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TOPSHOT – Helena (R) and her brother Bodia (L) from Lviv are seen at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing, in eastern Poland on February 26, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. – Ignoring warnings from the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that the UN refugee agency said has forced almost 116,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
View from the border

View from the border

TOPSHOT – Helena (R) and her brother Bodia (L) from Lviv are seen at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing, in eastern Poland on February 26, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. – Ignoring warnings from the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that the UN refugee agency said has forced almost 116,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Paul Caruana Galizia reports from Przemyśl

Dorohusk, 26 February, 22:00–24:00

Inside Suchodoiski Palace, a group of five young Ukrainian mothers were huddled in a corner, cradling toddlers and babies. They looked broken. Rooms above and beyond the foyer were packed with sleeping Ukrainians. They were the lucky ones: Dorohusk, a small village one mile from the Ukrainian border, is close enough that some refugees were able to drive out quickly.

“We left early and got here in four hours,” Viktor told us. “In Ukraine, we live close to a nuclear power station and we were scared. We never believed that Putin wouldn’t come. He’s an international terrorist. And you in the West must know – he won’t stop at Ukraine.”

“Imagine what it’s like,” his wife, Viktoria, said. “Our five-year-old daughter was about to start school for the first time.” She trailed off, then burst into tears, clutching tightly on a bag of supplies left by Polish volunteers.

The supplies were piling up outside. An unending stream of Polish families brought bags upon bags of them: nappies, toys, medicine, food, thick jackets for the -5°C night-time temperature. Refugees, too, kept coming.

Nina, a 65-year-old Russian-speaking woman from Kyiv, was looking through the bags with her 11-year-old grandson. In one hand, he held a bag with a red football. In his other, a bag of food. Nina clutched a toothbrush. “It took us three days to drive here,” she told us. “I came with Reno and my daughter. We had to leave the men behind.” Beaming with pride, she said her grandson wants to study engineering in the West. But her face changed at the mention of Putin. “I hope he burns in hell. Forever.”

Her daughter joined us. “The road from Kyiv was very bad,” she said. “People were driving so fast, they were so scared, that many of them crashed into Ukrainian tanks, which have no lights, along the way. Many of them died. Many of them.”

Zosin, 27 February, 11:00–12:00

The reception centre at Zosin, an hour south along the border, was calmer. In a village school, it had taken in only 20 refugees. It was staffed by the Polish fire brigade, arranging rides for those who knew where they wanted to go. “We have to be organised now,” Patryk, a fireman, said. “Now only special address. No more pick up and go anywhere. To Krakow, Warsaw. Only special address.”

Polish families and Ukrainians resident in Poland were arriving at border crossings like Zosin’s in greater numbers than refugees. They parked their cars along the rural roads and waited for refugees. Many approached through rows of police cars with flashing lights, pulling bags behind them, wearing all the clothes they could, their children struggling to follow. A few made it through in cars.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” Viktoria, a 29-year-old from Kyiv told us. “The drive out took more than one day, then we had to wait at the border for almost two days.”

Przemyśl, 27 February, 20:00–22:00

The station here receives trains from Lviv and is a major transit point for onward journeys into Poland. It was in chaos. Refugees, many originally from South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East who had been working in Kyiv, were trying to sleep on makeshift beds along the station’s hallways. 

A ticket office has been turned into a supply point for hot soup and drinks. Polish officials set up a desk in the main hall to connect refugees with volunteers offering rides and accommodation across the country, and even beyond; some as far as Belgium and Germany.

A young Ukrainian mother travelled for three days with her six-year-old daughter to get here. Her husband drove them as close to the border as he could, and then turned back to Kyiv to fight. Her plan is now to go to a friend’s place in the Czech Republic. 

Oksana came with her two parents, both in their 80s, eating bread and soup brought to them by a volunteer. “My father has already lived through wars,” she told us. “But it became very difficult for him and my mother, living in the basement, to hide from air strikes. We had to leave. They want to go back home, but I told them we can’t.”

In the station café another young Ukranian mother is waiting anxiously at a table. Her husband Josef explains that her 18-year-old daughter first refused to leave the country, and is now struggling to get out. “She got on a train from Lviv,” Josef told us. “But the train has been held for 40 hours in the middle of fields behind the border. I keep asking Polish officials, but they just tell me it’s the Ukrainians. We’re very worried.”