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Violence erupts at the Belarus-Poland border between guards and migrants

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Violence erupted between border guards and migrants stuck between Belarus and Poland. Border guards on the Polish side used tear gas and water cannons against migrants, who threw rocks and sticks back at the border guards. The migrants came from many parts of the world, hoping to cross into Poland, which is part of the European Union. But Poland won't let them in.

CNN's Matthew Chance was there. He's reporting from the Belarusian side of the border. Matthew, first off, can you tell us some more about the conflict that erupted yesterday at the border? It sounds like it was almost a riot as migrants tried to force their way across the border. What happened there?

MATTHEW CHANCE, BYLINE: There was definitely a riot. I mean, you've got a situation where you've got a couple of thousand, you know, frustrated refugees that - sitting in very poor conditions in the forest, right on the border, pressed up against the barbed-wire fence of the frontier that's been put down by the Polish forces to prevent people from walking in. And they were hoping that they were going to be let in. They were told, I think, by the Belarusian authorities, that they were going to have easy access through to a better life in the European Union. The majority of the people we spoke to are from Iraqi Kurdistan. They want to go to Germany, for economic opportunities there. But, you know, there's been a slow realization over the course of eight or nine days that that is not going to happen. At least, it's not going to happen easily.

And so, you know, what I observed - because, you know, I wasn't there the minute it started - I there was there, you know, maybe 30, 40 minutes afterwards - you know, was that this was an eruption of frustration. That's what the refugees are telling us. They're angry that the Poles are not letting them in. And so they surged towards the barricades. They threw stones at the Polish border guards. The Poles responded by opening fire with water cannons. There were stun grenades thrown as well. And it was just a really, really chaotic scene. I got blasted myself.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

CHANCE: A number of my colleagues as well in our team got blasted with a water cannon, you know, with, like, a pepper ingredient in. And it's all - everyone's eyes were stinging - coughing. There were scenes of utter chaos. But, I mean, it showed clearly that the Poles were not going to step down on this issue. They are not opening that border any time soon.

MARTINEZ: And you mentioned how they had assurances - the migrants, at least, felt they had assurances from Belarus. But Belarusian authorities didn't take any action to stop the violence. Why not?

CHANCE: No, they didn't do anything to stop the violence. They - I wouldn't go so far as to say they encouraged it. But who knows what whispers in people's ears have been made? But I certainly haven't seen any evidence of that. But the allegation and the suggestion - by the Poles, by the United States, by the European Union - is this whole crisis has been orchestrated by the Belarusian regime as a way of, you know, putting pressure on the European Union, sending a message - an act of revenge, if you like - for the sanctions that have been placed on Belarus for its very poor human rights record. Belarusians deny that, of course - that this is something that they've orchestrated.

But you do get a sense that these people have been manipulated. They are genuinely vulnerable people. They have nothing. And they've paid thousands of dollars, in virtually every instance, to get to these awful conditions where they've been sitting. In terms of those conditions, by the way, I should say that the - that half of the camp, you know, about a thousand people, have been moved now away from the border. The Belarusian authorities have moved to ratchet down the tensions.

And I'm sitting now - I'm standing now talking to you in the middle of a logistics hangar, about a mile away from the border, where there are a thousand migrants that have been brought inside from the cold. They've been given blankets. They've been given food. They've been given new clothes in some instances, like big coats and things like that - women and children here predominantly, but also a lot of men as well. And so for these people, it's a much better situation at the moment. They've been taken away from the worst of it on the camp. Question is, you know, where will they go? Will they be...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

CHANCE: ...Part of some deal to go to Germany? - you know, probably not. Will they be deported? And that's possibly what's going to happen there.

MARTINEZ: And is desperation the reason why they're there in the first place?

CHANCE: You know, it's difficult to judge. I mean, they say that. And they're certainly very desperate when they're sort of, you know, trying to survive in these bleak conditions on the border. That's the desperation I was referring to. In terms of the reasons why they left - Iraqi Kurdistan, in most cases - I mean, you know, it ranges from a whole load of economic reasons. They're looking for a better life.

I spoke to one woman earlier called Shohan (ph), who said she left because her son has got, you know, a problem with his legs and needs an operation on his back. And they didn't think they could do it in Kurdistan. So she wants it done in Germany. So she - you know, she showed me her son, with the splints up his legs. That's the reason she's going - or wants to go. You know, and so people have, as always, a range of motivations for engaging in this incredibly arduous and, you know, treacherous journey from their, you know, source countries through to, you know, a better life, hopefully, in the European Union.

MARTINEZ: Matthew, one more thing really quick - you see any resolution any time soon here for this?

CHANCE: Well, the Belarusian authorities say they're waiting for a final decision from the Germans...

MARTINEZ: OK.

CHANCE: ...To see whether they will take these refugees in or not. But I'm not sure that's going to be forthcoming. We'll see in the next couple of hours.

MARTINEZ: CNN correspondent Matthew Chance on the Belarus border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.