MEDICA, Poland – As Russia began fighting in Ukraine last month, tired and frightened refugees fled to neighboring countries. They carried whatever they could quickly grab. Many cried. They still do.
The United Nations says more than 3.6 million people have fled Ukraine since the war began just over a month ago on Thursday, the largest human movement in Europe since World War II. Most believed they would return to the country soon. That hope is fading now.
“Initially, we thought it would end soon,” said Olha Homyenko, a 50-year-old woman from Kharkiv. “First of all, no one can believe that Russia will attack us and we thought it would end quickly.”
Now, Homienko says, “as we can see, there is nothing to wait for.”
The city of Hominenko is one of several cities and towns that have been besieged by the Russians and shelled. Refugees from besieged cities have spoken of destruction, death and starvation.
Natalia Lutsenko, from the bombed-out northern city of Chernihiv, said she still felt the Russian aggression was a kind of “misunderstanding”.
Lutsenko said he could not see why Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to hurt Ukrainians so much.
Why is he bombing a peaceful house? Why so many victims, blood, dead children, body parts everywhere? Lutsenko pleaded guilty. “It’s horrible. Sleepless night. Parents are crying, no more children.
After fleeing his home, Lutsenko arrived in Medica, a small town on the border between Ukraine and Poland, where refugees have been coming since the beginning of the invasion.
Medicare Mayor Marek Iwasieko clearly remembers February 24, the first day of the war.
“That day was a big surprise for me. Suddenly (a) a large number of people came to Medica, ”recalled Ivasiyekzko. “They were terribly tired. It was still cold. They had turned to ice.”
Although Medica authorities had already set up some facilities, the city still had thousands of people arriving at the same time and needed shelter, food, medicine – and above all warmth and comfort.
Iwasieczko added that everyone believed until the last moment that war could be avoided.
“Everything was prepared, although we weren’t sure if this would be necessary,” he said. A month later, “We are dreaming of stability and an end to this situation … We are tired but we are going to help in the end.”
Nellia Cote, 66, from Chernihiv, another Polish town where refugees arrive by train, said she remembers waking up to the sound of sirens and explosions when the war broke out on February 24.
“I thought it might be a drill, but then I realized … you can’t hear the explosion,” he said. “At that moment, my daughter called and said, ‘Mom, Russia has attacked us.’
A month later, Cote added, people in Chernihive are drinking river water to survive. His nephew was killed while waiting for bread, and there was devastation everywhere, he said.
“Today, there is no water, no gas, no electricity (on Chernihive),” said Kot. “People are completely isolated.
To ease the pressure on its member states to accept refugees, the European Union on Wednesday announced measures to help millions of refugees access school, healthcare, housing and work for their children.
The measures are aimed at facilitating the movement of refugees between countries that can accommodate them in the EU and other countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, which already have large Ukrainian communities.
Most of the women and children – Ukrainian men aged 18-60 who have been barred from leaving the country and living in war – have sought refuge in neighboring countries to rebuild their lives, find work and start school. Some have moved to another country where they have relatives.
Maria Tikha, a 29-year-old refugee from Kharkiv, still does not know what to do next. “I can’t believe this is possible in the 21st century,” he said after arriving at Prozemisol by train on Thursday.
In Medica, refugees are still coming, albeit in small numbers and in warm weather. On Wednesday, children were seen grabbing people carrying their favorite toys, women carrying babies and dogs.
On Thursday, the volunteers just wanted to go beyond providing security and immediate assistance – Dream Doctors from Israel brought clowns for children, while Human Society International distributed pet food.
The UN children’s agency says half of Ukraine’s children – an estimated 7.5 million to 4.3 million – have now fled their homes, including 1.8 million who have fled the country.
Lutsenko sat on his bed in a sports hall that has become a refugee center, with dozens of beds lined up in a central area. He also thought that the war would end in a few days.
“Someone thought it would last a month.” He said. “I believe Ukraine will win and I believe in our army. I still believe.”
David Keaton reports from Prozemisal.
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