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Over 50 days in, things have changed at the main border crossing between Poland and Ukraine

There are now almost as many people returning to Ukraine as there are people fleeing from it, reports Céimin Burke at the Poland-Ukraine border.

A couple say goodbye at Medyka's border crossing on Sunday
A couple say goodbye at Medyka's border crossing on Sunday
Image: Rodrigo Abd/AP/Press Association Images

Céimin Burke reports from the Poland-Ukraine border

THINGS HAVE CHANGED at the small Polish border town of Medyka. 

Over 50 days since Russia launched its massive offensive, women and children – often accompanied by pets – continue to stream across the border from Ukraine, bringing with them as much as they can carry. 

Volunteers from all over the world offer blankets, food, medicine and transportation to the refugees fleeing Russia’s brutal invasion.

What’s different now though, is that there are as many – or almost as many – people going back, crossing the border in the other direction to return to their homes in Ukraine. 

Both groups have different needs as they converge on Medyka, with huge organisations working on the ground – including a number of Irish workers – to help them. 

The food and comforts for people leaving Ukraine are gratefully received but most of the travellers barely pause as they power on to the next stop on their journey.

As the temperature dropped late on Easter Sunday I saw a blanket bring a quiet sob from one woman who looked in physical pain from the cold. A rare crack of emotion and a brief break before the journey resumed.

“It’s definitely difficult to see it,” explained Jack from the UK, who is here working with an Italian NGO called Project Hope.

pedestrian-border-of-medyka-without-people Some of the tents set up at the border Source: Eric Renom/ZUMA Press Wire

“You see people’s faces as they come in, carrying all that they’ve got on their backs, a few bags or a suitcase. They can be genuinely shivering. Sometimes they’ll have had to queue for seven hours.” 

“But it’s also very nice to see so many people coming together, from so many different nationalities, to help a single cause.”

Jack joined friends from college in The Hague, The Netherlands, in running Project Hope’s operation in Medyka. Italian supermarkets donated truck loads of supplies and the group took on the mammoth task of piecing together a massive logistical operation to get it all distributed.

Manfredi Magnano from Catania and Ryan Bever from the US have been on the ground spearheading the operation for several weeks and they have seen a significant shift in the direction people are travelling.

“We’ve definitely seen a slowdown of refugees coming from Ukraine. It’s about half/half now: we see a lot more going back across the border, and also still a lot coming into Poland,” Bever explained.

The exodus has eased since early March, when over 25,000 people would file through the Medyka border crossing each day. But the camp remains very busy with the dramatic uptick in the numbers returning to Ukraine.

While the numbers arriving may have slowed, many are expecting them to increase again as the war develops. 

The profile of volunteers has also shifted after the initial phase of the war passed and as authorities became more security conscious.

“When we came here at the beginning, a good half of the people here were independent people that just left everything and came here to help,” Manfredi said.

“They bought a high-vis vest, wrote ‘volunteering Ukraine’ on it and helped how they could. Now for security reasons, [and] organisational [reasons], they’ve cracked down and it’s more full-time organisations.”

Security has also been tightened at the reception centre – housed in a giant ex-Tesco building – in the nearby town of Przemyśl, which was the focus of media attention at the start of the refugee crisis.

American and British voices are regularly heard in the camp along with a plethora of European languages. Several of the tents put their religion or nationality front and centre. There is a strong Sikh presence and Polish, French and Israeli flags are also prominently on display.

One of the largest tents is run by the New Federal State of China, which is opposed to China’s ruling Communist Party. The heated marquee – which is festooned with posters attacking the Chinese government – is popular with passing Ukrainians and volunteers alike for its warmth, food and wifi (complete with a ‘TakedownCCP’ password).

medyka-poland-15th-apr-2022-an-international-group-of-jews-from-israel-and-ukraine-along-with-chinese-scottish-polish-and-others-celebrate-a-very-special-passover-at-the-medyka-ukrainian-refug Source: PA Images

Sure enough there’s Irish here too. Tim from Cork says he was moved to make the journey over after hearing about the scale of the crisis that was unfolding.

“When you get here the impact of it really hits home. There’s been four and a half million refugees and they’re being housed all over Europe. We’re all going to meet them at some point. You’re just moved by it,” he said.

At the border post for vehicles the queue of cars, vans and trucks travelling into Ukraine stretches out of sight, filling three lanes of traffic during the middle of the day.

Pavlo from Kyiv has become an expert on the traffic as, when I meet him by the other side of the motorway in the evening, he has been watching it for ten hours. He’s eagerly scanning for signs of a Subaru Forester, which is carrying his wife back across the border into Poland.

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Pavlo Pavlo at the border in Medyka. Source: The Journal

The couple happened to be on holiday in Paris when Vladimir Putin launched his assault on Ukraine. His wife travelled back to Ukraine, while Pavlo stayed in Poland. 

A sales manager for Sennheiser in Kyiv before the war broke out, Pavlo and his family now see their future in Krakow, until hostilities cease.

“I don’t know when it will be. We don’t want to go back until it is safe. I never thought he could do it,” he says about the Russian President. “He is so crazy. It’s unbelievable.” 

Just as I’m saying goodbye, the eagerly awaited Subaru arrives on the scene. Pavlo doesn’t hide his relief. “Ten hours,” he laughs. He hugs his wife. She smiles and waves. He offers to do the driving. They press on.

Céimin Burke will be reporting from the Poland-Ukraine border for The Journal all this week 

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Céimin Burke

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