Refugees Welcome Appeal

‘After the victory, we will go home’: Ukraine’s refugees show faith in face of horror

Campaigns Editor David Cohen has been on the Polish/Ukrainian border speaking to those fleeing Ukraine following the Russian invasion as part of our Refugees Welcome appeal

Tuesday 08 March 2022 16:36 GMT
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Ukrainian civilians who have fled the Russian invasion in Ukraine cross the border into Poland at Kroscienko
Ukrainian civilians who have fled the Russian invasion in Ukraine cross the border into Poland at Kroscienko (Lucy Young)

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They crossed the Ukrainian border into Poland on foot.

Mothers carried their youngest children in their arms. Older siblings trudged alongside with grim, dogged determination. It was sub-zero and they were freezing, hungry and utterly exhausted.

Among them was Inna, 56, her daughter Olena, 35, and her granddaughter, Karolina, 8, three generations of women fleeing bombed-out Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. They had been on the road so long and without sleep, they no longer knew what day it was.

Day had merged into night and night had become day. It took several minutes of discussion among them to work out that they had left home three days ago.

They queued behind Aleksandra Melnyk, 35, a teacher from Kyiv, and her twin ten-year-old sons, Andriy and Dmytro, who had left the city on Friday 4 March and slept for only two hours. She spoke with defiance: “We will go back home to Kyiv after the victory.”

But there was also fear.

“My husband stayed to fight and my parents couldn’t travel. They start their life with the Second World War and now they finish their life with this? I would never believe we would use train for evacuation. Train was for holiday. Where to now? It depends on God.”

Volunteers provided food at the border as refugees waited to board buses into Poland
Volunteers provided food at the border as refugees waited to board buses into Poland (Lucy Young)

Among them, too, was a group of nine – including three primary school teachers and their children – who had escaped from Korosten, north-west of Kyiv, after it too came under heavy bombardment.

One of the teachers, Tanya Bordiuk. had pretended to her three-year-old son, Kiril, that the air-raid sirens were “a game that meant he had to hide” – like a scene out of the tragicomic holocaust film Life is Beautiful. But eventually she could pretend no longer.

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It had taken them 60 hours to get to the border, where they headed straight for a reception centre. All the groups of women and children we spoke to had left their husbands, fathers and brothers behind.

“They are fighting for Ukraine, they are heroes,” Olena said.

They had no idea when they would see their family members again.

This is the story of the people we met on Monday morning as they passed through Kroscienko, the southernmost and perhaps most remote of eight border points into Poland.

At any other time, this would be a picturesque place to broach the Polish countryside and head towards the dramatic Carpathian mountains, but these are far from normal times.

More than 1 million Ukrainian refugees have now entered Poland alone, and with people crossing at a rate of around 120,000 a day, there is a sense here of a country being emptied of its women and children.

Inna, a university administrator, spoke in rapid bursts as she recounted their escape on Friday from scenes of some of the worst devastation of the war so far.

A destroyed building following recent shelling in Kharkiv
A destroyed building following recent shelling in Kharkiv (REUTERS/Oleksandr Lapshyn)

“The Russians bombed us for seven consecutive days and for seven days we were hiding in our basements, too terrified to go out or even sleep,” she said.

“Then one bomb landed in my front garden just a few metres away, making a hole 3-metres wide, and on the eighth day we decided it was too dangerous to stay and headed early for the station.

What has this world come to?

Inna, a university administrator, who has fled Ukraine

“My grandchild Karolina was so scared to leave that her hands were shaking and she couldn’t get her shoes on. She is eight years old and she was convinced she will die. What has this world come to? We drove through a city that looks completely demolished and we got to the station at 8am. Thousands of people were already on the platform. It took us 11 hours to board a train to Lviv.”

Olena, a nurse, said: “The train was completely packed. We were in the corridor, standing room only. All lights had to be turned off because there were fears the Russians could bomb us. Not even allowed to use our mobile phones. We were 21 hours standing in the train, 21 hours not being able to go to the toilet to pee. I looked around and just saw women, all of them crying. It was a train of tears.”

They traversed the war-ravaged country and got to Lviv at 4pm the following day.

“We stayed overnight in an orphanage but we were so tired and scared we couldn’t sleep,” said Inna. It would be another 24 hours before they would reach Poland, having to walk the last two hours and then endure a four-hour queue at the border.

Women and children sheltering while fleeing their war-ravaged country
Women and children sheltering while fleeing their war-ravaged country (Lucy Young)

They finally crossed at 8.30am on Monday 7 March carrying a few plastic bags and small backpacks stuffed with essential belongings – and joined another queue for a bus to take them to a reception centre.

While they waited, there were fire pits to keep them warm, hot food served up by charity workers from World Central Kitchen and the Polish fire service and a tent where children drew pictures and played with iPads. The children were very quiet. Olena clutched Karolina’s raggedy doll as her daughter ate a bowl of steaming hot soup.

When Karolina asked about her father, Olena said: “Her father is now a soldier in a war. He told me they won’t let the Russians take Kharkiv. They will fight. I don’t know when we will see him again.” Where were they headed? “I have no plans, no idea,” she said.

At a nearby reception centre in a former primary school in the village of Lodyna, we found 160 women and children perched on camp beds crammed into every classroom and corridor.

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The group of teachers, including Olena Martynenko, 36, and Tanya, 32, had been there two hours, and were relieved to be out of the cold after their 60-hour escape from Korosten with their five children aged 3 to 15.

Olena said: “The air-raid sirens in Korosten were going six times a day, but last Thursday there was a huge bombing that was very close, shaking and shattering our windows, so we decided it’s not safe to stay. The train to Lviv was endless and from there we caught another train that took ten hours to the border at Medyka. After five hours of waiting and the queue hardly moving, the children were so cold that we turned around and caught a bus back to Lviv.”

It was a very low point, said Olena. “Our husbands were calling to tell us about bombs continuing to fall on Korosten, and we were crying and homeless in Lviv.”

That was when the Red Cross – one of 13 charities The Independent’s Refugees Welcome appeal is funding as part of our support for the Disasters Emergency Committee – stepped in.

Ukrainian refugees waiting in tents at the Polish border
Ukrainian refugees waiting in tents at the Polish border (Lucy Young)

“Thank God for the Red Cross – they got us hot food and directed us to warm marquees to stay overnight. The next day they helped us find someone to drive us to Kroscienko instead of Medyka because we heard it was only three hours at the border.”

Olena added: “This week is International Women’s Day and we had planned a special presentation at our school, but now 8th March will be a day to pray for peace and victory.” They shared pictures on their phones of bomb debris in their school-yard and of the unfolding local picture. “Where are you?” Olena’s husband had earlier texted anxiously. Olena now wanted to know the same of him. She had just heard that bombs were again raining down on Korosten – and that a dozen houses had been destroyed with one dead and five injured.

Never in my life could I imagine this would happen.

Tanya, 32, a teacher who has fled Ukraine

Tanya said: “The children keep asking when they can go home. Never in my life could I imagine this would happen.”

The teachers sat amongst their bags, but suddenly had to shift because the volunteers running the centre tried to squeeze a few more camp beds into the space. Alongside them, drawing attention, was a young child playing with her two pet rats. In a few hours, the teachers, all colleagues from the same school, would be fanning out across Europe.

Olena and her daughter Maria, 9, were heading to her cousin in Koln, Germany, while Tanya and her son Kiris, 3, were going to stay with friends in Riga in Latvia. They knew where they were headed but had no idea for how long. Back at the border, a long line of vehicles formed of people who had come from all over Europe to pick up relatives, friends and friends of friends.

Among them was Boris, 34, an IT consultant, and his friend Reiner, who had driven from Germany to pick up two mothers and their two children to take to a friend’s house in Germany. Boris said: “We expect to be waiting here up to 24 hours. We come to do our bit.”

Poland has given Ukrainian refuges free transportation, healthcare for 30 days, taken children into schools and removed obstacles to adults seeking work
Poland has given Ukrainian refuges free transportation, healthcare for 30 days, taken children into schools and removed obstacles to adults seeking work (Lucy Young)

There was a sense of people coming out to help from across Europe, a united effort to provide humanitarian support in the face of an aggressor that has become the common enemy. There was particular gratitude from the Ukrainians for the Poles. They have welcomed refugees, given them free transportation to wherever they want, free healthcare for 30 days, taken Ukrainian children into their schools and removed obstacles to adults seeking work.

There is a sense that the Polish people have risen to the challenge and that this, perhaps, is their finest hour. For Europe and the world, the scale of the humanitarian disaster is yet to be fully calibrated or understood. I watched an endless stream of humanity arrive – past the border post, over the train tracks, pressed up against the doors of coaches that arrived to take yet another load to a reception centre.

One woman, her 14-year-old daughter and their Chihuahua puppy Dolores said they had taken 20 hours to travel from Kyiv. “My brother drove us to a few kilometres from the border and then we walked,” she said. “We have left our men behind to come to Poland but we don’t know where we will go from here. I am exhausted and sad but also happy in one way.” She pointed to the sky. “There are no more bombs over my daughter’s head.”

Additional reporting, translating, by Sofiia Sas

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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