SOKOLKA, Poland -- Thousands of migrants have attempted passage into Poland from Belarus in recent months as a geopolitical standoff between the post-Soviet state and its EU neighbors has threatened to spiral out of control.
Few have managed to break through the increasingly impenetrable Polish Army cordon and make it into the vast forest that straddles the two countries, and with temperatures plunging, hundreds are now heading back to Iraq and other countries they had hoped to leave behind.
Yet many of those who have made it through --- spending days at a time roaming the woods as their life-saving supplies dwindle, sometimes with children and elderly relatives in tow -- have relied on a committed group of Polish activists who have sometimes given up jobs and traveled from other parts of Poland and even other countries to help.
These volunteers are part of a loose network of nonprofit organizations with names such as Medics on the Border, Border Group, and the Salvation Foundation. They include qualified medics and lawyers who can provide migrants with first aid and assistance in filing asylum documents. They also pool resources to gather warm clothing and food that they can bring to those stranded in the woods.
"We gather all these things for refugees because many in Poland disagree with the actions of the government and want to help those who need shelter," the head of the Salvation Foundation (Fundacja Ocalenie), Piotr Bystrianin, told Current Time in an interview near the border with Belarus last week.
The Polish government has taken a tough stance on migrants who have attempted to enter the country from Belarus, and has pushed dozens back across the border after catching them on the Polish side -- prompting an uproar from liberals and some EU officials who say they are violating international law.
Activists like Bystrianin have lambasted the authorities for what they see is an inhumane attitude, but the government has garnered praise from nationalists who see it as defending the country.
In late October, a nationalist group called Niklot, based in nearby Bialystok, a city 50 kilometers from the border, announced that it would begin patrols in the border area to shore up the military's campaign to prevent illegal migration.
"We will no longer stand idly by as another wave of immigrants floods our motherland due to inept laws and liberal, leftist activists," Niklot said in a Facebook post that was slammed by critics as dangerous vigilantism.
Poland says it has recorded more than 35,000 attempts to illegally cross the border from Belarus since August. Against this backdrop, activists helping migrants have worked in sometimes hostile conditions, suggesting the backlash against illegal immigration has targeted them directly too.
On November 14, the group Medics on the Border announced it was halting its activities in the border area after several vehicles parked outside its offices in Podlasie were vandalized by unknown assailants. Images from the scene showed slashed tires, smashed windows and headlights, and police officers at the site.
"The safety of our people is our priority," the group said in a statement. On November 18, Polish radio station RMF/FM reported that police had arrested three local residents accused of committing the vandalism.
The population of Poland's east is divided in its views over the migration crisis and how to treat those who make it into Poland despite official efforts to keep them out.
In the village of Werstok near the border, lawyer Kamil Syller pioneered an initiative encouraging inhabitants to display a green light outside their homes if they are willing to help any migrants who wander through the settlements in search of food or refuge.
But in an interview with RFE/RL in late October, Syller said many inhabitants are afraid of calling attention to themselves in case they get a visit from border guards searching for illegal immigrants. And others are simply against helping the migrants altogether.
"I think they have to be sent back," one local resident who declined to give his name told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America. "There's no point accepting them here, it'll be an endless struggle."
Yet volunteers who help migrants say that hostility from some groups in society, and more widespread anti-migrant sentiment, are not their main obstacle.
A wide swath of the border area has been turned into an exclusion zone -- only residents and members of the armed forces are allowed in, and while a campaign is under way to open the area up to journalists and activists, the ban remains in place. The volunteers who are kept out say their main problem is that as far as helping goes, their hands are largely tied.
"We receive messages from migrants, saying they're afraid of death.... They ask first and foremost for food, water, and medical care," Salvation Foundation volunteer Alicja, who gave only her first name, told Current Time. "But we can't do anything -- until they leave the border, we can't help them."