As the buses cross the Ukrainian border into Poland, some of the bedraggled and traumatized occupants break into tears.
Still others have already cried themselves dry, completely worn out after two days confined to a bus fleeing their bombed and torn cities and towns in eastern Ukraine.
Waiting for them are a number of Red Cross volunteers with food, shelter and information about what’s going to happen next. Most of the travelers are exhausted and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Among the Red Cross volunteers waiting for them is Darrell McKay, 57, a Campbell River man who felt compelled to do something concrete to help the Ukrainian people, so much so that he paid his own way to get there.
“I have met people from Mariupol that are just…you can just see in their faces that they’re PTSD, for sure,” McKay said. “Yeah, it’s pretty shitty, you see some of these people.”
McKay noted that one day there was a woman about 75 who arrived with her daughter and grandchildren and she was dressed just like any “Campbell River mom” or “grandma” and she got to the border and was greeted by volunteers who gave her a food pack and a care package.
“She burst out crying,” McKay said, probably realizing she was now in a safe place after leaving her home.
“I don’t know what caused the tears but I can imagine,” he said.
The Polish Red Cross has a number of refugee reception centres on the Poland-Ukraine border. McKay is helping at the Zosin crossing and from there they forward the refugees to Hrubieszow where there is a reception centre meant for 500 people. At times earlier in the humanitarian effort, there were 3,800 crammed into that centre, sleeping on bleachers.
“They were being woken up to squeeze more people in to sleep sitting up,” McKay said.
At Zosin, May 24, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., 16 buses came through with “Some very tired people,” McKay said.
What happens is there are signs up directing the travelers to the volunteers who have information for them. That information informs them they’re going to the reception centre in Hrubieszow where they will be sheltered and given food.
“But at the border, we’re just supplying food, coffee and direction and just trying to kind of help them out crossing the border,” McKay said.
At the peak of the crisis, there were 15,000 people a day arriving at the Zosin border crossing being forwarded to the Hrubieszow reception centre.
It was overrun at one time but now they’re starting to ramp down operations now, McKay said. Although on May 27McKay informed us that “something happened” and a surge of refugees came through – 19 buses in one shift and more coming.
In the beginning of the conflict, people didn’t know how bad it was gong to be in the western parts of Ukraine but now most of the fighting is in the east and the west has settled down to a degree of normalcy.
“There’s still the threat of something happening but since there’s no bombs being lobbed here, people prefer to stay in their own bed, I guess, and not travel to another country,” McKay said. “So the west is kind of untouched. Lviv occasionally gets a bomb here and there. They got one the other day but it’s mostly the east is getting hammered and part of the south.”
But that means the people arriving at the border have traveled a long way. There are also people heading back to Kyiv but that doesn’t mean things are safe. There was one bus coming back from Warsaw (Poland) with refugees trying to head back to Kyiv. As the conflict has lightened up somewhat in the west, they want to get back home and see what’s left. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to return.
“The bus broke down. The bus broke down, caught on fire and they had to get shipped back here (Zosin border crossing),” McKay said. “So just this crappy story after crap, you know…there’s some pretty emotional stuff.”
And while it’s all tragic, some of it can be heartwarming too. One busy day at the border crossing, McKay gave a mother and her little daughter a food package. The little girl came up to McKay, obviously being urged on by her mother.
“And the bus is just chaos. It’s all chaos,” McKay said. “And I kept on seeing the mom was talking to the little girl and looking at me. And at the end just as everybody’s going out, the little girl came up and put her arms around me. She’s like, nine or 10. And she says ‘thank you very much’ in English. That’s all she knew. And then she carried on. Yeah, so pretty touching stuff.”