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Hundreds of thousands of refugees flee Ukraine as war rages on

March 1, 2022 11:34 amby Thaisa Semenova
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Ukrainians fleeing the war to Poland warm near the fire as they stat in line to border checkpoint Rava Ruska, Ukraine on Feb. 26, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

Tears streamed down Margaryta Chornobryvets's face as she entered a refugee hostel in Krakow, Poland.

The 16-year-old from Kyiv, was now safe from the bombs and rockets unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine on Feb. 24 but desperate at being separated from her family. 

"My mother brought me to Krakow, got a little sleep, and went back to Ukraine to help orphans. My brother and father stayed there. I am with my sister, who managed to flee earlier as she was in Lviv. I cannot believe all this is real," she told the Kyiv Independent on Feb. 27.

Marauders tried to attack Margaryta and her mother several times during their 28-hour-long trip to the Polish border, trying to block their path on the highway so they could steal the car.

They avoided the bandits,  but eventually had to leave the car in the bordertown Grushiv and make the rest of the trip on foot. The line to the border stretched for kilometers and did not move for hours.  

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on Feb. 28 that about 520,000 people had fled the country into bordering nations like Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia since the start of Russia’s invasion.

Thousands more are still trying to get through the clogged borders, waiting in the cold for hours on end in cars or on foot with only minimal belongings. 

Refugees stand in line as they wait for a bus to the border checkpoint at Rava Ruska, Ukraine on Feb. 26, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

Among those fleeing into Poland was Anastasiia Kotenko, 25, who carried her almost two-year-old son in her arms for five hours while walking 11 kilometers on foot to the border.

Her husband drove them from the Ukrainian capital to the border on the first day of the war. The road took almost a day as there was constant shelling in the cities they passed by, and they had to constantly adjust their route.

Anastasiia tried to remain calm in front of her son so he wouldn't get upset, but she couldn't help herself. 

"When Roma would hear explosions, I was saying 'bam-bam', as if it was something that fell on the ground. Although when the whole car vibrates from the flash, a child can guess that this is not normal," Anastasiia said.

People fleeing by car, wait in line, about 30-kilometers from the border checkpoint near the Polish border at Rava Ruska, Ukraine on Feb. 26, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

When they finally arrived near the border, Anastasiia couldn't even hug her husband goodbye. She said that people were allowed to cross the border in groups of 20-30 people, and foreigners were treated horribly — they were pushed, and nobody tried to communicate with them. 

"Somehow, we broke through. I was not even allowed to hug my husband in farewell because the crowd simply pushed me out. Immediately behind us, the gate closed. My husband was pushed away and shouted at."

She told the Kyiv Independent that many volunteers brought food, medicine, and warm blankets for Ukrainian refugees on the Polish side of the border. Some of them offered a free ride to other cities in Poland and helped find a place to stay. 

"This is nothing compared to war, but it is so much compared to our quiet lives," she said.

People stand in line as they wait for a bus to Poland at the border checkpoint at Rava Ruska, Ukraine on Feb. 26, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

Those who don’t own cars have sought their way to Poland on trains. 

Lyubava Boiko from Ternopil decided to leave the country on Feb.25, bringing her dog with her. When she got to the station, she heard the announcement that the train would not go to Poland. The next one didn't go either, so she got on the one to Lviv, hoping she could catch another train there.

She said there were few air sirens, but many people refused to hide in the shelter so they wouldn't lose their place in the line for the train.

When Lyubava came back from the shelter, even more people were on the platform.

"I thought people just would not fit on the platform and would fall on the track."

People fight over a spot in line at the border checkpoint at Rava Ruska, Ukraine on Feb. 26, 2022. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

According to her, people started to scream at each other and even physically fight for places on the train. Police officers were helping children get up inside, but some of them then realized their mothers were left on the platform.

"It is so scary when a child is standing in the middle of this chaos and doesn't understand what's going on,” she added.

Eventually, Lyubava was able to board the train.

"From the window, I looked at the people who didn't manage to get on the train. At that very moment, I broke down and cried."

Thaisa Semenova
Author: Thaisa Semenova

Thaisa Semenova is a national reporter at the Kyiv Independent. She worked as a staff writer for the Kyiv Post until November 2021.

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