The Dorohusk border crossing is the frontline of the refugee crisis, reports Fionnán Sheahan. Photos by Mark Condren
The distressing choices thrown up by war are epitomised by Mairina Backz.
Having walked across the border into Poland from Ukraine with nine-year-old daughter Sophia, she was now standing on the side of the road. Her sister was coming to collect Sophia and the pair spoke on the phone to figure out her exact location.
Then Mairina was planning to head back. The family live in the city of Kovel, in northwestern Ukraine. The conflict hasn’t yet reached there, but there was fighting just 40km away, so it was time to get Sophia out. Able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country, as they must stay to fight the Russians, so Mairina’s husband is still at home.
“I have to give my daughter to my sister, who is (living) in Poland now. I have to come back to Ukraine, because my husband is there. I cannot leave my husband in such a situation,” she said.
While Mairina looked around, describing exactly where they were located, Sophia played on her phone, her mother carrying a small blue suitcase with her daughter’s clothes. Mairina’s sister arrived at the border crossing and hugged Sophia. Half an hour later, Mairina headed back in the opposite direction, not knowing when she will meet her daughter or sister again. The parting was treated as a pragmatic move on her part to protect her daughter, and now she had to figure out the practicalities of how to get back across the border and return to her home.
“My daughter will sit in the car with my sister. But I don’t know. I cannot come myself. I have to go by car. I have to ask somebody,” she said.
More than 80 years ago, war hit Kovel when the Nazis invaded Ukraine. The scale of the brutality still appals: the Germans murdered 18,000 Jews there in the autumn of 1942. There was fierce fighting in the city between the SS Panzer Division and the Red Army in 1944, when the Soviet Union pushed the Germans back. It was also the scene of ethnic divisions along the border with Poles taking refuge in Kovel from genocide during that period.
Now the traffic is going in the opposite direction.
Four generations later, war has returned to the region, on the border of the European Union. A constant stream of refugees comes across the border into Poland.
In many cases, they are literally dropped off at the side of the road.
The border crossing at Dorohusk is normally a truck stop with dusty car parks, a cafe and a shop. To all intents and purposes, it resembles a toll bridge in Ireland, say, on the M4 or the M1, with the lanes of the road passing through booths with barriers.
Now there is a series of makeshift marquees to assist the refugees upon their arrival in Poland. Aid agencies and volunteers staff a series of tents giving out food, hot drinks, water, clothes and toiletries, such as tampons and nappies. Telecoms companies have staff handing out Polish Sim cards as phones on the Ukrainian networks won’t work here.
There’s a smell of timber smoke in the air from a campfire that’s burning to keep those waiting warm. Some refugees lean up against motorway crash barriers, wrapped in colourful blankets. It’s a chilly 1C and the skim of the water in a pond across the road has frozen.
Around the corner in a bustling car park, there’s a smell of sausages as a volunteer cooks on a grill for Ukrainians, some of whom have been travelling for three days. What’s striking is the number of women with small children. Exhausted from travelling, a small boy sleeps sitting on top of a suitcase, propped up by his mother. Standing out in the cold, two women with babies in prams rock them back and forth and try to keep them distracted.
A mother named Oxana carries her one-year-old son, Lazar, who holds a bright red heart-shaped lollipop. The usual two-hour journey from the town of Lutsk in eastern Ukraine took 20 hours in her car. “We go to find new home now,” she says.
Dropped off on the Ukrainian side of the border, some refugees get lifts to the safety of Poland. It takes time to get near to and across the border, then there can be a further wait for their lift to arrive, so they stand outside in the cold weather.
On the Polish side of the border, if they are not being met by family or friends, lifts are available to the train station or nearby towns.
Mairina’s story is not unique. Another parent with a conflict at heart was Aleksandr Moknatko. His wife and daughter are back in Kyiv, while he is in Poland, where he has lived and worked for the past three years.
“I think our people are very strong people and I think this war, I don’t know… we must win. We must win. We are strong family and we make all for our people,” he said.
“My family is in Kyiv. This is sixth day now. Sorry for my English. My wife and my daughter, they make bread and food for our strong guys [soldiers] who stay in Kyiv and they make help and I make my help in this Poland,” he adds, pausing sometimes to find the English word he is looking for, saying them in Ukrainian and attempting to self-translate.
Aleksandr was in Bishkek, the capital and largest city of Kyrgyzstan, when war broke out. He says he learned about the invasion on Facebook. He hasn’t been back but is in contact with his wife several times a day.
“My family are now safe, but I don’t know. Every (few) hours I call to my wife and we speak and (I say): how are you, what (do) you want?” he said.
The number of refugees has hit one million following the Russian invasion. Half of those refugees have crossed into Poland along its eastern border. Anything up to four million people may try to leave as the conflict rages.
Notably, many of the refugees arriving yesterday were from the west of the country, as the conflict draws ever nearer. Those who fled from eastern Ukraine a week ago to seemingly safer territory now find the war is chasing after them. Those who crossed the border said they had waited anything up to 60 hours. Most arrivals are now women and children as well as elderly people.
The refugee crisis may only be beginning. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin claimed in a televised speech that the invasion was “going according to plan”. Appeals to end the war or at least call a ceasefire have not drawn any positive results at all.
Putin still wants to seize all of Ukraine and is warning that “worse is to come” during the conflict. French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Putin over the phone afternoon in a bid to ease tensions.