Tears of relief on Polish border as refugees move to safety

At Ukraine’s border with Poland this week, trying to find shelter from a fierce wind, Lena was faced with the fact that – for the second time in her life – she had been displaced because of the war.

After Russia-backed separatists and Moscow sparked conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Lena ran away from home in Luhansk and moved to Kyiv, hoping for a safer life in the capital. But when Russian rockets began to rain down on her country last week, she found herself on the run again.

“We bought an apartment in Kyiv, but now we have to leave,” she said, holding her pet dog under her coat. “I don’t believe what is happening. I just don’t believe it.”

Since Russian tanks scroll into Ukraine Last week, hundreds of thousands of people made a similar journey. The country’s western neighbors have all offered to help. Poland, which has close linguistic and cultural ties to Ukraine and is already home to more than 1 million citizens, seems to be one of the main destinations.

Poland’s conservative nationalist government has vehemently opposed EU efforts to enforce quotas for asylum seekers during the 2015 migration crisis. But this time, officials say know they are preparing to give how much 1 million Ukrainians. Poland’s border guard on Monday said 327,000 people have entered the country since the war began.

On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the conflict looks set to create “the largest refugee crisis in Europe this century” and more than 660,000 people have fled the conflict. paintings in the past six days.

The arrivals blocked Ukraine’s roads and caused chaos at intersections like Medyka, where thousands of cars stretched tens of kilometers from the border, thousands trapped in freezing conditions for thousands of days. with dwindling food and water supplies.

The reverse footage has also sparked emotional scenes on the Polish side of the fence. Many Ukrainians living in the West have come to the border to wait as their loved ones get closer to the checkpoint. On Monday, a family hugged each other in joy as they were reunited. A few meters away, another woman cried in despair at her tardiness.

Refugees from Ukraine gather to catch a bus from the Polish border at Medyka to Przemysl
Refugees from Ukraine gather to ride a bus from the Polish border at Medyka to Przemysl © Wojtek Radwanski / AFP / Getty

Bogdan, who is from Berlin, said his wife Olga and their five-year-old daughter drove within 30 kilometers from Kyiv to the border on Friday night. But almost three days later, they are still 11km – or two – days away.

While she waited in the car, he said, Olga wrapped herself and their daughter all the clothes they had so she could turn off the engine to save fuel without freezing. Across the border, Bogdan would call her every 20 minutes to prevent her from oversleeping and losing her place in the queue.

“She was worried, she was panicking, she had a small child, if they run out of gas they will have to walk more than 10km, can’t with the baby and after five days she hasn’t. slept,” he said.

Among those who crossed the border were groups from countries like Nigeria, Yemen and Tunisia, many of whom had moved to Ukraine to study and were later caught up in the conflict.

Marcel, a Nigerian studying medicine in Vinnytsia, said he passed without problems. But Ahmed, who is studying in Odesa, said he and friends from Yemen were insulted by Ukrainian border guards, and one was hit three times by bullets. “It was the worst journey of our lives,” he said.

As newcomers wait for vehicles to move further west or try to get much-needed sims for phones, smaller groups of Ukrainian men in Poland are heading in the opposite direction.

Anatolii Kachorak, from Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, said he was waiting for his mother, wife and two children, who had been stranded at the border for four days, to cross to safety – but shortly after they went to where he was going to defend his country. “I will fight to the end,” he said. “I will go to the front lines, wherever the hottest thing is.”

Despite Poland’s opposition to the 2015-16 refugee quota, opinion polls show that most are in favor of accepting Ukrainians. Polish social media is flooded with offers of free transport and accommodation, as well as links to websites that raise funds for refugees.

In Medyka, relief groups have set up makeshift tents for shelter, and on Monday, volunteers handled and handed out a steady stream of blankets, food and water donations.

Refugees made their way to Przemysl, Poland, picking clothes and donated food in a supermarket parking lot
Refugees made their way to Przemysl, Poland, picking clothes and donated food in a supermarket parking lot © Omar Marques / Getty

“We can bring Ukrainians in, there is no cultural difference between us,” said Slawomir, who took the day off work to deliver 2,000 meals from Krakow to Medyka. “There will be no problem. They are us – right across the border.”

But besides the acclaim, there are also traces of insecurity about how the conflict might develop. At a gas station on the outskirts of Przemysl, about 30km from the border, all pumps were empty, despite signs warning customers to limit purchases of 100-litre bottles.

“I think people panic a little bit,” said the cashier. “They started transferring a few boxes each. It happens quickly. I hope that’s the pinnacle. But Putin is completely unpredictable. He lost it.”

And the relief of reaching Poland is tempered by fear of the unknown for many refugees from Ukraine. “I really don’t know what I’m going to do now,” Lena said, as she waited for her sister, who already lives in Poland, to pick her up. “In our situation, the plans you make – they never come true.”

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