The horror of war crossed my path from the moment I reached the frontier between Poland and Ukraine exactly eight days ago. The experience in a refugee centre is terrible. You see people coming off buses with sad faces although without time to be bitter. They are all trying to hang onto the few things they carry with them without thinking of the many things they left back home – their furniture, their clothing, their photos, their memories, their lives. The faces of those who emigrate reflect that reality. Children who almost do not cry because they have already said their bitter farewells to their dads, who have had to stay to fight on the front. I’ll never forget the expressions of the children running with their families to send their regards in a postcard.
The smells are very strong with people of different nationalities cooking for others and for many those aromas are the only thing apart from their memories restoring to them a feeling of normality. The solidarity of the people is moving amid the precarious and uprooted lives at the frontier. There are thousands of souls left to God’s mercy.
Within Ukraine the cities have been transformed into fortresses. I confess that after some days what seems freaky is almost normal for many people. Some of the inhabitants have opted not to go any more to the refugee shelters, which represents an abysmal peril. Those who opt for safety also suffer total uncertainty – firstly because when the sirens sound, they must immediately drop everything they are doing and run for safety and secondly, because once inside the bunkers nobody has any notion of what is going on above ground. The bombardments could be intensifying or pausing or at a prudent distance from the refugees – you can only wait. The houses still standing are at risk. An inhabitant of Kyiv told me: “We have ourselves, we are united in the desire to save our lives but the fate of our heritage is also unknown, something we have built with effort all our lives. That’s very unfair,” he highlighted in anguish.
Reaching Kyiv was not easy. Kilometres and kilometres of people trying to leave. We travelled in a group with other colleagues and the feeling of going in the opposite direction to everybody else never leaves us. The train journey was a real adventure. Before leaving we had to calculate the time of arrival because if we arrived during curfew, we would have to spend the night in the station. And so it was – after a brief rest we left the station at 7am to penetrate into the centre of Kyiv to the National Hotel where we would stay. I had been in the city three years ago covering a Chernobyl anniversary. The fantastic city I then knew combining ancient and modern was no more.
The scenario carries impact. Semi-deserted streets with defence barriers and refuges look more like a film set than reality. The shops on the main boulevards are all covered up except those selling food. The barricades follow one after the other with people zigzagging between them but with one single convictión: “We’re going to win the war. We’re not going to submit to the régime of Vladimir Putin,” they exclaim bravely, each and every one of them. Their thinking is unanimous. Something which made an impact on me but seems to augur a difficult exit route for the conflict with a Russia which would seem to have an infinite arsenal to sustain its invasion. Ukraine suffers, the war is felt. Stench, gunshots and bombardments. The war unfortunately makes itself present with every step we take.