As refugee numbers soar, many are haunted by the terror of war

It took Tatyana Pelykh and her 11-year-old son four days of travel and an almost 48-hour wait at the border post to flee their native Ukraine to Romania. There they found security and a place to sleep, on the floor of a hotel conference room.

But Pelykh, a baker, says she still carries the terror of war within her.

“I feel my body is here, but my heart and soul are in Okhtyrka and Kharkiv”, the towns in Ukraine where her parents and best friend remain cowering in basements and garages under Russian attack.

In just one week, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused an exodus of refugees so large that it nearly matches the number of people who sought refuge in Europe in an entire year during the 2015 migration crisis.

The UN refugee agency said on Thursday that one million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion, the fastest refugee exodus this century.

By 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrians had fled their conflict-torn country, which Russia has also bombed. With people fleeing fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, they headed west, with thousands dead at sea trying to reach a continent where many did not want them. The arrival of around 1.3 million people sparked tensions between European partners, who argued over how many to accept, and bolstered far-right populists, some friends of the Kremlin.

This time, as Russian forces inflict massive destruction on Ukraine, Europeans have come together to reach out.

Within a week, neighboring countries have accepted more than 2% of Ukraine’s population of 44 million, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. The operation went relatively well thanks to a huge mobilization of volunteers who went to the borders to help.

The European Union decided on Thursday to grant people fleeing Ukraine temporary protection and residence permits. EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said millions more are expected to settle in the 27-nation bloc and need shelter, schooling and work. The UN refugee agency has predicted that the war could produce up to 4 million refugees.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians and other people who lived in Ukraine continued to arrive in Polish, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian and Moldovan border towns.

Among them was Nadia Zuravka, a teenager who arrived in Przemysl, Poland, on Thursday with her mother. They came from Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, which is under bombardment. She said her school and home were hit by bombs and her friends were all hiding in basements.

“Everything of value to me” faced some kind of destruction, she said.

Poland, a neighboring Slavic nation where many Ukrainians have settled in recent years to work, has so far taken in the largest group of refugees, many of whom have been hosted by relatives or friends. Many refugees continue to move west to countries such as Italy and Germany.

Volunteers and local authorities at border posts encounter exhausted people who have been traveling for days. They serve food or guide new arrivals to shelters; sometimes they welcome strangers into their homes. Children who arrived with cancer were evacuated to hospitals in Poland.

Pope Francis thanked Poland for its role in helping refugees, praising the country’s people for “opening your borders, your hearts, the doors of your homes”. Citizens across Europe are also helping, even as they struggle with their own fears about what this dangerous new chapter holds for a continent that has faced so much bloodshed in past wars.

Luc Dedecker traveled 1,650 kilometers from his home in Belgium to Przemysl, only stopping to sleep in his car. He was ready to bring strangers home. “People need to be helped,” he said. He also described a deep fear of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For Poles, Russia’s attack on Ukraine evokes memories of the twin invasions of their own country in 1939 by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The German invasion sparked World War II and a brutal five-year occupation that killed 6 million Poles, including 3 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Scenes of destroyed Ukrainian towns today recall the appearance of Polish towns razed by German bombardment during the war.

Some Poles described helping Ukrainians as part of a struggle by the democratic West to defend their own freedom, as hosting Ukrainian women and children frees men to fight back home . “We believe that if the Ukrainians fight and win, we will be safe. Now we are not safe,” said Bartosz Tomaszewski, a 28-year-old Pole wearing a yellow safety vest that marked him as a volunteer.

He guided people getting off trains at Przemsyl, where he traveled daily from his home in nearby Rzeszow. Tomaszewski fears that if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fails to stop Putin, Poland could be next, along with the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Pelykh, the Ukrainian refugee in the Romanian border town of Siret, hopes people in Russia will “read about it and think about what is happening now (in Ukraine). It’s not Photoshop, it’s not fairy tales. in my city.”

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

Helen D. Jessen