Saturday, April 1

Hot soup and confusion waiting for the refugee train at the border between Ukraine and Poland

Heavy, seven hours late, a three-car diesel locomotive arrives at the Polish Przemysl station from Odessa (Ukraine). On board, dozens of refugees, mostly women and children, trickle down to the platform, queuing at the small customs office in this town in the southeast of the country, 15 kilometers from the border. It’s 11pm and it’s cold outside the dimly lit building, where relatives, volunteers, soldiers and police are waiting. “I never thought that this could happen in 2022,” say Silvia and Maciej, a young couple who have approached from Krakow to offer to transfer new arrivals who have no one waiting for them.

Some 150,000 people have crossed the Ukrainian border into Poland to escape the Russian invasion this week, according to UNHCR, and the number is multiplying daily. In Przemysl, with a population of 60,000, similar to Zamora, the main hall of the station, across the tracks from the office through which new arrivals first file, is a constant bustle of people. Collaborators with yellow and orange overalls distribute blankets, hot drinks, buns, diapers or stuffed animals among the haggard faces of the refugees. Oskar, who is a professor at the University of Resovia and has come to help, explains that there are “too many people”, that everyone is passing through here, that there is a school set up a few minutes from the station so that anyone who wants to can spend the night sheltered.

Two volunteers come and go along one of the platforms carrying a large pot of hot soup, they don’t know where to put it. Men with signs, carriers of solidarity, shout the names of the destination cities. “Poznan, Katowice”, they shout. Some of those who have gotten off the train raise their hands. The one with the sign directs them towards a van, where they get in to leave. There is a young man who says that he is willing to go to Estonia. On the platforms are nuns, Jehovah’s Witnesses, local teenagers, but also veterans, all willing to lend a hand.

In a corner of the hall, a group of foreigners of African origin are waiting, migrants whom the war has placed in a holding pattern. Alfred Mbayo, a 34-year-old Congolese, had been living in Lugansk, one of the separatist republics in the east, for 12 years, where he came to study Computer Science. “The situation in Ukraine is catastrophic,” he laments. He arrived at the station at 2:00 p.m. and has not yet decided what to do, where to spend the night. He hopes to be able to return to Ukraine “when things calm down”. In Lugansk the situation was already very “very tense” before the entry of the Russian army, he says. Most Africans want to go to Warsaw and continue west, explains volunteer Oskar.

Another young woman in orange overalls shows a photo of a child, whose relatives do not appear. A blonde girl smiles between two suitcases, waiting for her mother to finish the paperwork at the station. An older woman cries on the phone. The volunteer Luba solves the last doubts of some newcomers. “A lady could not find her husband, but she has already appeared,” she explains after attending to a worried woman.

Different reports indicate that men of fighting age are no longer allowed to leave Ukraine. Two more trains are expected to arrive in Przemysl overnight, but timetables are hardly a guide. The rows of cars from there and from all over the west of the country are kilometers long. At the moment, the customs office is emptying out, but the station hall, with its high ceilings painted in pastel tones, is full, as are the adjoining rooms. In all probability, they will continue to be in the coming days. The first big city in Ukraine across the border is Lviv and the queues of vehicles trying to reach Poland are kilometers long. Przemysl volunteers know that their work has only just begun.