Mothers With Babies, Babushkas With Canes: A Day With the People Escaping Ukraine

On Ukraine's border with Moldova, families are crossing into the unknown, leaving behind a bleeding country and their entire lives. This is the front line of Europe's new refugee crisis

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Palanca, Moldova
A Ukrainian refugee on the Moldovan side of the border at the village of Palanca on Thursday.
A Ukrainian refugee on the Moldovan side of the border at the village of Palanca on Thursday. Credit: Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Palanca, Moldova

PALANCA, Moldova – The line of cars waiting to exit Ukraine at the border crossing here was so long Thursday morning that Katrina simply gave up.

Like many others anxious to escape the war zone, she parked her car on the side of the road and began walking west toward the border with her two daughters, one a teenager and the other a toddler. They proceeded on foot for four hours in the freezing cold carrying their heavy bags.

When they finally reached the other side, Katrina put down her bag, wrapped her arms around her daughters and burst into tears. “I was just so relieved to finally be in a safe place,” said the English teacher from Odessa.

But where she will be heading from here and for how long isn’t yet clear. “Our plan is to go to our relatives in Poland, but we haven’t yet figured out how we will get there,” she said. “The problem is nobody knows how long this nightmare is going to last.”

Katrina and her two daughters were among hundreds of Ukrainian families making their way into Moldova on Thursday through this border crossing at the country's easternmost point. Of the two border crossings from Ukraine into Moldova, Palanca has been by far the busier in the past week because of its proximity to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa.

On Thursday, the traffic jam from Ukraine to the Palanca crossing was estimated at 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) long.

Katrina, an English teacher, and her two daughters at the border crossing.Credit: Judy Maltz

Irena Patrova managed to cross a few hours earlier but was still waiting to board one of the many buses transporting Ukrainian refugees to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau and other places around the country. She was part of a group of a dozen people that included her mother, daughter, son, sister and brother hoping to make their way to Bulgaria.

“I left because I wanted a better future for my children,” said Irena, a schoolteacher.

Among the refugees pouring through the crossing on Thursday afternoon were young mothers wheeling baby carriages, people in wheelchairs, older women in babushkas with canes, and young children who looked exhausted and confused.

Whether because they hadn't planned to stay away for long or wanted to avoid carrying anything too heavy, most of the refugees brought with them only small suitcases and duffle bags. Some had their dogs in tow, as well as smaller pets in cages.

Just outside the crossing, relief agencies had set up tents where the refugees could find shelter from the cold and rain and receive a hot meal as they waited to board the buses. A tent for mothers with small children, equipped with toys and games, was being operated by volunteers from IsraAid, the Israeli disaster relief organization.

Anna, left, and her daughter Tatianna at the crossing. "After the sirens and explosions last night we couldn’t stand it any longer," Anna said.Credit: Judy Maltz

Since the Russian invasion about 100,000 Ukrainians, among them an estimated 5,000 Jews, have fled to Moldova, which has welcomed them warmly.

On the Moldovan side of the border, the line of cars with drivers waiting to pick up fleeing Ukrainians was more than a kilometer long. Some of the cars sported Ukrainian license plates and belonged to friends and relatives who had escaped the war zone only a few days earlier.

Natasha, a young Moldovan woman, didn't know the family from Kharkiv she had volunteered to pick up. But when they approached her as she stood outside her car at the border, she burst into tears. “My heart goes out to these people,” she said.

Excited to find Israelis in the vicinity, Natasha used the only Hebrew words she knew. “Shabbat Shalom,” she said, explaining that her mother worked in Israel for a family in Tel Aviv suburb Ramat Gan.

Even Hebrew-speaking refugees came across the border, if only a few. Among them was Nelly Dudnik, who immigrated to Israel a few years back only to return to Ukraine to help her parents who had fallen ill. While there she fell in love with a non-Jewish Ukrainian and married him.

Katrina and Yevgeny, who fled Odessa a week earlier and were at the border delivering food to refugees. Credit: Judy Maltz

Accompanied by her husband Vlad and her mother Alina (her father died a few years ago), Nelly said the plan was to make their way to Romania and from there to Israel, where two of her sisters now live.

“Things are so bad in Ukraine,” she said. “We don’t want to stay there.”

Anna and her daughter Tatianna, both from Odessa, wore their hoods over their heads and rain ponchos over their heavy winter coats to keep dry as they waited for someone, anyone, to pick them up after they crossed the border.

“After the sirens and explosions last night we couldn’t stand it any longer and decided we had to leave,” Anna said. “We were told that someone would meet us here, but nobody has come.”

Konstantin, a 35-year-old welder, comes from Podilsk, a town outside Odessa where six people were killed in bombings a week ago on the first day of the Russian invasion. He, his wife and their 10-year-old son fled the following day and left their car on the Ukrainian side of the border. They have been staying since in Chisinau.

Konstantin was back at the border again Thursday because his wife had crossed over to the other side to retrieve their car, and he was waiting for her.

There were plenty of dogs and smaller pets in tow.Credit: Judy Maltz

“I want to eventually go back to Ukraine, but my top priority right now is to save my family,” he said. “We want to get far, far away. I have friends in Poland, Germany and Austria, so maybe to one of those places.”

Yevgeny and Katrina, a couple from Odessa, left their home on the first day of the war. They stayed a few nights at a hotel in Chisinau before finding a temporary rental in the city. They were back at the border delivering food to the refugees and waiting for friends who were supposed to cross the border in the afternoon but never showed up.

“We’ll take other people then, we don’t care,” said Yevgeny, an international businessman. “We just want to be of help.”

When asked how long they expected to stay in the Moldovan capital, he replied: “We hope to go back as soon as possible, after we win this war, and I’m sure we’re going to win.”

Pointing to the Ukrainian side of the border, he added: “There is our home.”

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