on a leafy branch, empty plastic bottles reflecting the midday sun. Originally, the group was six, but a frantic escape from Polish border guards split them up and left them wet. The two doctors spent the night huddled together shivering under a bush. They said they could not sleep, “Drones, drones. Buzzzzzz.” In the morning, they discovered they were without water. The batteries of their phones, their only lifelines to the world, were blinking red. They messaged for help to a number shared among refugees in Belarus. A volunteer from a decentralized network of humanitarian activists, NGOs, and local residents answered their early morning plea.

Like the young osteopaths in the Polish forest, Irina Polezhaieva was fleeing Putin’s bombs when she abandoned her home in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. It was the end of April 2022, a month before the Syrian refugees arrived in Belarus. After a week of hiding in the basement of their apartment building, Irina and her husband decided it was best she take their six-year-old son to safety. Crying, Irina left her husband, mother, and grandmother; the threat of a final farewell weighed heavily on the family. With two roller suitcases and her son in toe, Irina set off for Western Europe. At the border, the pair waited for hours in a long line of women, children, and seniors. After a week in a makeshift hostel, a grassroots dormitory for refugees in Krakow, Poland, Irina resigned herself to laying roots somewhere outside Ukraine. “This isn’t going to end overnight; . . . my son is in first grade and he needs safety.” Volunteers from a Dutch community organization signed up residents of the hostel for a free bus ride to Holland. “We’re going to Holland,” Irina said, and scribbled their names on the list.

Europe is currently facing two simultaneous and interwoven refugee crises on its eastern front. In one, tens of thousands of people fleeing Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Cameroon have sought refuge in Europe since Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, opened new flight paths from conflict zones to Minsk and Moscow in the spring of 2021. In the other, just 200 kilometers to the south, more than 5 million Ukrainians have flocked to the European Union since Russia’s invasion began on February 24, 2022.

After a corrupted election, widespread protests, and documented human rights abuses by Belarusan security forces, there was growing international pressure on Lukashenko to cede power. Western threats to historical Russian hegemony in Belarus fell in line with the Kremlin’s narrative of NATO expansion in Ukraine. On May 26, 2021, Lukashenko announced, “We used to catch migrants in droves here—now, forget it, you will be catching them yourselves." Refugees arriving in Minsk were granted visas upon entry, driven to the border, and instructed how to cross. Exploiting the political divisiveness of asylum in Brussels, Lukashenko and Putin sought to destabilize Europe with a hybrid war. As Putin amassed troops along Belarus’s border with Ukraine, Lukashenko manufactured a refugee crisis along Belarus’s borders with Europe.

In July 2021, there was a spike in illegal crossings from Belarus to Lithuania. In violation of international human rights law, the Lithuanian parliament passed legislation legalizing the pushback of refugees to Belarus. On September 2, 2021, Poland declared a state of emergency creating an exclusion zone, a militarized swath 10-15 kilometers wide running the length of the country’s border with Belarus. On November 9, 2021, Lithuania announced its own exclusion zone. Journalists were strictly banned from this zone, and refugees’ constitutional rights were suspended. Only the authorities and permitted residents could enter. Refugees caught crossing became weapons in Putin’s and Lukashenko’s hybrid war, illegally pushed back into Belarus. Now unwelcome deportees, Belarusan border guards forced refugees back to Poland. A tragic game of asylum ping-pong became the norm

“What’s the difference between a Ukrainian refugee baby and a Syrian refugee baby?” Ewa threw up her hands. By day, Ewa is as a loyal public servant working in a local office. By night, she is a member of Poland’s underground railroad risking her safety and freedom to illegally assist refugees lost in the nearby forests. In March 2022, Polish politicians celebrated Ewa’s friends for rescuing Ukrainians in Kharkiv, Ukraine. A month later, when transporting refugees out of the Polish exclusion zone, Polish police arrested them for “human trafficking.” Eight days after Russian troops crossed into Ukraine from Belarus, Ukrainian refugees were granted visa-free travel within the European Union. In the following weeks, Brussels approved billions of euros in aid to member states welcoming refugees from Ukraine. Ewa believes the explanation for Europe’s disparate responses is simple, “It is just racism. Racism, nothing else.”

Responding to a text message requesting help, Lena* hurried through the Bialoweiczan forest looking for a lost and thirsty Cameroonian refugee. The search was unsuccessful. After a rainy night alone, the refugee moved on before Lena could reach her. Today the Cameroonian refugee has sought asylum in Germany. *Name changed to protect her identity.
Women, children, and the elderly waited for buses at the Ukrainian border crossing with Moldova, in Palanca, Moldova. Volunteers from Peace for Moldova drove a constant stream of vehicles to the refugee reception center outside the village of Palanca. Created by the Moldovan government to coordinate Moldova’s response to the refugee crisis, Peace for Moldova is a volunteer organization. Unable to face the task alone, the organization has relied heavily on the solidarity of Moldovan civil society.
Two Syrian osteopaths waited in the forests of Poland for their transportation to arrive. Six days earlier, the pair left Damascus for Minsk. They said they were given a visa upon entry, and Belarusan officials instructed them where to cross the border with Poland. It was widely reported that the Belarusan authorities were assisting refugees wanting to cross, in some cases even offering tools and ladders to breach the fence and razor wire.
Refugees escaping the war in Ukraine waited at a reception center in Vyšné Nemecké, Slovakia. The Polish Red Cross and other international nongovernmental organizations donated tents and other aid to maintain the temporary encampment. Volunteers from the Slovak government instructed how to apply for a temporary protected status which would free up access to public assistance.
Lena* posed for a portrait in the window of a safe house located just outside the Polish exclusion zone. Led largely by women and nonbinary folks, Poland’s underground railroad seeks to reduce the harm suffered by refugees crossing. *Name changed to protect her identity.
Layers of razor wire and steel fencing were installed as part of Lithuania’s “border wall.” Once finished, the construction will run the entire length of the country’s boundary with Belarus. Poland is building a similar barrier, albeit more substantial in strength and cost. Videos shared on social media document refugees climbing over, digging under, and cutting through completed sections in both Lithuania and Poland.
Cubicles set up as makeshift bedrooms for refugees sit largely empty in the MoldExpo conference center / sporting venue in Chisinau, Moldova. Volunteers explain that many refugees from Ukraine are choosing to travel on to the wealthier economies of the European Union. Those staying in Moldova have sought refuge in villages closer to the border. There they hope to return quickly to their homes when the war ends.
Irina Polezhaieva, right, talked with another Ukrainian refugee in the “hostel’s” living room. In the background, a Dutch volunteer helped people sign up for a free bus to Holland. Irina decided to move to Holland with her six-year-old son. The DIY shelter located in the heart of Krakow, Poland, was a refuge for its 200 residents, all refugees from the war in Ukraine.
Using a translator app on their phones, Tony* communicated with a member of the humanitarian network operating in the Polish Exclusion Zone. Tony, a professional hairstylist, fled forced conscription in Syria. He was traveling with a group of Syrians, but they were separated by Polish Border Guards. He waited for five days in a safe house before being transported to Warsaw, and eventually on to Holland. *Name changed to protect his identity.
Andrzej* showed a map of the Polish exclusion zone saved on his phone. There were pins marking recent rescues. In the region where Andrzej worked, there were usually calls for help every day. Andrzej explained that with the coming of spring and warmer weather, the flow of people crossing the border was constant. *Name changed to protect his identity.
Yulia left her home in Kharkiv just two weeks before we met. “After this I don’t know what kind of relationship we can have with Russians,” she said in Russian. Just miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv endured more than three months of bombardment. “There’s nothing left,” said Yulia. For many Ukrainians and Russians, the war is defined by fratricide. “Everyone has someone in Russia.” Yulia felt numb. She was traveling west with her mother, sister-in-law, and infant niece. One day Slovakia is home, the next is unknown.
Hiding under a pine tree, an Eritrean refugee typed on his cell phone. Written in the dialogue box of the translator app was a clear request, “take us to Germany.” Lena* explained it was not safe to transport them from their current location. She recommended they stay put and organize transportation at night. Three days later, all three men sent a text message saying they were in Germany. *Name changed to protect her identity.
A Slovakian soldier helped a refugee from Ukraine with her two small children at a refugee reception center in Sobrance, Slovakia. Thousands of soldiers were mobilized across Central Europe to assist with the humanitarian response to people fleeing the war in Ukraine.
An upset child from Ukraine hugged a social worker in the living room of the makeshift hostel. Located in the heart of Krakow, Poland, the building was originally rented to store emergency materials for the refugee crisis along the Belarusan border. When the war in Ukraine forced millions into Poland, Agata Kluczewsla and other organizers of the hostel decided to redirect their efforts. “We don’t work with the state.” Kluczewsla clarified, “We take referrals, but we don’t receive any resources from the state. It is all through private donations, and some collaborations with other members of civil society.” She said refugees are allowed to stay for two weeks, but added, “we never kick anyone out.”
A twenty-year-old Syrian refugee died on November 12, 2021, succumbing to hypothermia and exhaustion. In an effort to save his brother’s life, Muhamed* turned himself in to Polish border guards. Muhamed showed the guards his brother’s passport. They accused him of identity fraud and promptly pushed him back into Belarus. Muhamed’s brother’s body was found the next day. Polish border guards deny they knew the young man was in the forest and in need of immediate assistance. Today Muhamed is in France, and he has not been able to visit his brother’s grave due to its location deep in the Polish exclusion zone. *Name changed to protect his identity.
Soldiers, border guards, and police patrol the exclusion zones of Poland and Lithuania. The security forces have a dual purpose. They harden NATO defenses against potential Belarusan aggression while they function as de facto immigration agents. These photos were taken with a small polaroid camera, which was hidden under my coat to avoid detection.
Duanne, originally from Angola, first came to Odesa to study. Then he fell in love with a Ukrainian classmate and they had a son together. Duanne was working a well-paid tech job in the telecommunications industry when the war broke out. After watching Ukrainian air defenses shoot down a rocket over his home, Duanne decided it was time to take his family north to the relative safety of Chisinau, Moldova. Duanne was able to leave Ukraine because he only had Ukrainian residence. Friends with roots in Africa but Ukrainian nationality joined Ukraine’s volunteer territorial defense unit. Expecting my question about instances of racism at the border, Duanne preemptively told me he felt welcome in Moldova. He and his family were waiting to see if they could return to their home in Odesa. Duanne continued to work remotely from the little cubicle to which the family was assigned in MoldExpo.
Humanitarian workers laid flooring for a tent meters from the Ukrainian/Slovakian border crossing at Vyšné Nemecké, Slovakia. More than 6 million Ukrainians have fled the war in Ukraine. Nearly 500,000 have sought refuge in Slovakia. As in Moldova, buses ferried the refugees from the border crossing to a welcoming center / bus terminal in the nearby town of Sobrance.

The manipulation of refugees for geopolitical gain is not a novel phenomenon. In 2015, the EU accused Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of using Syrian refugees to pressure Brussels for diplomatic concessions. However, along Europe’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine, migration is being weaponized. “Today we see that that attack was part of a large, planned operation, part of a hybrid attack, part of the operational plan developed in the Kremlin and Minsk,” said Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a February 2022 visit to Poland’s exclusion zone. 

While Putin and Lukashenko used refugees fleeing war as bartering chips, Polish president Andrezj Duda exploited the crises for his own end. Duda was ostracized from Brussels after attacks on the Polish judicial system and free press. Poland’s frontline position presented an opportunity to mend frayed relations with the international community. The 2015 refugee crisis haunted the collective memory of leaders across Europe. Some criticized Duda for his heavy-handed tactics in the exclusion zone. But few volunteered to risk their political careers on refugees from the Middle East and Africa. At home, Duda exploited the hybrid war to counter waning political support. Having won the presidency as the anti-immigration candidate, the exclusion zone and border wall were popular with his base and reinvigorated support for the Law and Justice Party in parliament.

Duda’s rhetoric pivoted with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. The Polish nationalist used international solidarity with the suffering of Ukrainians to recast himself as an advocate for asylum. The solidarity of ordinary Poles was claimed by Duda and paraded by the government as evidence of Poland’s celebration of human rights. At home, the continued state of emergency and exclusion zone were justified as necessary measures needed to thwart a looming Russian and Belarusan invasion.

On social media, Kremlin bots were quick to highlight the disparity in Europe’s response, citing it as further evidence of the hypocrisy festering at the core of Western democracy. It was easier to paint NATO as legacy imperialism when its member states turned their backs on brown refugees from NATO wars, while simultaneously welcoming white refugees fleeing Russian bombs. Lost in the geopolitical maneuvering was the human suffering that had an impact on all refugees, regardless of the conflict they were fleeing.

Many pundits and journalists argue that the European Union has grown more unified in the face of Russian threats. Yet democratic values like human rights, asylum, and the rule of law gradually lose meaning if their selective application is forged in prejudice. Europe’s ability to effectively mobilize members states and welcome the largest human displacement since World War II undermines previous arguments against granting asylum based on capacity and available resources.

On the drive back to my hotel, I am stopped by Polish police. One cop peers through my backseat window, “Why are you here? Journalist?” I nod my response. “There are no refugees here. Only illegal migrants. Men. Terrorists sent by Lukashenko. You should go to the border with Ukraine.” After checking my passport, the other cop instructs me to turn around. I must leave the exclusion zone. Back in my living room in the United States, a Slate notification pops up on the screen of my laptop, “How Putin Drove Finland to Join NATO.” Instinctively, I reflect on one of my last conversations with Andrezj, another Polish humanitarian activist working in the “Exclusion Zone.” “Maybe Finland is next? Its border with Russia is longer than Poland and Lithuania’s border with Belarus. Combined.” While Finnish authorities prepare their military for potential Russian aggression, I wonder if Finnish civil society is preparing itself for refugees reimagined as weapons, which seems an inevitable consequence of this hybrid war.

Lena* found the GPS pin marking the location of the Cameroonian woman who had requested assistance late on the previous night. After unsuccessfully searching the area, Lena decided the woman had moved on.  *Name changed to protect her identity.

Wil Sands is a documentary photographer and journalist based in Richmond, Virginia. Sands' work focuses on social movements and political uprisings. He is the co-founder of the Fractures Collective and his work has been published The Washington Post, Mother Jones, and Harper's Magazine, among others. Sands received support from ArtWorks Projects for this feature.