Photo-report from the Polish border, where it is all hands on deck
At the moment the Polish border with Ukraine has a human face. That of concern, despair but also of hope. Such was the experience we had at two, out of eight, border crossings: the pedestrian and vehicle crossing in Medyka; and the train crossing in Przemyśl. We visited them Saturday February 26th. It was the third day of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.
Our first stop was at Medyka. There we met fellow journalists from Brussels who, like dozens of other journalists, arrived in this lesser known part of Poland to report on the expected influx of war refugees. With them we immerged into the crowd of Ukrainians who had just fled home but also talked to those who were going back. The latter were obviously smaller in number and included mostly men. They told us they were heading back to join the army and defend their homeland.
Among the newcomers were also people of other nations and origins. We met students from Africa, workers from India or Belarusians that did not manage to get into the European Union in 2020. The lucky ones were greeted by representatives of their countries’ embassies in Poland. The less fortunate ones, like a group of students from Congo, joined the fire brigade’s bus which took them to Warsaw. From there, they said, they will figure out what is next. They do not expect to stay in Poland.
On top of that the Polish side of the border was flooded with families and friends who came to pick someone up. Most of them arrived from Poland where, according to estimates, up to 1.5 million Ukrainians have been living already before the war. We also saw car registration plates from other parts of Europe, including from as far as Italy or Portugal. Now parked on the side of the road, they were monitoring the situation and waiting for the call from their relatives who got through. As we were told by one of the volunteers, Andriy, who was at the crossing for the whole day on Friday and Saturday, for the moment about 80 per cent of those crossing have contacts already in Poland; the other 20 per cent arrived with no plans other than escape.
To enter Poland, Ukrainians can use their biometric passport and do not need a visa. In this case they are allowed to stay here for 90 days (plus the so-called “COVID-extension”). Those who do not have a passport, are directed to reception centres where they can seek international protection status and humanitarian assistance. From there they are taken to shelter centres, like the one at a former Tesco supermarket building in Przemyśl.
Expected or not, the situation requires all hands on deck as the influx of people will be unprecedented. On Saturday February 26th the Polish authorities reported that as many as five thousand people went through the Medyka border point between 9 am and 11 am alone. This crossing, which was envisioned for a maximum of 25,000 persons per day, is now expected to handle 100,000 refugees a day. This number is expected to further increase and will most likely exceed one million soon, which is evident on the Ukrainian side where the line is getting bigger, hour by hour.
Dozens of Ukrainian and Polish volunteers have been here since the beginning of the war to reinforce official help and do whatever is needed to provide humanitarian assistance. Their presence is both organised and completely spontaneous. No matter what form, it comes from the bottom of their hearts as Małgorzata, who was one of the local ladies working at a pierogi and soup station, told us. Her friends, all in their 50s or older, are now handing out food which the local grannies have been preparing at the local community centre.
For the most part the refugees from Ukraine are women and children. Due to the mass mobilisation in Ukraine, no men aged between 18 and 60 are allowed to leave the country. The elderly are also among those who are coming to Poland, but they are only few in number. Andriy believes that those who are over 50 will most likely stay home.
To cross the border is a daunting task. To make matters worse, on Friday it was reported that the electronic system used to process passports crashed (possibly as a result of the Russian hacker attack) and all passports had to be checked manually. On average this takes two to three minutes for each passport. Not surprisingly, frustration and exhaustion gets very high. Especially at night. Cases of hyperthermia have already been reported.
Those who require it are being treated at medical stations which have been set up both in Medyka and Przemyśl. There, refugees are offered basic care. Those who are wounded though, and we were told that the first wounded have already arrived in Poland, are treated at a designated local hospital. This is similar to 2014 when many Polish hospitals took in those who were injured during the clashes on the Maidan.
We finished our reporting in Przemyśl at the main train station where hundreds were waiting for a train from Lviv to arrive with a new group of refugees. As we were waiting for the train, we saw a catering truck full of bags with food supplies, dozens of volunteers distributing baby food and diapers as well as those holding signs offering transport to their hometowns. Despite the large amount of people, there was little chaos and the atmosphere was rather calm.
We were hoping to see the train arrive, but around 6 pm we got a phone call from Andriy who was still volunteering at Medyka. He needed a ride back to Kraków, where we also live. We decided to take him as the train was seriously delayed and there was a high chance that we would not see it come before the night falls. We picked up Andriy from a bus stop near the cemetery at Medyka, which is one of the few places where you can get signal and thus where it is easier to locate the person you are looking for. Exhausted after a 48-hour shift at the border, this young Ukrainian talked to us in the car for about half an hour and fell asleep. Not surprisingly, in the last 48 hours he had only three hours of sleep. We said goodbye to each other in Kraków, which has been Andriy’s home since 2015.
Adam Reichardt and Iwona Reichardt are editors with New Eastern Europe.