Ukraine – Russia: The outflow of refugees is accelerating: a journey of three days and a queue of 30 kilometers to reach Poland | International

“Please do not enter Ukraine, turn around, it is very dangerous.” The first words that EL PAÍS journalists hear at the Shehyni border post, in Ukraine, is this warning from a young African. His face, emaciated, shows the exhaustion of having spent three days traveling kilometers on foot and sleeping in the open to cross into Poland. Soldiers armed with AK-47 rifles and volunteers with baseball bats on Monday guarded the queue of thousands of citizens who are neither Ukrainian nor European, but who, like the rest, want to leave the war behind. Crowded together, improvising bonfires with plastic and paper to keep warm for a few minutes, they wait to flee from a conflict they did not see coming.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has already forced the displacement of 660,000 people to neighboring countries, with the main pressure of the refugees on Poland. To get to Sheyni there is a queue of more than 30 kilometers made up of cars, vans and buses. Parents or volunteers lead Ukrainian women and children to the gates of the European Union. They wait an average of three days to reach Poland. Most of these can sleep inside the vehicles; On the other hand, the thousands of Africans and Asians do it outdoors, under the snow and in temperatures several degrees below zero. At the Lviv train station, from which some convoys leave for the Polish border without regular schedule, the priority is that Ukrainian women and children board.

At the Sheyni border post, a division is marked: in a row, there are mainly sub-Saharan, North African and Asian men —there are also women, although to a lesser extent—; in the other row, less crowded, are Ukrainian women with their minor children about to overcome the last meters before reaching Poland. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been mobilized and cannot leave the country. After the border, another epic will begin, that of finding a home in the EU to await the end of the Russian offensive against Ukraine.

Queues of vehicles and people fleeing the Russian offensive, at the Shehyni border crossing, in Ukraine.Jaime Villanueva

There are four kilometers of road between the Sheyni border point and the military checkpoint that monitors the thousands of approaching vehicles. The authorities allow the access of wheeled transport to dropper to unload its passengers in the customs. Many have to overcome this distance – or even 10 kilometers more, where the nearest railway station is located – on foot and loaded with their belongings. On this tour there are local citizens who offer help to Ukrainians and foreigners. The Sheyni village school has been converted into a women’s shelter. Waiting at the door this Monday with two friends is Cassandra, a 23-year-old student from Ghana. Ukraine is an established university destination for citizens of developing countries. Cassandra and her friends carry suitcases and two cages with two cats that they adopted three years ago, when they settled in Ukraine. They want to get to France and, despite the hassle of carrying the animals, they promise not to abandon them.

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At a gas station, the manager of the establishment gives tea to a group of Indians and a Vietnamese family, and allows them to sleep for a few hours lying between aisles with empty product shelves. In the chapel of San Juan Bautista, in Sheyni, some Catholics take the opportunity to pray in complete silence, a few minutes of peace and recollection. Three parishioners offer tea or hot food and the priest distributes two thin blankets per person to those who require it.

Most of the vehicles that unload Ukrainians in Sheyni return to the city of Lviv, 70 kilometers away, transferring compatriots who return from the EU to join the Army or to help in the resistance against Russia. Other vehicles also transport humanitarian aid that arrives across the border: this is the case of Fernando, a man from Madrid married to a Ukrainian who has transported medical supplies financed by Ukrainians in Spain. Fernando – he does not want to reveal his last name – admits that as soon as he can, he will leave Ukraine with his wife, although perhaps to return in the next few days with more basic necessities.

The 70 kilometers to Lviv are covered by car in two hours. Once at the entrances to the city, the military checkpoints turn the entrance to the capital of western Ukraine into another perpetual traffic jam. On a bus that connects the outskirts of the city with the train station, Moroccan Mouad Kanti tells his story: he has been studying medicine for four years at the Alfred Nobel University in Dnipro, one of the most violent enclaves in the war. Kanti left Dnipro on the second day of the Russian invasion on a train that took him to Lviv, 1,000 kilometers to the west. He tried to leave Ukraine for Sheyni, but after 48 hours he gave up because the experience was too hard. He chose to return to Lviv and try his luck along the Slovak border, where, according to the dean of his faculty, there are fewer crowds.

An old man on the bus speaks angrily pointing at Kanti and this journalist. “He doesn’t like foreigners,” says the young Moroccan in a low voice, although he immediately adds that his experience during these years had been very positive. Two Ukrainians who have arrived from Sheyni intervene to silence the man. Loaded with backpacks and mats, they get off the bus in front of the Lviv train station, ready to join the front lines against the Russians.

Night is already falling in the old capital of the historical region of Galicia, once Austro-Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian. An hour later the first anti-aircraft sirens of the night will sound, warning of a possible Russian attack. The streets of Lviv empty in a matter of minutes, with its inhabitants rushing to take shelter in the anti-aircraft shelters set up especially in the basements of their buildings. Meanwhile, at the train station, the movement of the masses of Ukrainians who arrive from conflict zones and volunteers who are preparing to leave to defend their homeland continues.

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