On Ukraine’s Border, Suffering, Loyalty and Hope

A humanitarian crisis unfolds on the Ukrainian-Polish border amid freezing temperatures and dwindling supplies

On Ukraine’s Border, Suffering, Loyalty and Hope
People fleeing from Ukraine are seen after crossing Ukrainian-Polish border / March 2nd, 2022 / Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

“I won’t leave him, he’s like a brother, and we promised we’d stay together,” said Chadia Mysarah, a 24-year-old student from Rwanda. As she spoke, her teeth were chattering, her body shivering; she’d been waiting in the snow and frost of the Ukraine-Poland border for nearly three days. At that point it was only women and children allowed over the border, and the guards had asked the aid group I was with to round up everyone in the line who was eligible and walk them across.

I’d been helping a makeshift humanitarian organization that was little more than a few expat volunteers and a GoFundMe page. Most international organizations have evacuated Ukraine — we saw only a single Red Cross Tent during our drive to the border.

Chadia refused to cross the border alone as it would mean abandoning her companion. Sirak Tekle, a 27-year-old refugee from Eritrea, who had been working in Ukraine, told me, “I’m very lucky to have someone like her with me, so many people would have just left me here.” Chadia started to tear up as she told me about a family that was split up as they were crossing the border. “They took the mother and her two children to cross to Poland but made the father stay behind — one of them started crying and held his arms out, saying, ‘daddy, daddy.’”

They were both thin and gaunt, and Chadia looked as if she was seconds from fainting. “I have been waiting on the border with Sirak all this time after walking nearly 12 hours from Lviv.” They turned down all offers of food or supplies — the only thing either of them wanted was a blanket.

At the end of February, temperatures dipped below freezing for five straight days in Medykha, a Polish town near the border with Ukraine. In March, temperatures there have been below average, between 24 degrees Fahrenheit and 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

At one point, the border guards grabbed us and pulled us toward a fenced enclosure — we thought we were about to be thrown in jail. Instead, one of the guards said via our translator: “These people have not eaten in days. Please, feed them!” He pointed at our cameras and indicated that if we used them, he was going to smash them on the ground.

There were people from all over the world — India, Bangladesh, Congo, Somalia. Some were immigrant workers, but most were international students who had planned to return to their home countries after studying in Ukraine.

Around 200 people, mostly immigrant men, were packed inside the enclosure. Many were lying on grass — the lucky ones had brought a sleeping bag, the less fortunate had brought nothing but their jackets to shelter from the snow and frost. People were burning what little they could find, mainly old clothes and garbage, in a desperate attempt to stay warm. My friend Arnaud, a 26-year-old Belgian reporter on the Polish side of the border, had taken an 18-year-old man suffering from frostbite to hospital. He had been outside for five days. Another day, Arnaud said, would have killed him for sure.

Zaid, a 27-year-old student from Morocco, asked for soap or antiseptic to treat the large blisters on his feet he’d picked up from his 12-hour walk from Lviv. He had a fever, and his sores were weeping, indicating an infection had already set in.

More than a million refugees have fled Ukraine for the safety of other European countries, of which around half have crossed to Poland at border crossings like Medyka, around 50 miles from the western city of Lviv. As Russian forces pound rockets and artillery indiscriminately into Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding. People are struggling to get out, food and medical supplies are running low and new supplies are not arriving.

Amid this, Lviv has remained an oasis of relative calm. Still, nervous armed Ukrainian soldiers can be seen patrolling the streets, and there is a booze ban, intended to keep the citizenry sharp and sober in the event of a calamity. Some military targets in the region have been bombed — but the city itself is yet to come under fire. We’ve all started to ignore the air raid siren that goes off four or five times throughout the day. But many people are expecting the war to reach Lviv by the end of the week, so most of the displaced want to cross to the safety of Poland, Hungary, Romania or other European countries as quickly as possible.

Halfway down the line, which at some point stretched for 20 miles, was a solitary tea stop. A local Ukrainian NGO, Caritas, had organized the distribution of hot food, water and tea to refugees. Olya Kulei, a 24-year-old from Lviv was volunteering with them. “It is hard to stay home knowing that people are dying,” she said. “I am Christian, and I feel my faith compels me to be here. How can we sleep in our beds knowing that our people are dying?”

Takudza Gunga, a 32-year-old from Zimbabwe, was sipping a mug of tea from a thermos when we met him. “People here are hungry, they are cold, they are hungry,” he said. “We have a lot of small children here. They need blankets, jackets, medications. There are people freezing, people with fevers. We want to thank everyone in the world for their donations and whoever supports Ukraine now.”

Like many people, Takudza was caught unprepared for what has ensued over the last eight days. “When this happened,” Takudza began, “I lived in Ternopil. I’m a medical student, and I’ve been in Ukraine for something like six years. For us, our school didn’t notify us of anything at all. Instead, on Feb. 24, around 4 a.m., we just heard air sirens, indicating something bad had happened. They’d bombed Kyiv and Kharkiv when the war started.” Takudza was nervous about getting to the front of the line, having heard horror stories of other immigrants being mistreated by both Polish and Ukrainian border guards. The New York Times has reported on such incidents, and the African Union has denounced the mistreatment of Africans in Ukraine, stating it is both racist and a violation of international law.

“I had a friend who was beaten by the guards after waiting for three days to cross. They sent him straight to the back of the line. We are trying to find him, but his phone has been off. Everyone is very worried about him. His family keeps asking if he is ok. But we don’t know where he is now,” Takudza said. He had loved Ukraine and had been planning to stay: “I don’t want to go back to my country — it is a messed-up situation there already,” he said.

“This situation is really bad, Ukraine has become our home, and everything was normal, we were all happy until just one day everything changed. We are just praying that this can be resolved peacefully — people need to stop dying.”

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