Andrii Bondar hugged his wife, son and daughter when it was their turn. They would soon be crossing the border into Poland. He would stay behind. The three sobbed. Bondar, 50, eventually withdrew, waved goodbye and watched as his family entered the checkpoint leading to the neighboring state.
“We had emotionally prepared for it,” said Bondar, who emerged now dry-eyed himself, shortly after his loved ones walked west through Ukrainian and Polish checkpoints. “Nevertheless, it is very difficult. It was very emotional for all of us.”
The family had fled one of the hotspots of the war, Borodyanka, a northwestern suburb of the capital Kyiv, which was the scene of fierce battles. There, defenders with Kalashnikov rifles and Molotov cocktails faced Russian tanks. A Russian missile narrowly missed the family home. But at least they were all together – until now.
In just weeks, the great exodus of Ukrainians to Poland and other countries in 2022 – the number currently stands at over 3.2 million, according to the United Nations – has become the biggest refugee crisis involving Europeans since World War II.
Photographs and shots of women in quilted parkas pulling suitcases onto wheels and holding hands with children clutching stuffed animals have already entered the realm of icon – evoking a time when clashing armies rampaged through Europe and legions ravaged Streets and streets filled displaced persons camp. Smooth color digital images have replaced the grainy black and white compositions of an earlier era. But there’s still a sense that time has kind of rewound.
While global attention has focused on the many arriving in Poland and other nations, this daily spectacle has another iteration: the huge number still in Ukraine trying to leave the country. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, queue for hours every day at this border post, anxiously waiting to get out.
The overweight of women and children is striking. Ukraine, desperate for workers to fight the Russian attack, has banned the exit of most men between the ages of 18 and 60. There are some exceptions – single fathers, men with three or more minor children, and those who have a child with a disability. But most other men who are Ukrainian citizens cannot leave the country. Ukrainian border guards seem diligent in checking IDs.
Due to gender segregation, jump points in Ukraine — like this seedy border town just a short walk from Medyka in Poland — have become stages for big drama. Fathers, husbands, brothers, fiancés and others separate from wives and children, mothers, sisters and girlfriends every day. Left unsaid: There are no guarantees of future reunions.
Many men, like Bondar, accompany their clan to the final point of departure. Once on their own, the men often linger through gates and fences hoping to catch a last glimpse of their loved ones. It is a moment of palpable melancholy.
Even if he had qualified to leave, Bondar, a physical education teacher and football coach, insisted he would have stayed behind while his wife and daughter, 21, and son, 11, would have gone ahead.
“I would stay in Ukraine and fight,” Bondar replied as he stood at the border post shortly after his family entered Poland.
It’s a massive refugee crisis, but an extremely well-managed one, despite the turmoil of war and temperatures often falling below freezing. Humanitarian corridors, rotating shifts of escape vehicles, and Ukraine’s still-functioning passenger train network provide relatively reliable passage out of war zones and to the country’s borders.
Almost everywhere – train stations, bus stops, border posts – volunteers, often in orange or green vests, provide food and drink. Temporary accommodation is usually available for travelers. Almost everything is free.
Buses line up at Ukrainian train stations and borders to transport people to places across Europe. In Poland, authorities have set up an elaborate network to bring together volunteer drivers with destinations across the continent.
“A big thank you to the volunteers,” said Bondar, a lean, athletic man in sweatpants, black sneakers and a sports parka. “Without her it would have been very difficult to go.”
Officials have struggled to keep the war-displaced crowds moving to avoid overwhelming small border towns.
Refugees are being channeled to cities like Warsaw and Krakow, and across borders to Berlin, Amsterdam and elsewhere, as Western European states ease visa requirements for those fleeing Ukraine.
Many have specific travel destinations in mind, typically with relatives or friends, often members of the vast Ukrainian diaspora.
Surprisingly, however, many know where they want to go. Bondar’s family, for example, decided to go first to Poland and then to Germany. Not sure where.
But almost any place is better than Borodyanka at the moment.
“Columns of Russian tanks fired on the buildings,” Bondar recalled, showing reporters cellphone video of his once-quiet hometown turned into a war zone — a wasteland of charred armored vehicles and wrecked apartment buildings. “They destroyed the entire city center.”
On his phone, he jumps to another panorama of the devastation. “Right between the school where I work and next to the children’s music school, Russian tanks were shot down,” Bondar said. “Ukraine is saving Europe from a plague called Putin!”
Not everyone accepts the ban on leaving the country for men. Various cases of men returning to Ukraine for not qualifying for exemptions have surfaced in the press and on social media.
On the same afternoon that Bondar dropped his family off, Anton Bohachov, 29, had a cup of coffee with his wife, Valentina, 31, at a volunteer stand. They were both heartbroken — but not for the usual reason. He was refused entry, he said, even though his wife is deaf. The two, who were accompanied by their 4-year-old daughter, communicate using sign language. But in his case, no exception was made.
“My wife is disabled and can’t walk by herself, but they won’t let me out with her,” said Bohachov, a plumber. “I have work ready in Poland. I have a place to stay there. This is not a good situation for me and my family. That’s not fair.”
The city of Lviv, 40 miles to the east, is a magnet for displaced Ukrainians – both those heading abroad and the many who choose to stay. They regard Lviv, which until now has been largely isolated from the war, as a safe haven.
Groups of war-displaced Ukrainians arrive daily at Lemberg train station, a majestic Art Nouveau throwback to the city’s glory days as the capital of the former province of Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In this historic setting, uprooted Ukrainians wait hours for the daily trains to Poland.
Among those waiting on a recent evening was a family of four – a couple and two children – who had just arrived by car from Kyiv, a seven-hour drive past many checkpoints.
“It was just getting too hot in Kyiv, so I decided to go out with my family,” said the 38-year-old father, who only gave his first name Dmytro for security reasons. “The air defense system works, yes. But there are too many Russian missiles. And sometimes we get hit.”
He was turned down for the armed forces, he said, because they were oversubscribed with recruits. He wants to try to rejoin.
His family went first to Poland, then to Germany. The father seemed exuberant, cracking jokes and swore the war would be over in a month. He used a popular if vulgar term that advised the Russians to leave.
There would be no tears on Platform 5, he vowed as he awaited the moment the train departed for Poland, taking with it his wife Anna, 35, and sons Lev, 7, and Kostya, 4.
“I cried enough in the car when I came here,” said Dmytro.
He would return to Kyiv, war or no war. His family, he assured anyone who would listen, would be back home with him soon, and a period of missiles and forced separations was coming to an end.
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-03-20/in-ukraine-flood-of-displaced-fleeing-war-only-grows-tearful-farewells-at-borders-stations In Ukraine, the tide of displaced people fleeing the war is growing.