Five stories from the border between Ukraine and Poland


Despair turns to joy, tears are wiped away and empty stomachs fill at the main pedestrian crossing point from Poland to Ukraine.

Emotions in Mykranski are as varied as the people who walk the short path either to return to war or to escape from it.

The route is lined with lookouts manned by volunteers from around the world offering hot food, sweets, tea, and information on accommodation and onward travel.

Exhausted mothers, pushing prams with toddlers trailing behind, gratefully take the offered sandwiches or paper cups filled with jarzynowa potato salad. Their looks of joy are tempered by the sorrow of leaving behind husbands and sons, not knowing when or if they will see them again.

There are a few men, including a foreign fighter who returns to Georgia after witnessing child rapes and murders in Bucha. There are farmers eager to return to grow potatoes to feed their country. A woman who can no longer bear to be separated from her husband, despite their town being attacked by missiles – “better that we die together than continue to live apart”, she said. The National.

“Better to Die Together”

A dozen missiles hit the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine last week. It’s dangerous, admits Elea Serebriakova, 39, but the emotional exhaustion of being separated from her partner and parents was too great after fleeing the country a month ago.

“It is better to die together than to be separated. It’s unbearable,” she said. “It’s very difficult emotionally; it’s very hard to be separated from my husband. It’s safe here in Poland, but now I want to be with him in Dnipro.

She left after the Russians bombed, then seized, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in early March. “We were very scared then, but now I want to go back and support my people because the Russians are planning to attack.” For a moment she paused, tears glistening in her eyes. “Russians are so stupid – stupid – to come to Ukraine.”

The Secretary

Olga Pylup’s first act upon entering Poland was to use the sink next to the outside Portaloos to scrub her hands. Perhaps it was a step in erasing the memory of the war.

He had very little left in the town of Svatove in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine after it was occupied by Russian-backed NRL separatists.

Twice the townspeople had united in protest against the NRL only for Russian troops to intervene.

A few months earlier, she had quit her job as a secretary to take care of her dying father. Then came the invasion.

“It was really difficult to find food. There was only bread and mayonnaise left in the shops. The prices were four times higher. There was no internet, no television. It was like a prison and I didn’t want to live under the NRL separatists.

Olga, 43, managed to board a westbound bus convoy. She was lucky. A day later, a similar convoy was hit and two people killed.

Where was she going now? Ireland, she replied. Her clean fingers danced over her phone to find precisely where. “Limerick,” she said with a heavy Ukrainian accent. “My mom and my cousin are there,” she clarified through The Nationalis the Ukrainian translator. “I pray to God that my brother, my sister and my children live and can leave Luhansk.”

Olga Pylup, a secretary from eastern Ukraine.  Thomas Harding/The National

The Georgian

The intense gaze and the way he carried his backpack suggested that the stocky, bearded man was the one who had witnessed the fighting.

Joni Khvadagiani, 39, was returning from the pivot of frontline fighting against Russian troops around the towns of Bucha and Irpin, north of kyiv.

Ukraine’s human rights commissioner reported on Tuesday that 25 girls had been raped by Russians. Nine had become pregnant during the brutal occupation of Bucha, where around 500 civilians were murdered.

Joni, a volunteer from Georgia, was among those who rescued the girls. “We heard them screaming from a basement,” he said. The National. “But first we had to call the engineers because the doors were trapped. They secured the explosives, then we walked in. We found the girls. They were dressed in pajamas and they were really, really cold. Some were 14 years old, others younger. They had been raped by the Russians. Nine were pregnant.

He spoke calmly, but his outrage was evident when he remembered the bodies of other children floating in canals. Then he showed pictures of a burning BTR armored vehicle his unit had destroyed with the bloodied bodies of young Russian soldiers lying in the road.

“They shouldn’t have come,” he said.

His motives for joining the war were clear. Joni’s father and brother were killed during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. As soon as the Ukrainian invasion began, he flew out of Tbilisi. “I came to fight for Ukraine,” he said, and vowed he would return to finish the fight after a break at his home in Georgia.

“Of course, 100%, Ukraine will win the war. When they do, we will come back to fight Russia in Georgia. The Russians are worse than animals. They are not human.

Joni Khvadagiani, a Georgian who left to fight for Ukraine, returns home after a month on the front line.  Thomas Harding/The National


“Potatoes,” Andrii and Stepan said. “We are going home to plant potatoes to feed our people so they can wage war.”

Like many Ukrainians, the couple had traveled to their EU neighbor to earn better wages. Now they wanted to go home and help. Normally, Andrii, 48, would have been immediately drafted into the army when crossing the Ukrainian border. Any man between the ages of 18 and 60 is liable for trafficking. But he suffers from a disability, which will not deter him from joining the defense of the territory, alongside Stepan, who is approaching his 60th birthday.

But was he sure to come back? “The words ‘for sure’ are no longer good for Ukrainians. It’s dangerous everywhere,” Andrii replies. “We expected it because Putin wants to destroy Ukraine, but we have the best army in the world.”

“We are grateful to all the peoples of Europe who help us with weapons,” Stepan said. “But we need more. NATO is giving us more modern weapons so that we can close the skies to Russian aircraft.

Newly arrived refugees eating free pizza and fries.  Thomas Harding/The National

Mother, daughter, cats

Inna Butko couldn’t hide her smile when she arrived in Poland. As she sat on a bench in front of a free food stand, she could finally relax. She had managed to get to safety with her 16-year-old daughter and her two cats, Toffee and Lemon.

They too had escaped from the east. They had fled their hometown of Sloviansk, near Kramatorsk, before it was surrounded by the Russians. Bucha’s stories of the rapes and executions of civilians had been enough to spur them on, even though she left behind her husband and 29-year-old son.

“It was dangerous to go out. There were a lot of bombs. There were sirens every day. We are very happy to be here because it was so difficult to go out. But we are very worried about my husband and my son. It’s stressful and terrifying for them, but one day we will come back. Ukraine will not give up.

Inna Butko with her 16 year old daughter and her cats.  Thomas Harding/The National

Updated: April 16, 2022, 12:48 p.m.

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