As Marek Mahdal watched news reports of Russian bombs pounding Ukraine, he felt he couldn’t sit at home in Prague and do nothing.
So he and two friends jumped in their cars Thursday night and drove 770 kilometres to the Ukrainian border crossing near the city of Przemysl, in eastern Poland.
They arrived at around noon on Friday and stood on a sidewalk outside the crossing’s pedestrian gate, holding a sign written in Ukrainian that offered free rides to Prague and help finding shelter, food and work. “It’s unthinkable what’s happening and I would be really quite happy if someone showed up with this offer,” said Mr. Mahdal, a 22-year-old student. “We’ve got the time and, most importantly, we’ve got the means.”
The trio are part of an informal network of families, friends and do-gooders that have descended on border towns in Poland and Moldova to help tens of thousands of Ukrainians seeking refuge from Russia’s invasion.
On Friday, the highway to the Polish border near Przemysl was jammed with cars bearing licence plates from Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Austria. Most had come to pick up relatives who were walking over from Ukraine, but many had made the trip to offer shelter to refugees or just spoon out hot soup.
“We have been very busy, but at first people thought we were charging for everything,” said Alex Marenych, who was part of a group of 50 people from Krakow who were handing out soup, tea, coffee and snacks near the border’s pedestrian gate. Mr. Marenych said five van loads of donated food were expected from Krakow later on Friday.
Several hundred kilometres away in Moldova, volunteers with the charity Casa Buna had collected so many bags of donated food, clothing and bedding for arriving Ukrainians that it was difficult to walk through the centre’s large backyard. “There were old people coming with cans and five or 10 bananas, saying, ‘This is all we have, but we want to help,’ " said Casa Buna founder Doina Cernavca.
Among those in need was Ilia Nicolaenko, who arrived in Moldova early Friday with a group of people in three cars carrying 31 children and five adults. Shortly after they entered the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, a man hopped into his own car and led them first to the Ukrainian embassy, then to Moldexpo, an exhibition venue that has been turned into a refugee centre.
Then, as Mr. Nicolaenko stood outside the centre, Dumitru Pietri, a Moldovan, walked up and said: “I have a house – a big house. If you need it, just write down our number. I can take three families.”
It was an offer motivated by generosity, and by a feeling of common plight. Many Moldovans worry that what’s happening in Ukraine could also happen to them. Part of Moldova, Transnistria, has been occupied by Russian-backed troops since 1990. Mr. Petri said he has given thought to whether he, too, might need to flee in the future.
Not all volunteers in Poland found it easy to be of service.
Konstantyn Pisotskyi and three friends drove more than 400 kilometres on Friday from Lodz, in central Poland, to Medyka, a village next to the border. They wanted to help out at a refugee reception centre that had been set up by the government in the village sports hall. It’s one of eight facilities Polish officials have opened in public buildings across the country to cope with a possible surge in arrivals from Ukraine.
But the sports hall was guarded by police on Friday, who made it clear the building was off limits to the public and the media. Mr. Pisotskyi spent much of the afternoon talking across the fence to one of the organizers, asking if he and his friends could volunteer.
“I don’t know if they’ll let us in,” he said, forlornly. “I think no, because there is police and border man here.”
There were signs at both borders of just how devastating the Russian invasion has been for many families.
Polish officials said 29,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the country so far, while in Moldova, the figure is 16,000. In many cases, those trying to leave Ukraine have waited up to 16 hours to get across the borders, often in lines stretching more than eight kilometres. Both Poland and Moldova have said they will accept Ukrainians without passports, and have exempted them from COVID-19 entry requirements.
Reiner Heinrich was among a throng of people waiting on the Polish side for news of family members trying to cross. He stood bleary eyed, holding hands with his pregnant wife, who is from Ukraine.
The couple live in Cologne, Germany, and they drove all night to get to the border in the hope of retrieving their two teenage children, who were supposed to be arriving on foot with a family friend from a small town near Lviv.
By late afternoon, they had yet to hear anything.
“They telephoned every day before, but it’s hard now,” Mr. Heinrich said as his wife wiped away tears. “Now we don’t know what happened.”
Nearby, a woman named Natasha slowly pulled her suitcase along the pavement as she headed back to Ukraine.
A friend said Natasha wanted to return home to look after her children – ages 12 and 14 – who have been living on their own in Ivano-Frankivsk, a small city in western Ukraine. The friend sobbed as she walked with Natasha to the crossing, too upset to contemplate what will happen to her.
A steady stream of young men also made their way back to Ukraine, some in a triumphant mood and eager to take on the Russians. “We want to go to the war,” said Voloymyr Telehii as he waited on the Polish side for a van to take him, his brother Ivan and two friends – Wasel and Andrej – home to Ukraine. The four had been working in Germany, but they rushed to the border when the invasion started.
On the Ukrainian side, many families had to cope with a government order banning adult men from leaving the country.
Vitaliy Kolomeets, 34, was forced to return home with his wife and three young children after being told he couldn’t emigrate. “We live in a European country, and should be able to choose if we are able to defend our country. If you want to do that, then you go,” he said. “But if you have more important priorities, like a family and children that need protection, I think you need to take care of your children first, then your country.”
Dmytro Yelenets was among the few Ukrainian men who managed to get across before the government issued its decree. He arrived in Moldova with his wife, daughter and two brothers.
He choked back tears as he described why he thinks it would be senseless for him to return and take up arms. “If we are going to all die tomorrow, what are we fighting for?” he said.
If the world wants Ukrainians to fight, he added, it should supply them with better weapons.
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