Fleeing Ukraine: ‘It was incredibly scary, we just knew we had to leave’

With little fuss, one family packed three rucksacks and walked out on their lives

A month ago Olga had a plan: finish school and study to become a doctor like her dad. Now the 18-year-old with brown hair, luminous green eyes and a shy smile is wondering where her life has gone, replaced with a small rucksack and no plan.

She is wearing a black hoodie and sitting around a long white table, alongside her shy, smiling father, Volodomyr, and Antonina, her seamstress mother with strained, tired eyes. They are just three of the 10 million displaced Ukrainians – one in four of the population, asking themselves what US president Joe Biden at the weekend called "the most unbearable of questions: 'What's to become of me and my family?'"

Like Biden, Olga and her parents came on Friday to Rzeszow, a pretty, small town in southeastern Poland just 80km from the Ukrainian border. A tall gable mural near the train station honours a Rzeszow boy made good: Fred Zinnemann, the Hollywood director, and his classic film High Noon.

Its Oscar-winning song – “Do not forsake me, oh my darling” – could be a new anthem for exiled Ukrainians, 2.5 million of whom have spilled into neighbouring Poland.

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Olga says the war became real – surreal – for her on March 2nd when a Ukrainian military checkpoint was set up in to their small town, near Kyiv. Then came the first rocket fire.

"It was incredibly scary, we just knew we had to leave," says Olga quietly. With little fuss, they packed three rucksacks and walked out on their lives. They have been on the road since, criss-crossing the region looking for somewhere to stay, travelling more than 2,200km. They took a room in Warsaw but it didn't work out, Antonina says darkly, and now they are looking again, hopefully for something closer to home.

“It’s very difficult now to find a place, I just want to go home,” says Olga.

Reception centre

We’re sitting on the first floor of the Full Market, a large industrial unit on the outskirts of Rzeszow. The ground floor contains individual units selling everything from antique furniture to wedding outfits. For the past month the first floor, beneath blue iron girders and a grey corrugated iron roof, has been a reception centre run by a private foundation.

It’s a clean and well-run place: army camp beds are lined up in the empty, glass-walled retail units in the centre while trestle tables in the perimeter corridors offer snacks, fruit, drinks and baby food. There are toilets and showers; women chat and warm baby bottles in the kitchen. In a bright and well-stocked playroom, young children are learning to limbo dance under a long cord. They are young enough to be both delighted with and oblivious to the reason for all these new playmates. There are almost no men here.

"We have space for 500 people here, they spend up to three nights then move on to bigger cities, it's very difficult to hear their stories," says Oskar, a young volunteer in a high-vis vest. He pulls out his smartphone, to show a photograph: "Sean Penn was here yesterday, crying. He's donating a million dollars to help, he's great."

Local woman Barbara takes a break from folding clothes. She has been volunteering for three weeks and is still amazed at the outpouring of support in her home town and around Poland.

“I do wonder, though, what happens when people get tired of helping,” she says. “What will the government do?”

Sitting on a chair in a nearby corridor is 35-year-old teacher Alona from Kyiv, wearing a pink Gap hoodie. She has been here one day and is scanning her phone nervously, waiting for news of visa applications for the UK.

"I cannot think about what is happening because then I cannot function for my five-year-old daughter," she says, her voice trembling. "My husband, brother, father and two nephews are in Ukraine, they are okay and we call, but the situation is so, so stressful."

Good news

Back with Olga, her mother Antonina has good news: a man near Krakow has a room for them. Within 30 minutes they pack their three rucksacks and six larger carrier bags – of donated clothes, roll-up mattress and other items – and we get on a bus to the train station.

Once again we pass the mural of Fred Zinnemann. After he moved to Hollywood, his parents were murdered in the Holocaust and many of Zinnemann’s movies examined war and its consequences, including on children.

Years later in his memoir he described High Noon as a universal story of a town that "faces a horrendous threat". The film's hero, played by Gary Cooper, "moves all over the place looking for support but finds that there is nobody who will help him; each has a reason of his own for not getting involved".

At the train station Olga and her parents collect their free train tickets and fruit and water in the main hall, where young volunteers in high-vis vests stand around with nothing to do.

Two weeks ago the hall was packed every day, says one, but now the numbers have dropped. This morning one woman passed through in the other direction, going back to the war zone that is the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

“She said her university has threatened to fire her unless she shows up for work,” said one young woman volunteer.

The train from the border pulls in and we board the crowded carriage, filled with more animals than a well-stocked pet shop. As the next leg of Olga's refugee journey begins she scans her WhatsApp feed. It tells its own war story: girlfriends in Germany and Poland, young male classmates now in the territorial defence forces, no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Sitting a few rows away, 34-year-old Nadia strokes Bagheera, a tortoise-coloured cat far more nervous than her Jungle Book namesake.

Nadia bought a house a year ago outside Kyiv with her husband; a month ago they fled to Lviv. He has stayed, she is moving to her parents in Krakow.

“My sister in Irpin lost everything, I hear my house is still there, but I have no future,” she says. As we speak, video messages pop up on her phone, filmed by a neighbour in Lviv, of rockets zipping through the sky.

“I feel we are in a new stage,” says Nadia, anxious eyes flitting in all directions. “For the first two days of the war I was really afraid but now I notice I’ve gotten used to it. I’m just afraid to make predictions of what’s coming.”

New host

When the train arrives in Krakow, Olga and her family find a quiet corner serving free vegetable soup and slices of bread. After a previous bad experience, the family ask me to join them to meet their new host in the rooftop car park. They relax visibly when Daniel, a smiling middle-aged father, steps out of a BMW, his young son trailing him.

“We have just one room for them, our bedroom,” says Daniel, from Swiatniki Gorne, 20km south of Krakow. “We will leave it for them and we will take another bed.”

We part company and when she texts the next day, Olga and her parents are out for a walk along the local river.

After a 26-day odyssey, the small family are relieved now they can relax, for a time at least, and plan more than just one day ahead. Their survival strategy, Olga says, is to not think too much about what they have lost. Her father says little about what’s happened, she says, but she knows he worries a lot about her.

“Mom says she’s happy just to find a quiet place but she worries about her relatives and home in Ukraine,” writes Olga. “It’s better to think about everyday activities. Now we want to find temporary work.”