Tales from a war zone

Features

SEEKING REFUGE A Ukrainian woman standing close to the border between Poland and Ukraine last week. Pic: Karen Cox

Bearing witness to a human tide of sadness and despair

Poland and Ukraine
Michael Gallagher

Thursday, April 7,
05.19am
Dawn is breaking in Krakow when the call comes. Another train on the way. Another cargo of the displaced, destitute, dejected and the dying.
Ada Banasiewicz wipes the sleep from her eyes and heads for the platform of tears to welcome, to comfort and to soothe. She’s 22, she’s studying Philology, she cares and she’s determined to fight terror the only way she can.
“I’m here four weeks now. We come to the station every day, every night, to greet the trains and help. This is barbaric, and we have to fight it,” she tells The Mayo News.
A whistle blows and the silver train slips into the station. There are uniforms there to help the maimed and the dying towards the ambulances. Ada and her friends help the river of women and children towards the refugee camps, and then it happens.
An old man sitting beside a pillar pulls an accordion to its full breadth and his nimble fingers send Mykhailo Verbytsky, the Ukrainian national anthem wafting through the railway station. The notes cut through the night. Tears fall like rain. Bowed heads rise into the night. Hairs stands on forearms and quietly some begin to sing, “Shche ne vmerla Ukrayiny, ni slava, ni volya.”
The two Mayo journalists cry bitter tears as Ada explains what’s happening.
“He’s here every night. He plays it every night. People cry every night. People sing every night. When they sing we know nobody can defeat them – never, ever, ever.”

Thursday, April 7,
08.37am
The whiff of incense drifts down the aisle of the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Krakow. The church is regularly jammed with Ukrainian refugees attending Mass, but at this time there’s only one person praying and a nun cleaning the candelabras.
“They come here and seem to get some comfort when Fr Peter (Pawliszcse) says Mass,” the nun, reluctant to give her name, tells The Mayo News.
“They’re traumatised and frightened, and if they can find some little bit of peace here that’s great,” she adds, as light streams in and illuminates the stunning backdrop of icons, and iconostasis in a haven of peace on the edge of a war zone.

Thursday, April 7,
10.38am
The aroma of baking bread perfumes the huge Galeria Krakowska shopping centre. It wafts past the Rolex shop and one towards Gant, Boss and Northfish. In a quiet corner of the complex, off the main stream of feet, credit cards and bags can be found the Order of Malta Humanitarian Aid centre. In truth, it’s just a converted shop where refugees come for medical assessments and advice.
Running the show is a truly amazing woman. Dr Maria Pilar Nunez Cubero could have retired years ago, maybe decades ago, but she has no intention of fading into the background. The acclaimed Professor of Bioethics still lectures in Barcelona University, but she caught the travel bug early in life and never recovered.
“I was 27 years in The Congo, 20 more as a doctor in Barcelona and spent some time in Haiti and a few other countries too,” she tells The Mayo News.
“We go down to the bus station and train station every day and tell the refugees where they can find us. They come in here and we try to help. We see many huge problems. Stress, heart, blood pressure, physical injuries – all ages.
“We just want to help. That’s why I became a doctor. That’s what we’re put here to do. These are great people.”

Thursday, April 7,
15.53am
There are lines of women, children and elderly outside the tents in Old Town Krakow. The first tent serves long lines of the hungry with hot food. The second is jammed with beds to rest the weary. The third hands out clothes.
Darya is near the top of the clothing line. She’s 26, recently married from the east of Ukraine. She’s a teacher, she’s a sportswoman and she’s delighted to talk to The Mayo News and tell the world what’s happening her people.
“Why am I in the line?” she repeats. “Because this is all I have – shoes, jeans, a top, a jacket and my phone. I have nothing else. Not one thing, but it’s okay. The people here are angels. They care. They care.”
Darya’s phone rings. It’s a WhatsApp call. She sticks one finger in the air and tells The Mayo News to wait for one minute. A few moments later the wailing starts. It’s animalistic. It’s from the soul. It’s like nothing this scribe ever imagined.
Immediately, she’s encased in hugs, her back, hair, face and hands are being rubbed by women with haunted eyes.
Darya’s husband had been on the other end of the call. He had been calling his wife in his last moments on Earth. Now all she truly has left are shoes, jeans, a top, a jacket, a phone and utter heartbreak.

Friday, April 8, 2022,
04.42am
Victor and Stanislaus take us towards a land at war. A land where even the buildings are weeping. Stanislaus is guiding our journey. Victor is making sure we’re safe. We’re not afraid. An adrenaline-rush to tell stories heightens the senses.

Friday, April 8, 2022,
16.03pm
After spending the day in Ukraine, the first assault on the senses are the colours – a myriad of shades – stretching for five hours from the border crossing at Medyka. Thousands of children, women and elderly shuffling slowly out of their homeland towards Poland, the EU and less fear. However, there’s no happiness, excitement or relief. What is there so? Nothing! There’s no expression on the sea of faces. There are fixed stares and numbness.
The photographer and scribe get past the queue because we’re EU citizens. We’re waved past the military guards and get to No-Man’s Land between Ukraine and Poland. There we find a mother and son. He’s three, he’s crying bitter tears, he grasps a fluffy pig tightly to his chest, he wants his daddy. The mother is on the phone telling her husband they have left Ukraine behind, and she’s devastated.
The duo cling together and move slowly and nervously towards the Polish gates, towards the buses, towards the refugee centres and onwards to God-knows-where. All she has with her are two shopping bags, her son, a fluffy pig, memories of better days and a minuscule sprinkling of hope.