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Thousands of Ukrainians cross Polish border

Monika Sieradzka Przemysl, Poland
February 27, 2022

On the Polish-Ukrainian border, volunteers offer free rides and donations have exceeded needs. But it hasn't made the journey for those forced to leave loved ones behind any less heartbreaking.

People fleeing from Ukraine pulling luggage and carrying their children
Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing the fighting in their country and making their way to PolandImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

For decades, the market square in the small south-eastern Polish town of Medyka has been a popular spot to buy cigarettes, vodka or petrol. The square is lined with small stores and discount shops and customers from Ukraine liked to come over the border to buy good quality products at reasonable prices. Later on, they could re-sell them in the markets in the nearby western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

But this week, in just a matter of hours, Medyka's market square has become a site where history is made.

Medyka is one of eight border crossings between Poland and Ukraine. Since Thursday, tens of thousands of people fleeing the Russian bombing of Ukraine have passed through here. The border crossing is wide open. Those moving through can use not only a narrow pedestrian gangway, but may also drive through in vehicular lanes that have been specially prepared.

It goes faster that way, Piotr Zakielarz, a spokesperson for the Polish region's border guards, explained. "At all the border crossings with Ukraine, all lanes are open," he continued. "Even people who don't have valid documents, or no documents at all, are allowed through."

Ukrainian refugees arrive in Poland

Just women and children

The displaced must often wait for a long time to get through though and Zakielarz said this was mostly due to computer breakdowns on the Ukrainian side of the border. On the Polish side, a brief check only takes a few minutes.

"Everyone is on board right now, nobody's going on vacation," Zakielarz said. "The Polish border guard has never had to deal with such a huge wave of migration before."

If they have time, Zakielarz and his fellow border guards have even been helping Ukrainian women carry their heavy suitcases across.

And it is almost exclusively women and children who are coming across. Ukrainian men, aged between 18 and 60, have been forbidden to leave their country because the government declared a mobilization of the general populace.

It was Thursday morning when Oxana Dubovenko left Zhytomyr, in western Ukraine, together with her family. To get to the Medyka border crossing, they had to travel 500 kilometers (310 miles).

People fleeing the conflict from neighboring Ukraine, arrive at the border crossing in Medyka, southeastern Poland,.
The Medyka border crossing is "wide open," Polish border guards saidImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo/picture alliance

"It was a spontaneous decision," Dubovenko told DW. "We packed a few suitcases and drove towards the border. My husband lives in Düsseldorf, he'll pick us up here and then we'll all drive to Germany together," the 40-year-old Ukrainian said.

'He wants to fight for his country'

On the concrete bench next to her is her nine-year-old son, who's almost asleep, as well as two teenage relatives, two girls aged 13 and 17. They're on their phone talking to friends still back in Ukraine.

Dubovenko's pregnant sister-in-law sits on a nearby suitcase. Her baby is due in four months but she's had to leave her husband behind in Ukraine. She cries as she talks to him on the phone.

Dubovenko herself finds it hard to hold back her tears as she explains that her parents decided to stay at home in Ukraine. They have been going into an air raid shelter every time alarms go off.

"My father is over 60 but he wants to fight for his country," Dubovenko said. "They didn't want to leave their dog alone either. None of us have ever thought about emigrating from Ukraine," she admitted.

Dubovenko works as a human resources manager at a bank in Zhytomyr and has taken her holidays in order to travel here. War doesn't seem real to her and she's hoping to be able to go back soon. She's never even thought about what she would do for a living in another country.

The 17-year old on the bench is Dubovenko's daughter from her first marriage. Her name is Ania and she's still a little shocked by what it took to get to this border crossing.

"At one stage we had to get out [of the car] and walk several kilometers," Ania recounted. "And then we had to stand in a queue for over ten hours. A lot of people were pushing forward and I was frightened that I'd be squashed or trampled."

The queue on the Ukrainian side of the border was definitely over 20 kilometers long.

Waiting for a lift

There is also a queue on the Polish side but it's much smaller. Here, hundreds are waiting for friends and relatives who live in European Union countries. There are 1.6 million Ukrainians living in Poland alone and many of those who fled the country in the first hours and days knew exactly where they were going and who would come and pick them up. However, as time has gone by, increasing numbers of the displaced are turning up in Poland without any final destination or concrete plans.

Polen | Ukrainische Flüchtlinge am Grenzübergang Medyka - 26.02.0222 epa09786311 People fleeing the region of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict arrive at the Polish-Ukrainian border in Medyka, southeastern Poland.
A queue builds on the Polish side of the border in MedykaImage: Darek Delmanowicz/EPA-EFE

For these people, the Polish government has prepared nine reception centers, all along the 535 kilometer border with Ukraine.

In Medyka, there is a sports hall filled with beds and warm blankets, as well as paramedics in case anybody requires medical assistance. Women from the town drop off warm meals regularly. There were countless private aid initiatives at the beginning of the Russian invasion so demand was easily met by supply. Additionally most people who arrived here at first only stayed a short time, before moving onto their planned destinations. That could all change soon.

At Przemysl, a larger town around 13 kilometers away from Medyka and further into Poland, trains arrive from Ukraine every day. The trains are no longer coming according to the official timetable, delays are getting longer and nobody knows which train will arrive next.

Despite the cold, there are people here tonight offering free rides, even during the night. Polish locals, Paulina and Emilian, hold up a sign that says, "Krakow, Tarnow, three seats. Free."

People in Polish border station Przemysl are queuing for passport control and registration..
Trains arriving in Przemysl from Ukraine have stopped running to any scheduleImage: Frank Hoffmann/DW

"We couldn't just sit at home and watch," the couple, who are both in their early 20s, explained. "We had to do something."

Pauline also founded a Facebook group that offers accommodation for the displaced.

Too many donations

Inside the train station hall at Przemysl, there are collections of extra clothes, toys, food and water. So many people rushed here to help when this started, that now certain hallways are reserved solely for their efforts.

One aid organization started an appeal for children's car seats and within two hours, 80 had been collected. Trucks filled with donations have arrived in Przemysl from all over the country. In fact, there were so many that on Sunday morning, Przemysl's mayor, Wojciech Bakun, had to ask that they stop coming.

Medical help awaits the displaced at Przemysl train station.
Medical help awaits the displaced at Przemysl train stationImage: Monika Sieradzka/DW

"You have organized so much help that our warehouses are full," Bakun wrote on Facebook. "We are not able to accept any more transports."

The Polish government has talked about a million refugees from the war in Ukraine and declared itself ready and willing to help them. Looking around, it seems that so far most of those who have arrived are being well taken care of by the many private European citizens' initiatives.

In fact, since Sunday, the authorities in Przemysl have been cooperating with their counterparts in the nearby Ukrainian border town of Mostyska too, to deliver aid to the people still standing in the gigantic queue on the Ukrainian side.

This story was originally written in German.