A professor from Scotland flew to Lithuania hoping to locate his Syrian friends. He documented his desperate attempts for The Scotsman news website.
Nigel Osborne, professor of music and human sciences at the University of Edinburgh, first met Ammar, Israa, and Hjeij in Lebanon. The way the war ended in Syria dashed their hopes for a return – they were on the regime’s blacklist, their family home had been bombed and father – a former political prisoner – killed.
Lebanon, which has sheltered hundreds of thousands of refugees, has recently been plunged into a dystopian economic crisis.
The trio then paid for a Belarus visa and embarked on a route that sees “president Lukashenko’s agents (sadly encouraged by Moscow) flying refugees to Minsk”, according to Osborne, for “the price of a ruined house in Syria”.
After a stay at a hotel, the asylum seekers are driven to the border and told to walk. If they “try to return, they are ‘pushed back’, a euphemism for barbed wire, baton charges and dogs”.
“When Ammar showed his visa to the Belarus police, it was ignored,” wrote Osborne.
However, the refugees are also pushed back from the Polish and Lithuanian borders. It is a ploy by the Lukashenko regime “to destabilise the EU’s borders, morally compromise Western governments, and weaponise the suffering of some of the most damaged and abused people on Earth”.
Last week, Ammar sent a desperate message, saying “they are stuck in a forest near the village of Stalai in Lithuania, near the Polish and Belarus borders, with little water, only a few dates left to eat, and low phone battery. Israa was unwell with fainting fits.”
Osborne took a flight to Poland and headed over to Lithuania, aiming to bring food, water and clothing to them, with the end-goal “to rent accommodation I could then discreetly use as a safe house”.
A Lithuanian NGO worker, Goda Jurevičiūtė, went ahead before him. Together with journalists, she searched for the trio’s last location.
“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees was also involved and had informed the State Guard Service. When Goda arrived, there was a helicopter hovering above the forest. She found no one at the location, only abandoned clothing.”
“There has been no contact from Ammar since then. I arrived 12 or so hours later. I was deeply worried by everything, and troubled that Israa had left her boots behind in the forest.”
“They have certainly not been detained by the police or border guards,” according to Osborne.
“It is far beyond the capabilities of a retired music teacher from the Scottish Borders. Of course, I shouted 'Ammar' into the forest as night fell. I felt sad, stupid, helpless and lonely – probably more than ever before in my life.”
“We can only hope for the best and be ready for the worst.”
Over 4,000 people have entered Lithuania irregularly from Belarus. Since the government adopted a pushback policy, over 5,000 people have been denied entry and sent back to Belarus. Several people have now died in Poland.
No deaths have been reported in Lithuania so far.
Read more: Migration crisis in Baltics and Poland