Women and children lead exit from Ukraine as refugees surge into Poland

But many Ukrainian men are returning home to take up arms and fight

Live updates: follow the latest news on Russia-Ukraine

From his cashmere shop in Kharkiv, north-east Ukraine, Dara Zabullah viewed the Russian troop build-up on the border less than 50 kilometres away with increasing trepidation.

Then, less than a week ago, he left the city, becoming one of the tens of thousands of people who fled across the border into Poland after Russia plunged Europe back into war.

Mr Zabullah says his shop has not been hit by rocket fire so far, despite the Russian military pummelling Kharkiv with artillery — as it has done in many other parts of Ukraine.

Quote
I said to my friend: 'One time we lost our homeland. This is the second time'
Dara Zabullah, Afghan resident of Kharkiv

It is the second time that the 22-year-old has been forced to leave his home. Originally from Afghanistan, he moved to Ukraine five years ago to study.

On a frigid early morning, he arrived in the small Polish border village of Korczowa.

“It’s very hard to explain what’s going on inside me,” Mr Zabullah says. He loves Ukraine, describing it as the most beautiful country in the world, but has now been forced to move on.

“I said to my friend: 'One time we lost our homeland. This is the second time',” Mr Zabullah says.

“I can speak the Ukrainian language like my native language. I have more [Ukrainian] friends than Afghan friends. The people I lived with, they are all Ukrainians.”

About 120,000 people have fled from Ukraine in recent days following the attack by Russia.

The Polish authorities have quickly moved to set up reception centres in border areas and have eased entry restrictions.

At dawn in Korczowa, the village is empty except for the social club — a hive of activity, where the Polish Red Cross, fire service, police and others are working to support refugees.

Arrivals register with the authorities and are given food and drinks. Exhausted after lengthy queues on the Ukrainian side of the border, Some sleep upstairs where mattresses have been placed across the floor.

They are also given help to find accommodation in the country, although many have been met by family members or friends.

Mr Zabullah is considering going to Germany to get help from the Afghan community there. He is one of the few men arriving at the reception centre — Ukrainian men aged 18-60 have been stopped from leaving the country and are being urged to fight.

It means that many arrivals are mothers with their children.

These include Ivanka from Ukraine's Lviv region. “If I was alone with my husband, I would not leave. But with four children, the air raid sirens were too much for all of them,” she says.

She and her children, one of whom is disabled, were driven to within 5 kilometres of the border by a family friend. They will now go to Warsaw, where her sister lives.

Ivanka says she never expected Russia to carry out military action in western Ukraine.

“Donetsk, ok, maybe,” she said in reference to the contested territory in eastern Ukraine. But never this part of Ukraine,” she says.

At the Korczowa-Kravovets border, cars line the hard shoulder for more than a kilometre on the Polish side. They are owned by people waiting for family members or friends crossing from Ukraine.

On Saturday morning, many said they had slept in their cars overnight and endured a nervous wait. Extensive queues, sometimes lasting days, have been reported on the Ukrainian side.

One of those waiting was Roman, who is Ukrainian but works in the Czech Republic. He was picking up his Belarusian wife, Marina, who has lived in Ukraine for many years, and their daughter Camilla, 2. It will be only the third time father and daughter have met.

They arrived with little more than a buggy, after leaving Khmelnytskyi in western Ukraine. Marina said the town was not attacked, but adds: “I am happy I was able to escape; the decision was easy. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or you are poor ― everyone is running away.”

In Przemysl, a town about 15km west of another border crossing, Ukrainians have poured in through the train station. Inside the terminal, exhausted families rest on seats while volunteers and officials give out food and essential supplies. Drivers advertise free lifts.

It is estimated that four times the normal daily number of passengers arrived on Saturday alone.

But trains are still running the other way, into Ukraine. The passengers are mostly men returning to Ukraine to protect their country.

One of them, a 21-year-old who was born in Ukraine but has lived in Poland with his family for eight years, said, if anything, he was late for the war — referring to the fact that the fighting had been raging for several days.

“I have friends there, I have to go,” he said while waiting for his train.

He said it was normal to perhaps be a little bit scared — “we go somewhere where people kill other people”.

Back at the Korczowa-Kravovets border is Ivana, a mother of three, who has strong ties to Poland and lives about 15km inside the Ukrainian border. Her youngest daughter was born in Poland, and they were waiting to be picked up by Ivana’s Warsaw-based sister. She came to Poland for the sake of the children, leaving her husband behind.

“He will fight. If he doesn’t fight, they will come for you,” she said, referring to Russia and its threat to Europe.

Updated: February 27, 2022, 12:20 PM
EDITOR'S PICKS