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A girl practices her dance moves before going on stage at a traditional Belarusian culture festival in Poland, on February 3, 2023.

‘An infinite regress of separations’ In 2022–2023, Belgian photographer Aurélien Goubau made a series of trips to the Polish-Belarusian border to document the lives of residents, activists, and refugees

Source: Meduza
A girl practices her dance moves before going on stage at a traditional Belarusian culture festival in Poland, on February 3, 2023.
A girl practices her dance moves before going on stage at a traditional Belarusian culture festival in Poland, on February 3, 2023.

Granica by Aurélien Goubau

A dense ancestral forest stretches along the border between Poland and Belarus. It was amidst this forest that the Minsk Agreement, which led to the dissolution of the USSR, was signed on December 8, 1991. Today, a 186-kilometer (around 118 miles) wall marks the border between the two countries. In 2022 and 2023, I traveled to the Polish side of this border zone, to meet a variety of people inhabiting the place. I wanted to experience this border and try to perceive, through these encounters, the multiple tensions that characterize this region today. During my stays, I met refugees from Ukraine and from countries further south, as well as local residents. Although each of them revealed a unique perception of this border, they were all closely linked to it, be it through the banality of daily life or its emerging challenges. The border creates a reality that affects the lives of those who live nearby. All these individual stories, which initially seemed distinct, convey, in the end, a common experience of the border.

A 5-meter wall separates Poland from Belarus
Opaka Duża, Poland. December 1, 2022

I wanted to explore the border that divides what we generally (and all too easily) refer to as the East and West blocs. I was searching for a specific location that would symbolize this division, and during my research, I came across this particular region. What made it even more compelling was the current situation with refugees crossing the border. It added an additional dimension to the story. Also, the recent construction of an iron fence in the area made it especially relevant to the context I was exploring.

The dense forest makes it hard to traverse on foot
Kruszyniany, Poland. February 17, 2023
Ali, a man from Afghanistan, walks out of the forest. Red light is used to avoid being seen by border guards and military forces. Ali injured his arm after crossing the wall. He will be helped by locals. He was in Warsaw two days later.
Budy, Poland. April 24, 2023

The border between Poland and Belarus stretches 390 kilometers (around 240 miles). The authorities are quite unfriendly in the area, and it is difficult to get close to the border without being seen. Though it’s formally permitted to get close, in practice if you get caught near the border the guards will take you away. It happened to me twice. They caught me and drove me to Hajnówka, approximately 10 kilometers (around six miles) from the border. But the hardest to document was probably the situation of the refugees in the forest. I worked with activists from a local NGO and together we went into the forest and walked for hours. Sometimes we spent entire nights in the forest. One has to be able to imagine what it’s like for the refugees walking in the dense forest in such conditions.

A group of refugees from Iraq rest in the middle of the forest. An activist provides basic first aid.
Budy, Poland. April 24, 2023
The house of activists in a village near the border with Belarus
Poland. April 27, 2023

My objective with this story was to document the situation in this border area, and to try joining the stories of various individuals, who have a shared connection to this border. I wanted to to address a broader theme of the significance (or lack thereof) of borders. The challenge was to find a visual approach that would link together these different stories. I encountered young people in theaters, refugees traversing the forest and villages on foot, elderly women with ties to neighboring countries, activists, and Ukrainians. All of them held unique perspectives on what this border symbolized. For instance, to the young people, the border represented a feeling of isolation, as if they were at the edge of the world, facing a dead end. Refugees saw the border as an obstacle to overcome on their journey. For the older generations, the border represented a constantly changing situation, depending on the geopolitical relations between the two countries. The challenge was to find photographic distance and connect their stories, and how to address each individual in the same respectful and engaging way. Another obstacle was that I met people with whom I disagreed (for example, some held very negative opinions of refugees). 

Kruszyniany, Poland. February 17, 2023
Portrait of Szymon, a 17-year-old boy from Hajnówka. He dreams of being a model in Berlin.
Hajnówka, Poland. February 12, 2023
A view of the city of Hajnówka, situated on the edge of the forest, 10 kilometers (about six miles) from the border with Belarus
Hajnówka, Poland. February 11, 2023
Białowieża, Poland. October 25, 2022
Seven Muslim refugees were buried in the cemetery in Bohoniki since 2021. According to numbers from the NGO Grupa Granica, which helps refugees in this region, at least 37 refugees died in the border area since 2021. The causes of death include drowning, freezing, and exhaustion. The real number of deaths cannot be verified. Some refugees are buried in the Muslim cemeteries in eastern Poland’s Bohoniki and Kruszyniany.
Bohoniki, Poland. February 8, 2023

I also arranged to meet members of the Tatar community, who were involved in digging graves for refugees who died while in this region. One of the people I met was named Yadgar. As he dug the graves, he spoke about his own roots, tracing them back to Crimea, and shared that his grandparents had been deported by Stalin. Listening to him talk about his heritage while digging a grave for a Yemeni person who had lost his life here because of a lack of humanitarian aid , it became apparent to me that there were deeper connections between people and events than we might initially perceive.

The people I met had, to some extent, a link with this border and thus with one another. You have members of the Tatar community who take care of burying dead refugees and Polish activists who take care of refugees from African countries, but these same activists also welcome people from Ukraine. I met elderly people who didn’t want to take part in helping refugees, but were affected by the new wall separating the two countries because they couldn’t visit their husband’s cemetery on the other side.

Paradoxically, when you build a wall, you can think, or at least hope, that you’re going to separate two things, apparently different (otherwise the border has no meaning). The paradox is that the wall itself becomes a link between the people it was intended to separate.

In the Muslim cemetery of Bohoniki, two men prepare a grave for a 35-year-old Yemeni refugee who died not far from the border two days before. The two men digging the grave belong to the Tatar community. Local activists believe that the Yemeni refugee died from the cold. He was buried the same day. Activists and people from the Tatar community were present. This was the seventh refugee burial in the Bohoniki cemetery since the beginning of the refugee crisis in this region in 2021.
Bohoniki, Poland. February 9, 2023
In the Orthodox church of Sokolka, situated 20 kilometers (around 12 miles) from the border with Belarus
Sokolka, Poland. February 19, 2023
Maya is watching television in her home. Just like many others people from this area, she worked in Western European countries (Finland and Belgium) for a couple of years before returning to her homeland and enjoying a comfortable retirement.
Siemianówka, Poland. October 31, 2022
A Soviet cemetery in Sokolka
Sokolka, Poland. February 6, 2023
Inside the Hajnówka’s cultural center. An event on Belarusian songs and culture is organized. Three girls wait backstage before the performance.
Hajnówka, Poland. February 11, 2023
Portrait of Kyra. Kyra comes from Irpin in Ukraine. Together with her mother Tania and her sister, she embarked on a bus journey to Czeremcha. Upon arriving in Czeremcha, they found refuge in the village’s culture center and school.
Czeremcha, Poland. February 6, 2023
Czeremcha, Poland. February 5, 2023

Some of my encounters were spontaneous, while others were planned in advance. For instance, I photographed two young boys I ran into who were studying at a forestry school near the border. They were busy preparing for a performance in the school theater, with forestry posters completely covering the wall behind them. I realized that the forest, which enveloped everything in the area, might be the common thread connecting everyone. It seemed like everyone somehow had a connection with the forest and that this would allow me to connect the different stories.

In a forestry school located in the village of Białowieża, two teenagers wait for the annual performance in the amphitheater. Most of these young people come from nearby villages. Many of them speak both Polish and Belarusian.
Białowieża, Poland. November 3, 2022
Refugees crossing the Białowieża forest leave coats, sleeping bags, and blankets behind them
Teremiski, Poland. December 2, 2022

Through my work on this border, I’ve come to realize that borders, especially this one, are multifaceted. I believe that what we try to separate physically with walls and fences is, in reality, a spectrum of environmental, ideological, economic, and social gradations. During my research to prepare the text for this documentary, I drew inspiration from an article by Tristan Garcia, a French philosopher and writer. In his 2018 work “Logiques de frontières,” he explores various ways of interpreting borders. One such interpretation involves comparing borders to natural boundaries:

Those who claim to establish the true boundary between territories in nature always end up, to their disappointment, finding nothing more than material variations: more or less and continuity. This compels perception to acknowledge a gradient in which what appears distinct blurs, and the parts that seem different blend into each other.

When I was at the border, I had the impression that it wasn’t straightforward but created, instead, an infinite regress of separations, from near to near, from person to person. It’s a bit like looking at plants through a microscope when you look at plants. When you take a first look, you see different separations between different parts of the plant. But when you zoom in, what seemed separate at first now seems fused, and you see new separations. You can zoom in again — and new separations and fusions appear.

Photography and words by Aurélien Goubau

Edited by Katya Balaban and Ned Garvey

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