Przemyśl, 10 April 2022
Sunday is the day of rest at the Free Shop in Krakow. But there’s no rest for the wicked. I’ve rented a car and headed for the Ukrainian border.
I’m writing this, eh, let’s call it an Insta Story story, at a cafe in Przemyśl. Just by the railway station. Can’t find the name of this place. In my defence, I have other things on my mind. Like anger! But the lady behind the counter is friendly and the cheese pirogi is tasty.
I’m just back from the Medyka border crossing, where things seem weirdly normal. Knowing they are anything but normal, it feels like Twilight Zone normality. A km or so from the border is the sleepy little village Medyka. Or at least, it’s sleepy today. A sleepy Sunday feel. Very few people are out and about. Perhaps this is normal for Medyka on a Sunday afternoon. Palm Sunday afternoon.
I wonder about the atmosphere on the other side, in the border village Shehyni.
Continuing towards the border, I notice several cars with Ukrainian licence plates heading in the same direction. Towards Ukraine.
At the border, there is a queue. I expect there is a queue here, even in peace time. This could easily be any border. The border between Norway and Sweden, say. Back in the day when there was an actual border, that is.
I had to promise the rental car guy I wouldn’t leave Poland, and feel I should keep my promise, so I park the car and walk towards the border. Nice idea, but…
I don’t get very far before I’m stopped by a uniform. Where do I think I’m going? Well, to the border. I don’t intend to cross it, I say. Just to get up close. Maybe talk with people.
Yeah, no, not gonna happen. Also, no photos of any officialdom, says the uniform. I interpret this to mean that it’s OK to take a few pictures of the queue – as long as there isn’t any ‘officialdom’ in it.
In the queue, some get out of their cars, stretching their legs, chatting with others whilst waiting.
What did I expect? More of a military presence, I think. Things have been relatively quiet in Lviv and the western part of Ukraine. Along the highway, as I was nearing Medyka earlier, I passed a few military planes flying low, moving away from the border. Hercules, it looked like.
Heading back to the car park, I spot several Ukrainian registered cars. Coming or going? I couldn’t tell.
I try to strike up a conversation with a young couple coming out of a snazzy Fiat Spider. They’re friendly enough, but don’t speak English or any other language I understand. And my go-to phrases in Russian don’t cut it. Not even close. Downside to spontaneity right there – and arriving completely unprepared.
With a bit of body language, we at least manage to communicate well enough that I understand that they have driven from Kyiv, and are just now arriving in Poland and are continuing on to Krakow. It’s a long drive.
There doesn’t seem to be much to learn here at the border today, so I head towards Przemyśl, the nearest town (of any size).
Przemyśl train station is the first stop for those fleeing war in Ukraine. Fleeing to Poland and further afield. Just outside the station, an ambulance awaits, just in case. Next to it, a food tent – World Kitchen – where they can get something to eat and drink.
Inside the railway station, things are a bit chaotic, but not really stressful. Queues are forming. Most seem a bit apathetic – waiting. Several humanitarian organisations are represented here in Przemyśl, waiting to help the next batch of refugees arriving. A volunteer in a yellow high-visibility vest hands out tea in paper cups. An elderly lady carries her bags in a shopping trolley.
Kids play and run about. A little boy, 2 maybe, is hugging a tattered teddy bear. Dogs, small ones, are tugging at their leashes. A woman is carrying a cat in a carrier box. Pets are refugees, too.
On the info board, I notice a train departing for Odesa in about two-and-a-half hours. Definitely on my wish list, Odesa. I want to see the Potemkim Stairs. Run up and down them. But that must wait for another time. Today, I need to be back in Krakow before 8pm to return the rental car. And there’s work tomorrow. About 10 hours.
Leaving Przemyśl, I think of the human cost of this completely unnecessary war. And this – just this – is very much on my mind: