Conflicts & War

The long road to safety

By Amel Pain

Chisinau, Moldova, Mar 25 (EFE).- Olga, a single mother from a town near Odesa, and her two young girls wait alongside around 70 others to board a bus outside a Chisinau sports center which has been converted into a transit point for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian bombs.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine a month ago, triggering the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world, millions of people – the vast majority women, children and the elderly – have seen their lives torn apart.

Over 10 million people have been displaced by the war, with at least 3.6 million of those seeking refuge abroad.

As they flee their homeland carrying their lives in their suitcases and saddled with fear and uncertainty, the one thing these refugees know for sure is that they are headed to Germany and – they hope – to safety.

Olga, like so many other Ukrainian parents, does her best to keep her daughters’ minds off the turmoil surrounding them.

“The girls are mostly disappointed because they had a big event at school and we prepared beautiful customs for that,” the young mother tells EPA-EFE.

A coordinator for an NGO tells them where their lodging will be once they make it to Germany.

“The Speyer refugee camp we mentioned before is full, Berlin is full, Munich is full,” Hermann Meingast tells the tired and tense faces huddled together outside the bus.

Some have come from western Ukraine, which has yet to see the kind of horror that hotspots further east like Kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv have had to endure under the Russian attacks. But most who have ended up in Chisinau came from the south; either from Odesa, the pearl of the Black Sea, which has been preparing for weeks for an imminent Russian offensive, or from Mykolaiv, which fast became a frontline city due to its strategic location.

Valerie, 26, a translator who lived in that Black Sea port city with her mother Inessa, shows photos of her colleagues from work, who from one day to the next became volunteers pitching in to help collect and distribute medication, food and clothes.

“When the shelling started we had to sleep in our shelter,” Valerie says. “We had prepared for it, but hearing the sirens for sure made it all more real. We were trying to keep my nephews and nieces calm and just waiting for it to pass. It was not easy”.

Five hours after the scheduled departure, the bus finally pulls away into the night, heading towards the border with Romania.

After several hours-long delays at the borders into Romania and Hungary due to the large numbers of refugees who need to be processed, the bus has finally made it to the border-free Schengen area of the EU.

The drive through Austria is smooth and hassle-free, and the bus reaches Wurzburg in Germany, where the first group disembarks near the town’s main train station, 14 hours later than planned.

Olga and her girls plan to go to Cologne to a friend’s home, but they will need a place to stay for tonight as it is already the afternoon and they all urgently need a proper night’s sleep.

Valerie and her mother were supposed to go to Saarbrucken near the French border to stay with an old family friend but have had to change their plans.

She has instead managed to arrange a trip to the north of Germany, to stay at the home of an acquaintance. “She is the mother of a friend who visited us 10 years ago in Odesa! What a strange life, how nice of them,” the 26-year-old says, thankful for the act of solidarity and kindness.

While the refugees will go their separate ways, they are united in the hope that this situation they have been plunged into is just temporary – they all want to return home as soon as the war ends and pray that they find the men they left behind doing well and their homes still standing.

Exhausted but resilient, they are thankful to be alive and are determined to survive, to return home and rebuild their shattered lives. EPA-EFE

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