Ukrainian men carry their equipment towards the border as they return to Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion, at the border checkpoint in Medyka, Poland, March 2, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
March 2, 2022
By Krisztina Than and Alicja Ptak
TISZABECS, Hungary/Rzeszow, Poland (Reuters) – Thousands of people fleeing fierce fighting in Ukraine streamed across central European border crossings on Wednesday as Russian troops bombarded Ukrainian cities and looked poised to advance on the embattled capital, Kyiv.
Western nations raced to supply humanitarian and military aid while piling pressure on a Russian economy already reeling under sanctions, with U.S. President Joe Biden warning Vladimir Putin that the Russian leader had “no idea what’s coming”.
With initial Russian failures to capture major cities, Western analysts have said Moscow appeared to shifted tactics, including devastating shelling of built-up areas to subdue stubborn resistance.
The United Nations has estimated that close to 700,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries since the invasion began in what the UN Refugee Agency has warned looks set to become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.
Nearly a week into the invasion, which Putin has called “a special military operation”, the flood of fleeing people showed few signs of easing.
At Tiszabecs, on Hungary’s border with Ukraine, Julia from Kyiv cradled a baby heavily bundled against the cold and wearing a woolen cap with animal ears. She told of leaving behind her husband to fight, and of three friends who were killed in a missile attack the day she left.
“I spent the night in the basement and then we moved on foot to the railway station,” the 32-year-old said. “If there were no children with me I would have stayed with my husband.”
Across central Europe, where memories of Moscow’s dominance in the wake of World War Two run deep, thousands of volunteers converged on the borders, bringing food, clothes and blankets.
Most refugees have crossed into the European Union – membership of which Ukraine aspires to – in eastern Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary and northern Romania. Authorities have set up tents to provide medical aid and process asylum papers.
RYE SOUP AND SIM CARDS
At the train station in Przemysl, a town of about 60,000 just west of Medyka, Poland’s busiest border crossing, volunteers handed out free cookies, beverages and sweets, as well as hot meals such as rye soup and schnitzel to the thousands awaiting onward transport across Europe.
Dozens of folding beds pitched temporarily inside offered rest for some, exhausted by long hours on war-time roads and long queues to cross the border. Others could make use of the free SIM cards and strollers on offer.
Local officials in Przemysl said they were working to set up humanitarian centres on the Ukrainian side of the border to more quickly provide food and medial assistance to the people stuck in long lines to cross.
As the EU sought to absorb the hundreds of thousands displaced by a war on its doorstep, many train operators offered free travel for the refugees, while fees for crossing the Oresund bridge, connecting Denmark and Sweden, were waived for cars from Ukraine.
Low cost carrier WIZZ Air said it would provide 100,000 free seats to refugees on short-haul flights leaving Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania in March.
Late on Tuesday evening in central Warsaw, a shopping mall was packed with people speaking Ukrainian and buying budget clothes.
About half of the refugees entering Poland are children and Polish public TV said it would start streaming programmes for Ukrainian children on Wednesday and was working on dubbing Polish kids shows into Ukrainian.
In Poland, whose Ukrainian community of around 1 million is the region’s largest, the government said more than 450,000 arrivals had crossed the border so far, while Romanian border police data showed 118,000 Ukrainians had crossed there.
Mixed in among the fleeing Ukrainian women and children – men of conscription age are obliged to stay and help in the defence – are many of the thousands of foreigners who were studying or working in Ukraine as the invasion began.
Around 250 Indian students who fled into Romania through the Romanian checkpoint at Siret were spending Tuesday night in a shelter improvised in a sports gymnasium in the town of Voluntari, near the capital Bucharest.
“I have many Ukrainian friends left there and I’m really sad for them,” said Aman Sharma, 20, an Indian medical student who fled from Chernivtsi in western Ukraine.
“My last words were ‘take care’. I don’t know if I’ll be able to meet them again or not.”
(Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Justyna Pawlak and Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw and Anna Luiza Ilie and Octav Ganea in Bucharest; Writing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Alex Richardson)