The Long Road to Safety
Photographer: Amel Pain
Since Russia invaded Ukraine a month ago, triggering the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world, millions of people – the vast majority women, children and the elderly – have seen their lives torn apart.
Over 10 million people have been displaced by the war, with at least 3.6 million of those seeking refuge abroad, an exodus unseen in Europe since World War II that will severely test the EU’s solidarity and promise of welcoming the millions of Ukrainian refugees.
As they flee their homeland carrying their lives in their suitcases and saddled with fear and uncertainty, the one thing these refugees know for sure is that they are headed to Germany and – they hope – to safety.
Outside a sports center in Chisinau which has been converted into a transit point for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian bombs, Olga, a single mother from a town near Odesa, and her two young girls wait alongside around 70 others to board a bus.
Like so many other Ukrainian parents, Olga does her best to keep her daughters’ minds off the turmoil surrounding them.
”The girls are mostly disappointed because they had a big event at school and we prepared beautiful customs for that,” the young mother tells EPA-EFE.
A coordinator for an NGO tells them where their lodging will be once they make it to Germany. The ‘Be an Angel’ charity has been helping arrange travel for and relocation of refugees with four to five buses per day since the war started.
“The Speyer refugee camp we mentioned before is full, Berlin is full, Munich is full,” Hermann Meingast tells the tired and tense faces huddled together outside the bus at the Maneje indoors sports center.
Some have come from western Ukraine, which has yet to see the kind of horror that hotspots further east like Kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv have had to endure under the Russian attacks. But most of those who have ended up in Chisinau came from the south; either from Odesa, the pearl of the Black Sea, which has been preparing for weeks now for what an imminent Russian offensive, or from Mykolaiv, which fast became a frontline city due to its strategic location.
Thirty-year-old Jenia, a psychologist from Kyiv, was enjoying a yoga retreat when her mother called her on the day Russia invaded, telling her to leave Ukraine as soon as possible.
“You must not return to Kyiv. It is not safe for you to come home to us,” her mother had said.
Five hours after the scheduled departure time, the bus finally pulls away into the night, heading towards the border with Romania.
The traffic at the border crossing is moving quite quickly, raising hopes that it will not be long before they are allowed into the EU.
A border police officer then comes onto the bus to collect passports, but only returns six hours later.
The bus still is not allowed through, however, as one family has been pulled aside because their two dogs, Trophy and Ritchie, haven’t had their documentation arranged.
They stand outside in the cold while everyone else on board waits in silence. One hour later, much to their relief, the family – and their pets – are allowed back on.
“No more stops until tomorrow morning or we will need to park and not move for 10 hours!”, the driver warns, as any further delays would mean having to rest overnight to stay in line with EU safety laws for long-haul drivers.
Shortly after noon the next day, the bus reaches a rest area where the vehicle is disinfected and the bathrooms cleaned, giving everyone a chance to have a lunch of coffee, borscht, mashed potatoes, bread and meat provided for free by the owner of a roadside eatery.
The journey continues, the radio playing Romanian folk music punctuated with government announcements and news on the war in Ukraine.
As the clock strikes 4pm, the bus slows to a stop to join the back of a long queue of vehicles. A wave of optimism ripples through the bus as we have reached the border with Hungary, the last frontier before the refugees make it to the border-free Schengen Area of the EU.
But only after a five-hour wait does a border guard come to collect the passports. Another two hours pass before some 40 passengers are asked to get off the bus with their children and passports to get their fingerprints taken.
With children half asleep and parents exhausted after days of being on the road, the atmosphere is tense. The nearest bathroom is 600 meters away, and there is only a small group of Romanian volunteers giving out aid to the ever-growing number of buses arriving at the border carrying refugees.
Nine hours later, the bus is finally allowed to move on to Hungary.
A New Start
Jenia has got hold of a Romanian sim card with internet credit, and starts making arrangements for her and two other passengers whose journey will be ending near Vienna.
At 5am, the driver wakes them up. They sleepily get off the bus, which has stopped near a gas station by the highway outside town.
The driver opens the trunk and helps them find their luggage. Jenia remembers to take her yoga mat with her, and she bids the rest of the passengers farewell and wish them luck for their onward journey.
The drive through Austria and to Wurzburg is smooth and is hassle-free compared to the first leg, even though the toilet is again out of service.
The bus reaches Wurzburg, where the first group disembarks near the town’s main train station, 14 hours later than planned.
Olga and her girls plan to go to Cologne to a friend’s home, but they will need a place to stay for tonight as they all urgently need a proper night’s sleep.
Sitting at a cafe near Wurzburg main station, they look for a solution that will not burden any of the other passengers, all the while reminiscing on the life they were living in Odesa just four weeks earlier and have been forced to abandon.
While the refugees will go their separate ways, they are united in the hope that this situation they have been plunged into is just temporary – they all want to return home as soon as the war ends and pray that they find the men they left behind doing well and their homes still standing.
Exhausted but resilient, they are thankful to be alive and are determined to survive, to return home and rebuild their shattered lives.
“Who would have known that I would go from a yoga retreat to being a refugee?” Jenia had said before leaving the group outside Vienna.
“Life teaches us that you have to live now, people... live the now.”