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Moldova reaches out to Ukraine's refugees

Vitalie Calugareanu Palanca, Moldova | Simion Ciochina Chisinau
March 6, 2022

One of the poorest countries in Europe has taken in tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. That support, and fear of further Russian aggression, have brought the tiny southeast European nation international attention.

Fleeing adults and children gather at the border crossing at Palanca, Moldova
Many children are among the Ukrainians fleeing south to the Moldovan border crossing at PalancaImage: Violeta Colesnic

Roman, a young Moldovan man, borrows his father's car every night to pick up Ukrainian refugees at the Palanca border crossing and drive them to the capital, Chisinau. He pays for the gas out of his own pocket.

He's only been back home himself since last year, after a long stint working in Ireland. In the face of widespread poverty, nearly one-third of Moldovans go abroad in search of work to survive and to support their families.

Since the Russian invasion began more than a week agomore than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the tiny country of roughly 3 million residents. About half of those people have traveled on to neighboring Romania, and from there often continue on to other EU states.

"Anghelina, a woman I helped flee a couple of days ago, just wrote to tell me that she and her daughter had arrived in Prague and wanted to thank me," said Roman, delighted about a text message he has just received. "She writes that she never could have imagined that a stranger would do something like that for her family and expect nothing in return," he told DW.

Infografik Flüchtlingsbewegungen Ukraine ES

'We will help these people'

Ukrainians began lining up at the Moldovan border on the first day of the war. That same day, February 24, Moldovan President Maia Sandu announced that all the border crossings were open, and would be operating at increased capacity. "We will help these people," she said.

Many volunteers greeted refugees at the border with hot tea and warm meals. They quickly helped refugees find shelter, and organized transportation for those who wished to travel onward. Government authorities also provided free bus transport and shelter; many refugees, for instance, were staying at the Moldexpo convention center in Chisinau.

Tensions remain 30 years after separatist war

Most refugees who stopped to speak with DW at the border were deeply grateful for the hospitality extended by the people of Moldova.

Yet, one man quickly changed the mood, screaming at DW's correspondent in Russian that in 1992, "aggressor" Moldova had attacked Trans-Dniester. Then he boarded a bus headed for Romania.

The man's rage illustrated the ever-present political tensions in the region, 30 years after war broke out when pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow decided to split off from the Republic of Moldova. To this day, Russian soldiers remain stationed in separatist Trans-Dniester — despite the fact that the region still officially belongs to Moldova. Trans-Dniester has refused to recognize the government in Chisinau.

Pressure eases at some EU-Ukraine crossings

In Moldova, a former Soviet republic, fear of Russian aggression is particularly palpable, especially now as war rages in Ukraine. Soon after the invasion began across the border, President Sandu also declared a state of emergency in her country, and ordered the closing of her country's airspace.

Parallels between Ukraine, Trans-Dniester crises

Viorel Cibotaru, a security expert and Moldova's former defense minister, sees clear parallels between the situation in Ukraine today and that of the 1992 war , when Russia backed the separatists.

"Both cases have to do with preserving or restoring the Soviet Union," Cibotaru told DW. And just as in the case of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, there was "a lot of fake news circulating" in Trans-Dniester in the early 1990s.

"Back then, the Russians said they did not supply separatists with arms, but rather had no idea how they had gotten them. The same way they claimed for the longest time that people in Donetsk and Luhansk had simply armed themselves and that Russia had nothing to do with it," he said.

A map of Moldova and the surrounding region

Many experts in Moldova have warned that the Russian troops stationed in Trans-Dniester could directly join the assault on Ukraine. Cibotaru, too, couldn't rule that out. 

"The troops in Trans-Dniester are like an old man with a rifle marking his territory in the days of the Russian czars. But, now, if he needs it, 30 fighter jets will come to his aid," he said.

After Sandu signed her country's official application for EU membership on Thursday, the self-appointed government of Trans-Dniester reacted the following day by demanding the international community recognize its own independence.

Many people are fearful of a scenario similar to that in Ukraine. The war is playing out not far away, and at night many Moldovans are startled awake by the thunder of explosions across the border.

Moldova's great willingness to help its neighbors in such a threatening situation has deeply impressed the former head of the EU delegation in Chisinau, Peter Michalko.

"I am proud that I once lived in Moldova! I know many of you personally and I bow before every act of humanity and hospitality that I see!" wrote the diplomat on his Facebook page. "You are an example for Europe and the entire world."

Traumatized children flee war in Ukraine

This article was originally written in Romanian

A man (Simion Ciochina) with brown hair, beard and moustache outside the Deutsche Welle building in Bonn, Germany
Simion Ciochina Chisinau-based DW correspondent