Reporter’s notebook: Travel along the southern border of Ukraine

Our team spent five days exploring the southern border of Ukraine. We have traveled more than 650 miles through large open, vacant lands and small towns in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, countries that have welcomed more than 1 million people fleeing the war.

Along the way, we’ve found countless individual stories of panic, perseverance and compassion – and a bunch of unique countries they’ve given back anyway, while living with their own fears of what could happen next.

Moldova in some ways felt the most like Ukraine. Other bordering non-NATO, non-EU countries, Moldova and Ukraine are also among the two poorest countries in Europe. Many families live here across the border and both countries have lost territory to Russian aggression in the past.

There is a kinship between the countries that you can feel, we meet a lot of people here who call the Ukrainians “their neighbors, their brothers”.

Despite the scarcity of resources and crushing numbers, Moldovan is doing everything it can to help. Since the war began, more than 380,000 people have fled the country, accounting for more than 15% of the country’s total population and the highest per capita of any other country.

We discovered an old movie theater in Chisinau, the capital of the country, which had been empty for four years, now turned into a shelter for 200 people. The walls collapsed, but the place had a brand new mattress on the floor.

The temporary home is where Irina and her four-year-old son Arkady live. Irina tells us she doesn’t want to leave Odessa. Her other son turned 18 in October and since he is old enough to fight now, he has not been allowed to leave Ukraine. But he says he told her he had to go, he had to save his little brother. He had to make sure that at least one boy survived the war.

She chose to come here to Moldova because it could be with her other son. This is something we hear from many refugees – they want to be as close to home as possible. But Moldova is complex. It is close to Ukraine, but also close to Russia. There are pro-Russian parties in the government and several parties in the city.

While we were at the shelter, a tractor pulled to stop the supply. In it – a big Z, a symbol that has now become synonymous with Putin’s forces in Russia and is often seen in tanks there. A tractor with support for Russia, dropping items donated by locals to make the Ukrainians feel the Russian invasion? Nothing is understood about the scene, but it is probably the best explanation of Moldova’s life.

Russia’s proximity means some people are friends with the country and many are worried that they could invade later.

We have had similar fears in Romania. On the way out of this area, we flew from a small airport near the border. A security guard there asked us how it was in Ukraine. I asked if he had a family. He said, “No, I’m just worried that Putin will come after us.”

Romania is also a member of NATO and the European Union. Attacking it will have a global impact. But despite these assurances, the people here are living in fear.

Romania has the largest border with Ukraine in any country in the European Union. As we cross the dividing line between the two countries and drive along the winding road, we see mostly huge, empty miles. This implies that it is a well-known route for illegal crossings. This may mean that the men are trying to escape from Ukraine. We see at least one man sitting on the side of the road with the police. At government crossings, however, it is almost exclusively for women and children.

At the busiest border crossing in Romania, we meet Elena and her young daughter Katia shortly after they cross. Mom told us that they came from Kyiv and lived right next to the recently bombed television tower. They wanted to stay, but when one of Katia’s classmates died, Elena knew she had to leave. We were there when she made a facetime to let her husband know that they had passed it safely. He had to stay behind to fight.

By working in this job, you are accustomed to being with people in the worst and often the most difficult moments of their lives. But witnessing this intimate moment broke me. A simple check between husband and wife, now separated by war. Their daughter is now asking when she will see her father again. A heartbreak so big, you can see it.

Sadly, their story is not unusual. We have met many families who have been forced to separate, not sure when, or if, they will be together again.

And as the war intensifies, so does the number of fugitives. We hear voices from NGOs and volunteers, even from other refugees, about a few thousand internally displaced Ukrainians waiting on the other side of the border. People want to stay in Ukraine, but may have to flee as the war moves west. We want to know their number at the border, but no one is able to tell us for sure.

Although everyone says they want to be open to refugees, resources are already thin. If one million people become 2 or 3 million, there are concerns about how these countries can sustain themselves.

For now, people are moving forward as much as they can.

In Slovakia, we meet Father Pavel Novak, who leads a congregation in a small church less than a mile from the border. He helped turn a nearby school into a shelter, one of 24 in the small area. Everything inside is donated from the community. He has already helped more than 100 refugees, and 34 people live there the day we visit. The whole group of family and friends share a room, but always walk around with a roof, food and lots of hope.

Father Pavel says refugees of all faiths are welcome. He showed us his church and told us that sermons are always sung in Orthodox Christianity and he started praying as soon as the sun went down outside. After one day running behind the story and driving hundreds of miles, his song stops our entire crew and forces us to stay still. His voice filled the small house of worship with a serenity that we had not felt for days. In that brief moment, the war, the heartache, the violence were all felt away.

These moments will stick with me. People give up everything to save their families. People are given everything they have to help others. People trying to find joy even in the darkest moments of war.

On our last day, we went to a small park in Moldova and stumbled upon a group of elderly people dancing. When Moldovan music explodes on the speakers and the elderly couple clap their hands and shout for joy, you can feel their joy throughout the park. With the war just a few miles away from where they stood and the refugees fleeing unimaginable violence, the group remembers dancing.

We saw this moment of joy, life was well lived and we were reminded of what it is worth to fight for.

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