Refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine: “We are helping each other to survive” | International

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A grandmother who asks God to put an end to the war so she can be buried in the Ukraine, a surrogate manager who put her doubts aside and ran away aimlessly, a psychologist who waits to settle in Amsterdam to start helping her compatriots to manage the vital earthquake of sudden uprooting, a thirtysomething angry at what she considers the West's abandonment of her country at the most critical moment, a married couple of Nigerian professionals who experience the evacuation as an odyssey to tell their grandchildren... They are stories of people who overnight have left behind a Ukraine at war and crossed into northern Romania, in an exodus that is on the way to becoming -due to its frightening rate of growth- the largest in Europe since the Second World War. World War. It already totals 1.37 million refugees across Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Romania and Russia, according to the latest data from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on Saturday. They are, above all, women and children because martial law forces men between the ages of 18 and 60 to remain in Ukraine.

Being able to lie in Ukraine

Valentina Tzvek nervously plays with a ring she is wearing, sitting on a folding bed made of aluminum and blue canvas. She has spent three days in a center for the elderly converted into an emergency refugee shelter in the Romanian town of Mihaileni, which borders the north with the Ukrainian border. She waits for a minibus that will take her with her daughter and a teenage grandson to Milan, where another of her children resides. She is a widow.

“I never thought there was going to be a war. He thought they were just military exercises [rusos] on the border Or that they would do something, but only in Donbas […] The moment I heard that there was a war, I decided to take my grandchildren and come here. It took us a day to find transportation, to make arrangements to achieve it. She was very scared, ”she assures. She says that her fear was increased by the rumor that Russian soldiers were dragging Ukrainian civilians from their homes around Chernivtsi. It is one of the most heard names in recent days in northern Romania, as it is the main Ukrainian city (with about 250,000 inhabitants) near the pass with the Romanian town of Siret. The situation there is not serious, but it is only 40 kilometers from the border.

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At 60 years old, Tzvek had to walk eight kilometers to reach the border because of the huge queue of vehicles that blocked access. Temperatures these days are around zero degrees during the day and it often snows. He then had to wait five hours at the border.

“Now I feel safe, no longer afraid. I have thanked the Lord,” she notes. From her neck hangs an image of the Virgin Mary, highly revered in Orthodox Christianity, the majority religion in Ukraine. She shows it and adds, “I hope He fixes the situation. Ukraine is the place where I was born and where I will lie down”.

Irina Vasylenko (right), with her mother and son, at a hotel in Radauți, Romania, on Friday.alex onciu

Escape for the son after six days of doubts

The gloomy bunker where she was sheltering in the city of Kirovohrad, in the center of Ukraine, and the continuous buzz of anti-aircraft alarms warning of a possible bombardment determined Irina Vasylenko, 35, to take her nearly two and abandon everything with his mother to cross into the Romanian Bucovina with no remote idea of ​​where to go after almost a day of travel. It took him six days to decide to leave his country. "Sirens and screams were heard day and night, the child did not stop being scared, crying and shivering from the cold," says this woman, who works in a company that manages surrogacy for clients in the United States, Australia and the United States. United Kingdom. Several of these pregnant women are near the Polish border waiting to undergo medical tests and obtain the necessary hormonal treatment. The families that have hired them “hope to take them to their countries as soon as possible. These women are living a nightmare because of the uncertainty.”

In a hotel in the Romanian town of Radauti, a few kilometers from the border with Ukraine, Vasylenko says that he decided to leave so that his son would not grow up with the trauma of war. Her husband, who accompanied them to the border, has been trying to return home for two days without a vehicle to help the soldiers on the front lines of the battle and be at the side of her parents and siblings, who are still in Kirovohrad. "My husband told me: 'I'm going to fight for Ukraine, for a better welfare state, I don't want to live like the Russians, who really are very poor outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg,'" she says, while the boy, with a serious face, shows fear in the presence of strangers. But Vasylenko's biggest concern is not her husband going to the front, but the nuclear power plants. "If they destroy them, the radiation will affect us all," she says.

Elena Krutelyova, in a hotel in the Romanian city of Suceava, on Friday.
Elena Krutelyova, in a hotel in the Romanian city of Suceava, on Friday.alex onciu

The psychologist who experiences the trauma of war

Elena Krutelyova was “quietly sleeping” when the war started because, like many Ukrainians, she did not think it would happen. She is 35 years old and spent five days sheltering in the basement of her building in Kiev, one of the hot spots of the war. She only went up to her apartment to shower. “Twice I felt the impact of the bombs while taking a shower […] I left when I understood that Russia was also going after civilians. we're still in shock. We are all going to have the syndrome of those who have been in the war, ”she says in Suceava, the capital of the Romanian province of Bucovina, while her parents and aunt wait in the car with the engine running. His final destination is Amsterdam, where her sister lives.

Her husband brought them as close as possible to the jammed border between Ukraine and Romania. “We only had to walk three kilometers, which is great because a lot of people had walked a lot more in the previous days,” she explains. He cannot leave because of martial law and spends his time going back and forth to the divide as a volunteer for families without cars.

The cute little dog he is holding and the colorful owl hat that covers his head contrast with the pride and seriousness with which he speaks of his country: “Ukraine is right now a frontier against Russian aggression”, “we did not expect so many people to be to defend our country”, “volunteers are our angels”… When he leaves the we to speak from the self, the words he uses – such as trauma, spectrum of emotions or mental illness – reveal his profession. “It's been very difficult, but I tried to use a bit of my practice as a psychologist and think: 'Okay, now what I have to do is survive and save my parents. Then I'll deal with mental disorders." In a few days, she adds, she will start helping other Ukrainian refugees manage that her life has changed so much in such a short time.

Alexandra Kustarnikova, in a hotel in Suceava, on Friday.
Alexandra Kustarnikova, in a hotel in Suceava, on Friday.alex onciu

“My biggest concern: that there is no more Ukraine on the map”

Dressed in a turquoise tracksuit that she has not taken off since the beginning of the week, Alexandra Kustarnikova, 36, shyly approaches journalists in a makeshift shelter for hundreds of Ukrainian refugees in a celebration hall of a hotel near the Romanian border in Siret . She wants to vent her pent-up anger and her nervousness, which can be seen in the sharp turns of her sparkling blue iris. In perfect Spanish, acquired for more than a year in Pamplona, ​​this director of information technology business development in a Swedish company gives free rein to her fears as an antidote to war, after leaving - much to her regret - in her country to her husband, a specialist in countering cyberattacks in the digital army constituted by Kiev.

“My biggest concern is that there is no more Ukraine on the map; the same, then, neither more parts of Europe. Or the entire continent,” she assures. "Putin will not settle for Ukraine, he will go for the bordering neighbors to Germany," says Kustarnikova, who stayed an hour from being able to cross to Poland with her husband, after starting his trip in Kiev, because just then it was approved martial law. She accuses Europe of ignoring the importance of the armed conflict. She now helps as a volunteer in Romania while she waits to meet her husband, who is in Chernovtsi, about 40 kilometers from the border. She suddenly succumbs to pessimism as she remembers that NATO refuses to create a no-fly zone in Ukraine. "Only we can help each other, the only ones who fight against Russia, for freedom, for the values ​​that the EU defends," she abounds. “Nobody wants to die for democracy; us, yes”.

Faith Igogo and her husband Sahdrach, in a hotel in the Romanian city of Suceava, on Friday.
Faith Igogo and her husband Sahdrach, in a hotel in the Romanian city of Suceava, on Friday.alex onciu

The lesson of solidarity

With a smile, Faith Igogo and her husband Sahdrach, 33-year-old Nigerians, explain that after four years together in Ukraine, they were ready to start a new life somewhere else in the world, with their one-year-old baby and whom will be born in a few months. The outbreak of the conflict suddenly made them refugees and their initial plans became forced. She had settled in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, in western Ukraine, seven years before her husband, to study pediatrics and build a career as a doctor. "We are not fleeing, we will return," says the pediatrician, dressed in sportswear and a white hat, and extremely grateful for how Romanians have devoted themselves to covering all their basic needs.

The couple, who met in primary school in Nigeria, entered northern Romania last Sunday and were immediately accommodated in a hotel along with hundreds of other refugees. On Tuesday they will finally fly to London to meet with some relatives, after an odyssey that they want to tell their grandchildren one day. “Safety is a priority. At first we thought we were safe, but we quickly realized that we were in danger after hearing that bombings were taking place in several cities in the country”, explains Sahdrach, an oil and gas engineer, who admits that he fears for those who have remained. no option to escape the Russian offensive. However, they put a good face on what is happening. Faith highlights the impulse of solidarity that the war has generated: “In this dramatic situation, we are helping each other to survive; It's a lesson, no doubt."

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