Ukrainians fleeing to Romania: ‘We thought the media was exaggerating and now we’re refugees’

Tens of thousands of women and children in Ukraine have traveled to the neighboring country, as the border crossing to Poland becomes overwhelmed by the crisis sparked by the Russian offensive

The border crossing between Romania and Ukraine.
The border crossing between Romania and Ukraine.Alex Onciu

Natalya took 20 minutes to decide how much of her life she could cram into a suitcase, without knowing if she would ever be able to return to Kyiv one day. “[On Thursday] we awoke at around 6am and we saw via Facebook that the war had begun,” she explains. “It wasn’t because of any explosions. So basically, we got together some clothes, what we could find in 20 minutes. I collected my mother, I grabbed my dog, we got in the car and we left. I hope that we can return within three months to rebuild our country, which they are destroying.”

The 29-year-old’s face looks tired as she smokes at the border crossing in Siret, where she has just crossed from Ukraine into Romania. “We had a happy life,” she says. “My mother and I have a family business. And now we are refugees. I didn’t think that we would live through a war in the 21st century. We thought that the media were exaggerating, but a person decided to do that,” she continues, in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and speaking with a tone as if she is not really sure if she’s living in a movie or real life.

She is part of a group of women who have reached the border in three cars. They got to Romania in the early hours of Tuesday, after two-and-a-half days inside their vehicles, given the bottleneck that has formed at the Romanian border. “We just stopped [in the car] to have a four-hour nap,” explains Eleanora Samburska at her side. All of them are cold: it’s the middle of the night and the thermometers are at 0ºC.

Since the start of the war, around 105,000 Ukrainians have entered Romania, while just over 62,000 have left, according to information released late on Tuesday night by the Romanian border police. In the previous 18 hours, more than 7,000 people entered via one of the four official crossing points along the more than 600-kilometer border that the two countries share. Over the same time, another 7,600 people entered Romania via Moldova. Nearly all of them are women and children, because men aged under 60 have been banned from leaving Ukraine under martial law as decreed by the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy in response to the Russian invasion of his country.

Romania is not usually a destination country, but rather a place that people pass through. Those arriving in Siret appear to be divided into three groups, according to their testimonies: foreigners who have been instructed to leave Ukraine by their home countries; Ukrainians who live in the south of the country and for whom Moldova and Romania were simply the fastest way to flee the war; and a more-recent phenomenon, the inhabitants of the capital of Kyiv – which is being shelled – who are looking for a “plan B” to the endless traffic jams on the western exit routes. They are the residents of Kyiv who – “for now,” as they often clarify – are heading to Poland because they have relatives and friends there, but have opted to take a longer route via another European Union country in order to leave Ukraine as fast as possible. Of Poland’s 38 million inhabitants, there are one million Ukrainians, who were attracted by a generous policy of visas and higher salaries. From Kyiv, it is more or less the same distance to the Romanian border crossing of Siret as it is to the Polish crossing of Dorohusk: between 500 and 600 kilometers.

Oksana Boiko, 36, is in this latter group. She has just entered Romania with her 15-year-old son. Her husband, she explains, has stayed behind to “help keep control” of the city of Ivano-Frankivsk (230,000 inhabitants), in the southwest of Ukraine, although he will not be fighting directly against the Russian forces. “Our first stop will be here, then perhaps Poland… and later, we’ll have to think about it,” she says, while waiting for the police checkpoint light to turn green and continue on her journey.

Oksana Boiko, 36, after entering Romania.
Oksana Boiko, 36, after entering Romania.Alex Onciu

In Siret, some images are repeated every once in a while: mothers carrying packs of diapers, children holding on to their favorite soft toy for the journey, cars with three generations of a family inside, and people with glazed looks on their faces, as if they were trying to assimilate something that is happening way too fast.

A lot of people are arriving in their vehicles. Others come as close as they can and then walk the last few kilometers through the traffic jam. Many of the Ukrainian men who arrive have to swiftly turn around and start their return journey. This is what happened to the boyfriend of Galyna (she opted not to supply her surname). The couple tried to cross the border together, knowing full well it would be nearly impossible given that he, at the age of 30, is ripe for recruitment to the resistance forces. “Now he is there, I am here… I don’t know what to do,” she says, teary-eyed. “I’ve spent the last few days in the shelter we have in the basement of my building,” she explains. “You watch and watch the news, trying to understand how to act.” In the end, the IT company that she works for evacuated her from Kyiv along with other staff members. For now, the firm is going to continue operating from the building they have in Romania.

Wrapped in a blanket, Darpan Vemra, 20, is waiting in line in the early hours of the morning outside a hotel called Frontera. He is one of the 20,000 or so young Indians who are studying in Ukraine, a more accessible country than others in Europe. Indians account for the largest foreign student group in the former Soviet republic – a quarter of the total. One of the 16,000 who were yet to be evacuated died on Tuesday when Kharkiv was bombed.

“Last night we slept in a bomb shelter in Ukraine,” explains Vemra. “Now we’re going to Bucharest to fly back to India. The classes will continue online, which is a problem, because for our studies [medicine], internships are very important. We will wait a month or two… and then maybe we’ll return.”

Volunteers

Another regular sight in Siret are the Romanians who have come to lend a hand. There are those who are moving alone, like the young man who has written a sign in English and Ukrainian, offering free accommodation for up to five people. Or Dana Miron, a resident of nearby Suceava who has been waiting for a Ukrainian family for five hours to take them to sleep at her sister’s house. She’s 23 and coordinated the pickup via a Facebook page that sprung up after the invasion. Since then, she has come every night.

Then there are those who are part of a coordinated effort. Marius Dan is a volunteer from ADRA, the humanitarian organization from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He has been driving the 100 kilometers a night that separate his house from the border post. “I would take a family member to my house, but it’s very far away and everyone wants to stay close by if it’s possible,” he explains. “As they arrive tired, they can’t drive another 100 kilometers.”

Daniel Criham, 23, is helping the arrivals with their bags while Bogdan Oprea, 39 and a volunteer firefighter, is manning a table with free basic products. “They are asking for medication more than anything, mostly paracetamol,” he explains. “Not so much water because they are usually carrying enough.” There are also diapers, tampons and hand gel, all purchased with private donations. “One woman who just crossed asked me, ‘Did this come from the people of Romania?’ I told her that it had, and she burst into tears,” he explains.

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