Morasko Meteorite Nature Reserve near Poznan Poland Photo credit: cbartell42 / Shutterstock.com
Before leaving for Podlachia I naively assumed that my trip would have a beginning and an end, that I would gain a better understanding of the ongoing crisis and the role people such as myself could play in it. I seem to have reached some geographical and symbolic end. However, I feel that it is by no means the finishing line.
It took me three and a half hours to get to Z. Such is the distance between my life in Warsaw and the “border” of the state of emergency. It’s a typical route from the center of the country to the outlying area. The motorway quite quickly turns into a regional road, and then into an endless tangle of local roads. When you’re driving there and slowing down once again to get ready to overtake a tractor or a local bus, the landscape becomes more vivid.
On the one hand it’s a very familiar landscape. It feels like driving to my hometown. Familiar sights of fields interspersed with equally familiar signboards of numerous petrol stations. When entering towns I quickly recognize numerous and typical Roundabouts of Independence and the Polish army streets that consistently fill the road infrastructure of the entire country. At the next corner I could turn by the Polish post office, drop by the local shop to get some groceries, and arrive at my family home a moment later.
However, this is not the case. The longer I drive, the more I analyze this scenery, and details unknown to me start to appear more and more frequently. White and blue orthodox churches, mosques, whole villages situated just along the road, built over with rows of wooden houses with intricate colorful decoration on the front walls. Although I realize I’m here, in this so-called “rural Poland,” I’m still surprised by the diversity. I guess living in cosmopolitan Warsaw has reduced and unified the image of the province in my eyes and now this province is bringing me down a peg.
The feeling of closeness disappears completely the closer I am to Z. The fields suddenly end, colliding with a solid wall of the woods. The primeval forest rises in front of me. The forest becomes a host that—as I am soon to find out—may have two faces: it can be both a refuge and a death trap. I emphasize it so much, because such a forest is a complete novelty to me. A day after my arrival, hacking through it with a huge tourist backpack and an IKEA bag full of shoes, looking for people hiding there, I will discover seas of nettles growing up to my chest, swamps that will tear my rubber boots off my feet, huge, fallen trees that I’ll have to walk around. Each of these natural barriers and obstacles is a salvation for the one who is hiding and a nightmare for the one who is seeking. In this forest, these roles are constantly being reversed.
However, as of now, I’m still on the only road leading to Z., surrounded by this overwhelming nature. I slowly make my way through a narrow tunnel surrounded by densely growing trees. Driving through this green tube I watch out for the frequent holes in the road surface that probably haven’t been repaired in decades. Even the road is somehow trying to let me know that it’s soon to end, although I still cannot see signs foreshadowing Z.
Suddenly the forest takes a break for a moment, thins down a little, and gives some room for a few houses. The forest has assigned this space to Z. The road ends here. At least for me. The only thing that’s further down is the state of emergency zone plastered to the Belorussian border that I have no access to. During this trip, my inner policeman will frequently be reminding me about various bans and prohibitions that I mustn’t violate: you mustn’t enter the zone, you mustn’t drive a car on the forest tracks, you mustn’t park your car in the forest, you mustn’t simply take a sick person to hospital.
The house I’m staying at is located in Z. From here I’ll be setting off to assist in the unequal fight with the forest, and Polish and Belorussian border guards, to keep the people hiding in the forest alive. The house looks like a mountain lodge. Or maybe it’s me who wants it to look like that, because it corresponds with my vision of the “border.” Other than that there is no infrastructure, only the labyrinths of forest paths. If you follow them, you may find people who need help. You can also come across border guards, the army, or the police. Depending on who you stumble across defines who you are: the seeker or the wanted.
Immediately upon my arrival I fall into the rhythm of life in this new place. Its pace is determined by dozens of tasks to be dealt with ASAP. It still amazes me how quickly my perception in these circumstances reduced itself to being here and now. Perhaps it’s because of this pace that the traditional divisions of day and night, or breakfast, lunch, and dinner cease to have any significance. Everything blends together. The world outside the building and forest become irrelevant, contact with my family—perfunctory, checking my emails—simply irritating.
Numerous trips to the forest become the key points around which my stay there is organized. Perhaps knowing that my visit there would only last a few days makes it easy for me to fall into the rhythm of functioning in the “state of emergency,” ignoring the need for sleep and food. I imagine this is how paramedics, firemen, or mountain rescue teams function, in the starting blocks, constantly waiting for a signal that causes them to abandon everything and jump into action.
My head quickly adjusts to this new mode. And suddenly I stop being afraid of the forest. Especially at night. I’m talking about the forest where terrified people are hiding, where border guards and the police search not only for them, but also for you, where your phone has no reception. This forest is so big that if you get lost, you might have to wander around for days to find your way back while stumbling upon wolves and hearing bison roar at night.
Even so I don’t feel like forest game that have to constantly watch their backs, looking out for the enemy. I feel more like a hunter, who wants to find what he’s looking for as quickly as possible. Perhaps it is because I assume the role of a “rescuer”. Or maybe it is the question of power I draw from people who accompany me in the trips to the forest. A few times I go there together with A. After one such expedition, when emotions ease off and we are slowly going back to our shelter, A. points out that I have been very calm and controlled during the action. I then thought that if I in fact acted in a somehow calm manner, it’s because I borrowed this composure from A. I believe that quite unconsciously we’ve created an emotional pyramid together. We’ve created something out of nothing, but fortunately this fragile structure didn’t collapse.
I did not collapse, although I still very much wonder how it’s possible. I still cannot understand how it’s possible not to fall apart when confronted with images of exhausted and wounded bodies of people you meet, their stories about what forced them to leave their homes, abandon everything and try to escape through this forest, and testimonies of cruelty experienced at the hands of other human beings. How can you not cry when someone, who hasn’t had a drop of water for three days wants to somehow thank you for a cup of warm tea and pulls out a plastic box with a rubber band—you know, that one that you use at a picnic in a park—and you suddenly realize that it’s full of cookies that this person made a few days back, before setting off for Europe. How do you conjoin the image of a man in such a state with your vision of what they might have looked like a few days earlier when, unaware of it all, they were preparing for the journey?
I also started looking at the forest in a different way. I started to insistently search for the shapes of human bodies. I tried to spot the colors of their clothes that would stand out at least a little bit from the green background of the forest. I was astonished to realize how many well-trodden paths I could spot in the thicket. Each of them was faint evidence but nonetheless evidence of the existence of a person who had walked there.
During each excursion to the forest I would meet someone. Maybe too little time has passed since these events and I’m still strongly influenced by them, but as I’m writing this down, I’m absolutely certain that never before in my life have I experienced such encounters. None of the people I stumbled across had been waiting for me. None of them had even been aware of my existence. But as soon as those human beings realized that we were there to help and not to harm them, when we were able to come up close to them, reassured by the fact that our presence was accepted and our eyes could finally meet, I would instantly reach my deepest and at the same time the most sincere level of experiencing another human being. No masks, no games, no pretenses. I believe that I couldn’t be more with another person, and more for another person than during those encounters.
I will never know whether the experience of the people I met was similar to mine. I’m still compulsively recreating each of these encounters in my head and I very much hope that the power I had over them wasn’t too intimidating. It was in fact me who could decide whether they would get clothes and food—allowing them to survive. I was the one who was free to decide what would happen to them by informing or not informing border guards where they were located. It was all in my hands. Although this power was present in me only for a short moment, I could feel its unpleasant burden. However, I took it upon myself voluntarily, because that was what I wanted, and I could turn it into solicitude.
Each of those encounters also restored the sense of purpose and agency in me.
For a moment I ceased to be an actor in someone else’s play and I was able to—even to a minimal extent—decide what course the action would take. Those ten, or at best fifteen, minutes we could spend together shaped our whole acquaintanceship. I have friends I’ve known for years, with whom I’ve spent long hours, but these hours are nothing like those fifteen minutes. Now I will digest these several-minute meetings for the next few months.
I’m surprised how well and how vividly I remember the faces of people I met in the forest. Although I’m writing about them in the plural, I do so solely for their safety. Each of them has a face, a name, and a story. Now, when I watch media reports from the border, I pray not to see any of those faces in the footage. I want to believe that if they’re not there, it means they were able to successfully complete their journey, although I will probably never find out where it ended.
I also still don’t know where my journey to the “border” will take me. Before leaving for Podlachia I rather naively assumed that it would have a beginning and an end, that—according to the logic of a road movie—I’d get to the final point and thus get a better understanding of the ongoing crisis and of the role people such as myself can play in it. I have in fact reached some geographical end, which, according to the regulations introducing the state of emergency, is also a symbolic end. I still however feel that by no means it’s the finishing line.
Now I’m back in Warsaw. The way back was not in the least a return to what is well known to me. Only here do I feel as if I am captured in the state of emergency. It’s difficult to get back to normal life. Concentrating on daily activities while being aware that a few hours drive from here people are still hiding in the forest—including perhaps those I’ve met myself—requires my mind to function in emergency mode.
I keep asking myself the same questions over and over again: “What to do next? Should I go back to the forest? If so, then how many times again?” I do not have the right answers. I also refrain from suggesting to others what they should do. Especially because not everyone wants and can go to the border. All I know is that being next to those people in the forest I felt—probably for the first time since the beginning of this crisis—at peace with myself. Perhaps these meetings were a lesson in caring for another person that has also become a lesson in caring for myself. It was given to me in the most secluded place in this country: in the middle of a huge primeval forest. Apparently only in such a condition was it possible.
The text was originally published in Polish in Dwutygodnik magazine and translated by Franciszka Sady.
Pawel Knut is a human rights attorney, doctoral candidate at the University of Warsaw, and a former Fulbright visiting scholar at The New School Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (2019-2020).
Franciszka Sady is a project coordinator at a Polish LGBT+ rights organization and a freelance translator.