Photo: wikipedia

Refugees welcomed in Polish sanctuary but worries remain

At first, as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, Natalia Orekhova and her mother held on as best they could in under-attack Kharkiv. Life was dangerous but it was still possible to go to the shops. Then the bombs and bullets got too close to venture out. Finally, living with such intense pressure became intolerable and they made the painful decision to set out on a precarious 1500-kilometre five-day land journey that found safety in the Katowice region of Poland.

So far neither the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, nor the country’s second city, Kharkiv, have fallen to the enemy, despite bombardment on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. In my own capacity as a journalist and tourist I have been to both places and have friends there, including Natalia, as well as invitations to return. But with the death and destruction unleashed by Russia, this atrocity is likely to continue for some time yet.

More than three million people have fled Ukraine, with more on the move out of a population of 44 million. Natalia and her mother are both safe in Poland now, and I caught up with her online. She agreed to my suggestion to document her diary but without photos or disclosing their exact location.

Natalia said that at first her mother was against the idea of leaving Kharkiv. But the assaults continued with Russian fighter planes overhead several times a day, leaving little choice but to abandon everything and get out altogether. Or else who knows what might have happened?

“Everything had become so frightening,” Natalia said. “Every time we heard the air-raid sirens we ran into the hallway of our home and lay on the floor. I placed my hands over my head and prayed this terrible ordeal would be over soon. We also hid in the basement during the heavy shelling. In a panic-stricken haste I also fell over and injured my leg. I had to apply a bandage over it, which was all I could do until I got eventual help for this additional misfortune much later on.”

Natalia said that after days of continuing assaults, her mother began to have terrible, emotional heartache and nervous breakdowns. The side effects of this trauma also played out on Natalia herself, as her hands began to constantly shake. “My chest and heart shook from time to time with immense fear. Finally, we could not take any more, and in further haste packed bags.”

The next morning, March 5, a volunteer taxi took them to the Kharkiv train station. The platforms were full with others who initially had not wanted to leave behind their lives in their beloved city, whether temporarily or not.

“Unfortunately we did not make it to the ‘first train’ out, as this was naturally booked out before,” Natalia said. “For unknown reasons the next three didn’t arrive. My mother and I thought about returning home. But how could we? There was also now a restriction for us to stay where we were. And finally we had to spend the night at the train station itself with so many others.

“Once again, at about 6pm, another round of terrible shelling came overhead from the skies, which followed with explosions prevailing everywhere. We were told to evacuate to the nearby subway, which everyone did. But even when underground we all could still hear the terrible, constant rumblings into the night. That same time the Russian Nazis blew up the local TV tower.”

She said the harrowing, unforgiving night was painfully long. But finally at 6.30am the next day, in cold wintry conditions, they got on board a westbound train. The carriage had insufficient heating and everyone was shivering, from cold and fear. Still, everyone was reasonably glad to get away from the conflict. As the train proceeded, it filled up with more mothers and children. Most men aged 18 to 60 years had to stay behind, perhaps to fight the Russians.

“Despite it all, there was a lighter than expected atmosphere on the train as it went along its way. People came together, told stories and shared food. Remarkably no one was too sad, as everyone was looking forward to returning home eventually.”

That evening the train pulled in somewhere on the outskirts of Kyiv, keeping away from the dangerous city centre. Then it was “all change” for an overnight journey to Lviv in the safer west of the country. On arrival next morning they had to seek accommodation. But the city was overcrowded with refugees from around the country, and Natalia and her mother left their bags at the train station to get away from it all for a while, which they did by walking around the nice city centre.

“The first thing we also needed was a pharmacy for much-needed medicine. In Kharkiv, when the war broke out, it was impossible to get any. There was a great need to treat my leg. Tired and hungry, we returned to the train station café. I ordered chicken soup and Mum had borscht. This was as much as we could hope for. We hadn’t eaten anything as delicious for some considerable time until then.

“I went online in search for a hotel and finally luck smiled at us. We then booked ourselves into a nearby hostel for one night. Finally, after going through so much, we managed to get some sleep.

“The next morning Mother and I returned to local information again in order to find a better place to stay in the Lviv suburbs. But there was nothing on offer. Finally, at the last moment, we decided to leave Ukraine altogether and make our way to Poland.”

Volunteers served hot soups, potatoes and buckwheat pies. After a two-hour queue they secured tickets for the train to the Przemysl border. “When done, it felt so good to finally step on board and warm up after much standing around in cold conditions for far too long before then,” Natalia said. “But not for long, as when we reached this end-stop everyone was prompted to leave the train and told to walk the remaining two kilometres until completion.”

There was another long queue. “Thank God we didn’t freeze too much after this long, hefty and exhausting jaunt. As once again more local volunteers came to the rescue and offered the grateful newcomers tea, sweets, apples. Thanks to these kind and attentive people, three hours of hanging about passed by with relative calm. Finally, we got through the border with relative ease into Poland.”

Soon after, another volunteer camp served goulash soup and tea and coffee to banish the cold. “The warmth which came from them to us warmed me up as much as the tea!”

The next stage was changing SMS cards into Polish ones. A friendly officer took Natalia and her mother to the nearby station for a train to Krakow, which left after another two-hour wait. Everyone was exhausted and immediately fell asleep. They were suddenly woken by a loud shaking, probably only a mechanical glitch but a painful reminder for the refugees of events in their homeland.

After a five-hour journey, they arrived at Krakow at 7am. A volunteer girl on the train had told Natalia of a family friend who would put them up. “This was a miracle! Prior to this I had contacted about 40 people but no one could help us. But our newfound friend told us we would have to go further on to Katowice, and then by train further onwards to a small town close by.

“Although generally glad about this new unexpected outcome, I also started to feel nervous. I was still afraid to go to somewhere unknown so I contacted this volunteer again but she didn’t reply. A panic attack soon sprang upon me, knowing how could I bring my mother to an unfamiliar place, regardless of final agreements, plus be responsible for us both, regardless of where we will stay?

“We made a final decision to wait for her reply. She finally did and confirmed her proposal of hospitality was genuine and valid and we should proceed there immediately. Although grateful for this, still it was a gamble if this final matter was going to work out or not. And whilst we were deciding on what was going to be best, three connecting trains passed us by. But finally, without wasting any more time, we took the plunge and made our eventual way there.”

On the train they got bad news. “A neighbour from home sent us a terrible but perhaps not so surprising message. A bomb fell on a flowerbed near our house and blew out windows, including ours. I became hysterical, my mother cried too. By the end of the journey I calmed down. At the end of what was a very long ride we met our hosts at a lesser known train station and they took us by car to their lovely home.

“These gracious hosts gave us a room. There was a pleasant and soulful atmosphere within, which allowed us to get away from our recent-time troubles, at least for a while. But my leg was getting more troublesome and needed obvious attention. Another volunteer took me to hospital. When there I met an equally kind doctor who treated me most well and with much care.

“As of now I am yet to find a job. The lady host has asked her cousin, who is an English teacher, to ask around. I could either be a teacher or a translator. Many children have arrived from Ukraine and are not familiar with the Polish language. That’s why I may be able to help out within the local community. Although I don’t know too much Polish itself, it is a Slavic language and has similarities with Ukrainian. I also speak English, so all this may be an asset for a nearby school and their new recruits.

“Although comfortable as can be, considering my situation, my mother is stressed out but tries to cope. We are continually worried about our house, which could be finally destroyed entirely at any time. Over 700 houses have been wiped out in Kharkiv so far. And even if our house survives, we need a lot of money to restore it.

“Unfortunately there are some from our home neighbourhood who think we are almost traitors for leaving Kharkiv. But at first we didn’t want to leave. But we did, simply because there was no choice and every day got worse. My mother and I spent the last two days in trauma before we could take no more. Then it was a now-or-never matter regardless of our defiant neighbours.”

Natalia’s heart-breaking plight is clearly similar to many others caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Many were not so fortunate to escape. She reflects: “Whilst still in Kharkiv I was always amazed at the spirit and heroism of our people. Like the local drivers, who were delivering bread several times a day under gunfire and shelling, as well as many others who still went about their lives despite all adversities. The volunteers still go out to take people to the station, risking their lives every hour. And whilst there are such people like this back home bringing us hope, I have full confidence that we will triumphantly win this battle. Everything will be Ukraine and return to normal there again.”

My good luck to Natalia and many like you. When the war is over, lives and fine buildings will be rebuilt to their former glory. Until then, I look forward to seeing you and the Kharkiv news team again anytime soon.

Slava Ukraini!

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