On Tuesday morning, in the waiting area of the Przemysl railway station, Kateryna Popko, a nineteen-year-old Ukrainian medical student, sat with her mother, Tatiana. The station is a few miles inside the Polish border with Ukraine, and the ticket hall was crowded with refugees from the conflict. Some slip on bags, and others fed their babies bottles of formula. Volunteers wearing high-visibility jackets attempted to convene. groups to leave on buses Police officers moved among the throng, attempting to ascertain ways in which they could help or clear the logjam.
Kateryna and Tatiana had not been planning to leave their home in Dnipro, a six-hundred city and fifty miles to the east, in Ukraine. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in 2014, Tatiana, a furniture manufacturer, had redesigned her house with a reinforced basement. In the event that Russia ever invaded Ukraine again, she thought, her family would at least have somewhere safe to stay. But then, last week, as Russian troops advanced, a friend persuaded her that a reinforced basement might not be enough. She and Kateryna decided to take a train to Lviv, a Ukrainian city near the border with Poland, and then to make their way into Poland itself.
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The journey was long and difficult, but the women told their story with no self-pity. Kateryna, pale-faced and with a girlish side-braid in her hair, even seemed to take some pleasure in it, often pulling out her phone to show a picture of this or that calamity. In her retelling, the crowd of people who boarded the service from Dnipro to Lviv was so great that every inch of floor in the train car was taken, including people sleeping on roll-up mattresses. Some passengers even stuffed themselves into the overhead luggage racks. Many of the people on board had no tickets. The train was scheduled to leave Dnipro at 2:30 p.m. but departed late, and stopped frequently. When it passed areas where fighting was happening—near the capital, Kyiv, and the city of Bila Tserkva—the lights cut out. The women arrived in Lviv at 11 a.m. the following day, already exhausted.
From Lviv, Kateryna and Tatiana took a bus, which stopped nearly four miles short of the Polish border. It was already evening, and horribly cold. They began to walk the remaining miles. At 9 p.m., nearing the border, they were told by an official that there would be a nine-hour wait until they could be processed. They were shown to a school where they could sleep, alongside other people fleeing the violence. Volunteers had established food stations in the classrooms. One family had a three-day-old baby with them. (Kateryna shook her head in pity at this point in the story.) Nobody got much sleep. The next day, a bus took them to the border, which they crossed at Medyka, without trouble.
Now in Poland, the women were waiting for friends who were arriving from Lviv by train. They were all hoping to travel to Finland together, where they had relatives and friends who could help them. They surmised that the remainder of the journey might take two days by car. The women realized they might not return to their home for a while. “I think the Russians will bomb everything, and there will be nowhere to return back to,” Tatiana said. Kateryna was already considering how to continue her medical studies in Finland.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people. Many are traveling west, where Poland has promised to receive them. Poland has not always been such a friend to refugees. In the fall, he refused asylum to a group of Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover of their country, and it is currently building a wall on its Belarussian border to keep immigrants out. But its generosity in the face of this crisis has been warming. Officers from many of Poland’s government agencies, and from its emergency services, are now at work assisting people crossing the border. In one transit center for housing and processing refugees, situated at a giant food depot aptly named Hala Kijowska—“Kyiv Hall”—I saw a Polish soldier gallantly carrying the bags of a woman in her sixties, even as he barked instructions to a gaggle of younger Ukrainians to follow him to a bus.
Several women I spoke to carried with them stories of people who could not be persuaded to leave. Tatiana Doctorova had driven from Kyiv with her two teen-age daughters, a separate family of four, and a cat named Gabriele, in a medium-sized car. She told me that her mother had remained in the city of Sumy, near the Russian border, where there has been fighting. Despite the danger, she could not be convinced to flee. Likewise, Doctorova’s sister, who lives with her kids on the left bank of Kyiv, near Doctorova, decided to stay, even after explosions shook her building. “She believes in our Army, and she thinks everything will be OK,” Doctorova said. “She is very strong.”
Last week, Doctorova’s two daughters were in school. Now they were standing on the side of a road in Poland, after an exhausting four-day journey, and with uncertain prospects. They wore hoodies and nose rings and Nike high-tops. They giggled often and shrugged their shoulders when I asked difficult questions. (“They are young,” Doctorova explained.) But I was surprised at how evenly their mother appeared to bear the dramatic changes in her life. The family thought they might try to live in Germany, although they didn’t speak the language. Was she worried about the future?
“Sometimes”. . . I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or not,” Doctorova said. “I do have moments when I am overcome with anxiety and emotion . . . I still cannot believe this is happening.”
There are thousands of similar stories along the border: of lives upended and hastily reimagined. President Volodymyr Zelensky has banned all men between the ages of eighteen and sixty from leaving Ukraine, so most of the refugees are women or children, or non-Ukrainian men who were residing in the country. (Many of the men are students from developing nations, or existing refugees from other painful conflicts, and their confusion is often to witness; one Saudi student I spoke to had seemingly spent two days in line before entering Poland.) The Ukrainian women that have fled worry for those left behind. Kateryna Popko told me that boys in her class had already signed up to fight; she showed me a picture of one of her male school friends in uniform.
But there is also a counterflow. A stream of men is moving east, from Poland back into Ukraine. I met some of them at Medyka, the main border crossing near Przemysl. Medyka has recently been the site of a large inflow of refugees, but was much quieter on the day I visited, because—I was told—more people are now being bused straight to transit centers, rather than waiting at the checkpoint itself.
Mykhailo Kozlovskiy and Andrii Tsarenko are wide-shouldered Ukrainians who work as truck drivers around Europe. They are both in their mid-forties, and they each have a wife and two children in Ukraine. Walking to the passport booth, Tsarenko said they were going back “to protect their families and their lands.” They planned to join up with a military group and fight the Russians. Kozlovskiy said he had spent thirteen years in the Ukrainian Army. Tsarenko had two years’ military experience. They each carried two small bags.
“There is no choice,” Kozlovskiy said, before shaking my hand.
Vitalii Lysetskii, a thirty-eight-year-old construction worker with a scar above his eye and a shaved head, came to the border crossing with his wife, an elegant woman wearing a long fur coat. His wife would be staying in Poland. His three kids, the youngest of whom is two, remained in Ukraine, but would be shortly leaving. Lysetskii, who was from the city of Uman, said he was returning to Ukraine. Why, I asked?
“I’m going to barbecue,” he said, drily. He was referring to killing Russians. He said he would only come back when he had “run out of material to barbecue.”
When Lysetskii said goodbye to me, my Ukrainian translator engaged him with a greeting—“Glory to Ukraine!”—to which he responded, “Glory to the Heroes!” He laughed, then joined the line for passport control. He said goodbye to his wife, and nobody hurt.