Displaced Ukrainians top 3.2 million; the largest refugee crisis involving Europeans since World War II

In just a matter of weeks millions of families have been shattered by Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine

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World News

March 20, 2022 - 8:54 PM

A man comforts his wife in Lviv, Ukraine before she boards a train to Przemysl, Poland. Over two million refugees have fled there towns after the Russians invaded. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

SHEHYNI, Ukraine — Andrii Bondar embraced his wife, son and daughter as their turn neared. They would soon cross the border into Poland. He would stay behind. The three were sobbing. Bondar, 50, finally pulled away, waved goodbye and watched as his family entered the control post leading to the neighboring nation.

“We had been preparing emotionally for this,” Bondar, himself now dry-eyed, said a few moments after his loved ones walked west, through Ukrainian and Polish inspection points. “Still, it is very difficult. It was very emotional for all of us.”

The family had escaped one of the war’s hot spots, Borodyanka, a northwestern suburb of Kyiv, the capital, that has seen pitched battles. Defenders there with Kalashnikov rifles and Molotov cocktails have faced off against Russian tanks. A Russian missile just missed the family’s apartment building. But at least they were all together — until now.

In just a matter of weeks, the great 2022 exodus of Ukrainians into Poland and other nations — the numbers currently top 3.2 million, according to the United Nations — has become the largest refugee crisis involving Europeans since World War II.

Photos and footage of women in quilted parkas pulling suitcases on rollers and holding hands with kids clutching stuffed animals have already entered the realm of the iconic— recalling an age when clashing armies rampaged through Europe and bedraggled legions filled roadways and displaced persons camps. Slick digital color images have replaced the grainy black-and-white compositions of a previous era. But there’s still a sense that time has somehow rewound.

While global attention has focused on the many arriving in Poland and other nations, this daily spectacle has another iteration: the huge numbers still inside Ukraine seeking to leave the country. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, line up for hours each day at this border post, waiting anxiously to get out.

The preponderance of women and children is striking. Ukraine, desperate for manpower to battle the Russian onslaught, has banned the exit of most men between the ages of 18 and 60. There are some exceptions — single fathers, men with three or more minor children, and those who have a child with a disability. But most other men who are Ukrainian citizens cannot exit the country. Ukrainian border guards appear to be diligent in checking IDs.

Because of the gender split, jumping-off spots inside Ukraine — like this scruffy border town, a short walk from Medyka, Poland — have become stages for high drama. Fathers, husbands, brothers, fiancés and others separate daily from wives and children, mothers, sisters and girlfriends. Left unsaid: There is no guarantee of future reunions.

A young Ukrainian boy looks out the window of a train as he leaves his father, who will stay to fight the invading Russians. More than two million refugees have fled their homes after the Russians invaded. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Many men, like Bondar, accompany their kin until the final point of departure. The men, once on their own, often linger, hoping for a final glimpse through gates and fences of those dearest to them. It is a moment of palpable melancholy.

Even if he qualified to depart, Bondar, a physical education teacher and soccer coach, insisted he would have stayed behind while his wife and daughter, 21, and son, 11, went ahead.

“I would remain in Ukraine and fight,” Bondar responded, as he stood at the border post, moments after his family had entered Poland.

This is a massive refugee crisis, but it is an extremely well-organized one, despite the chaos of war and the often subfreezing temperatures. Humanitarian corridors, rotating shifts of escape vehicles, and Ukraine’s still-functioning passenger train grid provide relatively reliable passage out of war zones and to the country’s boundaries.

A woman holds her child as they wait for the next train to Poland at the main station in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 19, 2022. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

At most every point — train stations, bus stops, border outposts — volunteers, often wearing orange or green vests, provide food and drink. Temporary accommodation is generally available for those on the move. Most everything is free.

Buses line up at Ukrainian train stations and borders to transport people to points all over Europe. In Poland, authorities have developed an elaborate network to match volunteer drivers with destinations across the continent.

“A big thank you to the volunteers,” said Bondar, a slim, athletic man decked out in sweatpants, black sneakers and a sports parka. “If not for them, it would have been very difficult to leave.”

Officials have endeavored to keep the war-displaced masses on the move to avoid overwhelming small border towns.

Columns of Russian tanks were shooting at the buildings. They destroyed the entire city center.

Andrii Bondar, age 50, who has remained in Ukraine to fight as his wife, daughter and son have fled to Poland

Refugees are funneled on to cities like Warsaw and Krakow, and across borders to Berlin, Amsterdam and elsewhere as Western European nations ease visa requirements for those fleeing Ukraine.

Many have specific destinations in mind, typically with relatives or friends, often members of the vast Ukrainian diaspora.

A surprising number, however, know no one where they are planning to go. Bondar’s family, for instance, has decided to go first to Poland, and then to Germany. They are not exactly sure where.

But just about any place is better right now than Borodyanka.

“Columns of Russian tanks were shooting at the buildings,” Bondar recalled, showing a reporter cellphone video of his once-tranquil hometown transformed into a war zone — a wasteland of charred armored vehicles and shattered apartment buildings. “They destroyed the entire city center.”

He skips to another panorama of devastation on his cellphone. “Russian tanks were taken out right between the school where I work and next to the children’s music school,” Bondar said. “Ukraine is saving Europe from a plague called Putin!”

Not everyone is accepting the ban on male departures with equanimity. Various cases of men turned back to Ukraine because they didn’t qualify for exemptions have appeared in the press and on social media.

On the same afternoon that Bondar dropped off his family, Anton Bohachov, 29, was having a cup of coffee at a volunteer stand with this wife, Valentina, 31. They were both disconsolate — but not for the usual reason. He had been denied exit, he said, even though his wife is deaf. The two, who were accompanied by their 4-year-old daughter, communicate via sign language. But there was no exception made in his case.

“My wife is disabled and cannot leave on her own, but they won’t let me out with her,” said Bohachov, a plumber. “I have work ready in Poland. I have a place to stay there. This is not a good situation for me and my family. It’s not fair.”

Forty miles to the east, the city of Lviv is a magnet for displaced Ukrainians — both those en route out of the country and the many who prefer to remain. They view Lviv, largely insulated to date from the war, as a safe haven.

Groups of war-displaced Ukrainians arrive daily at Lviv’s train terminal, a majestic Art Nouveau throwback to the city’s glory days as the capital of the former province of Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In these history-drenched environs, uprooted Ukrainians bide their time for hours waiting for daily trains to Poland.

Among those waiting on a recent evening was a family of four — a couple and two children — that had just arrived by car from Kyiv, a seven-hour drive past many checkpoints.

“It just got too hot in Kyiv, so I decided to take my family out,” said the father, 38, who gave only his first name, Dmytro, for security reasons. “The air defense system is working, yes. But there are too many Russian missiles. And sometimes we do get hit.”

He was turned down for the armed forces, he said, because it was oversubscribed with enlistees. He intends to try to join again.

His family was headed first to Poland, then to Germany. The father seemed exuberant, cracking jokes and vowing the war would be over in a month. He employed a popular, if vulgar, term advising the Russians to decamp.

There would be no tears on Platform 5, he vowed, as he anticipated the moment when the train pulled out for Poland and took his wife, Anna, 35, and his sons Lev, 7, and Kostya, 4.

“I did enough crying in the car coming here,” Dmytro said.

He would return to Kyiv, war or no war. His family, he assured anyone listening, would soon be back home with him, and a time of rockets and forced separations ended.

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