Dispatch from Ukraine: At the border, men say goodbye to their families and wait to fight
Ukraine has said that all men of military age — 18-60 — will be required to stay and defend their country. But women and children are getting out, when they can.
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By: Neil P. Hauer
ON THE POLAND-UKRAINE BORDER
Oleksandr, 45 years old, has been trapped seeking an escape from Ukraine for the past week.
“My work car is on the other side of the border,” he says, from the Ukrainian side of the border with Poland. “They aren’t letting me take it, because no men are allowed across, even though I’m disabled and ineligible for military service. I have no way out,” he told me.
Oleksandr was on the train back to his hometown of Zaporizhye, a city in central Ukraine now just 50 kilometres from advancing Russian forces, when the war began.
“I was on the train going home when I heard the first explosion [missile strike],” he says. “After that, the train stopped, and I couldn’t get there. We sat for four days while the train was grounded due to military activity, and then I decided to come back here,” he says.
Oleksandr is just one of millions of Ukrainians seeking to escape the violence in their country, now well into its second week of a full-scale Russian invasion. Over 1.2 million refugees have already fled the country to Poland, Hungary, Romania and elsewhere.
The speed of the evacuation is unprecedented in modern history: direct road connections and a visa-free entry regime with the European Union have enabled more than100,000 Ukrainians to escape every day. But the sheer scale of the refugee flows in this country of 44 million is impossible to overcome.
Irina, 41, is one example of this. She stands at the border with her four children and her husband, who will not be leaving: Ukraine has banned men of military age (between 18 and 60) from exiting the country.
Despite being from the nearby town of Chervonohrad, in relatively calm western Ukraine, the scenes of war made her feel she had little choice but to take her family elsewhere.
“We had to hide in the basement,” Irina says of the first few days of the war. “We live in a tall building, but while we were sleeping, the air raid sirens would go off, telling everyone to go to the [bomb] shelter,” she said.
Her children could not bear it.
“The kids are scared to fall asleep,” she says. “They fear that the bombs will hit during the night at any moment. We take turns keeping guard at night, my husband and me. Someone stays awake while the others rest,” Irina says.
To cross the border on foot is simple: for Ukrainian citizens, it takes less than an hour once reaching the border itself. Bringing a car, however, as Irina’s family has, is a much longer process: a queue of more than ten kilometres stretches back from the Polish border.
“We have been here for four nights already,” Irina says. “There is such heavy traffic, it takes days to get across.”
The locals in settlements along the roadside have given generously to travellers escaping the country.
“It was cold at night, and during the day, and the people from the villages were handing out clothes, giving people warm meals,” Irina says. “They offered their showers to those who needed them, gave strollers for families with babies. If they saw that you had children, even if you were shy, they offered to give warm meals to children, with no regard for nationality. Not just to our Ukrainians, to people in general … You can see that there are even more foreigners here [than Ukrainians],” she says.
The kindness of those she has passed in the villages nearby has clearly touched her.
“I mean, the people are sincere,” she says. “They are sincere and I could tear up because they were helping everyone.”
This human experience has made the Russian propaganda about her nation all the more offensive.
“There is no such thing as they say in Russia, that in Ukraine we have [extreme] nationalists or fascists, harming Russians [and Russian-speakers],” Irina says. “No. We are all people and we all respect each other.”
The day of the Russian invasion itself almost feels like a lifetime ago.
“Everything was nice, everything was perfect, everything was calm,” says Irina. “We worked, the children studied, they went to kindergarten. When this situation happened on Thursday, we were getting ready for kindergarten, braiding girls’ hair. Everything was peaceful. Even the evening before we couldn't have imagined that such a thing could take place in the morning. Everything was good, everything was wonderful, no problem whatsoever. Nobody offended anyone or did any harm.”
The war, what she’s seen of it, seems senseless.
“Everyone here [in Ukraine] has family in Russia,” Irina says. “We all love each other. We have relatives in Russia too. My brother lives there. Then why … why make people enemies? That’s why I’m saying … in one word it’s just pointless.”
The Russian invasion, meanwhile, continues to grind on.
The capital Kyiv has seen heavy fighting nearly every day since the war began, with Russian paratroopers attempting to push in from the western outskirts. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has produced apocalyptic scenes of siege warfare, as Russian forces surrounding the city fire on it with indiscriminate rocket artillery. In the country’s south, Russian troops have made significant progress, with the capture of the port city of Kherson giving Moscow control of its first major city in Ukraine.
But there have also been signs of hope. Ukrainian soldiers have destroyed or captured vast amounts of Russian military equipment, with one source tracking visually confirmed losses counting over 700 pieces of Russian hardware lost since the war’s start. Russia’s air force in particular has begun to take serious losses, with five jets and four helicopters downed in just over 24 hours from March 4-5.
With no end to the fighting in sight, meanwhile, those leaving their sons, husbands and fathers behind to fight find little comfort in the situation.
“My son is serving in the army now,” says Oleksandr. “He’s on the border with Romania right now, but I can’t guarantee he won’t be transferred [to an active front]. I don’t know what I will do if that happens,” he says.
Irina’s husband and 18-year old son, too, will be participating in Ukraine’s defence.
“I have to leave them here,” she says, in a voice close to breaking. “They have to stay to protect our country, and it hurts me to tears.”
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