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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP/Shutterstock (12828205g) Refugees try to stay warm after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the Medyka border crossing in Poland, . All day long, as trains and buses bring people fleeing Ukraine to the safety of Polish border towns, they carry not just Ukrainian fleeing a homeland under attack but large numbers of other citizens who had made Ukraine their home and whose fates too are now uncertain Russia Ukraine War, Medyka, Poland – 01 Mar 2022
Voices from the border

Voices from the border

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Visar Kryeziu/AP/Shutterstock (12828205g) Refugees try to stay warm after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the Medyka border crossing in Poland, . All day long, as trains and buses bring people fleeing Ukraine to the safety of Polish border towns, they carry not just Ukrainian fleeing a homeland under attack but large numbers of other citizens who had made Ukraine their home and whose fates too are now uncertain Russia Ukraine War, Medyka, Poland – 01 Mar 2022

Paul Caruana Galizia and Gary Marshall report from Krościenko

Medyka, 28 February, 13:00–15:00

It’s freezing in Medyka, the busiest post on Poland’s border with Ukraine. Refugees are warming themselves around the smoking piles of rubbish. Volunteers are bringing them clothes and dishing out rice with dhal, helping them with the next leg of their journey. Paramedics carry away a woman who has just collapsed. 

There are no international organisations here; only Polish volunteers and officials. The welcome they are providing is a world away from the one some refugees got a few metres east, in Ukraine. The difference is especially clear to Africans.

Many were studying languages, business and medicine in Kyiv. They’ve been camping at border posts where they say Ukrainian soldiers have herded them, beaten them and left them waiting for days as they wave through Ukrainians.

We meet Achraf Mouslim, from Morocco, once a medical student, now sitting with his girlfriend and their Pomeranian on a dusty curb. “He’s like my son,” Achraf says, smiling at the dog. 

The three of them left Poltava, in central Ukraine, for Kyiv three days ago. Officials prevented them leaving the capital for ten hours, ordering them to keep quiet and not switch on any lights so the Russian military wouldn’t see them. They made it to Lviv’s outskirts, then walked 60 kilometers to the Polish border where they say they were treated “like animals”.

Achraf, Medyka, Wednesday

Another young Moroccan, Aymen Bakar, was studying Ukrainian in Kyiv. Last week he made his mind up to escape the missiles and rockets and leave via Lviv.  

At the border post tens of thousands of people were clamouring to be allowed out and continue to Poland. Ukrainians were fast-tracked. When a foreigner complained, soldiers hit him in the face, Aymen said. “He started crying. And when he was on the floor, they beat him on the ground… It was really hard for Black people. It was harder for them than us.”

Aymen, Medyka, Wednesday

Moheedi Mpofu and Martin Kode, both 21, are from Botswana. Standing in a biting wind, they describe their journey from Kyiv: a two-kilometre walk out of the city, a 16-hour train ride to Lviv, which they spent standing, a short drive further west and then a 30-kilometre walk to the border. 

The journey, with little water and no food, took four days. “I didn’t think the trip would have taken that long because we got to the border the day after we left home,” Kode says. “But when we came to the soldiers of Ukraine, we suffered.” Mpofu shakes his head. “If I had a choice between dying and going back through that, I’d rather die.” 

Kode and Mpofu, Medyka, Tuesday

African students, mainly from Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria and Ghana, make up about a quarter of the 75,000 overseas nationals studying in Ukraine’s universities until the war. Attracted by high standards and low fees, most are now on the move, a small part of an enormous wave of anguish and exhaustion brought into sharp focus by the colour of their skin. Unlike Ukrainians they used to need a Schengen visa to enter neighbouring EU countries. Poland says it has suspended that requirement. 

As we walk back down the road to leave Medyka, a coach filled with Ukrainian children starts its engine. A girl inside it smiles at us and makes the shape of a heart with her hands as it drives farther away from Ukraine and deeper into Poland.

Krościenko, 1 March, 12:00–14:00

Poland’s southernmost border crossing into Ukraine is at the end of a one-lane road out of Krościenko village. The road is lined with cars waiting to collect refugees. At the crossing, volunteers are, bizarrely, dismantling a structure that was used to shelter supplies of food, clothes, and medicine. 

The local mayor, Bartosz Romowicz, ordered them to remove it and throw away the supplies. He said he would provide what was needed. But apart from a shack selling fried sausages, there are no facilities here. Even the fires are burning out. Police officers tell the volunteers they’ll help move the supplies to another crossing.

The officers ask Agatha, a 34-year old from Radyvyliv about 360 kilometres away, if she has onward transport. She stands with her son, daughter and niece, Liona, holding a fleece blanket to her chest. Their journey took four days and they arrived an hour ago. They were driven to the border by Liona’s father. “I’m missing my dad,” she says. “But he had to go back.”

Men are scarce among the refugees because of the Ukrainian order to those aged 18-60 to stay and fight. There is defiant hope among the women and children who cross. “Everything will be fine, but later,” says Ilya, 16, from Odessa. “I believe in Ukraine and Ukrainians.”

Nastya, another teenager, has made the five-day drive from Kyiv with her mother. She speaks Spanish and they plan to go to Spain, for now. “We hope the war will end and we can go home soon,” she says. “We are optimistic.”

Not so Taras Andriivsky, a Ukrainian who has lived in Munich for 29 years and is waiting for his elderly mother to come through. “My mother remembers the War,” he tells us. “She saw all this. First it was the fascists from the German side, now it’s from the Russian side. But it’s the same.”