BREST, Belarus -- Every day, the train between the Belarusian city of Brest and the Polish border town of Terespol is packed. A train that usually comprises three or four cars now has eight.
“You have to see it to believe it,” says 32-year-old Magomed Kadyrov. “I don’t know whom to trust, whom to talk to. Border officials don’t listen to us. There are a lot of us trying to get across. The other day, there were more than 700 people. The train from Brest to the border is now seven or eight cars long. Completely packed. Now there are more and more of us here.”
There are at least 1,000 citizens of the Russian North Caucasus republic of Chechnya currently in Brest hoping to get asylum in the European Union. Those who agreed to speak with RFE/RL say the latest spike in would-be refugees is a result of the oppressive and often violent tactics of officials serving under Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
“There are no laws for our officials,” said one Chechen man in Brest who asked not to be named. “They only know the methods of bandits. And it is getting worse. People are very intimidated. That’s why the number of refugees has increased.”
Second Chechen War
Since the beginning of the second Chechen war in 2004, more than 70,000 Russian citizens have applied for asylum in Poland, according to the Polish Office for Foreigners. Most of the applicants come from Russia’s volatile North Caucasus. Although official figures for this year are not available, the last spike came in 2013, when nearly 13,000 Russian citizens filed applications.
Magomed Kadyrov -- he’s no relation to the Chechen leader -- made the fateful decision to uproot his large family in April. He says he was abducted from his home in Chechnya’s Terkyist region and held for 10 days by gunmen who beat him in a bid to get information about a distant relative who is a militant in the guerrilla war against the Chechen authorities.
After he was able to get away, Kadyrov sold everything he had and fled with his wife, Zainar, and six children to Brest. As is the case with most of the Chechens in Brest, Kadyrov knows there is no road back for his family.
Time and again the refugees board the train for Poland, most often merely to be turned away at the border and sent back.
“Today there were some who were making their 22nd attempt,” said Zainar Kadyrova when RFE/RL first spoke with her earlier this month. “Others were making their 10th.”
But staying in Brest is a difficult option.
“In Chechnya, we sold our house and our car,” one woman who asked not to be named told RFE/RL. “There is nothing left. Now the money is running out and who knows what will come next. Every day we pay 25 euros for accommodation in Brest. And we have to eat. We have enough money for another three or four days. I don’t know what we’ll do next. I’m afraid to even think about it.”
In addition, a local cottage industry of fleecing the refugees has also cropped up, Kadyrov says.
“Something new is happening that wasn’t going on before,” he says. “Some sort of ‘lawyers’ are going around taking money from people with promises to help get [them] across the Polish border.”
“They are cheating people,” Kadyrova adds, “saying they are conducting some sort of negotiations with the border officials. They just take the money and then they disappear.”
Some of the refugees also mention their fear of the long arm of Chechnya’s ruling strongman.
“Honestly, I am afraid here,” one man, who was waiting at the Brest station with his wife and two children, told RFE/RL. “Kadyrov’s men can be in Brest and even abroad. I can’t say that I feel safe either here or in Poland.”
He said that in Chechnya, officials came to him “three times a week” to demand “tribute.”
Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya since shortly after the assassination of his father, Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov, in 2004. He has been widely criticized by international and Russian rights monitors for gross human-rights violations, including abductions, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Officials in his government have been tied to the assassinations of Kadyrov’s political opponents and critical journalists and rights advocates.
Kadyrov is poised to run for a third term as head of the Chechen government in September after receiving the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year.
According to the Russian rights monitor Memorial, 24 people were abducted in Chechnya in the last three months of last year.* Most of them were released after being intimidated or abused.
In April, historians Rizvan Ibragimov and Abubakar Dedieu were abducted for several days. After their release, they appeared on state television and apologized for their research into the 1944 deportation of Chechens by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin -- a tragedy whose commemoration Kadyrov has banned.
Around the same time, noted Chechen bard Hussein Betelgeriyev was abducted by unknown gunmen. For two weeks he was held and brutally beaten. He believes he was being punished for critical comments on social media and for refusing to attend a government-organized rally to mark the adoption of Chechnya’s constitution.
On June 28, Magomed Kadyrov and his family finally succeeded in making the crossing into Poland. They were granted the status of a “tolerated stay” in the country while officials consider their asylum application -- a process they are told will likely take about one year.
They have been sent to one of Poland’s 11 reception centers for migrants.
But there are no guarantees. Refugees in Kadyrov’s position are often rejected and expelled, and concern about migrants is rising in Poland as in the rest of Europe.
* CORRECTION: Memorial recorded 24 abductions in Chechnya in the last quarter of 2015, not the "first quarter of this year" as originally stated. We regret the error.