Medyka, POLAND Taking a chance on finding a new life outside of the harrowing reality of war sometimes begins with taking a chance on a stranger. On Tuesday night, that proved to be true for a busload of Ukrainian refugees arriving from the Medyka border crossing.
They are waiting in the parking lot of a defunct grocery store that has since been converted into a temporary relief and rest centre. Inside the buses are refugees who either didn’t have someone there to pick them up, or had no clue where they were headed when they packed up to escape the war only a 15-minute drive down the road from where they now perch.
Outside the bus, men and women stand shoulder to shoulder waving posters — some printed on what looks to be the backs of old pizza boxes — with destinations that could hold the name of their new home.
Krakow, Warsaw and Katowice are some of the domestic locations on offer, but refugees have the option of being whisked to destinations as far away as Estonia and Germany.
A woman in a black puffer jacket steps off with a single duffle, discusses briefly with the man who had a sign offering a ride to Berlin about how long it would take to get there. Decisions in moments like these don’t take long. Her bag is tucked away in the trunk of his car before the next person is even down the steps.
Medyka is one of eight possible crossing points from Ukraine into Poland, and has become the main option for people fleeing as you can come by foot or drive through the specially prepared lane beside the narrow pedestrian crossing. Tens of thousands have come through since Thursday.
For some who crossed, however, getting over the border was a degrading journey.
That was the case for the refugees we spoke with arriving from countries including Zimbabwe, Tunisia and India.
“They treat us not like humans,” said Tunisian medical student Ebtyssem about some of the Ukrainian authorities. “Worse than animals.”
The 28-year-old and her fiancé — who donned a Toronto Maple Leafs hat, but said he had no idea who or what they were — backed up some of the allegations that had been circulating on social media in recent days about the treatment of those crossing the border who didn’t hold Ukrainian passports. These refugees, who notably weren’t white, were being discriminated against by Ukrainian authorities and were, in some cases, hindered from leaving.
Megh Shukla and Bhumin Patel, two Indian students studying in Kyiv, said that some authorities took it one step further.
After being held back at the border for more than 24 hours with a group of Indian students, Shukla explained how he went to reach for a bottle of water that was being offered to fleeing refugees. When he grasped it, the 28-year-old said, the official who had just moments before told him “not to touch the water” quickly came down and hit him in the gut with the barrel of his gun.
“I was dehydrated,” he said.
Both men sat waiting beside the ashes of a burnt-out fire just metres away from the Polish checkpoint. They still had a few friends waiting to make it across and they all wanted to continue their journey back home together. They hoped to get to the nearest airport, where they knew Prime Minister Narendra Modi had co-ordinated evacuation flights for Indian students fleeing Ukraine.
Refugees who know where they’re going but are still waiting for friends and family to pick them up can find themselves 15 minutes down the road at the makeshift relief centre. Once you enter through the automatic doors, the fluorescent lights give off a relieving warmth that makes this purgatorial resting spot seem less bleak than the reality that they are waiting at a shuttered grocery store across the border from their wartorn home.
Small children are placed on playmats with toys spilling out in front of them, likely grabbed from the free aisles of goods that line the parking lot. Toward the back, sitting between two sleeping families on a cot, sits Anastaysia and her nephew. She tells us she arrived today from Mykolaiv after a journey that spanned five days and included the common mixture of driving and, she beams, “only one day” of walking.
“Our friends will house us tonight,” she says. Her seven-year-old nephew might have other plans in mind as he tucks in beside her, letting his eyelids slowly close.
Just a day earlier, she’d heard from her mother-in-law, whose intel comes filtered down through the bunker she now resides in several metres below the ground, that a child not much younger than the one curled up beside her was shot at with their family in her hometown.
“I haven’t heard from her since yesterday though,” she adds. Internet and phone calls are no longer being received or sent where her mother-in-law has been hiding out.
“It’s the not knowing that’s the hardest.”
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