Ukrainian refugees in Moldova: ‘She misses her father and her toys’

One of Europe’s poorest countries struggles to help those fleeing from attacked neighbour

"It is genocide. There is no other word for it," said Nadia Plesco, carrying bags of food out of a warehouse in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau that is feeding and clothing Ukrainian refugees.

She, like others arriving to pick up care packs, express their horror at atrocities reported from towns around Kyiv after the Russian soldiers withdrew: the reports of the mass grave, Ukrainians executed in the streets with hands bound and the naked, partially burned women’s bodies.

“Eighty years after the second World War and you can see the same signs.”

Plesco, a Moldovan living in Chisinau, is accompanying her sister Nona Sudzilovska and Nona's three-year-old son Lev on the trip to the makeshift humanitarian centre set up by volunteer group Moldova for Peace in the warehouse at the back of a cinema.

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The sisters are traumatised by the events of a war that is approaching just six weeks old.

Nona left her Ukrainian husband in their home near Kyiv, not far from Boryspil Airport, one of the first places bombed by the Russians in the days after their invasion began on February 24th.

“The sky was red because of the bombing,” said Nadia, speaking for Nona in English.

Both Moldovan sisters had lived in Kyiv at one stage. Nadia becomes upset as she recalled the middle-of-the-night telephone calls to Moldova from her sister telling her that they would probably not see each other again – the shelling was that bad. She eventually managed to flee.

Nona's journey to Moldova has become a well-worn path for many. Moldova has provided shelter to more Ukrainians than any other country, relative to population size. About 380,000 people have fled to Moldova from Ukraine since the invasion. All but 100,000 have travelled onwards, further west to Romania and beyond. For one of Europe's poorest countries, a post-Soviet democratic nation of 2.6 million people, the strain is great on managing such a large influx of refugees.

Basic necessities

"It is overwhelming. A lot of people are coming and the products are going out really fast," said volunteer Oleg Tomsha, the Moldova for Peace co-ordinator running the warehouse.

The group, set up with help from Moldova’s government, distributes food, hygiene and children’s “kits” that contain the basic necessities to cover a family of three for 10 days. The packages are helping about 350 families, or 1,000 a day, but the numbers seeking them are growing. In the space of an hour, there was no let-up in the stream of refugees on Monday.

“We are putting every effort possible into this because the kits are going really fast and it’s not cheap. Our system is really smooth but the issue is with the supplies,” said Tomsha.

UN development and aid agencies, ACTED and UNHCR, are helping with operational requirements but trying to find supply partners is a challenge and host Moldovan families are struggling themselves trying to make ends meet with rising prices and bills.

“We are not a rich country. Unfortunately, people here are also struggling to help the refugees to have a shelter, to have a house to stay in. This is why the Moldovan government wants to move refugees on to Romania and further because they have more possibilities,” said Tomsha.

A shared language – many Moldovans and Ukrainians speak Russian – and its proximity to Ukraine make Moldova a popular choice for refugees who do not want to flee too far from loved ones they have left behind. Family connections make Moldova a preferred option for many fleeing the war. Being close to home also holds out some hope that they might be able to return quickly.

But being the country closest to the frontlines of the conflict that is not involved in the war brings risk. Moldovans keep a watchful eye on Russia's advance westwards along the Black Sea coast to the strategic port city of Odesa, a place many Ukrainians in Chisinau call home.

Border crossings

Concerns about whether Odesa, less than an hour from the border, might fall to the Russians trigger fears in Moldova that Russian president Vladimir Putin may have designs further west.

About 5,000 Ukrainians cross into Moldova every day but, according to Moldova’s ministry for health, this could surge to 100,000 a day if Odesa, a city with a pre-war population of one million, is invaded by the Russian military.

This could result in total border crossings from Ukraine into Moldova reaching up to one million with an estimated 250,000 remaining in Moldova. This would put the country and its already-stretched resources under even greater strain.

“We hope to avoid this worst-case scenario but nobody knows because it is an unprecedented situation,” said Moldovan minister for health Dr Ala Nemerenco during a meeting with Oireachtas EU joint affairs committee members in Chisinau on Tuesday.

"Odesa is the door of war to Moldova," said Alina Radu, the editor of Ziarul de Garda, an investigative newspaper she runs in Moldova.

Moldovans were left uneasy by the absence of “clean”, reliable information in this conflict, she said, as reports of short bursts of missile attacks in parts of Ukraine feeds the uncertainty.

“We are afraid of the war, but we are also afraid of something we do not know,” she said.

Russian missile strikes on an oil refinery and fuel storage facilities in Odesa on Sunday – the first attack on the city’s downtown area after 39 days of war – make a return impossible for refugees with children.

Brave front

Outside the aid package warehouse, Olga Pasha and her two-year-old daughter Lisa have left behind her husband, her brother and her parents in Odesa. She said they would not return until she is certain that the war has ended and there is no risk of attack on her home city.

“We had to leave because we are afraid for our children. We want to go back as soon as possible. We want to be with our family, with our husbands and fathers,” she said.

When she asks her family of news from Odesa, they put on a brave front.

"They are afraid but they don't show us. All of them say that everything is good and don't worry. We read everything on Instagram and Facebook for news. They are trying to make us feel good because they know we want to go back," she said.

Seeking out some home comfort away from Odesa in the piles of donated goods, Olga found some dolls in the warehouse for her daughter.

“She misses her father and her toys. She has a lot of toys,” she said.

Children are in most groups that arrive at the warehouse. Among the boxes of shoes inside are the tiniest pairs for the smallest refugees. Volunteers help mothers find the right sizes.

Larisa Kulya (14), a bubbly, bright girl who has left her father behind in Odesa, proudly shows off her English skills to The Irish Times. "You can just call me Lary," she said with a beaming smile. Her display of language skills stops when it comes to talking about the Russian invaders.

“I don’t even want to spell this country that came to Ukraine,” she said after picking up some fruit and vegetables with her grandmother on a trip to the Moldova for Peace warehouse.

Even for someone so young, she knew exactly where Russia’s missiles fell on Odesa on Sunday, concerned about the welfare of her father, a butcher still working in her home town.

“I actually don’t see sense in the situation because I don’t know why it is happening right now with us coming from Ukraine. The situation is so awful,” she said.

She wants the war to end so she can go home.

“We need to stop it. We need to tell the world about this,” she said. “I can’t tell you how much I want to go home. You couldn’t even understand it. I hope to get home soon.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent