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4 March 2022updated 10 Mar 2022 5:15pm

Dispatch from the Ukrainian border: “Does anyone need a ride?”

More than a million Ukrainians have fled in one week of war and, so far, neighbouring countries have welcomed them.

By Alix Kroeger

TISZABECS — For a border post suddenly receiving hundreds of Ukrainian refugees every day, Tiszabecs is a surprisingly cheerful place. This is a small crossing in eastern Hungary, with none of the bedlam and panic seen in Poland. Those seeking to cross over wait for a few hours, not days. Some of the refugees are even laughing, nearly hysterical at the relief of having escaped.  

Just beyond the border post, volunteers have set up a help point. A folding table and benches are loaded with donations of food: packets of biscuits, bottles of water, oranges. The volunteers wear orange tabards that give them a semi-official air, but in truth this is largely a spontaneous effort. Everyone just wants to do what they can.  

In just nine days of conflict, UNHCR estimates that more than a million refugees have fled Ukraine, rushing across borders to neighbouring countries. That’s roughly the same number of refugees and migrants that reached Europe in all of 2015. What’s more, UNHCR suggests that as many as four million refugees could end up fleeing the country as the war continues. 

Pavel and Vojtek, from Slovakia, are waiting for friends: two mothers, with four children between them, all under the age of five. Pavel’s grandchildren are about the same age. How could he not help? His shirt is the blue of the Ukrainian flag. “Putin is a catastrophe,” he declares. The two men drove 600km from their hometown near Bratislava. They have an old house that they’ll fix up, and then the two families can live there, Pavel says. Of the men in the families, there is no sign: men aged 18 to 60 have been forbidden to leave Ukraine in order to fight, if necessary.  

Two young Austrians arrive: Johannes and Joseph have driven through the night from Vienna with a van full of donations: food, medicine, bedding. “Does anyone need a ride?” Johannes offers. One of the volunteers directs them to the reception centre that has been hastily set up in the town.  

At the centre, normally a primary school, minibuses arrive from the border every few minutes. To help with translation, many of the volunteers have written on their tabards the languages they speak: English, Russian, Ukrainian. Almost none of the refugees speak Hungarian. A tractor laden with bags of donations revs its engine, loud enough to drown out the cockerel in the garden next door.   

Only a few of the refugees will stay here overnight: some have accommodation arranged with relatives or friends, others will be put up by volunteers. Many are travelling onwards. Nine-year-old Oleksandra, waiting with her mother outside, says they are going by train to the Netherlands. She heard the bombs and explosions when the war began. “I was scared,” she says, in careful English.   

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Hungary has taken in more than 130,000 refugees so far. More will certainly follow. But this is just the first stage of the war: if thousands more are still arriving in the summer, will the volunteers still be there to greet them?    

Back at the border, another donation is dropped off: two pairs of heavy black boots, military style, and a bullet-proof vest. As the refugees flow westward, this donation will be going the other way, into Ukraine, with the hope of protecting some of those fighting to save their country.   

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