'We Don’t Know What Will Happen': Afraid and Exhausted, Refugees From Ukraine Wait at Polish Border

In two days, 100,000 new refugees fled from Ukraine through the Medyka crossing point. A few made the reverse trip

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A Ukrainian refugee at the border with Poland, Saturday.
A Ukrainian refugee at the border with Poland, Saturday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yarden Michaeli
Tomer Appelbaum
Ukraine
Yarden Michaeli
Tomer Appelbaum
Ukraine

VOLYTSIA CROSSING, Ukraine – The anxiety, the uncertainty and the fear can be read on the faces of almost everyone who comes to the border crossing from Ukraine to the Polish village of Medyka. Tens of thousands of people have already fled in the Ukrainian exodus; over two days, 100,000 entered Poland, most of them through this border crossing. Here, where on ordinary days traffic is light – mainly people who pop over to shop or for a brief vacation – is the main escape route for Ukrainians who in a moment’s time left on a desperate search for some small measure of security.

The longer the Russian bombardments go on, the greater the press of refugees. Russia has carried out airstrikes and fired artillery and cruise missiles at Ukraine. On Saturday there were actual battles in the streets of Kyiv.

There is a traffic jam several kilometers long leading to the crossing. Some lucky people reach the border by car, finding fuel despite the acute gasoline shortage on the road. But the trip is slow and exhausting, most of it the time without moving. Some people abandon their cars, walking in temperatures that plunge below freezing at night. The rain that has been forecasted for Sunday will only make things worse.

>>> Follow our live updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Poland has opened its gates to those fleeing for their lives, and is allowing them to enter, even Ukrainians without official papers, but the crossing itself is a bottleneck. Packed crowds of people wait for hours. On the western side of the border, throughout Poland, a 12-hour wait is considered reasonable.

Refugees from Ukraine wait to cross the border with Poland.

The small number of men among the people who reach the Medyka crossing, one of the few active crossings between Poland and Ukraine, is obvious. In Ukraine, the army announced a call-up of men from 18 to 60, and men in that age group have also been called up for reserve duty. There are many women with small children as well as old people who are dealing with the shock alone, consumed with worry and longing for the loved ones they left behind. But the movement is not all in one direction at the crossing. Some Ukrainians are also crossing the other way, into Ukraine.

Roman, who lives and works in Germany, returned to fight. Like many of his friends, he says he is not afraid. But he sounds less determined after hearing that Russia is still far from deploying its entire arsenal. He and his friends quickly disappear after they cross the border.

Max is about 30, with short hair and a muscular build. He says that he is determined to repel the Russian invasion. He plans to pick up a gun on his way to the outskirts of Kyiv, where his girlfriend is waiting for him.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

Anxiety, the uncertainty and fear can be read on the faces of those trying to cross the border.

“I have a weapon at home,” he answers.

“Will you stand in front of a tank?”

“I am a soldier. In 2014, I was a soldier,” he says, referring to the Russian invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. Thousands of people paid with their lives in Russia’s recent assaults in Ukraine, but Max seems unperturbed, or at least he doesn’t show it. Instead, he smiles and shows us a picture of his girlfriend collecting Molotov cocktails in a crate.

Free shuttle

Buses and vans with refugees arrive on a free shuttle operated by the authorities to a Polish town about 10 kilometers from the border.

Ukrainian refugees at the border with Poland, Saturday.

From there, they can continue on their journey to anywhere they can try to turn into their new home. About 200 volunteers wait with signs to help the new arrivals.

A young man who gave his name only as Daniel said he had traveled at night from Warsaw, a trip of about four and a half hours. “I heard on the radio that there are people without food, with nothing. This is the first time I’ve done anything like this.” He stands holding a sign reading “free transportation to Warsaw for women and children.” He adds: “Take care of yourself, Ukraine.”

One of the refugees, Oksana, from the city of Policin in Volhynia, located between southeastern Poland, southwestern Belarus and western Ukraine, left home on Friday. She has four children, ranging in age from 18 months to eight years. Oksana says they were given a ride as far as the beginning of the line of cars on the Ukrainian side. From there they walked 26 kilometers, through the pedestrian crossing and to a nearby town. In a parking lot, exhausted from her journey, she sat with her children on a bit of grass between cars, gathering her strength.

In Ukraine

Near the border itself, on the Polish side, volunteers have brought food, sweets, diapers and bottled beverages. People crossing back take whatever they can to give to people in the enormous line on the Ukrainian side.

On the Ukrainian side of the border crossing compound, before passport control, about 1,000 people are jammed into a kind of messy line. Everybody is tired and the tension is clear on their faces. They are waiting for the door to open to let them into passport control itself.

After passport control on the Ukrainian side are masses of buses and large groups of Ukrainian women and children.

About a half hour’s walk from there is a military roadblock, after which there’s a line a few hundred meters long, made up entirely of migrants from India, Egypt, Syria and other countries. They also want to get out of Ukraine, but at the moment they are not being given priority at the border.

A group of Indians sit on the road, warming themselves by a bonfire. They are tired and angry and don’t know what lies ahead. “The Ukrainian army treats us badly,” they say. They are studying medicine in Ukraine and now they are trying to leave, but the army won’t let many of them reach the border compound. One of them says that he managed to reach the compound, but the Polish authorities wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have a visa, and the Indian Embassy is not answering phone calls. “We’ve been sitting here since 1 A.M. and we don’t know what will happen,” one of them said at about 5 P.M.

Oksana, a refugee from the city of Policin in Volhynia who walked 26 kilometers with four children in tow.

Headed for Israel

The entire area is wrapped in a cloud of pollution from vehicle exhaust from the line of cars stretching dozens of kilometers. Dima Mamrisky, 48, says that he’s been on the road for three days.

“The minute I heard the bombardments in Kyiv I put everything in the refrigerator into a cooler.” He’s traveling with his son; he was able to send another son to Israel. They are on their way to Israel, because that’s where he has lived most of his life, in Ashkelon. He immigrated to Israel at age 18, and returned to Kyiv a few years ago.

The license plate on Mamrisky’s car is marked “IL” for Israel. The Israeli Foreign Ministry recommended that Israeli citizens in the line mark themselves so the embassy team can find them and help them to leave.

A line of cars and trucks stretches into the distance as Ukrainian refugees attempt to reach safety.

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