Ground report | Ukrainian refugees in Poland speak of wanting to fight, conflicted loyalties

Ukrainian refugees in Poland say there is news from back home of wounded Russian soldiers being treated in local hospitals and confiding in their doctors that they were taken by surprise when asked to cross the border

Updated - February 27, 2022 06:55 pm IST

Published - February 27, 2022 01:48 pm IST - Bielsko Biała, Poland

A woman searches through donated clothes for useful items after she and her children fled the Russian invasion in Ukraine and crossed the border in Medyka, Poland February 27, 2022

A woman searches through donated clothes for useful items after she and her children fled the Russian invasion in Ukraine and crossed the border in Medyka, Poland February 27, 2022 | Photo Credit: Reuters

Russian is going to be an even more familiar language on the streets of Polish cities in the coming months. Most Ukrainians can speak perfect Russian in addition to their mother tongue; in fact, many speak it as their first language. With the onset of the war with Russia, the UN anticipates more than one million Ukrainians will travel to Poland, a country that already hosts two million Ukrainians as a legacy of the previous war.

“We would like to thank the Polish people and government for their generosity, they have made us feel welcome,” says Aleks, a young man who works in the southern Polish city of Bielsko-Biala, which is four hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border. Inter-city trains are providing free transport for refugees and many Polish citizens have volunteered their time and resources and are sharing their homes during this difficult moment.

Getting to the Polish border in Ukraine carries the obvious risks of being caught in the crossfire or being held up by damaged roads from the shelling. Able-bodied menfolk between the ages of 18-60 are also banned by decree from leaving the country, which leaves only women and children free to cross. However, many of the women do not drive and some have embarked on long border crossings on foot, and it is still winter.

News from back home

Many Ukrainians already have family in Poland. Twenty-five-year-old Alex has a brother working in Tychy, a city, a few hours’ drive to the north of Bielsko-Biala. The rest of his family live in Khersun, a city near the Black Sea in the south of Ukraine. “My family are fine but have not slept properly, with the sounds of shells exploding through the night. The city is still in Ukrainian hands, he says, but there is a curfew at night, and it is better to stay indoors to avoid being mistaken for Russians or sympathisers. He shares news from his town that young Russian soldiers who have been wounded are being treated in Ukrainian hospitals. They apparently confided with their doctors that they were on routine field training near the borders prior to the invasion and were taken by surprise when they were asked to cross the lines.

Alex longs for the time before the first war in 2014 when he worked in Crimea in the tourist sector. “Things have become much worse,” he says. Inflation, lack of jobs, and constant insecurity have led people to leave the country, primarily to Poland, which is made attractive by proximity, language similarities, general acceptance, and better job prospects. “I have friends in Donetsk and Lugansk. It’s calmer there with the Russian control but the other cities on the frontline are now suffering,” he says. He has no intention of going back but worries constantly about his family. “I hope we can talk about the travel business instead the next time we meet,” he says wryly as we say goodbye.

Eighteen-year-old Igor says he is depressed. He used to live near Kiev with his family before the first war. His brother, who is in the army, got injured in the war and has developed a mental illness. Igor wants to go back to defend his country. He says the war is raging in his neighbourhood back home and the youngsters and volunteers are putting up stiff resistance. He claims that some have commandeered tanks and the Russians have taken casualties and are desperate for reinforcements and provisions. His mother, who also lives in Poland, is extremely worried for her two sons. She is an economic migrant as a result of the 2014 war. “The current President is popular,” they say. “He has constructed roads and infrastructure and reduced the power of the oligarchs.” They are not perturbed when I mention his proximity to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. There is no doubt in their mind on who is to blame for this situation.

Conflicting loyalties of those from the east

Teenaged Natalia is from the southeast of Ukraine, close to in the Donbas with its strong Russian influence. She cannot bring herself to blame the Russians. She counts them among her friends who she still stays in touch with. “They are not to blame,” she says, revealing the conflicting loyalties of those from eastern Ukraine as a result of a culturally and socially intertwined past. “I cannot choose, I just want peace,” she says. When asked who is responsible for the war, she invokes conspiracy theories and past grudges. She is not the only one grasping for answers.

Historic grievances have left deep wounds and the Russian leader’s statements carry no credibility in most neighbouring ex-Warsaw pact countries like Poland. “Don’t you know he is a liar? You can’t believe a word he says. All they want is to subjugate their neighbours and control them like during the Communist times,” says Anna, a 40-year-old Polish lady who remembers having to compulsorily learn Russian in school. “We have a right to choose to join the EU or get closer to the West and shouldn’t have to live under constant threat of invasion or bullying,” she adds.

There are, however, less discussed facets such as the presence of extreme right-wing elements in the Ukrainian army and shelling of the rebel-held Donbas region. Despite uneasiness regarding the invasion, there is some support for the Russian presence in the eastern provinces. “The Russians have not been targeting civilians, rather transport, military and infrastructure links and we have learnt to live with the shelling,” say Ekaterina and her boyfriend, who are from Kharkiv, north of the Donbas in eastern Poland.

For the moment, Ukrainian expatriates in Poland are filled with concern at the unfolding events in their homeland, and about how best to help the newcomers. There have been gatherings in town squares, rallies for peace, and condemnation of the invasion. Many are asking why Ukraine has to face the Russians alone, and NATO is not intervening. Others foresee apocalyptic possibilities far beyond the geography of Ukraine. “Perhaps excluding them from Swift transactions would dissuade Putin and his henchmen,” said Igor, though he sounded unconvinced. “We have got to do something,” is the general refrain.

(Praveen Martis is a freelance consultant based in southern Poland. He has a multidisciplinary background and over two decades of experience in the international energy sector working out of London. )

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