With Maciej Klisz about the support from local administration and local people of Podlasie and Lublin regions, about cooperation with the Border Guards and counteracting illegal migration talks Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek.
Territorial defense soldiers for over a month have been conducting Operation Strong Support. What’s the goal of it?
A direct reason for launching Operation Strong Support was the publication at the beginning of September of President Andrzej Duda’s decision on state of emergency in the regions of Lublin and Podlasie. The goal of this operation is most of all providing the support to local communities in the border region. Here I mean not only local residents, but also local administration.
What areas does the operation cover?
It covers the area along the border with Belarus, which is 418 km long. The border area is not all, however. According to the TDF’s rule of conduct, our units operate in the so-called permanent areas of responsibility, which in the case of the 1st Territorial Defense Brigade we’re talking about the entire Podlaskie voivodship, while in the case of the 2nd Territorial Defense Brigade it is the Lubelskie voivodship. Soldiers operate in the environment they know very well, which is immensely advantageous for TDF.
What troops and equipment are deployed in this operation?
Each day about 800 soldiers, including 470 on stand-by waiting for orders, are engaged in the operation. The rest are actively participating in the operation, performing various tasks. Our soldiers have personal equipment typical for light infantry: field glasses, thermal vision and night vision for night and day watch of the territory. For the first time, we have used flat-bottomed boats operationally for patrolling the Bug River. The Fly Eye drones are also great help. Also, our soldiers use various vehicles: motorcycles, quads, trucks, or off-road Ford Rangers. Also for the first time in operational activities, the TDF soldiers have used tactical lighting sets; before, this kind of equipment was rather used for crisis activities, such as flood, but now, at the request of the Polish Border Guard and local administration, we also illuminate the areas of particular risk.
TDF soldiers during Operation Strong Support cooperate with other services.
At present, we have two presidential decrees in force: declaration of September 2021 on state of emergency, and of March 2020 on patrolling borders by the troops of the Polish Armed Forces in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that the territorial defense forces are part of operation commanded by LtGen Tomasz Piotrowski, operational commander of the armed forces’ services. On the territory, where the state of emergency is in force, we are working with operational units, but also with the Border Guard and the Police. With these two services we also have a special relationship, which stems from signed agreements between the TDF Headquarters, National Police Headquarters and Border Guard Headquarters as well as local agreements of our brigades’ commanders with the troops in Podlasie and units of the Border Guard in the region of the Bug river.
Initially the TDF tasks dealt with supporting local governments, mayors, and local administration employees on the territory under the state of emergency. At that time, there operated also the teams for support estimation. Why was that?
Indeed, first we sent there soldiers who were to estimate what support was needed, that is to find out what kind of crisis situation it was, identify any problems, define the needs of local people and finally estimate what kind of help and support can be provided. Our presence was manifested by the talks with local leaders, city and village mayors. We wanted to give a message: we’re here to help if you need something. That’s what happened, with time we launched for example a helpline or a cyberspace training.
Who attends such training?
We have suggested the free-of-charge participation in training for the employees of local administration. By means of short trainings, we’d like to show people what kind of threats are possible in this area. Employees from over a dozen different local administration offices have so far attended the trainings conducted by the experts from the Team for Cybernetic Activities. That’s a long-term project, and surely will continue after the state of emergency is over. In our ranks, we have specialists in this area, and we simply want to share our expertise. We use real-life situations as examples – we talk about threats stemming from sharing too many details of your private life on social media or those dealing with identity thefts, so-called phishing. But we also talk about fake news about the army. We teach how to tell the truth from manipulation.
You mentioned the helpline. For several weeks now the TDF soldiers have been answering helpline calls. What questions do people ask and how does the help system work?
We’ve had calls from seniors who needed help to go and see a doctor, or simply needed help in everyday functioning, such as shopping. Some of these requests we’re putting forward to social assistants or our other units. The helpline callers are also often anxious about the presence of soldiers in their area, the movement of forces, but also about the messages they hear in different languages. We calm them down and explain that they see and hear the soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces, who are there to keep them safe. I admit, though, that over half of those calls is about the presence of illegal migrants.
What then? Do you verify information you get from callers?
No, we don’t. We forward them to the officers of the Border Guard, because we, as the TDF, cannot perform any legal activities.
TDF activity is defined by four words: localize – isolate - keep safe – forward. What are the tasks of soldiers within the border area?
The words you mentioned are to explain in a simple way what exactly we’re doing. Every TDF soldier should know that first, we localize people who illegally cross the border of Poland. Second, we need to isolate them, so they don’t disappear and merge into the crowd. Third, we keep them safe and sound – we give them food, drink, and, if needed, provide medical help. Fourth, we finally forward them to adequate services. According to the law, any further activities can be performed only by the Police, Border Guard or Military Police.
On your website and social media you published videos recorded by drones which reveal the camping sites of people on the Belarusian side, as well as videos showing their attempts to cross the border.
Images recorded by drones are very useful. We share all such materials with operational forces and the Border Guards, with whom we also patrol the Bug area. Many a times our soldiers have taken off the rope bridges or secured boats which were supposed to be used for transferring migrants on the territory of Poland. We’re also satisfied with the effects the work of the Search and Rescue Group K9 with dogs and horse patrols. This last idea, which is the use of horses in our service, we took from the special forces. As it turns out, there are places you can’t go on your motorcycle or quad, but a horse will do just fine.
Do the effects of the TDF soldiers efforts can be somehow counted?
Let’s say we follow everyday statistics of the Border Guard. In a week, our soldiers report usually the localization of several hundred people, including those outside Polish border. It should be kept in mind that we’re not the only service deployed for this operation. However, history taught us that no obstacle, not even a wall, guarantees a full tightness of the border. The Berlin Wall, which was erected in 1961, did not stop people from crossing it from East to West Germany.
In our case, the situation is exceptional, and I understand it can be disturbing for many. I can assure, though, that the presence of uniformed services – the Border Guard, the Police or the army – stabilizes a situation in the region. We can see how many people are there, on the Belarusian side of the border, and how many of them are trying to get in. The fact that so few are successful means our activities are effective.
What is the reaction of people when they see you around? Do they understand what you are there for?
Local residents of Podlasie and Lublin region do feel disturbed, so they understand we’re there for them. None of our soldiers have experienced any negative emotions from the locals, who know well that’s their army, people from there. According to the main thought of the TDF commander: the smaller a village, the larger army presence, because it’s those small villages where the soldiers stabilizing a situation and carrying help are usually most needed.
BrigGen Maciej Klisz is Deputy Commander of the Territorial Defense Forces.
autor zdjęć: DWOT