Iraqi baby buried as death toll in EU-Belarus crisis grows

Vanessa Gera
Associated Press

Bohoniki, Poland — A Polish imam recited prayers Tuesday over the tiny white casket of an unborn Iraqi boy, the latest life claimed as migrants from the Middle East have tried to slip into the European Union illegally and found their path blocked by soldiers and a fast approaching winter in the forests of Poland and Belarus.

After the first snow of the season fell overnight, Aleksander Ali Bazarewicz, the imam, waited in hopes that the child's father — in a refugee center and with his wife hospitalized in serious condition — would arrive. When he didn't appear, Bazarewicz proceeded to lead the funeral rites in front of an old wooden mosque and later at the graveside.

“Another victim,” said Bazarewicz, who led prayers for the first victim of the migration, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, nine days ago.

“We thought this would only happen once but now this sector gets bigger and bigger,” he said, standing among four simple burial mounds, each surrounded by stones and covered with pine branches.

A Polish imam, left, and two other members of a Muslim community bury the tiny white casket of an unborn Iraqi boy, in Bohoniki, Poland, on Tuesday Nov. 23, 2021. The child is the latest life claimed as thousands of migrants from the Middle East have sought to enter the European Union but found their path cut off by a military build-up and fast approaching winter in the forests of Poland and Belarus.

All four victims now rest together on the outer edge of Poland’s largest Muslim cemetery, belong to a community of Tatars who have inhabited the forested area in eastern Poland for centuries.

“They will rest among their Tatar brothers,” he said.

There is no exact toll among the migrants and refugees who since the summer have traveled to Belarus and then sought to cross into Poland, Lithuania or Latvia, the three countries bordering the EU. Yet there is no doubt that the death toll is rising.

The EU considers the migration an element of hybrid warfare waged by the authoritarian government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Poland has ordered a state of emergency along its border to stop migrants from coming through, and to keep family — or smugglers — from approaching the border to facilitate their travel further into western Europe. Most aim to reach Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe, in some cases to be reunited with relatives already settled there.

As Poland has built up its military presence in the area, many migrants have become trapped in the forest, pushed back and forth between Belarusian and Polish forces, sometimes wandering in the cold, wet forest for weeks.

The Polish Border Guard agency has since September reported about 10 deaths, but they don't identify them because of EU privacy regulations. Meanwhile, humanitarian groups and Polish media have reported more cases. But it's difficult to verify those deaths, and sometimes it's not clear if the victims named in the media are the same or difficult cases given by the Border Guard.

It's also known that there have been deaths on the Belarusian side, with bodies returned to Iraq for burial. But the Minsk authorities there haven't reported how many.

An man who appeared to be a migrant from Africa was buried Monday in the Catholic cemetery of Sokolka, not far from the Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki, because a Bible was found next to his body. But since there was no absolute certainty that he was Christian, the local priest didn't attend the funeral. The only people attending the funeral were journalists.

Polish media have also reported the death of a 24-year-old Syrian Christian man whom they identified as Issa Jerjos. Issa means Jesus — one liberal Polish news outlet Oko Press reported the death with the headline: “Jesus died on the Polish border.”

Bazarewicz led the rites for a family he had never met, based on little information about them, admitting he knew little more than the fact that the mother miscarried her child in the 27th week of pregnancy, and that the family had five other children. He called in two Chechen immigrants to assist with the funeral, attended otherwise only by about three dozen journalists.

Bazarewicz says it's his duty as a Muslim to ensure that other Muslims who have perished on Polish soil far from their homelands be buried with the proper religious rites. In Islam, a fetus after four months is considered a human being and buried as one, he explained.

The white casket trimmed in lace of the unborn infant — given the name Halikari Dhaker and whose date of death is Nov. 14 — was so small it was carried to the grave by a single man before it was lowered with ropes.

“These people have left their countries, not to travel around or see beautiful places, though Poland is beautiful, but to find a better life," he said. "They were manipulated and they’ve suffered — which is not their fault.”

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