Desperate, frightened and begging for help, they emerge from the darkness: a group of Yazidi migrants, lost in the forests of eastern Europe.
It’s a surreal sight – and one that has been repeated over many recent nights.
Having survived persecution by ISIS at home in Iraq, here on the Belarus-Lithuania border the Yazidis find themselves caught up in a breathtakingly cynical plot.
Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has been accused of using these desperate souls as pawns in his high-stakes game with the European Union.
“Don’t send me back to Belarus!” pleads Rimon, one of a group of eight migrants, gripping a Lithuanian border guard’s arm in fear.
The Iraqis call out to another of their countrymen, Abu Osama – still wandering through the dark forest with his 10-year-old son – to submit to the relative safety of arrest.
The tearful pair emerge through the trees, the son wailing in fear and the father throwing himself to the ground and crying out “Allah!”
In the sky above a helicopter buzzes; the guards hear on their radios that its monitors have picked up the heat signatures of another 15 migrants nearby, waiting to cross the border.
Over the course of 24 hours from July 27 to 28, a record 171 people were caught on the border – many of them Iraqis. A total of more than 4,000 have been caught so far this year.
European officials say Lukashenko’s bureaucracy is extracting thousands of euros from each traveler then “weaponizing” them – according to Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis – in order to burden Belarus’s neighbor Lithuania.
Officials say the migrants are flown from the Middle East to Minsk, and then guided to the Belarus-Lithuania border by unspecified facilitators, where they are allowed to cross, unimpeded by Belarusian border police.
A Western intelligence official told CNN the scheme could not function without the permission of the Belarusian state, and that Lukashenko was likely using the migrants as a way to pressurize the EU into negotiations on lifting the sanctions against him.
Belarus’ key ally, Russia, plays a role in this dark trade, the Western intelligence official said, adding that the Russian government used a similar migrant scheme in Norway and Finland in 2015. The official said it was highly likely that Belarus benefited from Russian advice, information and assistance to establish this latest transit route.
In June, as the number of migrants arriving in the country escalated shortly after the sanctions were imposed, Lukashenko said: “We will not hold anyone back. We are not their final destination after all. They are headed to enlightened, warm, cozy Europe.”
On Wednesday, Belarusian officials took CNN and other media to their border, as part of an organized tour. Officials said migrants who came to Belarus did so as tourists, and paid no money to facilitate their crossing. The officials said Belarusian border guards were busy preventing criminal activity and the migrants slipped through gaps in their border fence.
Roman Podlinev, deputy chairman of the state border committee, said Lithuania was unable to control the situation and has resorted to “radical methods.” He told journalists, including CNN, that: “Despite our agreements the Lithuanian side is trying to bring illegally to the Belarusian border the refugees who asked for an asylum in the EU and push them to the Belarusian territory with force and violence.”
The border committee presented videos filmed by their personnel which they said was evidence of their claims the Lithuanian border guard are using force to repel or return migrants, and denyin