As Russian troops invaded Ukraine and waged war against Kyiv and cities all across the country, refugees, mainly women, children, and displaced families rushed for asylum.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that around 520,000 people fled towards neighbouring nations like Poland, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia following Russia’s invasion.
Donation links and vital information were shared through social media. As Russia’s attacks continue, it is predicted that the number of refugees will increase.
Days after the initial invasion, we take a look at the solidarity and difficulties present at Ukraine’s borders.
Poland and Slovakia
Journalist Manny Marotta walked alongside thousands of refugees from Lviv to the Polish-Ukrainian border. He shared his journey on Twitter: “Vehicles were backed for 25 kilometers, many out of gas. Several were abandoned(…) UA soldiers were stopping cars and busses and yanking out any man aged 18-60 to conscript in the Ukrainian army. In one place, a commissar was shouting ‘say goodbye to your daughters, mothers, and girlfriends; you must turn back and fight the Russian invader!'”In Poland, people quickly organised the gathering of food and essential supplies. Donation centres were quickly overflowing with hygiene products, non perishable goods and toys for children. At the border, locals offered Ukrainians free transport and accommodation to strategic destinations.
The University of Silesia declared they will offer “all possible help”, making all of its staff and students available for emergency refugee needs. “Our community consists of students, PhD students and employees from many former Soviet republics. We assure you that everyone who respects the rights of our community will find peaceful shelter, and good conditions for studying, research and work here,” they said.
Ukrainian pets were not left behind. Krakow animal protection associations stepped in to collect supplies and food for displaced pets.
As transporting animals outside of Ukraine became increasingly difficult, volunteers shipped out pet carriers, working together with Ukrainian shelters. The DIOZ organisation vouched to rescue and relocate Ukrainian pets who were separated from their owners.
Slovakia prepared for refugees as well. In late January, before the invasion officially began, the Ministry of Defence acknowledged even a limited conflict would cause many to flee Ukraine.
We spoke to Slovakian student Barbora Zatkova, as her family arranged accommodation for Ukrainians seeking shelter.
“We are ready to help Ukrainians, there are a lot of volunteers who help at the border and everyone is welcome. We have united as a country in the past days, and accept Ukrainians as our brothers and sisters. We have a similar culture, similar language and the same hate for Russian dictatorship,” Barbora told us.
“The older generations remember what it is like to be dictated by the Soviet Union, to be under Putin’s agenda. Lots of people who used to harbour pro Russian sentiments are now turning against it and trying to help. Our country is sad and people know the war won’t put an end to this conflict. It is heartbreaking,” Barbora and her sister reflected.
Lithuania and BelarusLithuania, whose rich history is tightly intertwined with that of Ukraine stepped in as well. Eglė (@velociraptorjr), a Lithuanian artist based in the United States, used her platform to inform others, urging them to help in any way they can. She told us that many at home don’t think of Ukrainians as strangers, but rather brothers, with a shared history and culture, for whom they root for in liberation.
“Lithuania has started mobilising in a number of different ways over the past few days. There’s been armored vehicles moving across the country, people have been attending mass demonstrations and signing up for volunteer work.
“Loads of Lithuanians have been making runs to all border crossing points to pick up Ukrainian refugees. They’ve been bringing them to safety, offering up their homes, collecting money and resources,” Eglé said.
“Men, some without any combat training, have been organising to go join the Ukrainian forces. People are sharing so much information and fact checking everything against the black hole that is the Soviet empire, making sure none of Putin’s propaganda has any time to spread.”
Lithuanian institutions showed their solidarity as well. Vilnius University organised a donation campaign in support of Ukraine’s academic community, while Vilnius city council vouched to allocate €500,000 (£415,710) to Ukraine’s capital, along with additional donations from civilians towards the Ukrainian army. The Lithuanian Red Cross was also overwhelmed by donations.
“Ukraine does not exist in a vacuum. This is happening everywhere, all over Europe. Belarus, by the way, is and has been for a while, a Russian controlled territory. Lukashenko is absolutely Putin’s puppet. Being a Lithuanian, just like being a Ukrainian, means that none of this is new. All of this feels like an old fever dream coming to life,” Eglė added when asked about the regional tensions.
On the fourth day of war, negotiations between Ukraine and Russia’s representatives took place at the Belarusian border. The country’s leadership unsurprisingly followed Putin’s orders, taking a definite pro-Russian stance against Ukraine.
Updates from UkraineThose who remained in Kyiv were promptly evacuated and sheltered in the capital’s metro stations. As the Russian army began to target civilians, hospitals and even nurseries, Ukrainians fought back with great resilience. A fraction of the pain and tragedy inflicted by Putin’s attack was broadcasted through social media. While the Ukrainian army deterred Russian forces, a collective effort ensued to keep morale high.
“It is incredible how the people of Kyiv are able to adapt to wartime. In the bomb shelter last night and this morning, they sang happy birthday, children played, quite a few listened to the Ukrainian national anthem and watched Zelensky’s updates on their smartphones,” writes Nolan Peterson (@nolanwpeterson), a war reporter based in Ukraine.
“There is already a rhythm to life, especially at night. All semblance of privacy is gone — they share one space for sleeping, stand in line for food, distribute blankets and pillows and water to share. No one says to do these things, it’s just an automatic communal decision,” Peterson added.
Civilians learned how to make Molotov cocktails. A group of Roma Ukrainians defeated a Russian tank. Reports claimed that locals used Tinder and Grindr to trick young Russian soldiers into divulging information.
Journalists from The Kyiv Independent and Euromaidan Press held down the fort, continuing war coverage even after the Television Tower in Kyiv was bombed.
Meanwhile, racism at Ukraine’s borders also made news. Foreign nationals who tried to escape the country shared disturbing accounts of segregation and racism, as white Ukrainians reportedly received priority on transport and at customs.
A place for nuance
Other news outlets were criticised for their biased and orientalist coverage of the invasion. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European city where you wouldn’t expect this to happen,” said one CBS foreign correspondent.“This is how media dehumanises BIPOC & normalises white supremacy,” remarked human rights lawyer Quasim Rashid in response to the viral clip. Others pointed out how Ukrainian civilians arming themselves is framed as empowering and righteous, but when the same happens in a state like Palestine, it is portrayed as dangerous and lawless.
“This is a common tactic used by oppressive states and their allies to distract people from the brutal violence inflicted on the oppressed. Working class poor marginalised people taking arms to defend their land and people against colonialism is always justified — from Ukraine to Palestine,” wrote Dr Ayesha Khan (@wokescientist).
“Hypocrisy on Palestine doesn’t determine my support for other struggles. The goal isn’t to diminish the plight of others in our quest for liberation, but rather uplift them in solidarity. The road to Palestinian freedom will never come through the White House or international law,” shared Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Russian troops from Crimea refused to take part in the invasion. The Kyiv Independent reported that marine troops were in a “demoralised state”. Other sources suggested that many Russian soldiers were lied to about the real purpose of their military exercises. Ukraine set up a system to help Russian mothers pick up their young sons captured in combat.
Ukrainian anarchists created a ‘zine with interviews and stories providing background on the Russian invasion: “How do we oppose Russian state aggression without playing into the NATO agenda? How do we continue to oppose Ukrainian capitalists and fascists without helping Russia justify the invasion? Please print these out and distribute them!”
At the Romanian border with Ukraine, volunteers gathered to welcome Ukrainians and distribute essentials. Since an overwhelming quantity of food was prepared by civilians, nonprofits like the Romanian Red Cross stepped in to strategise resources.
We spoke to community activist Sologiuc Gheorghe, who joined volunteers at the Siret border crossing point.“We almost risked overcrowding the border, so many people eager to help showed up to welcome Ukrainians as we know best: food, drinks and tea. Our people organised in an impressive way, but the country’s officials haven’t done much.” Indeed, when Prime Minister Ciuca visited the refugee welcoming operations he was met with complaints from locals.
Gheorghe told us volunteers and customs officers have been trying to work as a team. “Our first line is made up of translators who guide those arriving at the border. We’ve welcomed so many ethnicities, especially with lots of international students coming from Kyiv and Chernivtsi universities.” Afterwards, refugees are offered food and care packages with sanitary products.
Such supplies have been donated and collected from all over the country, mostly by local nonprofits. In Bucharest, the Accept Association led donation efforts, encouraging people to send overlooked essentials like medication, sleeping bags, baby products and winter coats. For the next step, Facebook groups like United for Ukraine coordinated people’s offers for free housing and free transport.
Feminism Romania urged authorities to ensure the safety of women seeking asylum, by staying in touch with those housed in private accommodation and by providing special medical attention for pregnant women, minorities and those who might’ve suffered assaults or aggression while escaping. They also highlighted the importance of placing women in strategic roles and listening to their expertise on refugee necessities.
Ukrainian students were offered free admission into Romanian universities. More than five hundred Indian students from Ukrainian universities were temporarily housed in the local gymnasium of a small town called Milisauti.
“It’s what we were able to provide so shortly. We made a fire this morning and locals brought blankets and food. They’re in transit, on the way to Bucharest and we’re doing our best,” the town’s mayor declared.
When shops in Ukrainian southern city Chernivtsi started running out of products, Romanian volunteers crossed over to bring them supplies, but returning back into Romania became close to impossible. The atmosphere became bleak and tense as Chernivtsi issued a bombardment alert for its citizens. The region was perviously considered safe and exempt from Russian attacks.
“There are obstacles on the other side, at the Ukrainian customs. Sources say that their officers are taking bribes to let people cross the border towards us. Which is very sad; their own people are doing this. There’s also horrible traffic. A friend spent almost three days in the car queue right at the border,” Gheorghe explained.We asked Gheorghe what impressed him the most during his time at the border.
“In the first few days, before we had translators, Ukrainians who arrived here were almost scared by the large number of people who came to welcome them. I was very moved by a woman who arrived with her small dog. When she saw us handing her food and water, she started crying. She came from Kyiv, on the road for fifteen hours. Her dog hadn’t had any water since they left. She couldn’t believe that such a warm welcome was provided by regular people.”
“The majority of those arriving here are women with children. Often, the father is still in Ukraine, because men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed out. Some women have to part with their children,” Gheorghe told us.
“They leave them in the custody of friends and quickly return back into Ukraine. I don’t know if they’re gong back to fight in the war, or to rescue others, but it was quite shocking to witness it. They manage to escape, they are so happy to be here but they have to return, even if it’s not safe.”
Featured image by Jakub Ivanov via Unsplash CC.
Edited by Annika Loebig