Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, more than three million people have been forced to flee the country. Most of them, about two million, crossed the border with Poland and left on its territory or headed towards other European Union countries.
Written by: Vanja Stokić; Photo: Vanja Stokić — Fotobaza.ba
Medyka border crossing is one of the busiest on the border between Poland and Ukraine. On the Polish side of the border, there are many refugees, volunteers, international organizations, firefighters, police officers, military staff, medical workers etc. Volunteers from all over the world have come here. We can meet people from Mexico, Portugal, the United States, Great Britain, Russia etc.
At improvised parking near the border crossing, we pass by a caddy van with two men sitting inside, searching boxes and filling a supermarket trolley. We’ve been seeing such a trolley all the time. All volunteers use those to transport the personal luggage of refugees. However, this time the two men are taking things from a private car and filling the trolleys with bottles of water, baby food, cookies, chocolate, wet wipes etc. The two men tell us they come from the Isle of Man, a small island nation between Great Britain and Ireland. Its population is about 84,000.
Peter Sugden and his friend Nick served the army together many years ago. Meanwhile, Piter started working on cruise ships. They travelled to the Ukrainian border for three days.
‘I’ve got a lot of friends in Ukraine, who worked with me on cruise ships. We sent them messages to say that we’d come and take them to safety, to any country they like’, Piter explains why he came to the Medyka border crossing.
Still, his friends did not want to leave their homes. He decided to wait for them for 10 days, during which he would help other refugees. However, the deadline has expired and it is time for them to return.
‘It takes a very long time to transport aid to Ukraine by car, so we found a faster way. We pack things in carts and backpacks and then cross the border on foot. We walk about 1.5 kilometres to the volunteers on the Ukrainian side, we leave them help, and then we return. On the way back, we pick a family with children or elderly people to help them transport their luggage in trolleys. We cross the border faster because we are humanitarian workers “, he explains while packing food.
He regularly publishes information about the border crossing and personal stories on social networks, motivating other people to send their donations. Their van has been used as a warehouse, kitchen and bedroom for ten days. They’re coming home tomorrow. We decide to cross into Ukraine together with them, to see the situation on the other side of the border. The number of refugees is much smaller than at the beginning of the war, but it is not negligible. Thousands of people pass this crossing every day.
We walk about ten minutes to the passport control. Nick pushes an overloaded trolley and doesn’t let anyone help him. Peter carries a backpack full of food. Volunteers need a passport and a vest the police gives as a sign of recognition to enter Ukraine. For them, everything goes according to a shortened procedure. The police and the military know that they are carrying help. They do not plan to go deeper into the country but to return as soon as possible.
‘We feel useful. When you give money to a charity, you don’t see the result. We buy things at the supermarket and carry them to people. We know we are helping and we know where the help is going. We see people who have lost everything. It is very emotional. It doesn’t affect us as it did on the first and second day, but there’s something to shock us every day,’ says Peter.
The procedure is different in our case. Although we received official accreditation from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence a few days ago, the policewoman at the border would not let us through. According to our equipment and accreditations, she can see we’re journalists. She takes our passports and tells us to step aside. During the 90 minutes of waiting, many volunteers passed by us. Everyone was pushing full carts and wearing flashy vests. We were joined by three other journalists from Italy, El Salvador and the United States. We told Nick and Peter not to wait for us a long time ago but to continue with their work. We’ll join them on the next tour.
The policewoman is finally coming to us. We can enter Ukraine. On the other hand, families are standing in line waiting to enter Poland. The line is several hundred meters long. Taking photos is forbidden, as at all borders, regardless of whether there is a war or not. To end their waiting hours, volunteers on the Ukrainian side play guitar and sing, distribute water and food and entertain children. There are several tents along the border, where aid is distributed. People around us are saying goodbye. Men capable of military service between the ages of 18 and 65 are prohibited from leaving the country. One man rushes back from the border and cries. The other hugs the girl for a long time. We don’t have the heart to record them. They are sending their families away not knowing if they will see them again. It’s a quiet, warm day. Buses that brought refugees are parked. We can also see the armed forces around.
We find our volunteers, Peter and Nick, among the tents. They are currently handing over aid to Ukrainian volunteers and are preparing to return. We want to see what their entire route looks like, so we follow them. Self-defence sprays, pocket knives and small kitchen knives lie scattered on the grass around the border crossing. Refugees, mostly women and children, travel for several days to reach this place, depending on which part of Ukraine they come from. They brought sprays and knives just in case to protect themselves. This place is the last one where they can get rid of them if they want to cross the border without any problems.
Although fleeing the war, they must follow the procedures. Documents are inspected, suitcases are opened, and things are taken out of bags. After going through the system, we meet two young women with three small children. A baby in a stroller and a four- to five-year-old boy and girl. They need help with suitcases. After the trip to the border, they waited for several hours to cross, and now they have to walk for ten minutes to enter the territory of Poland. As Nick puts things in the cart, the girl watches him. She gives him a stuffed Pink Panther to put on the top. As we walk towards Poland, she turns to see if Pink Panther is there. She is satisfied, the toy is tied so that it can safely go through this ride.
The Polish side is a bit like a festival. Maybe some kind of fair. At the very entrance, there are several policemen and soldiers, and next to them is a man dressed in a chicken costume. American Ben Dusing has travelled halfway around the world to welcome refugees from Ukraine. This lawyer cheerfully greets children and adults as well. Everyone is looking for his hugs.
‘It’s so emotional, I’m overwhelmed. There are so many bad things happening, but there are good ones as well. Look around you, and you’ll see true humanity. It’s very inspiring’ says he while spreading the wings to an approaching group of people.
In front of us are hundreds of volunteers and refugees, who are constantly changing. On both sides of the road, there are stands of international, humanitarian and other organizations. Refugees are offered cooked or canned food, hot drinks or bottled refreshments, clothes, shoes, medicines, diapers, cosmetics, hygiene products, phone cards… They can find everything they need among these stalls. Many people take dogs or cats with them, so one stand is especially for them, offering food and all the necessary equipment.
Most refugees do not speak any English, which makes communication with them difficult. The translators explain to them that they can take whatever they want from the stands, completely free of charge. They can rest, change and feed their children in tents on the side, and a free bus to Przemyśl, a small town in Poland 20 minutes away, awaits a few hundred meters below.
Peter and Nick very patiently follow the women and children whose things they drive in wheelchairs. They tour the stalls to find baby shoes, diapers and milk. People around us are asking about accommodation and transportation or looking for a place to take a rest. They are exhausted. Nobody is in a hurry. Nobody doesn’t even think to rush women when choosing shoes. All the time in this world is ours.
Nearby, the pianist David Martello plays the piano between the tents. He welcomes refugees with music. Volunteers hand out sweets and toys to children. Everyone is very kind and patient. They have understanding. Seemingly strange, this festival atmosphere makes sense. It significantly releases stress and tension. It makes the situation bearable, especially for children.
However, not all volunteers treat everyone correctly. Some of them act as absolute protectors of refugees and feel free to interfere with the work of journalists. We watch as some of the volunteers cover the lens of a photojournalist’s camera with their palms. They interrupted two of our interviews. The women who agreed to give an interview give up after the volunteers come to us and start shouting, asking us to leave people alone. We stopped some people on the street and asked them to talk, and they agreed. These people are old enough to decide for themselves. Volunteers insult us, they are aggressive and ask us to remove the cameras. Women from Ukraine become embarrassed and leave. People wearing bulletproof vests behave very arrogantly. Fortunately, only a small number of them.
In the meantime, it does not occur to police and soldiers to interfere in our business. We meet and work next to each other for days, without any problems. We are only warned not to film the border itself for security reasons; everything else is allowed to be filmed.
At the end of this route, the refugees are waiting in line again, this time for the buses that take them to the city. Among the organizations that help are various religious communities, most of which we have never heard of. They even use the opportunity to give sermons to people who need it the least at the moment. They invite people to follow God over a loudspeaker. Not any God but only theirs.
“I have nothing against them, but it is neither the time nor the place for this,” a French colleague, visibly annoyed, tells us briefly.
However, the sermons are in English, so few refugees understand them. A representative of one organization brags that they found two “of their people” among all those people, and flew them to safety by a private plane. She repeats this several times, expecting our reaction. We do not have the patience to explain to her how wrong it is and contrary to everything that humanitarian work represents.
The women and children we met while crossing the border are waiting for the bus now. Nick hands them their things and says goodbye to them. We don’t know their names, who they had to leave behind or where they travel. The children are waving at us.
“This is our last crossing. We’re going home tomorrow, back to our jobs”, Peter and Nick tell us as they take a seat to have some coffee.
The border is active in both directions. While some families are leaving Ukraine, others are getting back. They don’t want to talk to us, they look like they want to get home as soon as possible.
“I’m going back to my grandchildren who are waiting for me,” said the elderly woman in a hurry.
“It’s better at home than anywhere else,” said another when asked why she was going back.
The three girls explain to us that their city is peaceful for now and that they are not afraid for their lives. They live in western Ukraine, where there is no bombing.
The buses are leaving. People are driven to reception centres, located in sports halls and shopping malls. Journalists are not allowed to enter any of them. We entered one without cameras just to see what it looked like. The mall is closed to customers, with hundreds of makeshift beds in too long hallways. Piles of clothes and blankets are offered to refugees. Babies, small children, teenagers, women and elderly people sleep on the beds… One room has been turned into a playroom, where volunteers try to entertain the children and release their stress.
“Some people are under a lot of stress and need counselling. Most of them are exhausted and just want to sleep. Their basic needs must be satisfied – a place to sleep, food and clothes. Before they cross the border, they travel a long and dangerous journey. Waiting at the border takes hours, nights are very cold, and the temperatures drop to -10” explains Margarita Klygina, a volunteer from Russia.
In front of the centre are stalls with hot meals. Buses arrive at and leave the parking lot. Some take people free of charge to the cities they have expressed interest in, where they have relatives, friends or secured accommodation. The buses have inscriptions with names of large cities from all European countries. On the other hand, the buses bring in new people, who are registered and entered into the system and then directed to rest inside the mall, along with thousands of others.