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Steady stream of Ukrainians cross into Poland seeking safety from Russia's attack


Every hour seems to bring a new development in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Over the weekend, European nations took dramatic steps to isolate Russia. They blocked flights from Russian airlines, and many flights out of Moscow are canceled today. Russia's ruble fell dramatically in value today as U.S. and European sanctions begin to take effect. European nations are sending weapons to Ukraine, including warplanes. One thing that seems not to have changed is position of Kyiv. Ukrainian forces remain in control so far, frustrating a Russian advance. And Ukrainians have sent officials out of the city and out of the country, in fact, to negotiate today with Russia. As fighting continues, thousands of people are leaving Ukraine, and our co-host Leila Fadel has been meeting some of them. She's near the Ukrainian border at Chechov (ph), Poland. Leila, welcome.


Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: We've seen videos of the giant lines of cars heading out of Ukraine, waiting for their turn at the border crossing. And of course, you're at the other side to see them when they get there. What have you seen and heard?

FADEL: I mean, it's just a mass exodus of people fleeing into Poland for safety, some on foot. U.N.'s refugee agency says 422,000 Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries so far. Almost half came here to Poland, some on foot as I mentioned. So we drove an hour to the border to see for ourselves.


FADEL: Some are coming by car or bus and some by train to the station in Przemysl. The city's about six miles from the border with Ukraine, and in normal times - just a few days ago - it was a typical border town. Ukrainians and Poles would cross the border for work and return home to their families. But today the train station is where the displaced arrived.


FADEL: Women and children get off the second train of the day - a mother with a pink roller bag carrying her son in a blue parka; other women pushing strollers, juggling plastic bags, suitcases and children. One woman screams from the tracks, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin vile for shelling airports, the capital city Kyiv.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Ukrainian).

FADEL: She says, "We didn't know where we'd be sleeping. We were running to save the lives of our children."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Ukrainian).

FADEL: Nearby on a grassy clearing, we meet a pensive 16-year-old, his face framed by wavy, long hair. He's got a hoop earring and a colorful scarf draped around his neck.

What's your name?

DAMIEN: I'm Damien.

FADEL: Damien what?

DAMIEN: I prefer to call myself Lebowski.

FADEL: (Laughter) You prefer to call yourself Lebowski?



DAMIEN: 'Cause I find it a great movie and quite funny.

FADEL: It is...

His mother asks us not to use their last names in these uncertain times. He's huddled with his mom, sister...


FADEL: ...Their little white dog Archibald and their bags. Until war broke out just five days ago, Damien lived with his father in Lviv in the west of Ukraine.

DAMIEN: The Russian troops were moving so fast I was afraid they could manage to get the blitzkrieg right and invade Lviv in no time. So mother has came. She picked me up. She picked my sister up. And as soon as we could, we packed our stuff, and we hopped onto to the first train. But it was way more horrible because, first of all, the train was flooded with 3,000 people, approximately. And it broke twice on the way. We spent six hours on Ukraine's border trying to get our passports checked.

FADEL: His mother Anna was in Kyiv when Russia first attacked the city. She wasn't expecting it. She even had tickets to Germany for a weekend getaway. And now she's on a different journey.

ANNA: Yes, it was very hard because - 15 hours, we have not sit.

FADEL: Fifteen hours standing?

ANNA: Yeah. Sometimes sit on the bag. And so many people and so many children in the wagon (ph), and they scream, and people started to be angry. They fight. They talk to each other with emotion because it's - you know, it's a hard situation. When you goes in this train, you don't know how long time you have to wait.

FADEL: One of the most striking things about this crowd is the men. There are almost no men. It's all women and children without their fathers, their brothers, sons, partners. Ukraine declared martial law, so if you're a man between 18 and 60, you can't leave the country. You might be called to fight. So families like Damien's made a hard choice.

DAMIEN: I wouldn't like to be captured, tortured. I wouldn't like my freedom to be taken.

FADEL: Is that what you thought would happen to you?

DAMIEN: Yes. But then the possibility appeared (ph) to leave, and I got carried away in between two islands, I would say. And one island is leaving somewhere safely, and the second island is my dearest father, who cannot leave with us. And I had to leave because I didn't want my father or me to possibly see each other die in the most horrible ways.

FADEL: You shouldn't have to think about that at 16.

DAMIEN: But I did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: Outside the station, a man calls out instructions on where people can find food, accommodations and other help. There are boxes and bags of water, tea, loaves of bread and treats. A little girl leans over in her red jacket and popsicle-patterned backpack to pick up a chocolate bar. Poles hold signs offering rooms and rides. Among them is Katarzyna Fedec and her husband.

KATARZYNA FEDEC: We're waiting for people. That's all we have (ph), yeah.


FADEL: So you're here waiting to see if you can help?

FEDEC: I'm waiting for friends of my friends, two womans and six kids. They ask me, could I want to do this? I say, OK, I have no problem.

FADEL: And the people you're waiting for, are they on this train?

FEDEC: We hope, yes.

FADEL: Moments later, they spot one of the women - a mother, two daughters and a baby boy.

OKSANA ONOFRIICHUK: OK. My name is Oksana.

FADEL: So who's with you?

ONOFRIICHUK: I'm here with my three children - Marka, Nadia and Mcar. And we come from Lviv.

FADEL: Lviv.


FADEL: And how old are your children?

ONOFRIICHUK: He's 15 months old. She's almost 12. She's almost 7 years old.

FADEL: It was a 40-hour journey for Oksana Onofriichuk. At the end of it all, she calls her husband, a youth pastor at Bethesda Church in Lviv.

ONOFRIICHUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PAVLO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ONOFRIICHUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PAVLO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ONOFRIICHUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

FADEL: You are so cute. You have two hearts next to your husband.


ONOFRIICHUK: Yes, before and after.

FADEL: Are you scared?


FADEL: Yeah.

ONOFRIICHUK: Like, I rely on God. But yes, I am scared because I am human.

FADEL: Yeah. What did you tell him before you left? What was your...

ONOFRIICHUK: That I love him very much, and I want him to be safe, and I want him to come here and pick us up because I won't make it alone there (crying).

FADEL: The fleeing, the bombardments - it all hasn't fully sunken in.

ONOFRIICHUK: You know, it's like I'm in a movie (laughter), or I have a nightmare, and I want to wake up, you know, 'cause it's unbelievable.

FADEL: The next day, we call Oksana's husband.

PAVLO: Yes? Hello?

FADEL: We wanted to see what it's been like for Pavlo. It's the first time they've been apart.

Do you feel lonely without them?

PAVLO: Yes, yes, yes, very.

FADEL: Very, you said?

PAVLO: It's so hard.

FADEL: Now that he's without his family, he goes back and forth to the train station, picking up the displaced from the east, trying to find safety and shelter in the west of the country. He stepped out of church to chat with us. The service, it's smaller now, many praying at their homes. His prayers?

PAVLO: I pray for peace, pray for the end of war in Ukraine, pray for - safe for families, people's kids, for our soldiers, for our army.

FADEL: What were the last things that you told your wife and the kids before they went on the train?

PAVLO: I love you. I don't know when we will see - when I will see you. And don't worry about me. I love you.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to people who were talking with NPR's Leila Fadel along the border between Ukraine and Poland. And, Leila, I want people to know, if they don't, that you've covered a lot of wars; you've covered a lot of mass displacement in places like Syria and Iraq and Libya. Does this feel any different to you?

FADEL: I mean, there is this kind of grim pattern to these moments. And when I first meet people, like I did this weekend, at the place where they can finally breathe and think beyond how to be safe, they still haven't truly absorbed what's happening to their lives, their country, their homes. So we ran into one woman at a border crossing here. She was walking in on foot, and in any other situation, I would think she was going on a hike. She had a yoga mat tucked into her oversized backpack. But she was escaping Kyiv, walking into Poland. When I asked her what it was like at home, all she said was scared - and then broke down and walked away with their kids. It was like she hadn't had any space to fully wrap her head around what was happening to her. But I should note, Steve, that there are also Ukrainians going the other way, going home to fight or to help people in the midst of this war.

INSKEEP: What does it feel like for people who are in the chaos at that border crossing?

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, it's shocking. I think they're still in the middle of the trauma, not trying to grapple with what's happened to their country, to their community. For a lot of these people, especially from the west of Ukraine, away from the eight-year conflict with Russia in the east, this was the first time they'd ever been through something like this. But our colleague Arezou Rezvani and I met one family who'd been displaced by war before. Bahram Taymorshah was on the Polish side of the border with his kids, his wife, his mom. They crossed on foot, abandoned their car. Just three years ago, they fled Afghanistan for safety in Kyiv. I asked them what's - what they're going to do now, and Arezou is interpreting here.

BAHRAM TAYMORSHAH: (Non-English language spoken, laughter).

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: "Do we go? Do we stay? Where do we go? All those questions."

FADEL: I mean, I can't help hear you laughing. Is it because you're shocked? Or...

TAYMORSHAH: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: And they're saying with all the tragedy they've seen, they laugh to survive. It calms them.

INSKEEP: Leila, thanks very much for your reporting.

FADEL: You're welcome. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: We'll be hearing NPR's Leila Fadel all week from Ukraine and Poland. And we'll mention also that negotiations are beginning today between Russia and Ukraine, although Ukraine's president says he's not optimistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON VOUET'S "SOLEMN RESOLVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.