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Miles-long lines, the kindness of strangers, an uncertain future: Scenes from the Ukraine-Poland border

People who fled Ukraine board a bus in Medyka, Poland, that will take them to Przemyśl, a bustling transit point. (Kasia Strek for The Washington Post)
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PRZEMYŚL, Poland — Less than a week ago, the supermarket parking lot was just that — an expanse of cars in this sleepy river town a few miles from the Ukrainian border.

By Sunday, bus after bus filled with Ukrainians and others fleeing the besieged country arrived here, where they were met by crowds that had converged from all over Europe to greet the refugees with hot tea, borscht and offers of transport to all corners of a continent shocked by Russia’s invasion.

The exodus continues to grow all along Ukraine’s 1,600-mile western border: More than 500,000 people have fled since the war began last week, wrote Filippo Grandi, head of the U.N. refugee agency, in a tweet. E.U. Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said Sunday that the European Union may grant temporary asylum to Ukrainians for up to three years. The plan could move ahead this week.

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Thousands more people in Ukraine are ready to escape but are stuck in seemingly endless waits at border posts where they hope to cross into Poland’s industrial southeast, or over the Carpathian Mountains into Slovakia and Hungary, or across the delta of the Danube into Romania.

Immigration authorities in the five countries immediately to Ukraine’s west have been overwhelmed, and many trying to flee have waited for days. Those with cars sleep in them. Those on foot will themselves to stay awake, unable to rest in the freezing overnight temperatures and fearful of losing their place in the miles-long lines. It’s a journey so arduous that some simply give up and decide to risk staying in Ukraine.

With people now beginning to arrive at these borders from the capital, Kyiv, as well as Ukraine’s east — the area hit worst by Russia’s attacks — the number languishing is set to rise dramatically.

‘I can’t feel my feet anymore’

At Medyka, the most trafficked post on the Ukraine-Poland border, the line of cars was backed up for over 20 miles on Sunday over gray and frozen country roads, almost halfway to Lviv, the most populous city in western Ukraine. Drivers swapped shifts between naps to lurch forward sporadically.

Many had driven furtively for days after fleeing shelling elsewhere, just to arrive in a place where they feel trapped. Some abandoned their vehicles and pushed forward on foot.

“I can’t feel my feet anymore. I think they are frozen,” said Olga Balaban, 26, who came on her own after making the wrenching decision to leave behind her parents, who refused to leave.

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Maksym Kozytskyy, the head of the Lviv state administration, said there were 30,000 people waiting outside or in their cars for as long as three days at the region’s train stations and six border crossings with Poland. The state’s emergency services set up tents, with snow falling on Sunday night.

“For three days, I didn’t eat a single bite of food, only water,” said Somnath Gaud, 22, a Nepalese citizen who was studying hotel management in Kyiv. Not only did he not eat, but also he didn’t sleep. He stayed standing for most of three nights, he recounted on Sunday morning, after finally crossing into Poland, where he devoured a pack of biscuits. “If I slept, I would have lost my place in line.”

At the busiest border post between Ukraine and Poland, the line of cars stretches for over 20 miles with families fleeing war. Their hearts are still at home. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Cedric Rehman, a journalist with German newspaper Berliner Zeitung, said he watched an elderly woman die at one of the checkpoints into Poland on Saturday. After passing into Ukraine, he said, he found a scene of “complete chaos.”

The elderly woman was lying on the ground, her face pale, and her son was giving her chest compressions. It was another half-hour before the ambulance came, but the woman was already dead. Her son did not give up trying to resuscitate her, however.

“The paramedics were not stopping him,” Rehman said. “No one was stopping him.”

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Ukrainian border authorities said numerous factors contributed to such scenes of anguish, but that ultimately their border posts were not built to handle the sheer number of people trying to cross.

“It’s a wartime situation, people are worried about their lives, everybody is tense,” said Roman Pavlenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s border guards in the Lviv region. He said staff at the crossing used by Gaud and tens of thousands of others were working as fast as they could, with at least 12 people checking passports.

Polish authorities were more blunt with their assessment.

“The Ukrainians are fighting a war,” said Ewa Leniart, a top regional government official. “So, of course, the border security is facing a lack of capacity.”

‘If it was easier, we would leave’

With border points jammed, some decided against fleeing, finding shelter in cities such as Lviv, around 50 miles from the Polish border and one of the safer cities in the country. Others sought to take the still-operational cross-border trains into Poland, but their schedules have become sporadic, and the stations and train cars were crammed with people.

Olena Chefranova, 42, comforted one of her 7-year-old twin daughters who cried softly while waiting outside Lviv’s train station, wiping tears from her cheeks.

“She is scared,” she said. “Everyone is scared.”

Chefranova’s family had planned to flee to Poland, but a ban on men of military age leaving meant her husband had to stay. He put their oldest daughter on a train with a friend. But Chefranova was scared of taking her younger children into the heaving crowds on the train platforms.

“I’m afraid of the crowd and to be crushed,” she said. They had considered a border crossing, but she feared she wouldn’t be able to make it alone with the children.

“If it was easier, we would leave,” Chefranova said. Instead, they planned to return to their hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk, a city 80 miles to the southeast, where they would collect the family cat and then head to the mountains near Hungary.

Babel on the border

While the vast majority of those fleeing are Ukrainians, a significant number of those crossing Sunday were not. Conversations on both sides of the Medyka crossing on the Ukraine-Poland border took place in Pashto, Lingala, Malayalam, Japanese, Somali, Kurdish and Nigerian Pidgin, to name a few. Ukraine heavily subsidizes university programs for foreigners, and many were there studying.

At a checkpoint just a mile from the border, arrivals were separated into two groups. On the left, hundreds of third-country nationals stood bleary-eyed with little information. On the right, women and children carrying blue Ukrainian passports were shuttled onto buses to complete the passage.

Mohammed Sajad, a 24-year-old graduate student from southern India, woke up to shelling Thursday in his apartment in Kyiv. “My building vibrated,” he said.

Afraid for his life, he followed his embassy’s advice to flee to Poland. He gathered five friends, hired a taxi for $1,500, drove two days and had been waiting in line for two more. He stood crushed among other non-Ukrainians — asylum seekers from Somalia, a family from Iraq — just a mile from the Polish border.

On the Polish side, Indians had also been waiting days with supplies they had gathered to help friends they expected to cross. Prasoon Pananchery said more than 800 students from his native state of Kerala were stuck in the line, and some were messaging him that Ukrainians were harassing them because the Indian government was said to be supporting Russia.

“My friend, she got an asthma attack just from fear of those brutal police on that side,” he said.

Pavlenko, the Ukrainian border security spokesman, said that there was no special treatment for Ukrainians over foreigners, but border guards were giving priority to families with small children, the elderly and those in need of medical assistance. “There are no privileges for anyone else,” he said.

‘We always know that one day it could be us’

Once out of Ukraine, the fate of refugees entering Poland largely depended on the strength of their connections. More than 1 million Ukrainians lived in Poland before the war began, and many of those who fled already have moved in with family.

But the newest arrivals have tended to come from parts of Ukraine that have not traditionally seen migration to Poland.

At the Tesco supermarket parking lot in Przemyśl, where hundreds of volunteers gathered to welcome refugees arriving on buses, many Poles spoke of their own families’ experience of war as one reason they sympathized with those fleeing.

“In Poland, we always know that one day it could be us,” said a 23-year-old woman named Deria, who was ladling out portions of borscht to famished newcomers and who declined to give her last name. “If I am ever fleeing, I hope that someone says, ‘Come, sit in my warm car, come, let me hold your baby because you must be tired.’”

Other volunteers had come from much farther afield. Christian Thomas, 26, and his wife, Ksenia Thomas, 25, had driven 24 hours from Saarbrücken, Germany, which is more than 800 miles from Przemyśl.

They loaded about 240 gallons of water, blankets, baby formula and warm clothes that they had collected into a van with the help of their neighbors, and they delivered the supplies to the teeming reception center in the parking lot, which they had seen on social media.

Ksenia, a kindergarten teacher who is a Russian citizen, said she was disgusted by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and she lamented how expressing those feelings had drawn rebukes from her closest friends in Russia, who she said claimed there wasn’t even a war going on.

“I don’t even want my Russian passport anymore,” she said. “From now, I think all the people here, we are all Ukrainians.”

Monika Jurkiewicz contributed to this report from Medyka, Poland.