An unexpected overnight snowfall transformed the Białowieża Forest from simply being one of the only remaining tracts of primeval forest in Europe, to being a magical winter landscape of fairytales and folklore – and legends abound in this extraordinary and special place. So special it is both an UNESCO’s World Heritage Site and on UNESCO’s List of World Biosphere Reserves.
I was in Warsaw for meetings and was lucky to go on a trip here led by a local journalist and environmental and social activist. It was an incredible visit, but tainted by our encounters with the modern day reality of Polish government policy towards migrants to the European Union. Białowieża though, is something truly unique, and home to the majestic European Bison.
Once native to vast swathes of Northern Europe but hunted to extinction in the wild – poachers killed the last bison in 1927 – bison have been successfully reintroduced to the forest and now number several thousands. We set off from the village of Teremiski for a 5 hour walk through the forest. Our guide has been involved in helping to promote and protect the bison and the forest, and was a goldmine of information.
I’d taken a photo of some wooden bison outside our hotel in the event that we didn’t see any real ones, but no more than five minutes into our walk we encountered seven bison laying at the edge of the forest about 100m away. I didn’t have a camera so the photos aren’t great, but through the binoculars the largest land mammal in Europe was utterly sublime and perfectly at home in the snow and ice.
This was to be the only encounter we would have with bison, or with any mammals, but the forest itself is the real star in these parts – we did see wolf tracks, but I was less keen to meet a wolf despite being reassured that attacks on humans are vanishingly small. The bison have few predators beyond humans, but the death of many wild boar from swine flu has led the wolves to start attacking them.
We tracked through the forest for a few hours, finding 400-year old oaks and other flora and learning about the history of the forest, including a royal hunting lodge built for the Tsar of Russia when the region was annexed in 1795. We ate at a restaurant next to the railway built to get the Tsar to the lodge (destroyed by the retreating German army in 1944). The warm restaurant was very welcome at the end of our walk, but it wasn’t the end of our forest adventure.
As the light faded, we returned to the freezing forest to take a look at the border fence erected by the Polish government in response to the migrant crisis that has unfolded in the forest – a fence that does nothing to keep people out, but is very effective at preventing wolves and bison migrating across the border and may affect their ability to successfully breed and survive.
The forest is the setting for one of the more deranged and despicable incidents in recent European history. The government of Belarus encouraged and aided desperate migrants from the Middle East and Africa to come to Belarus, then took them to the Polish border to enter the European Union. In response, the Polish government built a fence through the forest, deploying police and military to prevent people from crossing the border.
This double cruelty trapped thousands of migrants without aid or shelter in a truly hostile environment. Worse, some who make it into Poland are regularly found in the forest seriously injured or ill. Any who are found by the Polish authorities are sent back. The government has made it a legal requirement for locals to report migrants, making it less likely those in need will seek help.
It was -14ºC with the wind chill when we were there, snow obliterating tracks that might help people reach the safety of a village. Our guide described tales of local residents finding people in the forest who needed urgent medical treatment, but who were terrified of going to hospital for fear of being sent back to Belarus where they are greeted with violence and hostility.
He said local people were mostly helping migrants even though many were supporters of Poland’s retrograde government. He only knew of one case where a migrant had been handed over to the authorities. The flow of migrants has slowed since the peak of this insanity in 2021, but a trickle of people were still attempting the journey.
Białowieża is a magnificent and magical place, but thanks to the intransigence, cynicism and cruelty of both the Belarus and Polish governments, as well as the inadequacies of the EU, it has become the scene of terrible human suffering.