Ukraine: Refugee journeys of fear to escape harrowing realities of war - Christa Ackroyd

A few days ago as the light faded, I sat beside a young woman in a car as we crossed the border from Ukraine into Poland. Her name is Natalia. She never looked back. But she couldn’t look forward either. Instead, she bowed her head and prayed.

As we queued at border control with our interpreter and representatives of an aid mission from Halifax, her hands shook. She is 35 but looked like a timid teenager. In shock, she could shed no tears and I knew if they began they would never stop. She is one of millions fleeing Ukraine.

At the border crossing, the scenes were those we have all seen on our TV screens. We know they are real but they are unbearable in reality. A Ukrainian man picked up his young daughter. She was about the same age as my youngest grandchild. Hugging her, he kissed her head and handed her to her mummy.

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Only he couldn’t let go. Time and time again he took her back and hugged her once more. An hour later he was still there as we crossed back into Poland. He would go to fight after leading his family to safety.

One of the banners at a Scotland Stands with Ukraine peace rally earlier this week. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Natalia spoke little or no English as she made the journey with us, leaving behind her widowed mother who could not be persuaded to come but had insisted her daughter must go.

Natalia had travelled by herself for hours from one of the villages outside war torn Kyiv to meet a member of our small group from Yorkshire, a cousin she had never seen, in the relative calm of Lviv. Only on the night she arrived the Russians bombed a military base less than ten miles away killing and wounding hundreds.

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The sirens sounded as the blasts from 30 cruise missile lit up the skies. We didn’t ask her about it. She had seen enough. The day after the bombing we entered Ukraine to zig-zag through the newly erected makeshift barricades which now line the roads into Lviv as armed guards stopped us every step of the way. The city once considered safe, was now on high alert.

But it remains a city of two halves. We met Natalia in a pastry shop down a side street. She refused to eat. Inside the scene was as though nothing was happening elsewhere in Ukraine.

Customers chatted and laughed as they ate coffee and cakes. Shops were open and people strolled through the beautiful town to sit in the sun wrapped up against the biting cold.

It could have been any other cosmopolitan European city were it not for men holding guns and the churches and statues shrouded in tarpaulin and steel in readiness for the Russian attack they fear will come. As the centre of the humanitarian exodus, they believe after the bombing of the nearby military base, Putin will eventually try to cut off supplies there too.

Less than five streets away, thousands of refugees queued for food and water before they made their way out by bus and train to Poland. Fifty thousand of them are still leaving that one city every day. At the station our Ukrainian government representative Yuri showed us proudly the aid stations set up to help those fleeing.

All I could see were women and children who had no idea what would happen to them on the other side or whether they would see their menfolk again. Yuri was there to show us how our aid, wagon after wagon donated by the people of Yorkshire and organised by the Ukrainian community of Halifax, was being distributed. We were there to ask him what was needed. I was unprepared for his answer.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I must take this phone call. It is from a surgeon operating on those injured at the army base. They have heard you are here and they ask for your help. They are sending me what they need.”

Over the past 40 years, I have been involved in many charitable collections. Never before have I been given such a list as that which he showed me after translation. Bandages, wound dressings, tourniquets, medicines, ointments, incontinence pants for the injured, but the most shocking of all an orthopaedic drill. That list was the reality of war.

That night in the safety of our boarding house in the heart of Poland, Natalia didn’t sleep. Quietly she sobbed as she placed photographs of the family she had left behind on the bedside table, her mobile phone constantly in use. I must have dozed off.

When I awoke she greeted me with “Good Morning Christa. How are you?“ All night she had been using her phone to learn English in readiness for coming to Yorkshire. She broke my heart.

We wanted to bring Natalia home with us. We couldn’t because our government’s slow visa application hadn’t opened. So we had to leave her in Poland with the family of our interpreter with the firm promise we would see her soon. As we took her into the train station more than a hundred miles from the border of her country she looked as she is, a lost soul.

We went to buy her ticket. “Has she come from Ukraine?” asked the ticket man. “Yes she has,” we said. “Then there will be no charge.” God bless Poland. She hugged us as she boarded a train to Warsaw seated alone with strangers, all equally subdued. Only the children chattered as children do.

They were refugees too heading to who knows where. It was awful leaving her. It felt so wrong. I hope, by the time you read this, that her family in Halifax will have made arrangements to bring her to them. She has promised to meet my family, her second cousin is my son -in-law, and make us Ukrainian food.

Until then all I can do is tell you her story. And I can’t tell you how it will end. In the meantime if anyone knows where I can get an orthopaedic drill please let me know. I am deadly serious. I know a surgeon who needs one. Slava Ukraini.

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