"Przemysl is the heart of Europe, and possibly the heart of the whole world," Dariusz Lapa, a city official, enthused in an interview published in the regional daily newspaper Zycie (Life) yesterday. "Our town is the first safe place reached by refugees."
Moved to action by anger over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of volunteers from all over Poland have converged on this Mitteleuropa town of 60,000 to greet refugees disembarking from trains and buses with hot, sugary waffles and goulash soup, telephone sim cards, medicine and clothing, offers of lodging and transport to all points in Poland.
In many cases, Poles offer their own apartments. A volunteer tells me how close friends “adopted” a family. Pawel, a car dealer, drove to the border as soon as the war started. “Do you want to come with me?” he asked the first group he met. He drove eight people, ranging from a five-month-old baby to a grandfather, to the home of his girlfriend Monika. She gave her flat to the refugees and moved in with Pawel. Monika’s mother cooks for the refugees daily.
The main refugee reception centre began to take form on the first day of the war, one week ago today, in the parking lot of the former Tesco supermarket. It closed because of Brexit, but the site – like the European Union -- has gained new purpose from Vladimir Putin's aggression. The centre is manned by about 300 Polish volunteers working 24 hours a day. Those from out of town sleep in tents on the parking lot.
“For the first two days of the war we were terrified,” says Ania Lapinska, a 42-year-old mother of four young children and fitness trainer in Przemysl. “I sat at home, crying and hiding with my children. Seeing all those Ukrainian mothers and children arriving lost at the border broke my heart. I had to do something.”
Lapinska stands behind a table laden with soap and shampoo, snacks, milk, fruit and nappies. Ukrainian refugees, virtually all women and children, serve themselves. Boxes of donated goods arrive constantly. Were it not for the tears and shattered expressions of new arrivals, one might think this was a marketplace or open-air fair. “There is no more place for fears and tears now,” Lapinska says. “There’s a lot of energy. I can’t sleep at night. In my dreams I am sorting packages.”
Poland and Ukraine have had their differences, like most close neighbours. Przemysl was long disputed territory between them. Will the warm feelings last? “I hope I am wrong,” Lapinska says, “But I think the Ukrainians’ gratitude towards us will not last long.”
At the moment, the bond between Polish hosts and Ukrainian refugees is deeply emotional. Halina Gryniv, age 48, from the central Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, arrived in Przemysl yesterday with her sister, young son and daughter, after a five-day wait on the Ukrainian side of the border. She left a husband and three sons behind to fight the Russians.
When I ask Gryniv what she feels for the Poles, she places a hand over her heart and tears stream down her cheeks. “We are very grateful. We didn’t realise that so many people can be so good.”
Gryniv was a supermarket cashier in Gryniv. “It was an ordinary life. Home, work, home work,” she says. “Only now do I realise it was happy. It goes round and round in my head: everything was fine and life was good and the world was peaceful. I am in shock.”
A bus pulls up behind us. Ukrainian women and children spill out, most too exhausted to speak, many of them crying. Twenty-two year-old Alina Krasnochub was a tour operator in Kyiv. She chokes back tears when she begins to tell me about the boyfriend she parted from in Lviv. Polish volunteers have organised a network to adopt refugees' pets, but Krasnochub will not part with her pet tabby cat, Judy, who peers out from under the young woman's anorak.
Men in bikers’ jackets marked “Riders On the Storm Club” ladle fermented rye and sausage soup from a field green military stove they borrowed from the fire department in their home town of Kobliernice, 300 km away. One of the volunteers, whose first name is Mariusz, is fittingly named Zurek, like the soup he is serving. “This is from the bottom of my heart,” he says.
At the transport stand, the licenses of volunteer drivers are photographed, lifts are recorded and refugees are given emergency telephone numbers, just in case. Some criminals had taken Ukrainian women and children away, claiming to be relatives, and imprisoned them in apartments with the intention of trafficking them. Word got around and the refugee women are wary.
The transport stand has the feel of an exchange floor, with volunteers shouting out: "I have a vehicle that can take five people. Where do you want me to go?" "I can take people to Krakow." "Someone is asking for Lublin." Justina Ruscka, age 32, drove 600 miles to contribute 15 litres of goulash. She holds up a sign offering lifts to central Poland.
Dominik Ortyl, age 26, took time off from writing his Master's thesis to help run the traffic stand. Before lunchtime, he matches up close to 400 refugees with drivers.
On Tuesday, Ortyl arranged a lift for a mother, son and aunt from Zaporizhiya, southeastern Ukraine. “Their refugee convoy was struck by Russian missiles and the father was killed. They had to leave him, beause they were under attack. It was the saddest thing I ever saw,” Ortyl says as tears fill his eyes.
Ortyl believes the war will end either with regime change in Moscow or the defeat of Ukraine and the imposition of a puppet government in Kyiv. "I don't believe Russia will attack the Baltic states or Poland," he says. "The Russians know they are no match for Nato, and they see Europe is united for the first time."