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28th May 2023

EUobserved

The Ukraine war: What will survive of us?

  • Ukrainian boy outside Przemyśl train station on Tuesday (Photo: Andrew Rettman)
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A wall of noise; people everywhere; volunteers in neon vests handing out stew in plastic cups, SIM cards, nappies; elderly people slumped in chairs, surrounded by bags; children playing, darting back and forth; journalists snapping photos; armed police in dark-blue balaclavas.

That's the scene that hits you when you step into the train station in Przemyśl, the first Polish town across the border on the main refugee exodus out of Ukraine and into the EU.

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  • The boy and his family had fled from Kryvyy Rih in central Ukraine, some 1,000km from the Polish border (Photo: Andrew Rettman)

It takes a moment or two before you start to see individuals.

In this corridor — a woman tenderly spoon feeding a severely disabled boy in a wheelchair. In that corner — a lone black man gazing into space. Over there — striding through in military fatigues and carrying a huge backpack, a man heading for platform five, where free trains are taking volunteer fighters into Ukraine.

"Hotel? Hotel?," an Arab man, smoking nervously, asks a young Belgian Red Cross volunteer in English.

"No hotel. Full. Full," she replies. "With baby. With baby," he says, gesturing as if he was rocking a child to sleep.

"Baby? OK. Come with me," the volunteer says.

There's about 2,000 people a day coming to Przemyśl by bus and train, including foreigners stuck in Ukraine as well as natives.

I'd been writing for the past two weeks about the war as an EUobserver journalist when I arrived in Przemyśl on Tuesday (8 March).

I've seen the images on TV of Russian missile strikes on apartment blocks and town squares in Ukraine. I've followed the EU and US debates on Russia sanctions, Ukraine arms supplies, Nato strategies, refugee statistics. And I've been reading Russia's propaganda lies trying to justify it all.

It's disturbing, confusing. But sooner or later, for anybody following the conflict, they'll probably see something that puts events into a nutshell for them.

It doesn't matter if it seems like a cliché. It becomes your personal symbol of the war — the thing that you'll remember amid the noise. And it suddenly makes sense of everything in the mysterious way that symbols create meaning.

For me, it was a Ukrainian boy outside the Przemyśl train station, silhouetted against the backdrop of the town's church steeples and 18th century façades.

He'd become briefly separated from his family and appeared to be there all alone, gazing left and right, trying to take things in.

In that moment, he was the still centre of a spinning, crazy world. And I noticed, with a dull shock, like a punch in the guts, that he'd rescued his teddy bear, which half hung out of knotted plastic bags clutched in his hand, before his mother snatched him up and he was gone.

This war is about the Russian regime's evil, Ukraine's innocence, and Western impotence. It's that simple. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a liar.

I'm Polish and the last time I was in Przemyśl I was heading to the Ukrainian town of Lviv in February 2014 during Ukraine's pro-Western Euromaidan revolution.

I don't speak Ukrainian. But the Ukrainian language that I heard in Lviv is so close to Polish I can get the gist of it and — what's more important — I can feel, in its delicate musicality, that we are part of one Slavic family.

I used to feel the same way when I heard Russian people speak, despite the horrors perpetrated by Russia against Poland in the last century.

"Always remember, Russian people suffered just the same, and probably more, than us Poles did because of Communism and Stalinism," my mother used to tell me when I was a boy.

I get it. Today's decent Russians are once again victims of a totalitarian regime.

But still, something is breaking inside me.

Russian and Ukrainian sound even closer to each other as languages. Many Ukrainians speak Russian as their mother tongue. And I don't understand how a Russian soldier can fire a missile at a Ukrainian school or discharge his rifle at a Ukrainian family fleeing in their car.

I don't understand how a Russian diplomat, like Russia's EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, can stand up and knowingly parrot propaganda and such blatant falsehoods — and look himself in the mirror in the morning.

These are not my Slavic relatives. What we are seeing is the worst of humanity in action combined with a form of treason that chills me to the core.

I wish I had a neat ending for you. But the grim fact is that this may be just the beginning. It's the start of a war that could all too easily spill over Ukraine's border into Poland and beyond.

It's the beginning of a European nightmare in which our greatest hope is that the humanity of Russian people, perhaps even of some of those inside the Kremlin, finally, is roused, and moves to stop the war machine.

But whatever happens next, I'm sure of one thing.

When future generations look back on events, they'll damn the war criminals and they'll damn their Western appeasers, but they'll remember most of all the heroism of the Ukrainian fighters and the kindness of those Europeans, such as the volunteers in Przemyśl station and the humanitarian aid workers in Lviv and Kyiv and beyond, who reached out to help.

And the symbols each of us will find to make sense of things will "prove," to use an English poet's words that, "What will survive of us is love."

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