“My eldest son rarely left his room. He would spend days in bed, covering his head with a blanket. His arms and legs trembled whenever he saw guards but he would not run – he just froze in place. He was the one who was assaulted by government people in our former country,” recounts a refugee who was kept in a guarded centre for foreigners in Poland.
I used to run a shop in my country. I have no idea what it is like there now. I closed down my business and left it behind when they took me. They were security service agents – I know that because one of them even flashed me with an ID. They said that I wanted to cause a war to break out in the country, that I was instigating people to riot. I did not confirm that so they locked me up for several weeks.
This account is a part of the “Hostages of the System: Stories from guarded centres for foreigners” campaign carried out by the Association for Legal Intervention as part of the “No Detention Necessary” initiative.
It was all because I once went to a meeting of the opposition out of curiosity. Later on, I attended such meetings quite often and eventually started supporting that party. We wanted to change something. Back in our country, bribes are the only way to get anything done and it was also for a bribe that they let me go in the end. I do not know how much more I would have endured if my uncle had not paid that money. Even talking about it hurts.
My wife was terrified when she saw me, I was black and blue all over. She cried and she knew straightaway that we needed to run, I did not even have to convince her of that. The situation was made even more urgent because of a recent assault on our eldest son, who is nine, by government people. He ran back home and did not say a word to us, he just quivered all over.
We left immediately after I regained my ability to move normally. We fled through Russia and we stopped at the Polish-Ukrainian border. We vainly tried to cross it several dozen times. Every morning we would wake up early, pack up our things, leave the key at the hostel’s front desk and go to the border with all our children. My wife carried our youngest son, who was three at the time and who got tired quickly, while I carried all our luggage. When it was our turn to be interviewed, I explained the situation we found ourselves in and asked to be considered a refugee but they made us go back to Ukraine every time. We would try again in the afternoon and then check in at the same hostel for one more night. At last, they let us through after two months.
I remember that I felt at ease for the first time in a long time as they drove us to our destination in a car and I looked through the window. We had left our previous life behind.
While in court, we felt out of our depth, awed by all those judge’s gowns. The translator who was assigned to us for the duration of the proceedings asked us whether we would like to be transferred to a refugee centre. Obviously, we wanted that, realising that it was the first step made by refugees in Poland. No one told us that it would be an isolated and guarded facility.
We ended up in a building surrounded by a sheet metal fence which was much higher than I was. It must have been two metres high. Its top inclined inwards and there was barbed wire there. There were also monitoring cameras here and there. There was little room between the wall of the building and the fence, barely enough for a playground. Our children played there as we were kept in the centre for more than half a year.
My eldest son rarely left his room. He would spend days in bed, covering his head with a blanket. His arms and legs trembled whenever he saw guards but he would not run – he just froze in place. He was the one who was assaulted by government people in our former country. We were offered the assistance of a child psychologist. A female guard proposed this to us when she saw what was happening to our child when he sees a guard. Those guards were not aggressive at all.
My wife and I were not doing all that well ourselves but we could not just hide under a blanket. It broke my heart whenever my children asked me to give them some fruit, even just one to split between the four of them, and I was helpless to do so. I was completely helpless.
I dream of a day when my wife is able to safely go outside on her own and handle things by herself or, if she wants to, find a job she likes. I would like to become a driver in Poland. One of my sons would like to become a doctor one day and others just change their minds all the time, one day wanting to be football players, then programmers, then musicians. To me, the most important thing is for them to be able to cope with their memories so that they never wake up in the middle of the night, covered in cold sweat. The way I do.
Text: Magdalena Olga Olszewska
Drawing: Daniel Chmielewski
Some details have been altered to guarantee the safety of people appearing in the story. The family ran from a country created after the collapse of the Soviet Block.