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9 March 2022updated 08 Jun 2023 10:15am

Courage and camaraderie on the Ukraine-Hungary border

As more than two million refugees flee Putin’s war, European nations are offering support, shelter and goodwill. For now, at least.

By Alix Kroeger

Until 24 February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Maria Krepak was a paediatrician in a private clinic in Kyiv, with a husband and two sons and a summer house in the country. Now she’s a refugee on a railway platform in Záhony, a dusty Hungarian railway junction near the borders of Slovakia and Ukraine. Her sons are with her; her husband has stayed behind, as all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 must, and will join the army.

“All our lives break in one moment,” she says. They have friends in France who can take them in for now, but she hopes to end up in Ireland, because she speaks English. As for her other qualifications, who knows when she’ll be able to use them again?

This is what Europe’s refugee crisis looks like in the early weeks of Vladimir Putin’s war. Those coming across the borders are overwhelmingly female, often with children; many are young; and all have been able to scrape together the resources needed to flee. Those who lack such resources – financial, familial, professional – have not left, yet. As the war intensifies, that is likely to change.

Viktoriia Zota and her daughter Valeriia, aged nine, left the eastern city of Kharkiv on the second day of the war, on 25 February. Viktoriia’s friend Alyona phoned her that morning and gave her half an hour to pack. They drove for three days, sheltering along the way with people who offered help, mostly through Facebook. “We had a huge fear of getting under Russian tanks, under Russian bullets, but we had an even bigger fear that we might have to stay in an area occupied by Russia,” she says.

[see also: Government confusion exposed by Ukrainian refugee crisis]

Inside Záhony station, some of the refugees sleep on the floor. The tide of adrenaline needed to make it to safety has receded, leaving exhaustion in its wake. Volunteers from NGOs and church groups are there to greet the new arrivals as they step off the train, offering food, water and practical help with onward travel or accommodation. “It makes me feel warm in my heart,” says Benjamin Dosznyák, a young volunteer.

A bench in the station café is occupied by Indian students – some of the 18,000 who had been in Ukraine. They were studying medicine in Kharkiv until the war began, and the building next to their hostel was bombed. From Záhony, they’ll get the train to Budapest for flights home organised by the Indian government. “Many of the shellings and missile attacks were right beside us,” says Aaron, a student from Kerala. “We have seen death at our doorsteps.”

Many of the non-European nationals fleeing Ukraine don’t have visas for the Schengen border-free zone. Originally from Ghana, Kojo Brempong owns a business in Mykolayiv with his Ukrainian wife, Kira. She was allowed to enter Hungary straight away; he had to undergo further checks at a government-run centre. There have been reports elsewhere of African and Asian refugees facing discrimination, but Kojo says that hasn’t been his experience. “If I make a mistake, and it’s not the way the border control guys want things to be, I don’t have to assume it’s because of my colour.” Kira waits in their car outside as their two-year-old daughter wriggles with boredom in the back seat. She just wants to go home. But in the short term, they’ll probably go to Kojo’s family in Ghana.

Anyone with a Ukrainian passport or ID card can travel on the railways for free – not just in Hungary, but across much of Europe. Ask the refugees where they’re going and they’ll say they have friends or family in Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands. About 90 to 95 per cent of those now coming across the border have a place to stay, estimates Kirk Prichard of the Irish aid organisation Concern Worldwide.

“As of now, a lot of the people we’re seeing crossing are better off,” he says. “If the crisis continues… that’s when we’ll see more vulnerable people, more impoverished, try to get out in more desperate situations.”

Headed west: Ukrainian civilians pile on to trains from Irpin, north-west of Kyiv, as the fighting draws closer to the capital. Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

For now the goodwill towards refugees is real, as is the desire to help. At Vyšné Nemecké, a border village in Slovakia, it can be seen in the boxes of donated food piled high and the vans arriving every hour from across Europe. The queue at customs of those taking goods across the border stretches back for the better part of a kilometre, with more lorries parked further up the road. A whole tent village has sprung up. If a refugee needs a sim card, nappies for a baby, or just a hot meal, it’s all here. There’s even a tent offering veterinary care and pet food for the many dogs and cats whose owners have brought them to safety.

Roman Solyanyk has driven a carful of aid from Bristol to the border, barely pausing to sleep. He’s Ukrainian by birth but has spent most of his life in the UK. He’s cheerfully stoical about the several-hour wait to get through customs, but when he looks at the refugees coming across the border, his mood turns. “It’s mad – mad that this is happening because of one guy, one lunatic,” he says. “You see stuff in the news or online, but it’s different seeing it here.”

Not all those crossing the border at Vyšné Nemecké are bringing aid. A Range Rover with Danish plates is being loaded with rucksacks and camouflage gear by men in black clothing. One of them wears a balaclava, partially obscuring his face. They don’t have time to talk; they’re heeding the call of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who asked foreigners to come to the country and fight.

In Tiszabecs, a village in eastern Hungary, the school sports hall has been turned into a makeshift warehouse. The donations are piled high, with more arriving every few minutes. Hungarians have welcomed these refugees, unlike in 2015, when the government built a fence on the southern border to keep out the Syrians, Afghans and others who had made the dangerous journey overland to Europe. Yet the warm welcome doesn’t represent a change of heart, exactly. “The Ukrainians are refugees; those were migrants,” one of the volunteers tells me. “Those people who’ve come from Syria and Iraq can go back now and rebuild their houses.”

Two military helicopters fly low overhead. The war feels very close here, not just geographically but psychologically too. Before 1989, this region was behind the Iron Curtain. Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956, moving on to what was then Czechoslovakia 12 years later. Slovakia and Hungary removed themselves from Russia’s sphere of influence as soon as they could, joining Nato and fuelling Putin’s sense of grievance. Ukraine’s wish to follow them was one of the Russian president’s pretexts for the war that now rages across the border. Nato is resisting calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine but is sending troops to reinforce the member countries that border it. If the war spills over into the West, this region will be on the front line.

Other ripples are already being felt. Hungary holds elections on 3 April. In Záhony, not far from where the refugees enter the country, an opposition candidate addresses a rally, backed by the flags of Hungary, the EU and Ukraine. Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, until recently an admirer and imitator of Putin, has been forced by public opinion to change his stance. This is the opposition’s best chance to unseat Orbán since he returned to power in 2010. 

During my three days on the Ukrainian border, the number of refugees rises from one million to 1.5 million. That number has since risen to two million, and the EU believes it could climb to as high as seven million. That compares with the 1.3 million who came to Europe during the migration crisis of 2015.

Even if the war were to end next week, some of those who have fled will never go home again. That may be to the ultimate benefit of the countries that receive them, but Ukraine itself will feel the loss for generations. It was already suffering from depopulation, much of it from working-age adults who’d migrated west, filling the gaps in labour markets left in turn by Poles and others who’d moved to the richer nations of the EU. It can’t afford to lose millions more.

Two years after Covid-19 began, Europe is facing a new pandemic, this time one of instability. The countries nearest Ukraine will have to absorb huge numbers of refugees, perhaps millions. Decades of policy in the fields of energy, business and defence are being reshaped on the fly. In the first weeks of Covid, people stood on their doorsteps to applaud healthcare workers and organised mutual aid groups; now they want to drive boxes of food aid to the border with Ukraine. The urge to do something is strong. But just as acceptance of lockdowns and masks diminished, so too are the outpourings of support for refugees likely to wane. The reckoning with Russia’s war has only just begun.

[see also: Britain has a world-losing refugee policy]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror