At the Polish border, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees

Refugees from Ukraine arrive at a pedestrian border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on Feb 25, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MEDYKA (NYTIMES) - Cradling her three-year-old son, who was gravely ill with cancer, the 25-year-old Ukrainian mother staggered into Poland on Friday (Feb 25).

She was safe from the bombs and rockets unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin but despondent at being separated from her husband by a Ukrainian order that all able-bodied men stay behind to resist the Russians.

"He is not just my husband but my life and my support," said Ms Olha Zapotochna, one of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians, nearly all women and children, who have poured into Poland, Hungary and other neighbouring countries since Monday.

"I understand that our country needs men to fight, but I need him more," she added, patting the head of her moaning sick child, Arthur.

The exodus from Ukraine gathered pace on Friday as fear spread that the Kremlin intends to impose its will far beyond the east of the country, the scene of what Mr Putin claims, with no evidence, is a "genocide" of ethnic Russians.

A Polish police officer directs traffic at the Medyka border crossing in Poland on Feb 25, 2022, a day after the Russian attack on Ukraine. PHOTO: AFP

More than 50,000 Ukrainians have fled the country, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees Filippo Grandi said on Friday, and the agency believes as many as 100,000 have been displaced.

Poland's border service said 29,000 people had arrived from Ukraine on Thursday, and many more on Friday, leading to waits of more than 12 hours at some crossing points. More than 26,000 have fled Ukraine into Moldova and 10,000 into Romania.

Among those fleeing into Poland on Friday through a border crossing at Medyka were ethnic Russians like Ms Oxana Aleksova, who were as appalled by the Kremlin's lies, unprovoked violence and crude propaganda as were their Ukrainian compatriots.

Ms Aleksova, 49, whose ethnic Ukrainian husband, a retired police officer, stayed behind, escaped into Poland with her 11-year-old daughter after waiting all night in a line of pedestrians and vehicles seeking entry to Poland - a line she said stretched for kilometres.

The UN believes as many as 100,000 have been displaced. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Her hometown of Khmelnytskyi, in western Ukraine, had not been hit directly, she said, but Russian bombs had fallen on a military airfield in a nearby town.

Russia's military, she predicted, "will of course win eventually" because it has so many more soldiers and better equipment than Ukraine. But Mr Putin's goal, she added, "is not just to beat Ukraine but to make the whole world afraid of him".

Whether he succeeds on that score is still an open question. But his implicit threats to use nuclear weapons against any foreign nations that intervene on Ukraine's behalf have strengthened an already solid consensus among North Atlantic Treaty Organisation members - even its most hawkish anti-Russian members, like the Baltics states and Poland - to keep their troops out of Ukraine.

As Ukrainians flowed across the border into Poland, however, the government in Warsaw, the capital, announced on Friday that a "convoy with ammunition" had flowed in the opposite direction into Ukraine. "We support Ukrainians, and we firmly oppose Russian aggression," Poland's Minister of Defence Mariusz Blaszczak said.

Also passing into Ukraine were small groups of men who said they were returning home to fight. "We will beat Russia," shouted a middle-aged returnee carrying a black duffle bag as he walked past the Polish border guards toward Ukrainian territory.

Just behind them was Mr Viktor Dick, a German on his way to Kyiv to try to rescue his pregnant Ukrainian wife and their three children. He looked terrified but said he had to risk the perilous journey to the besieged capital to save his family.

Ukrainians arrive in Poland by train after fleeing Kyiv on Feb 25, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

As many as five million Ukrainians could flee into neighbouring countries if the war drags on, confronting the European Union - which nearly buckled under a migration crisis in 2015 involving 1.5 million people - with another and possibly far larger influx of foreigners.

But in contrast to the earlier influx and a crisis last year involving would-be refugees travelling through Belarus into Poland and Lithuania, Europe's most migrant-hostile governments in Poland and Hungary have generally welcomed Ukrainians.

When migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan tried to sneak across the border from Belarus last year, Polish security forces beat them back with batons. At least a dozen died in the forests that straddle the border.

Refugees arriving from Ukraine, however, have been greeted with welcoming smiles, hot drinks and transport to the nearest railway station. Police officers handed out fruit, doughnuts and sandwiches to Ukrainians camped out in the waiting room.

Unlike the migrants beaten back from the border by Polish guards last year, Ukrainians, who are mostly Christian and white, have a legal right to enter Poland and other EU countries without visas. Nearly one million Ukrainians live in Poland.

Ukrainians, who are mostly Christian and white, have a legal right to enter Poland and other EU countries without visas. PHOTO: AFP

And Ukrainians suffering at the hands of Russia have stirred sympathy in the formerly communist lands of East and Central Europe, where people have bitter memories of living under Moscow's yoke.

Poland's populist right-wing government, headed by the Law and Justice party, was in the vanguard of a drive to resist the European Union's liberal migration policies in 2015, as was the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, but it is now organising reception centres and temporary housing for Ukrainians.

"We will accept as many refugees as will be needed," the Deputy Minister of Defence Marcin Ociepa said on Monday.

Ms Ludmyla Viytovych, who arrived on Friday with her two children from Lviv, a Ukrainian city near the Polish border, said she was pleasantly surprised to find Poles so welcoming, even though her home town has so far been spared the Kremlin's wrath.

Ms Zapotochna, the mother with the sick child, said she and her husband had decided that she should take their son to safety after Russian missiles destroyed an airport near their home in the town of Ivano-Frankovsk in south-west Ukraine on Monday morning. Her journey by car to the Polish border took 28 hours.

"I hope we can go back. I need to go back. This is not my country," she said, as her weeping mother-in-law, a resident of Poland who greeted her at the border, tried to comfort the sick baby.

"We are still living in the 21st century, I hope," Ms Zapotochna said.

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