UN: 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine worst post-WWII crisis

·5 min read

MEDYKA, Poland (AP) — The Ukrainian father of two took off with a sprint when he saw the GPS coordinates from his wife’s cellphone draw nearer to the border crossing into Poland.

Yevgen Chornomordenko had been waiting for 11 days on the Polish side of the border for his wife, Alina, and two children to arrive from the Ukrainian capital, which had woken up to Russian shelling on Feb. 24.

War had broken out at home just days after his arrival in the Polish city of Wroclow, near Germany, for a job installing solar panels.

“I never believed war would start,’’ Chornomordenko said, as he checked the GPS position of his arriving family.

Nearby, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited the same Medyka border crossing, proclaiming the number of refugees leaving Ukraine the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. In just 11 days, 1.5 million people had sought safety in neighboring countries.

Just moments after the U.N. official spoke, Chornomordenko’s wife and two children made the crossing themselves, in a small white Kia, which Alina had driven across Ukraine from Kyiv, in normal times an eight-hour drive.

He lifted 4-year-old son David onto his shoulders, and cradled the baby, 8-month-old Sofia, in his arms, looking lovingly at the tiny face, murmuring, “so beautiful.”

"I am so grateful,'' he said.

Asked if he would return to Ukraine to fight, Chornomordenko said that for now his priority was to find a safe place for his family to stay. He remains worried about his brother, a charity worker, and retired parents back in Kyiv, trading frequent messages with them as he awaited his family.

“I feel pity for the situation. I know it is very difficult for the people that are still there,'' he said.

The number of refugees continued unabated Sunday, even as humanitarian corridors meant to ease the flight of refugees collapsed as quickly as they were agreed upon inside Ukraine.

Grandi said the humanitarian corridors also were critical to allowing basic goods to arrive to those in need and to evacuate the most vulnerable.

“But what is needed really is a cease-fire, the end of hostilities, because that’s the only way to stop this tragedy,’’ Grandi said.

The sentiments were echoed by Pope Francis, who made a powerful appeal for peace at the Vatican Sunday, imploring “an end to the armed attacks, and that negotiations prevail.”

In a highly unusual move, the pontiff said he had dispatched two Cardinals to the war-ravaged country, signaling that the “Holy See is ready to do everything in the service of this peace.”

“In Ukraine, rivers of blood and tears are flowing,” the pope said during his traditional Sunday blessing. “This is not just a military operation, but a war that is spreading a lot of destruction and misery. The victims continue to become more numerous, just like the people who are fleeing.”

One 11-year-old boy made it all the way to Slovakia from the city of Zaporozhzhia, the site of Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant taken by Russian troops that caught fire after a building was hit with a projectile. The boy’s frightened mother sent him on the 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) journey alone by train to find relatives, staying behind to care for her sick mother who can't be moved.

“He came with a plastic bag, passport and a telephone number written on his hand, all alone,” according to a statement by Slovakia’s Interior Ministry, who hailed the boy as “a true hero.”

Volunteers took care of him, took him to a warm shelter and gave him food and drinks, and later reunited him with family in Bratislava.

In a video provided by Slovak police, the mother thanked the Slovak government and police for taking care of her son.

“People with big hearts live in your small country. Please, save our Ukrainian children,'' said the mother, identified as Yulia Volodymyrivna Pisecka.

In Romania, Ukrainian refugees gathered at the Saints Peter and Paul Christian Orthodox Church in Suceava, to pray for peace. They were welcomed by Rev. Mihai Maghiar who is himself, Ukrainian-Romanian.

“The first thing that we do as servants of the Church is talk to them, help them trust again, and understand that life doesn’t end at the Ukrainian border, or any other border,” said Maghiar, who has seen many refugees come by his church since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Oksana Oliinykova sought strength in the church. She is bringing her daughter to the Netherlands, where friends have offered her a place to say. But a journalist who has covered the brutalities of war, Oliinykova is planning to go back to Ukraine, where her father and son remained to fight.

“And we can’t help with anything. It’s scary. It’s scary to understand that our boys, who go to fight have nothing. We can’t provide bulletproof vests and helmet,” she said.

Text messages from friends tell her just how desperate the situation at home has become. “Please help!” they ask. “We are without electricity for three days. The (Russians) are close, we can’t leave, we don’t even have blankets, we can’t feed our children," the write.

For now, Oliinykova prays.

“As a Christian it’s very hard for me to hate,” said Oliinykova, who said she has relatives in Russia.

“And I know that they are also shocked. I don’t know how could I hate them. They are also sending young boys (to the war). How to get through all of this?” she asked. “I think we need less hate and more love.”

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Karel Janicek reported from Prague, and Renata Brito from Suceava, Romania.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of Russia's invasion of Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine