Where Europe meets war

By Philippe Schockweiler

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As refugees pour out of Ukraine, fleeing war crimes and relentless shelling of civilian targets by Russian Armed Forces, Poland rushes to their help at their borders. But the situation is chaotic, amplified by overwhelmed private initiatives and associations that are in it head over heels.

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Medyka is a small town in the Subcarpathian Province in Poland. A sleepy old place, where time stood still over the eras. For generations, Medyka was a trading outpost, connecting East and West. But now the small town in the South-Eastern edge of Poland is swarmed by relief organisations, media, Polish Armed Forces and Red Cross affiliates to welcome the Ukrainian refugees, fleeing unprovoked Russian attacks on civilian targets all across Ukraine. If at first the solidarity looks colorful and bright, a lot of questions remain. An impression from the place where Europe meets war.

The road from war

It is a bitter cold morning at the Medyka-Shehyni Border station. Trucks and cars pile up to cross by a road into Ukraine. Standstill, running motors, exhaust fumes create a foggy smoke screen that embalms the cold dark road. Polish Border Guards and Police have set up several checkpoints already a few kilometers outside of the border to redirect traffic. Next to the main border for buses, trucks, and cars, a small building can be used to cross into Ukraine and to enter into the EU by foot. In peace times, only a few people cross here per day: Old babushkas with plastic bags, their loved one tucked under their arm crossing into Ukraine to buy some cheap produce.

“I want a normal and good life for my kids, they should be in school and not held up in a war."

Olya from Kyiv

But for over three weeks, the Medyka Border has become an entry point for Ukraine’s refugees, and some days there are over 50.000 that show up at this border crossing. They carry little. Many of them carry literally nothing. One lone middle-aged woman is clutched in a tight hug as she is comes over to a relative who after the warm embrace tells her "Where is your luggage?" and she replies "It’s just me". Scenes like this are on repeat and then on shuffle for hours, for days, for weeks at the other side of the green border fence.

Thick dark smoke rises from rusty barrels where people warm themselves: Sticky and stinking smoke that makes every eye tear up. A young mother sits with her 4-year-old a few meters away on a dirty parking lot in front of a Biedronka Polish supermarket. To call her look tired would be an understatement, she looks like she marched asleep for days. Yet she always gives her child a smile when they look at each other. Mothers carrying their children on their back is a common sight in Medyka. Here, there seem to be more children than in any big school yard, more children than one has seen in a lifetime: Olya from Kyiv has three kids aged between 4 and 9: "Kyiv is starting to slowly become less safe, I didn’t want to take any chances because of my kids. I want a normal and good life for my kids, they should be in school and not held up in a war", she says.

Vasilisa, around 20, with red curly hair under her beanie, leads her elderly mother across the border by the hand. The mother’s feet give in under her legs and she almost falls, border guards and volunteers rush to her help. The woman is brought away in a wheelchair and for a brief moment Vasilisa stands alone, rubbing her hair out of her face and letting off a very loud sigh followed by a mumbled "Gospodin!" (Oh lord!) She tells Lëtzebuerger Journal that her family has managed to escape Kharkiv, the 1.4 million city that Ukrainian’s now call their Stalingrad. Russian shelling on residential and industrial areas has reduced the rich economic city into dust and rubble. Vasilisa tells Lëtzebuerger Journal that the situation in Kharkiv is unimaginable: "For days our residential buildings were shelled, the tractor factory too, the whole K.T.ZH district (an industrial area named after the Kharkiv Tractor Factory) is badly damaged, how will people ever be able to get back there to live and work", she explains, still visibly under shock.

The road ahead

The lucky ones know where they are going. Ukrainian families that have a relative abroad know where their exodus will lead them. Others are overwhelmed: As they arrive, the Polish Police and Fire Brigade have organised buses to bring them to the town of Przemyśl, 15km away from the border. In the buses to the registration centre, it is rather quiet, sometimes a meowing cat can be heard, or a dog that is shaking its fur. Ukrainians didn’t abandon their pets. A great majority of people carry dogs and cats across the border, holding them close to their chest. Sometimes, women take out their cell phone and video call their husband or boyfriend: They are always dressed in military fatigues and have stayed behind to fight. The men know what and who they fight for. Words are exchanged, you hear them fill the damp air in the bus with warmth: Words like: "I love you", "I am glad that you made it out". But also, words that turn the damp air so thick you could almost cut it with a knife, when you hear a young woman asking her partner "When will we see each other again?" followed by silence and an almost inaudible sob.

At the registration centre, Polish hospitality shines. Even if the Visegard state has in the past been criticized for their lack of solidarity towards migrants, this time, they shine: Thousands of firefighters, soldiers and volunteers from the scouting organisations to religious groups, they all are present and handing out smiles, open arms, blankets: What they now call neighbourly love. Lukasz, a very young but tall firefighter explains: "This is Poland opening their arms for their neighbours. People ask now, why are you doing this? We say that if you cannot help a neighbour in pain, then what kind of human being are you? We all want to help our Ukrainian friends". The massive help from Polish people is a jump-start and a good reminder how Polish civil society can act and come together. As many NGOs and civil rights groups have been side-lined in Poland in the past, this crisis truly brings actors together. Hopefully for good. After a brief stay at the registration centre, Ukrainian refugees can take free busses to wherever they like: Buses from Przemyśl part towards every major Polish city, to Belgium, to Germany, Slovakia and France.

As a group of refugees disembarks from one of the busses, a young mother has trouble to wake up her young daughter. She is sleeping solid as a rock, so she picks her up and carries her outside, but stops in disbelief as she reads the sign "Humanitarian Aid Center for Ukraine". She then turns towards another woman and says "I finally understand, we really are refugees now".

The road to war

While Ukrainian seem to arrive incessantly as bombs fall behind their backs, some camouflaged men move the other way to cross into Ukraine. They are the so-called volunteers, who go to Ukraine to fight off Putin’s invasion. It is an eerie sight, to watch people walk into war. They can be separated in two categories at the Polish-Ukrainian Border: There are the Ukrainians, with their yellow bands on helmets and arms, who determinedly walk into the small red-brick house that has "State border" written on it.

"I finally understand, we really are refugees now."

A young mother on the border

Then, there are the chattier ones, the international volunteer brigades, often made up by Americans, on a desperate quest for glory and good war stories. Matt, a mid 30’s American with no military record or experience, is dressed in camouflage with a heavy East-coast accent that gives away his origin. He tells Lëtzebuerger Journal that he has already been to Ukraine and will return for a few weeks: "We came ill-prepared, so we got out again, and then try to join the foreign Ukrainian volunteers to help out in this war. There are rumours though that the Ukrainian Army is collecting the passports of the foreign volunteers, and that has been off putting. But we want to help and to fight". Despite his chattiness, Matt seems somewhat uneasy. When asked by Lëtzebuerger Journal whether he is scared, he shrugs, shudders, then turns away, and walks away even more slowly. As Matt walks back to his group of a dozen American volunteers, nervous looks are thrown hastily over camouflaged shoulders, as their group crosses into Ukraine.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Even if Polish volunteers and state bodies are pouring everything, they can into solving the situation at the border, the situation there remains chaotic. Three weeks after the unprecedented Russian Invasion and aggression, it remains unclear who is in charge here at the border. Charitable organisations keep showing up at the border with personnel and equipment and are lacking the place to set up their tents and areas. The areas where they could set up shop are occupied by different official but mostly informal NGOs or associations that dubiously have implanted themselves at the border. If you are a refugee crossing from Ukraine into Poland, the first thing you see behind the sign that says "Welcome to Poland" is a group of Jehovah's Witness greeting you with signs, followed by numerous tents of Polish cell phone operators or other John and Jane Goodie’s (dt. Gutmenschen) of this world cooking pizza or handing out diapers. Refugees have to walk for a few hundred meters through this bizarre vanity fair of the grotesque if they want more diapers, more food, more sim cards. Only a few of them stop to pick up things.

Some tents are unmarked, nobody knows who uses them and to what purpose. Police are making regular checks and being cautious. Stories of human traffickers have been heard, but at least in Medyka, police claim no such cases have been reported. Other tents are occupied by Chinese organizations, some belonging to rich Chinese oligarchs and self-proclaimed philanthropists, some of them with ties to the Extreme Right in the USA. The world truly comes together in Medyka. For good and for worse.

Any medical emergency is taken care of by the Polish regular Emergency Response. Most of the emergency rescuers told Lëtzebuerger Journal that what they are seeing the most are kids with hypothermia or low blood sugar levels. Many chronically ill, older patients haven’t been able to get their medicines because of the war. An Israeli-psychologist told explains: "We are administering first aid, but there is a huge psychological toll on these people and they risk to be severely affected by this." Some first responders from abroad also view the chaotic situation as a potential hazard: An anonymous professional first responder says: "Of course it’s good if everyone wants to help, but I fear that some are here more for themselves than for the refugees."

"Of course it’s good if everyone wants to help, but I fear that some are here more for themselves than for the refugees."

First responder on the border

A humanitarian crisis is indeed not something to take lightly. While many people think a handing in used clothes could be considered a humanitarian act then they are wrong: piles of clothes turn up lying in the mud in Medyka, a situation that NGOs have warned about. Baby food or food rations can be found lying around the muddy weeds around the border. The Polish Red Cross is working overtime to collect what has been dumped there by eager and overwhelmed private donors, who often drove over 1000kms to bring it here, only to end up dumping their cargo in a field. It’s an eerie reminder of the importance of coordination required for help to arrive where it is really needed… in the occupied and besieged cities of Ukraine. Rescue workers and humanitarians urge the people as they arrive that they should rethink their actionism: It’s better to plan carefully ahead, talk to authorities and work with organizations that can deliver help directly into the warzone.

The road to Luxembourg

In the midst of this foggy encampment, two Luxembourgers, Pol and his father-in-law Romain, are looking for Lena, a Ukrainian mother with her 3-month-old son Liev. They are both nervous, not knowing whether they will find Lena. "It’s okay, she got held up at the border house", Pol explains calmly after getting of the phone. Pol, a social worker with a lot of solidarity and social values in his heart and his partner decided to "adopt" a small Ukrainian family because it is the right thing to do, he explains. "I will gladly sacrifice my sleep for giving a mother and a child a roof and the protection they deserve", Romain has finally spotted Lena and Liev. It will take them two days to reach Luxembourg. A long trip, that Romain and Pol have already completed before, bringing home other refugees from Ukraine. If you would ask them, they would probably do it all over again, without hesitation. That’s the kind of people they are. While little Liev gets tucked in neatly into his car seat, he smiles, so does the mother, Romain and Pol. So do we all.