By 6pm it was pitch-black in the cemetery in the middle of the forest. We carefully walked around the hole that had been dug for the coffin and waited.
rom a long way off, I could see the approaching cluster of lights from camera crews flickering through the trees. Then the sound of prayers from the imam leading the funeral procession.
Journalists aren’t famous for quiet solemnity — but in this old Muslim cemetery in the forest, if you weren’t looking into a camera viewfinder, you bowed your head.
The cemetery is outside Kruszyniany, a tiny enclave of the Tatar Muslim minority in Eastern Poland, near the border with Belarus. We had been invited to attend the funeral of a Syrian teenager called Ahmed Al Hasan. The 19-year-old was being buried nearly 4,000 miles from home.
I stood behind a Syrian doctor, now living in Poland, who was live-streaming the funeral to Ahmed’s family.
His mother, living in a refugee camp in Jordan, was distraught. Nothing about the scene made sense — not least the fact that Ahmed was a casualty of a hybrid war between countries he thought he was just passing through.
Like thousands of other people looking for better lives, Ahmed arrived into Minsk airport in October. Belarusian authorities were handing out tourists visas like confetti to migrants and refugees from the Middle East.
Each journey is a little different, but assuming Ahmed’s trip was similar to that of thousands of others, it worked liked this.
He bought a tourist ‘package’ for anything up to the equivalent of €1,000 — not including the flight. The package consisted of an ‘invitation’ to Belarus complete with an official Belarusian Ministry of Tourism stamp and a week in a hotel in Minsk.
It was brokered between a travel agent in Istanbul and an agent in Belarus, under the auspices of Lukashenko’s regime.
Once Ahmed arrived at the airport in Minsk, he joined the queue of migrants, which stretched the length of the arrivals hall, to exchange his ‘invitation’ for a Belarusian tourist visa in his passport. A mini-bus then brought him to his hotel in the centre of the city.
For the next few days Ahmed would have rested up. The ‘package,’ bizarrely, probably included a city tour. Perhaps a trip to the Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War, or “on your right the presidential office of Alexander Lukashenko”.
At the end of the week Ahmed would have made final arrangements with the people smugglers he had paid. Networks of smugglers are operating in and around the hotels. Iraqi Kurds dominate the market, but there are Syrians involved too.
The next leg of the journey typically costs about €2,500.
Ahmed would have to make his own way to the border with Poland from Minsk (a €50 taxi ride). If he were to bump into Belarusian guards at the border, the smuggler would have assured him, not to worry. The guards would help escort his group to a safe place to cross.
Ahmed would have been given co-ordinates to meet one of the smuggler’s agents once he was inside Poland. They would bring him and his friend across Poland and into Germany. The end of the road.
If you multiply this journey thousands of times, you are left with the manufactured migrant crisis that we’ve seen escalate on the edge of Europe over the last few weeks.
Although he denies it, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime is facilitating the arrival of migrants such as Ahmed into Belarus, and then directing them to the border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Lukashenko wants to punish those countries for harbouring members of the Belarusian opposition and for leading the charge on EU sanctions against his regime.
He craves recognition and influence in Europe and has decided to weaponise migrant misery in order to get them.
Lukashenko is no strategic mastermind, though. He is not pulling all the strings here. The crisis has taken on its own momentum and may yet evolve in a way that damages the man dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”.
But the Belarusian president knows an opportunity when he sees it — and this is an opportunity he is exploiting to the full. And he is not alone in this. His sponsor, Vladimir Putin, is also keenly aware of the potential to embarrass the EU over this issue.
Mindful of the damage that the 2015 refugee crisis wrought on the European Union, Putin knows how a ‘migration crisis’ can be used to lever influence.
However, he also knows that his Belarusian mini-me is unpredictable. If Lukashenko is his glove puppet, not all five fingers are always in the glove.
What neither man could have predicted was the strength and coherence of the EU’s reaction.
Poland has amassed a reported 15,000 troops along its border with Belarus. Lithuania and Latvia have also responded very robustly. The EU, despite its fraught relationship with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, has stood resolutely behind them on this one.
Law and Justice, for their part, are positioning themselves as the defenders of the EU border, and are using it to amplify their ‘tough on immigration’ message to the Polish electorate.
In other words, it is in a lot of people’s interests to frame what is happening in terms of a ‘war’. Any build-up of troops in this part of the world triggers memories of darker times, and some people turn up the volume on that sort of narrative, rather than dial it down.
They use it as a weapon in an arsenal of dwindling influence, a way of trying to pry out another concession. For them, people are just levers to pull in order to unlock another little bit of power. But in the case of Ahmed Al Hassan, the lever snapped.
On October 19, Ahmed’s body was found in the Bug river in Eastern Poland, close to the Belarusian border. At least 11 people have died trying to cross from Belarus into Poland.
According to Ahmed’s companion, who survived, the 19-year-old was pushed into the river by Belarusian border guards. He couldn’t swim.