PRZEMYŚL, Poland — At a Polish aid center outside the central railway station in Przemyśl, thousands of Ukrainian refugees and foreign nationals fleeing the war are welcomed by Polish civilians and government workers.
Many have made a harrowing dayslong journey across Ukraine, as the Russian military continues its all-out assault on the country. Some have endured lengthy lineups at the border in frigid temperatures, eager to know the brutal conflict that has already claimed thousands of lives is behind them.
One woman named Natasha had only a blue knapsack and her cat Cleopatra. Natasha took the cat with her to Poland when she escaped Kyiv. “She’s my family,” Natasha told VICE News.
After fleeing the capital city days ago, Natasha joined over 400,000 Ukrainian refugees who have made it through to Poland. Several hundred thousand other refugees have fled to nearby countries.
“I [couldn’t] sleep for the last five nights. I sleep one, two hours, always [airstrike sirens], always booms and ground vibrations,” Natasha said, describing the relentless Russian attacks on Kyiv. “Putin [is] crazy. He [is] bombing hospitals, he’s bombing schools! Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, maybe Romania, maybe [others] next!”
Natasha’s sister lives in Paris, and she hopes to reunite with her there.
At the aid center, some of the people arriving had tearful reunions with family and friends, while others moved onward in the station toward different Polish cities and European destinations, or out of the continent all together. After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared that all male citizens between 18 and 60 would not be permitted to leave the country, most of the people at the aid station were women and children.
Aid workers and volunteers distributed hot food and warm clothing, and a mountain of diapers and baby products were on display. Several babies were pushed around in strollers and toddlers scurried through the spaces between boxes of boots and blankets. One danced around and ate a lollipop, unaware of the circumstances that brought them there.
“After three days in the basement with my son and husband, we decided to come here,” said Yulia, a teacher from the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, holding back tears. “We didn’t want to because my parents are still there, and so is my husband.” Yulia met up with her sister who lives in Warsaw, where she’ll stay until the end of the war.
“I believe that everything is going to be OK,” she said.
What appeared to be Polish police and at least one soldier dressed in military fatigues carried babies and baggage at the station, helping along with young members of the “Hacerse,” the Polish equivalent of the Boy Scouts.
One man named Daniel had just arrived with his wife and daughter from east Kyiv and was happy to be in Poland out of harm's way. He said the five days he spent experiencing the war was enough to make him pack up and leave.
“It was hard to leave because the bombs were falling every minute and we couldn’t sleep,” he told VICE News. “The journey was extremely hard and dangerous, too.”