PRZEMYSL, Poland – In only 40 miles of road, all of the horrors of war are in plain sight.
The drive from Leopolis in western Ukraine to this Polish border city reflects the full scale of the humanitarian tragedy unleashed by the brutal Russian invasion. The exodus intensifies with the approaching bombardments. Two million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their country in two weeks, according to the United Nations agency for refugees. And nothing is easy during war.
A trip by four journalists and a Ukrainian driver that normally would take one hour wound up taking seven hours. And we were lucky. We passed several checkpoints and barricades in Ukraine, under the watchful eyes of soldiers, police and volunteers. Everything was going well until a point the GPS said was about 7.5 miles from the Polish border. Then everything stopped.
Before us was what seemed like an endless line of vehicles. At first, we thought it was another barricade, another checkpoint. But soon we realized the line extended all the way to the border. The math is simple. More attacks and more deaths in Ukraine mean more people will try to escape.
We waited patiently, one, two, three hours. We barely moved. People around us grew desperate. Some cars made u-turns. But many Ukrainians decided to leave their cars and walk the 7.5 miles to the border, in freezing temperatures. And that showed the full magnitude of the Ukrainian drama.
Families with children started to march along the sides of the road. One young woman carried a tiny dog, a coffee-colored ball of fur that trembled, I don’t know if because of fear or the cold. One teenager carried a guitar on his back. He could have picked anything else, but decided that music would be his best company. I saw a girl, maybe four or five years old, dressed all in pink, including the boots, and completely covered up. I could barely see her eyes. But she walked easily and with purpose, holding on to her mother’s gloved hand as though they were going to a fair or to visit a friend.
The mother-grandmother team is invincible. Men 18 to 60 years old are barred from leaving Ukraine. So it is the mothers and the grandmothers who have taken the lead in this exodus. We saw a lot of four-member teams, perfectly coordinated. While one carried one child, the other fed the granddaughter. And all the time they pulled two or three suitcases, without a single sign of protest. Their patience seems infinite. Respect for them.
Although the refugees were exhausted, they surprisingly did not show it. Their yearned-for destination was approaching. It’s like they had a shot of energy and were not willing to stop until they reached the border. I saw those displays of determination and strength time and time again on that road.
What happens is that, in war, life is much more intense. Your senses are at their maximum. Hunger, fatigue and cold take a back seat. What’s important is to survive. You’re on overdrive. In war, you learn to live on adrenaline for a long time, without sleep, with very little food and water and without getting tired, until you reach safety. And at that point, at that very instant, is when your body demands its back pay. But in the meantime, the body’s machinery will keep working at 100 percent. Or more. When you’re surrounded by so much violence and death, that’s when you’re most alive. Each day of war is like burning through one year of life.
After three hours waiting and little movement, we had to change plans. We were running the risk of missing broadcast windows and flights. We took out our press credentials, used tape to put a TV sign on the hood and wrote PRESS on a piece of cardboard that we showed to policemen on the highway. Incredibly, they allowed us to drive down the median. On one side, the line of vehicles stopped and waited but on the other cars heading deeper into Ukraine sped by quickly. We followed a big blue truck, cautiously.
We saw thousands of cars waiting their turn to cross into Poland. Most of the families still waiting on the road would have to spend the freezing night in their vehicles. And with luck cross the next day. Or the next. No one here can guarantee anything. In war, there is no order to life.
As we approached the border, dozens of yellow buses were unloading hundreds of Ukrainians fleeing from the cities most heavily attacked by the Russians. In long lines, they walked and pulled suitcases toward the border control posts. Another long wait there while night fell. We left the car – we had no authorization to cross into Poland – and started to walk among the future refugees.
We mixed in with them. After several days traveling, they had only the basics: documents, a change of clothes, toothbrushes and one of those little item required to remember what you once were. We walked fast, but in silence. Until we reached the Ukrainian border checkpoint.
It was the place for good byes. A couple with a baby looked into each other’s eyes. He touched her face, she cried, they said good bye and still crying, she turned around and went on with the baby in her arms. He remained, stoically, at the gate to the border post for a few seconds. He could not move. He let us pass as he watched his wife and baby move away. No one knows when they will see each other again.
After passing the Ukrainian border post, another crowd had formed to enter Poland. They broke us up into smaller groups and sent us to different kiosks for passport checks. The woman in front of me handed over her identification and crossed herself three times. They let her through.
On the Polish side, there was chaos. Red Cross workers, volunteers offering telephone cards, peddlers, people waiting for relatives and news media from the whole world. But amid the chaos, there was music from a piano player who had dragged his weathered instrument there to welcome the recent arrivals. A Coldplay song, musical background for tragedy.
I am sure that later, after I have digested everything I saw, I will draw my own conclusions. One is never the same after something like that. For now, I know only that war is horror.