[Reportage] At Polish border, war refugees lament losses and look forward

Posted on : 2022-03-11 15:53 KST Modified on : 2022-03-11 15:53 KST
Ukraine’s emergency draft has meant many women are leaving the country without their husbands
Michelle, a second-generation Ukrainian, greets family members who arrived on a bus coming from the Poland-Ukraine Korczowa border crossing, headed for Warsaw on March 6 (local time). (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Michelle, a second-generation Ukrainian, greets family members who arrived on a bus coming from the Poland-Ukraine Korczowa border crossing, headed for Warsaw on March 6 (local time). (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

The number of Ukrainians who have had to abandon their homes and flee after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24 was estimated to be over 1.5 million as of Sunday.

Since the Ukrainian government issued a full military mobilization order for men aged 18 to 60, most of the refugees are women and children. In order to get to a relatively safer place, these Ukrainians have had to cross into neighboring countries such as Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia by train, car or even foot amid extreme fear and anxiety.

Two Hankyoreh reporters, Kim Hye-yun and Noh Ji-won, have made their way to the border areas surrounding Ukraine to relay the horrors of war and the stories of those who had no choice but to leave their beloved hometowns.

At 4 pm on Sunday (local time), a bus carrying about 60 Ukrainians stopped at a rest area near the Polish border checkpoint in Korczowa. The bus arrived after a stopover in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. As the door opened, women in their 20s and 30s started stepping out.

The Korczowa checkpoint was the first of the 11 checkpoints on the Ukraine-Poland border to lift border controls — originally in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — after the Russian invasion began last month. For this reason, many refugees have flocked to the crossing, and the rest area near the checkpoint has become a meeting point where Ukrainians can reunite with their families and loved ones.

Women coming out of the rest stop building carried paper cups of hot coffee and tea. Some then wandered off in pairs to light up cigarettes.

A mix of sighs of relief and lamentations permeated the smoke that hung in the air. After making the arduous journey from Ukraine and having to wait hours at the checkpoint before being able to enter Poland, the women were exhausted.

One of the unique features of the Ukrainian refugee crisis is that the number of refugees increased rapidly in a very short period of time. Although Russia's military threat has been ongoing since October last year, few expected a real war to break out.

Perhaps that's why, when the war broke out, it left people stunned and turned many into refugees overnight.

According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released Saturday, as many as 1.53 million Ukrainians crossed the border in the mere 10 days after the war broke out. Among them, 890,000 people headed to Poland, which borders the country on the west.

Since there was practically no time to prepare anything, there was very little these people could do.

A 37-year-old woman named Gallia we met at the checkpoint had left her home in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk and boarded a bus bound for Warsaw. On Feb. 24, the day Russia announced the start of the war, her city's airport went up in flames as a result of Russian bombing.

Struck by fear, Gallia decided to leave her hometown for now. Although her English was poor, she was able to clearly utter the words “airport” and “fire.” When we asked her where she was going or if she had a place to stay, her answer was short: “No.” She had no friends or even acquaintances in Poland. Her only reason for taking a bus to Warsaw was because she wanted to live.

The situation for those who have relatives in Western European countries, however, is better.

Two Ukrainian women who got off the bus proceeded to offload their baggage instead of getting back on the bus like the others. They had a cousin that was picking them up. Not long after, an SUV stopped in front of the women, one of whom was holding a young baby swathed in a dark pink coverall.

A woman taller than the two women burst out of the driver's seat and hugged them. Smiles spread across the faces of all the women. The tall woman, Michelle (44), had driven 15 hours to Korczowa to take her cousins from Ukraine to Belgium.

“I’m an American citizen. I’m a second-generation Ukrainian immigrant living in Belgium. My Ukrainian grandparents immigrated to the US during World War II, but my cousins still live in Ukraine. [My cousins] are going to start a new life in Belgium.”

The two women, Michelle's cousins, took a bus from Lviv to Poland. Their husbands are still in Ukraine, but they couldn't let the 1-year-old child stay in such a dangerous place, so they decided to go to their cousin's sister.

“[Our] husbands can't come. A full draft order has been issued. I'm waiting for my country's call. I hope the war ends and I can see my husband again.”

Another Ukrainian, Ilya (38) who lived in Chernihiv, entered Poland with his friends via the Korczowa border. Chernihiv is where the Russian artillery fire on March 4 caused great damage to civilian homes.

First, Ilya plans to take his friends and even their dogs to Warsaw and then go back to Ukraine. Ilya was able to make it into Poland because he had a special permit to cross the border to acquire medicine for the soldiers fighting in the war back in Ukraine. Since he was going to cross the border anyway, he decided to help his friends, who were fearing for their lives, to cross too.

“Russia has attacked Ukraine. Our soldiers need medical attention. I want to send medical supplies to Ukraine, where should I go?”

Then, Kate (29), a Ukrainian living in Poland, spoke to us while near the border.

Kate had gone to the border to acquire relief supplies to send back home but ended up wandering around the area not knowing where and how exactly she could deliver the goods. She had driven eight hours alone from Krakow to the border crossing. The trunk of her car was full of antihemorrhagic agents and bandages.

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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