Poland Braces for More Refugees as Fighting Intensifies in Ukraine




Przemyśl, Poland — Poland is braced for a spike in the number of refugees arriving from Ukraine, as fighting intensifies in the east ahead of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion on February 24.

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Millions of Ukrainians fled into Poland in the first weeks of the war as a huge Russian column bore down on the capital, Kyiv. Every day, tens of thousands of refugees arrived in the Polish border city of Przemyśl by road, rail or on foot.

Ukraine successfully defended the capital and pushed back Russian forces in the ensuing months, eventually recapturing swathes of territory around Kharkiv and Kherson. As spring approaches, both Russia and Ukraine are preparing to launch new offensives, which could force thousands more Ukrainians to flee their homes.

FILE — Refugees from Ukraine arrive to the railway station in Przemysl, Poland, Feb. 27, 2022. FILE — Refugees from Ukraine arrive to the railway station in Przemysl, Poland, Feb. 27, 2022.

Chaos

A year since the start of the invasion, the chaotic scenes in Przemyśl have eased. Many Ukrainians still travel through the city to cross back and forth from their home country.

"There’s quite a steady flow going both ways," said Charlotte Farrar, an American volunteer with the charity Fastlane Ukraine, which operates in Przemyśl. "In recent days... we saw quite a spike in first time refugees, especially coming out of Kyiv, which is quite unusual."

"We’re thinking maybe that has something to do with the upcoming anniversary. Either people feeling afraid of what’s to come, or sort of having the gravity of what’s been happening for the past year hit them all over again as they’ve been struggling through the winter without electricity, heating, clean water and so on," Farrar told VOA.

"Quite a bit we see people coming out of de-occupied zones, where they might not have been able to leave for quite a few months. But I would still say probably at least 50 percent of people coming out have been out of Ukraine since February 24th [2022] and have gone back for some reason and are leaving again," Farrar said.

Psychological toll

Among the dozens of Ukrainians lining up at Przemyśl station for the train to Lviv, just over the border in Ukraine, was 55-year-old Olga Schust. She works in Poland but frequently returns to look after her parents, who are too old to escape the war. Fighting back tears, she told VOA that 12 months of brutal fighting and displacement have taken a toll on her mental health.

"Psychologically, I can’t stand it all. I’m helping as much as I can. I help at the Orthodox church. We’re collecting [aid] and helping as much as we can at a time like this, because what more can we do?"

"How can you kill other people like that? The 21st century, everything is moving forward, and here is such despair. People at my age have their lives laid out, they have plans for the future. And it’s all destroyed," Schust told VOA.

FILE — People who fled the war from neighboring Ukraine sleep at the Przemysl train station in Przemysl, Poland, March 9, 2022. FILE — People who fled the war from neighboring Ukraine sleep at the Przemysl train station in Przemysl, Poland, March 9, 2022.

Returning home

Nearby, Anna Federova and her two young children are also preparing to board the train to return home to Zaphorizhia, just tens of kilometers from the front line. The husband and father, Andriy, has brought them to Przemyśl station. He is staying in Poland, where he works as a driver. The family won’t meet again for at least another month.

"The war is close by, but I still want to go home," Anna told VOA. "The children, for a while, were very worried, very afraid. But then, I guess everyone just got used to it, you know. Even when you walk and feel the explosions, somehow it is accepted more calmly."

Coping with the war and getting Stronger

Taisiia, who did not want to give her family name, and her infant daughter Juliana, had just arrived in Przemyśl from Kyiv. After a year of traveling back and forth, she said she is learning to cope with the war.

"I’m stronger. And it’s not so scary anymore. And there is hope that everything will end soon. There was so much unknown — it seemed that nothing would work anymore. But we continue to live, to work, we continue to move. There is hope that everything will be fine soon."

Extraordinary optimism in the face of extreme hardship. Early fears among the refugees that Ukraine would fall to Russia’s invasion are mostly gone — replaced by a stoic determination to survive and adapt as the war enters its second year.

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