Today marks one month since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.
In that time, more than 3.7 million people have become refugees and an estimated 7 million more are now internally displaced—they’ve fled their homes in Ukraine but remain within the country.
For the past 3 weeks I’ve been reporting from Moldova, at the Ukrainian border and in the Southern Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Mykolayiv. I know that the news coming out of Ukraine is overwhelming and difficult to keep up with. My intention here is to share the experiences of those I've met and an intimate perspective of what is happening on the ground.
While the largest number of refugees have fled to Poland the highest per capita have arrived at the border of Moldova. The small, poor but generous country of less than 3 million people has so far received more than 310,000 people as the flood of people fleeing Russian violence continues. Authorities and the UN expect the flow to intensify as the Russian army advances deeper into Ukraine, particularly as it approaches the capital Kyiv and as violence continues to escalate in Southern port cities.
“Putin is killing civilians. We had to leave. I fled with my daughter and her children; we left everything, even our husbands. I do not know where we will go, but we could not stay and wait for them to come.”
At the Palanca border crossing, a jointly operated division between Moldova and Ukraine, hundreds stand outside huddled together against the freezing temperature. These are the people who’ve made it through customs; thousands more queue on the other side of the border for hours, sometimes days, as they wait for permission to enter Moldova.
Women hold small children in their arms, others pull suitcases across the muddy ground and look for a bus or private vehicle to take them to Chisinau or a train station; small groups discuss where they’ll try to travel to next and others cry softly while holding each other in long embraces. Many appear shocked, as though they have not yet made sense of what is happening; just a few weeks ago the risk of war was present but no one seems prepared for this.
I’ve covered other refugee crises but never has the population been so disproportionally—almost exclusively—women, children, babies and the elderly. With few exceptions, Ukraine has forbidden all men age 18 to 60 from leaving the country.
Those at Palanca come primarily from Mykolayiv and Odessa, two port cities in Southern Ukraine. Russia’s bombardment of Mykolayiv continues and many speculate that Odessa is in Russia’s sight as part of an ambitious plan to cut off all access to the Black Sea.
“Tell me, what am I to do now?”
Alessandra hugs her son closely at the Palanca border crossing. Her mother is on the phone calling friends and relatives; she tells some that they’ve arrived safely and asks others for help and advice.
“We decided to leave Mykolayiv because it was too dangerous to stay; we did not have a choice. But now, where do we go? I have nothing; we left everything and it's only us—I don’t know what to do.”
A van of Ukrainian women and children depart from the Palanca border crossing, a jointly operated division between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. The vehicle is bound for the Moldovan capital Chisinau where some will travel on towards cities in surrounding countries, some will remain in Moldova and some spend the ride making calls to family and friends, unsure of where to go.
“Right before this happened I was shopping for my prom dress; it’s my final year of school and life was good, life felt normal. Now I’m on a bus talking to you with only this small bag and we’re running away—we left everything behind”.
“No one would ever think this would happen to them…but here we are. My father stayed in our home to help defeat the Russians and I don’t know what will happen…to him, to us…to Ukraine”.
Aliona, 17, fled Mykolayiv today with her three siblings and mother. They are among the now 3.7 million people who have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion began on February 24, 2022.
At the Palanca border crossing a tent has been erected for children to play; those pictured here are among the more than 2 million Ukrainian children who have become refugees in past month. While many have fled Russia’s bombardment of residential areas with their mother or other family member there are also tens of thousands of orphans and unaccompanied minors. Some come from orphanages or care facilities and some have been sent ahead by parents unable to themselves make the trek. The situation is so dire that parents are sending their children to travel hundreds of miles alone believing that this is a better option than staying in Ukraine.
The BBC recently reported that at least 5,000 Ukrainian children are unaccounted for and that many are believed to have already fallen prey to human traffickers targeting parentless children at some of the busiest border crossings. As violence in Ukraine continues to escalate the United Nations is urging countries receiving Ukrainian refugees to identify and register unaccompanied children to help guard against abduction and exploitation. Already human rights groups said they have seen cases of trafficking, missing children, extortion and exploitation as floods of people continue to flee escalating violence.
“I am afraid for the future of my children.”
Mattresses are spread across the floor in the basement of a church-sponsored boarding home in Chisinau, Moldova. Women and children, all who fled from either Mykolayiv or Odessa, two port cities in Southern Ukraine, talk amongst themselves, text with loved ones who remain in Ukraine and take turns watching the children as others have a hot shower. Some waited for days in the cold before being able to cross the border from Ukraine into Moldova.
I sat with these women and their children as they shared pieces of their former lives in Ukraine and of their journey leaving the country they call home. One woman, who asked I share only her first name—Narine—said, “My children were very afraid of the sound of the siren. They were in a panic. My daughter started vomiting from fear. When we arrived in Moldova, my daughter was crying for her dad, and my son said to his sister, ‘do not worry they won’t shoot bombs and rockets here’. But their father remains in Odessa and they are very afraid for him. They are young but they understand what is happening.”
“She is only 10. They are only children.”
“We are safe but we are alone now. My husband, he had to stay behind; he is not a soldier but he will fight. I do not know what we will do … what kind of life is this for a child, for anyone?”
Leeza, age 10, and her mother Leena, were among more than 100 civilians on a bus being evacuated from the besieged city of Mikolayiv, Ukraine. During what would turn into a 9 hour return trip to Chisinau, Moldova the mother and daughter sat together and Leena shared of her fears, her love for her children and her struggle to grasp the new reality that so many Ukrainians now face.
The queue of cars from Ukraine to the Moldovan border stretches for several kilometers. Inside the vehicle are 21 women and children from the besieged city of Mikolayiv. Only three hours earlier they were standing amdist a crowd of several hundred people, all looking for transportation, all desperate to leave a city under attack. Now, in relative safety, the exhaustion is visible and visceral. Mothers hold their children close and many of the youngest are asleep. Others stare ahead or out the window, their faces at times a mask of emotion and at others crumbling into tears.
The few items each have carried with them are in small suitcases or frayed shopping bags. Two women have brought their cats and clutch the carriers to their chests.
It will take us nearly five hours to reach the border, a long time to sit but hardly the most time many have endured at similar crossings in other countries bordering Ukraine.
Upon arrival in Chișinău some will remain in Moldova, others will travel on to Romania or other parts of Europe and some make hushed phones calls to family and friends, unsure where to go.