Ekaterina Lemonjava is a Georgian journalist and migrants’ rights activist who was imprisoned in 2012 in the Polish detention camp Lesznowola: a closed camp for women, children, and families. The same year, she was deported back to Georgia after participating in a large, coordinated hunger strike taking place in four detention camps for foreigners in Poland. During the strike, she dictated over the phone the widely distributed letter: “I’ll tell everyone about hell in Poland”. Later, she wrote a memoir about her time in the camp: Nr. 56, or My name is Ekaterina, which will be published this year. The title refers to her prisoner number.
This text is an excerpt from Lemonjava’s book criticizing the conditions in Lesznowola. It describes how the protest began as a solidarity action with Maya, an imprisoned woman from Nepal who was mistreated during her illness. It furthermore addresses how imprisonment affected the children, such as four-year-old Maria from Syria.
By Ekaterina Lemonjava • 2016
Today, Maria brought Maya some food from dinner. Now even those who were irritated that Maya spent all her time in bed were trying to help her. Both Maria and Jusuf’s mothers had visited her a few times. Maya says that Maria also often comes to see her. Me, I’ve gotten so used to Maria’s crazy behaviour that I don’t even react anymore. It doesn’t bother me when she takes the mop from the person on cleaning duty, who then has to run after her in a circle to try and get it back. Or when she runs into somebody’s room, grabs the first object she can reach and forces the room’s inhabitant to chase her around. I’m not even bothered by her laugh; the most horrifying laugh in the world. Maria’s mother sings Syrian songs so beautifully she makes the whole prison go still while everyone listens to her voice and Maria dances. Each muscle in Maria’s tiny body moves, pulsating to the song’s rhythm and emotions. Soon enough, everyone around is absorbed by the music. That’s how the suffering in her mother’s singing and those Syrian rhythms also became ours. These short moments of pleasure are very intense and fill us with energy for the entire day.
During dinner, a border guard sometimes sits in the back and sometimes paces between the tables, scrutinising every morsel of food we put into our mouths. I still cannot remember their faces. I only remember the Captain and the guard I had a conversation with today. The kids, especially Jusuf, try to play with them all. The border guards like the boy because he supplies answers to many of their questions.
My first protest is about bringing food out of the cafeteria for Maya, who is sick. Maria’s mother and Jusuf’s mother come to my room begging me to be careful (meaning that I should keep quiet). Jusuf has heard from the guards that if we protest they will deport us. It’s better to accept things, even the things we don’t like, the two of them tell me. “Come with me”, I answer and start walking towards the metal barred doors of the guard’s room. They follow me.
“If I go on hunger strike, do you, I mean you, the state, do you have the right to deport me?”, I ask.
The guard doesn’t understand. I try in English, then again in Russian; he doesn’t understand.
“You want some coffee?”, I ask
“Would you like some coffee?”
Now he understands. He doesn’t want any.
“Call the Captain. The Captain – “. I put my hand on my shoulder.
“Dobrze”, he answers and calls the captain with the shortwave radio:
The Captain arrives. I ask him the same question. He stops and thinks for a moment, then he tells me that we are allowed to protest in any form we wish.
“Captain, that’s not what I asked: If I protest, does that give you, the state, the right to deport me?”
He says that it doesn’t.
“Then how come your soldiers harass the detainees and threaten them with deportation?”, I ask.
“I am sure that no such thing ever happened”, says the Captain.
“Captain, I hope you will give your soldiers the appropriate orders and this will never happen again.”
I look him in his eyes as I say this. He doesn’t answer and just returns my gaze.
“Thank you”, I say and then turn around. I turn back after a second, because I want to invite the Captain for coffee.
“No, thank you. I already had some,” he answers.
“I haven’t had any yet, Captain. Maybe then you could invite me?”
“When we meet in a café”, he says.
“We will not meet in a café just like that unless you invite me first.”
“Once you leave here, then I will invite you for sure.”
He doesn’t even bat an eyelash. Neither do I. Everyone in Lesznowola despises him anyway. I am already leaving, but in spite of myself I turn again in his direction.
“Captain, I want every person working here to remember that we are not criminals and that we didn’t commit any crime. People detained here come from Syria, Palestine, Iran, and other countries. Your country is obliged to provide protection for them. I want all of you to remember that you have that responsibility. Thank you for coming.”
I turn around and we leave. In the kitchen, other women tell me the story of how a Chechen family was deported because the father went on a hunger strike for two days. They remember another story of a woman who was sent to a mental institution for the same reason. The emotionally unstable vice director of the camp, they say, got so angry with one of the prisoners that he almost hit him. And a few days later, he had a whole family deported to Chechnya.
“Katerina, don’t believe anything he just said, they deport whole families if they don’t obey.”
I try to explain to them that even if it is true that such things have taken place, it has been illegal. They don’t have the right to do that. We are in the heart of Europe, in a country which is a member of the European Union, which means our rights are protected here. Even if these incidents happen, it doesn’t mean that this is the law. It doesn’t matter if we are here, or in a real prison, we have our rights and Poland cannot take them away from us, since they are universal and it was not Poland that gave them to us. We have to protect Maya, so that she will not starve to death, even if Polish law does not allow us to do so. It’s a lie that Maya is fine. Despite what the doctors are saying, it is obvious that something is wrong with her and the pilinarki (nurses) are misinforming us because they want to separate her from the rest of the detainees. Even if she was making it all up, that still doesn’t give us the right to let her starve to death. You all remember Martina’s story, how in the fourth month of her pregnancy, she started to feel pain. The doctor said she was fine. Exactly two days later that same doctor removed the dead foetus from her uterus. Then, with a seemingly clear conscience, he went to Muraz, the father who had just lost his child and said: “It’s no reason to get upset, you’ll surely have another”. As if he had not lost a baby, but a doll. We have no one else to count on here but ourselves, so we have to stick together. I don’t respect laws that allow five- and six-year-olds to be detained. Can’t you see that Maria is going crazy? Can’t you see how aggressive Jusuf and Tajjab sometimes get? Besides the children, look at us, how stressed and nervous we are; innocent people imprisoned for doing nothing wrong, treated like the worst bandits, as if we were locked up for crimes against humanity.
My fellow prisoners, you are the ones who told me how Aziza was beaten up twice by the guards. Look at these barred windows and this building on lock-down that you can only leave for two hours per day. This system does not even allow you to go to the doctor by yourself. This regime took everything from us including my pocketbook mirror so that I can’t even look at my own face. Those rules leave you no choice but to steal your own food rations. We are people who would never even think of committing a crime, who escaped from our own countries for fear of being persecuted, while this structure accuses us of being the most dangerous criminals, sentences us to imprisonment and makes it seem like this is a punishment we fully deserve. As if we had earned all of it: from the guards’ rounds to the butter rations that the cook steals for us.