LBC's heartbreaking week on the frontline of the worst refugee crisis in a generation

16 March 2022, 07:44

A week near the frontline of the Ukraine conflict.
A week near the frontline of the Ukraine conflict. Picture: LBC
Vicky Etchells

By Vicky Etchells

The first thing to hit me is there are no men.

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It's a vast sea of women and children. And it's silent.

No one is crying. No one is raising their voice. They are too tired. Too disorientated. Too frightened.

We're right on the edge of Ukraine at Medyka and hundreds of people are spilling across the border into Poland. 

Mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers quietly cling to children with one hand and a small bag containing their only possessions with the other. Some are carrying their cats in baskets.

It is illegal for men of fighting age to leave Ukraine.

The biggest humanitarian crisis in a generation is unfolding on the Ukrainian border with Poland.

On the day we arrive, 1.8 million refugees have poured out of the country. It quickly rises to 2 million while we're there. More than a million have come here to Poland. That's like the entire population of Northern Ireland upping and leaving in a week.

Ukrainian refugee in Poland can’t think of possibility she won’t see her husband again

Volunteers in high vis vests are wrapping the coldest adults and smallest children in metallic blankets, the sort you get at the end of a marathon.

They join the back of a queue of more than a hundred people. At the front a volunteer with a loud hailer asks in Polish for the women and children to come forward. The whole queue is women and children, so they just wait patiently to file onto a coach that will take them to the nearest refugee centre.

Just as I think the situation can't get any more desperate, it starts to snow.

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Rows of camp beds filled a disused Tesco.
Rows of camp beds filled a disused Tesco. Picture: LBC

Maria is holding her eight-month-old son. She tells us his name is Tymofiy, she also has a 10-year-old. We ask her why she has left.

"To save the children," she said. "The most important thing is to save the children. Children should not see what is going on there. We hope we can go home soon and be together again."

Her husband, along with all men of fighting age, is left behind in Ukraine along with her parents. She is alone here. For now, she's heading to Germany to family.

People wait in queue to enter UK visa application centre in Poland

The way the war is tearing families apart is gut wrenching.

We travel twenty minutes down the road to a disused Tesco. The tinned food and shopping trolleys are long gone. In their place are rows and rows of camp beds, on each one a Mum with their children. Car park barriers form a cordon around a makeshift play area. Three children are having a pillow fight, laughing. The joy of normal life finding a way through the misery.

Looking on is Antonia who is a primary school teacher. She is with her ten-year-old son. They were robbed of everything they owned by a driver who offered to help them get to the border. Documents, passports, clothes, all gone. They had nothing except the clothes they were wearing and her small handbag.

Mia's six-year-old son sits on an upturned vegetable crate at our feet.
Mia's six-year-old son sits on an upturned vegetable crate at our feet. Picture: LBC

I talk to 35-year-old Ludmilla. A week ago, she worked for the trade union representing train workers in Dnipro. She tells me with tears rolling down her face and hands trembling, her husband, father and brother have all stayed to fight. She’s terrified she won't see them again. She has fled with her twin girls who are six-years-old and her nephew. She tells me they don't understand that they've said goodbye to Daddy possibly for the last time. It's me that is fighting back the tears now. Like Ludmilla, I am a wife, a mother to two girls. What would our family do faced with their decision?

We go to the train station where hundreds of people pour off the train from Lviv. We meet Mia who tells me about the worst night of her life sheltering near Kyiv from Russian bombs in an underground bunker. Her six-year-old son sits on an upturned vegetable crate at our feet. It's freezing even though we are inside the train station ticket hall and a little girl beside him is crying. I bend down to take his photograph and he instinctively smiles clutching his toy. It's a long rattle, like one my own daughter has. It's his only toy now. Everything else he loved he has left behind in Ukraine.

He stretches out his arm and gives the toy to the girl. She stops crying and starts playing. He smiles at her. A moment of calm and kindness in the chaos swirling around them.

Refugees gather at centre in Poland

I ask Mia: "Will you go home?"

"It depends on who wins.

"If Ukraine – yes. If Russia – never.

"Hopefully, it will be over next week."

We look at each other in silence as I help her fold her blankets and move out of the ticket hall and into the room where all the children can sleep. It's nearly their bedtime. I think of my husband at home who will be tucking our girls safely into their beds and wonder what the future holds for these children, whose families have been torn apart by war.