Jhe queue lasted three hours. A traffic jam of cars, bumper to bumper, filled with women and children who had fled Ukraine to Moldova or Romania, now waited to enter the Schengen area at Csengersima on the Romanian border. -Hungarian.
The refugees looked devastated after traveling for days, but when a man in a red jacket approached on foot, eyes lit up, windows rolled down and hands reached out.
The red jacket belonged to Peter Turi, 37, a Hungarian Red Cross volunteer, who was carrying a tray loaded with refreshments – water, juice, ham sandwiches, snacks and energy bars – as well as baby products and bubbles that offered to grateful mothers and children in their car.
Peter and his four-person Red Cross team were the only charity workers operating at this border post, which in the first weeks of the conflict had filled with cars for the 10km to Satu Mare in Romania.
I, too, had put on the livery of the Red Cross. For one day I had to be Peter’s aide, crossing the checkpoint into no man’s land to offer relief to the refugees waiting in their vehicles.
“Thank you for your care,” said Marja Nesterova, a professor at a Kyiv university accompanied by her four children, aged 19, 16, 12 and 8.
“We’ve been traveling for four days and now we’ve been waiting here for hours with no water, no toilets, no coffee, so we really appreciate you being here.” She added: “In Kyiv we mainly slept in the basement, but last week the bombs got closer and stronger – and we were scared.” She smiles sadly.
“According to Ukrainian law, a mother who crosses a bombed country with four children can be named Mother of the Year. I’m saving my children. We’re going to Italy.
In the adjacent alley, Natalia, 31, a pharmacist, sat in her Porsche alongside her ten-year-old son, tears streaming down her cheeks as she choked on the husband she had left behind in Kharkiv besieged three days ago.
She said, “My son is worried about his father. I try to comfort him, but I’m worried too.
A few cars behind, we gave water and a sandwich to Luba Grihovna, an old lady with a colorful headscarf who had traveled from her village near Kherson in the south.
“We’ve been on the road for four days,” she said. “My legs hurt, my heart hurts, my village is destroyed. I didn’t want to leave my beautiful garden but my daughter took me and my grandchildren to save us from the bombs and here we are.
They had crossed the Moldavian-Ukrainian border and were now seeking to enter Hungary en route to Poland. More than 900,000 of the 3.6 million people who fled Ukraine did so via Moldova or Romania, but most refugees use these countries as a transit zone on their way to the Schengen area – where they can access free movement in Europe for 90 days.
Many Ukrainians do not have modern biometric passports and must obtain temporary visas, which partly explains the long delays.
Peter said: “A lot of people didn’t come prepared for such a long drive. They run out of baby food and diapers and may be thirsty, hungry and exhausted.
Peter had been here since the beginning of the conflict, leaving behind his job as a theater sound engineer and his family who live 120 km away in Debrecen. “I received a call from someone at the border who told me that people were queuing for 11 hours without help. I have five-year-old twin girls and an eight-month-old baby and my heart is went to these parents.I spoke to my wife whose parents were able to help with our children and came a month ago.
For two and a half weeks, Peter operated alone with a friend, only two of them, freelance volunteers stocking up on free food, drink and baby supplies and distributing them to desperate refugees in cars. “You couldn’t see the end of the queue,” he said. “Everyone was extremely grateful.”
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Ten days ago the operation became more professional with the Red Cross setting up a roadside tent and bringing in supplies – and Peter was registered as a Red Cross volunteer. Red Cross team leader Emese Martini Sabo, 35, paid tribute to Peter. “What he did was a true citizen humanitarian effort,” she said.
The Red Cross is one of 13 member charities of the Disasters Emergency Committee which is the beneficiary of our Welcome to Refugees appeal and which, together with the appeal of our sister newspaper, The Evening Standard, has now raised over 400,000 £.
A woman, Hester Berg, a South African living in Austria was returning from the Ukrainian-Romanian border after dropping off a car loaded with personal hygiene products, nappies and dog food at the border. Why had she come?
“When the fighting started, I understood that the distance from Vienna where I live to the Ukrainian border was less than that of Johannesburg where I grew up to Cape Town and that there was no way that I could sit in Johannesburg while Cape Town was bombed, so I got involved.
Hester made four nine-hour trips each way to the Polish, Hungarian and Romanian borders with Ukraine, but the situation was constantly changing, she said.
“At first it was mostly people who had means and money who were running away, but now you have people who have nothing and are really struggling.” Anastasia, 30, and her mother, Natalia, 61, got out of their car to tell us about their escape from kyiv. “It’s a lottery,” Anastasia said. “Bombs can land on your house at any time. A bomb was so close it shook our house and it was the signal for us to leave. We are heading to Germany because my mother is a psychologist and I speak German and together we can be useful to other refugees.
There was even the occasional father, like Ruslan, who had come with his wife and three young sons from Odessa, a beneficiary of Ukrainian law that allowed men to leave if they financially supported three or more children under the age of 18 years old.
Overall, however, the refugees we saw in their cars at Csengersima seemed in better shape than those we had encountered crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border at Kroscienko two weeks ago, or arriving by train the previous day. at Zahony on the Hungarian border. Ukrainian border – carrying their children and belongings with them.
A car, it seemed, offered at least a modicum of comfort and control. As we walked through the line of vehicles, people asked our Ukrainian-Hungarian interpreter, Georgina Ruszinko: where can we get free SIM cards? Does anyone have pencils for my children? Where are the toilets ?
They were relieved to find someone who spoke their language, as was a Hungarian policewoman who came running frantically to ask us for “urgent diapers” for a crying one-month-old baby. All around, as the cars moved forward, there was a sense of relief to have come this far – but also of arming. The ordeal of these courageous, dignified and resilient refugees was far from over.
Additional reporting and translation by Georgina Ruszinko
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