Hope, fear and tears: Five stories from Ukraine's border with Poland

Mothers, children, farmers and soldiers tell their stories of war at Poland’s border

Millions of refugees have poured out of Ukraine since the war began - but some have gone back. AP
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Despair turns to cheer, tears are wiped away and empty stomachs are filled at Poland’s main foot crossing point into Ukraine.

The emotions at Medyka are as varied as the people who transit the short path either back to war or to escape from it.

The route is lined with gazebos manned by volunteers from around the world offering hot food, sweets, tea and information on housing and onward travel.

Exhausted mothers, pushing prams with toddlers trailing, gratefully take the proffered sandwiches or paper cups filled with jarzynowa potato salad. Their looks of joy are tempered by sorrow at leaving behind husbands and sons, not knowing when or if they will see them again.

There are a few men, one a foreign fighter returning back to Georgia after witnessing rape and child killings in Bucha. There are farmers eager to return to grow potatoes to feed their country. A wife who cannot bear to be separated from her husband any longer, despite their city being under missile attack – “better that we die together than we continuing living apart,” she told The National.

‘Better die together’

About 10 missiles struck the city of Dnipro in the centre of Ukraine last week. It is dangerous, admits Elea Serebriakova, 39, but the emotional drain of being apart from her partner and parents was too great after she fled the country a month ago.

“It is better to die together than be apart. It is unbearable” she said. “It is very tough emotionally; it’s very hard to be separated from my husband. It is safe here in Poland, but now I want to be with him in Dnipro.”

She left after the Russians bombed, then seized, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in early March. “We were very scared then, but now I want to go back and support my people because the Russians are planning to attack.” For a moment she paused, tears glistening in her eyes. “The Russians are so stupid – stupid – to come to Ukraine.”

Elea Serebriakova returning to her husband in Dnipro. Thomas Harding/The National

The secretary

Olga Pylup’s first act on entering Poland was to use the sink next to the outdoor Portaloos to scrub her hands. It was perhaps a step in erasing the memory of war.

There was very little left for her in the city of Svatove in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine after it was occupied by the Russian-backed LNR separatists.

Twice the townspeople had united in protest against the LNR only for Russian troops to intervene.

A few months earlier, she had left her job as a secretary to look after her dying father. Then the invasion came.

“It was really hard to find food. All the shops had left was bread and mayonnaise. Prices were four times higher. There was no internet, no TV. It was like a jail. And I did not want to live under the LNR separatists.”

Olga, 43, managed to get on a bus convoy heading west. She was lucky. A day later, a similar convoy was struck and two people killed.

Where was she heading now? Ireland, she responded. Her clean fingers danced over her phone to find precisely where. “Limerick,” she pronounced with a strong Ukrainian accent. “My mother and cousin are there,” she clarified through The National’s Ukrainian translator. “I am praying to God that my brother and sister and children will live and can leave Luhansk.”

Olga Pylup, a secretary from eastern Ukraine. Thomas Harding/The National

The Georgian

The intense stare and the way he carried his backpack suggested that the stocky, bearded man was one who had witnessed combat.

Joni Khvadagiani, 39, was returning from the fulcrum of frontline fighting against Russian troops around the towns of Bucha and Irpin, north of Kyiv.

Ukraine’s human rights commissioner reported on Tuesday that 25 girls had been raped by Russians. Nine had become pregnant during the brutal occupation of Bucha, where an estimated 500 civilians were murdered.

Joni, a volunteer from Georgia, was among those who rescued the girls. “We heard them screaming from a basement,” he told The National. “But we first had to get the engineers because the doors were booby-trapped. They made the explosives safe, then we got in. We found the girls. They were dressed in pyjamas and they were really, really cold. Some were 14 years old, some younger. They had been raped by the Russians. Nine were pregnant.”

He spoke calmly, but his outrage was evident as he recalled other children’s bodies floating in canals. Then he showed pictures of a smouldering BTR armoured vehicle his unit had destroyed along with the bloodied bodies on young Russian soldiers sprawled in the road.

“They should not have come,” he said.

His motivations for joining the war were clear. Joni’s father and brother had been killed during Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. As soon as the Ukraine invasion started he flew out of Tbilisi. “I came to fight for Ukraine,” he said, and vowed he would return to finish the fight after a break back home in Georgia.

“For sure, 100 per cent, Ukraine will win the war. When they do, we will come back and fight Russia in Georgia. The Russians are worse than animals. They are not human.”

Joni Khvadagiani, a Georgian who went to fight for Ukraine, returning home after a month on the frontline. Thomas Harding/The National

The farmers

“Potatoes,” said Andrii and and Stepan. “We are going back home to plant potatoes to feed our people so they can fight the war.”

Like many Ukrainians, the pair had gone to their EU neighbour to earn better wages. Now they wanted to go home and help. Normally Andrii, 48, would have been immediately drafted into the army on crossing the border into Ukraine. Every man aged between 18 and 60 is liable for the draft. But he has a disability, although that will not put him off joining the territorial defence, along with Stepan, who is approaching his 60th birthday.

But was it safe to return? “The words ‘it’s safe’ are not good now for Ukrainians. It is dangerous everywhere,” replies Andrii. “We expected this because Putin wants to destroy Ukraine, but we have the best army in the world.”

“We are grateful for all the people of Europe who give us help with the weapons,” interjected Stepan. “But we need more. Nato to give us more modern weapons so we can close the sky to Russia’s aviation.”

Newly arrived refugees eating free pizza and chips. Thomas Harding/The National

Mother, daughter, cats

Inna Butko could not hide her smile on arriving in Poland. As she sat on a bench opposite a free food stand, she could finally relax. She had made it to safety with her 16-year-old daughter and two cats, Toffee and Lemon.

They too had escaped from the east. They had fled their hometown of Sloviansk, near Kramatorsk, before it was encircled by the Russians. The stories from Bucha of rape and executions of civilians had been enough to spur them on, even though she was leaving behind her husband and 29-year-old son.

“It was dangerous getting out. There were a lot of bombs. There were sirens every day. We are very happy that we are here because it was so hard to get out. But we are very worried about my husband and son. It is stressful and terrifying for them, but one day we will return. Ukraine will not give up.”

Inna Butko with her 16-year-old daughter and cats. Thomas Harding/The National
Updated: April 17, 2022, 11:01 PM
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