13 June 2022
The head of the Border Guard shift offered us an “office” in the Border Guard service facility, where we can get warm and make coffee. The next day, another one tipped us off because he didn’t know anything about it. Groundhog Day. Every day you have to start from scratch.
Photo by Agnieszka Rodowicz
A dinosaur is walking along the path and greets those passing by. Older people don’t even notice it while kids squeal with joy.
I am talking a walk from the pedestrian border crossing in Medyka to see what people who cross it see. A jungle of tents, fair-like booths, palimpsests of small-print adverts attached to a fence. People handing out pizza, French fries, sandwiches, coffee, tea, soup, plushies….
Only a few booths display information that everything is for free. Most of the volunteers are foreigners: from Canada, France, USA, Brazil, Israel. Only few speak Russian or Ukrainian. In the tents they have set up there are piles of clothes, medicines, shoes, diapers, as well as field beds and heaters. One can rest here for a while or even all night.
People with luggage are walking from the border. The border guards, firefighters and Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej (WOT, English: Territorial Defense Forces) who would help carry them are now gone. The media have also disappeared. But people are still walking in. About the same number of people are walking in the opposite direction [towards Ukraine]. They, too, need food for the road, a new suitcase as the old one fell apart, wellingtons because it started pouring. And above all, they need information. The ones coming to Poland need it even more.
Time and again people ask: which way to Przemyśl, how to get to Warsaw, to Germany… I am here for the fifth time since the beginning of the war, and I see that the “town”, which spontaneously sprouted by the border fence in Medyka, is evolving. However, it seems that there is still nobody here to coordinate anything, control anything, not even a smallest information point has been organized. Occasionally a volunteer will show you the way to the coach, pick up your luggage in a shopping cart, or seat someone in a wheelchair and help them to the end of the road, where a bus pulls up with the sign: ‘refugee transportation.” And there Jana is waiting.
A yellow jacket, a blue cap, blue eyes, a long linen-colored braid. Jana Shostak is a Belarusian with Polish roots and a visual artist.
“I came to Poland twelve years ago for a better education,” she says.
She has been on the Polish-Ukrainian border for over a hundred days.
“On the night of the first day of the war, I drove here with my partner to bring humanitarian aid,” Jana goes on. “We were in contact with a group of Belarusian activists who had previously fled to Ukraine and then wanted to get to Poland.
“We arrived at the so-called humanitarian aid station in the former Tesco store in Przemyśl. We got on a bus that ran between Medyka, Tesco and the train station. In the first direction we traveled with some volunteers for the war, and back – with refugees from Ukraine. This included ‘our’ group of Belarusians. I explained to them along the way how we could help”.
The next day, Jakub Wygnański of Fundusz Obywatelski (Civic Fund) called Jana. She told him that people at the border do not get basic information. That when they are on the bus to Przemyśl, they start listening. That they need to be given this information then and there. At which point he asked: “So you want to be such peace attendants?” Jana replied: “Well, yes. That’s a great name.”
“For the first few weeks, there was no time to take pictures and show what’s going on here or to have a proper talk,” recalls Jana. “There were so many buses going by that we barely had time to get on them and pass on information.”
She announced on the Internet that she was looking for volunteers. Lesia, a Belarusian woman, came from Gdańsk and helped draw more people to volunteer.
It was cold at night, people waited for transportation in long lines. Lesia searched for those in dire need of support. For example, a woman who was standing without pants because she had urinated into the ones she had had. She didn’t know that five meters away there was a mountain of clothes to take. An elderly man who went to war as a volunteer, but was sent home. He could not return home, because the separatists were already waiting for him there. He arrived in Poland barehanded. Or a lost eighty-year-old lady who wanted to get to Gdańsk, where her son lives.
“We attempted to help such individual persons and still try to help out more,” says Jana.
“Everyone here does everything: welcomes and reassures people, activates sim cards, looks for accommodation. We also hand out flyers with the phone number of the hotline we created, because the one operated by the government doesn’t work: it’s perpetually clogged, no one answers it, no one calls back”.
For the first four nights Jana didn’t get any sleep.
I ask her how the refugees reacted to them. Jana doesn’t like the word “refugees”. A few years ago, she argued that people seeking protection in Poland should be called “nowak”/”nowaczka” [a word used to make up a popular Polish surname for newcomers – translator’s note].
“A few people asked why we speak Russian, but most are happy to understand something. Besides, some Ukrainians are Russian-speaking…” Jana begins to explain and doesn’t finish because she has to answer the phone. Every few moments someone calls her or she calls someone to see if there are special trains running that day, how many places to stay are available at “Tesco”. To get this last piece of information from the coordinator, it takes Jana almost ten minutes.
“It all starts with a lack of understanding of needs. Newcomers who cross the border say they feel silly about such a fest here,” Jana says. “This endless vein of wealth is great, but it lacks what they need most: information.
“There is no one here to welcome the people who arrive. The uniformed services, when asked about something, answer slowly, but in Polish. People don’t understand, they panic, and we have to reassure them. One shift of officers does not convey to the other that we are a group of translators, present at the border 24/7, and if someone asks about something, they can point to us or at the board we printed out with answers to the most common questions: ‘Where does this bus go to? Is it free? How long is the trip?’”
We interrupt the conversation as Jana checks to see if an ambulance has been called to a woman with a broken head, and where the bus waiting in Medyka will go to.
“It’s grunt work, asking the same thing over and over again, because things keeps changing.
“No one informs people that they can stay the night at the school in Medyka, and there is no transportation to it,” continues Jana. “As night approaches, we push for the services to take people to the school. We hear that the bus can’t go there. So we look for volunteers to drive a few, a dozen, a few dozen of the most tired people. We are the ones filling the school, otherwise it would stand empty. Last night ‘Tesco’ was overcrowded as well as the waiting room at the Przemyśl train station, and a lot of people from Mariupol came. We tried to convince the services to take them to the school in Medyka, where there were still two hundred empty places. We are already fed up with all the fuss. To find out if special trains are leaving on a given day, you have to call five, seven, nine times to the PKP services in Przemyśl. If we can’t get through, we send volunteers to find out in person.
The head of the Border Guard shift offered us an “office” in the Border Guard service facility, where we can get warm and make coffee. The next day, another one tipped us off because he didn’t know anything about it. Groundhog Day. Every day you have to start from scratch.
For a long time I’ve been trying to find out from the coordinator at ‘Tesco’ what countries the buses go to from there and what the governments of those countries and local NGOs offer, in order to share this with people waiting in Medyka. At the border people there are those who are taken by someone and those who have no one to take them. Some people have no plan for what to do next. I ask them: “Where do you need to go? To Paris. Why Paris? Because I’ve heard about Paris.” Such a person can be persuaded to go to Sweden, when the bus to Malmö is waiting nearby. Only for this you need language and psychological skills. Competent people should work here.
I keep repeating to the coordinator: “It would be easier for us if we knew what options there are. There are people with you who know the details. You need to collect this information, process it, describe it in simple language.” To no avail. So we make our own calls and investigate. So far we have established that Italy gives 300 euros for three months and medical assistance, and if possible, housing.
“Hallo?” Jana answers the phone. “Tell them to go to Medyka. Try to persuade them, since there are vacancies there.”
“Well, that’s it,” she explains. “The unfilled buses head off to Spain and Germany, while ‘Tesco’ closes for disinfection. It’s a shame about the unused seats, but there’s no one to inform people about them. Eighteen people went to Finland yesterday, and there were fifty free seats. At the train station in Przemyśl hang numerous adverts about transportation and lodging abroad. We try to verify them, we call and inquire.”
“Tesco” is perpetually overcrowded, other night shelters in Przemyśl have closed, and serviced fail to take people to the one in Medyka. And the city president tells us: ‘There are fewer people at the border, everything is OK’ and furthermore: ‘We are in Przemyśl, we are not responsible for Medyka.’ This kind of limited responsibilities does not help our cause.
“Previously, the WOT, firefighters and soldiers helped pack luggage on buses. Often there were 5-8 officers at a time. Unnecessarily. Some were very rude to us, other understood what we were doing. Some joked that we were preaching the word of God. Since mid-April there has been no WOT or army at all, there are few firefighters, the police drop in from time to time. And people, especially at night, start pushing for buses. I guess that’s how it works when there are no uniformed services present.”
Verified people and money
“No one controls the people who hang around in Medyka, there is no base of vetted, Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking volunteers,” Jana goes on. “We are such people”.
A total of 29 attendants have been onboard.
Sasha from the puppet theater in Grodno. Artiom, a film director from Vilnius. Slava, a Russian from the US. Alexa escaped from Belarus to Poland a year ago after experiencing torture.
“There was also Yegor, who deludes himself all the time that he would return to Belarus. Krzyś from Kraków region, an exporter of ‘Inka’ coffee, brought us cash collected from friends and filled the kitchen with food,” Jana continues.
“In the beginning, we agreed that either no one gets paid, or everyone gets paid equally. There was a group of people among us who can afford to volunteer,” Jana says. “But there is also Zenya, whom we took from the border the very first night we came here. Earlier he had fled from Belarus to Ukraine. He has nothing here. So did Karolina and Andrei, who were jailed during the protests in Belarus. They escaped the trial coming to Ukraine. When the war broke out, they fled to Poland. Their account with all their money was blocked.
“We didn’t have money for everyone. We decided that those who fled, twice or once, get it first. I try to pay them a minimum allowance: 100 PLN per day.”
Jana is living on an academic scholarship, which she got to write her PhD thesis. She received the money in July 2020. In August, a revolution broke out in Belarus. She was able to afford activities on the borderline of art and activism. This year she was awarded the ‘Polityka’s [a Polish monthly] Passport’ and a nomination as a Superheroine of ‘Wysokie Obcasy’ (High Heels) weekly for her activism.
“But it’s been too long to work as a volunteer,” states Jana. “I tried to persuade the Polish Humanitarian Action to enter into cooperation with us, but I read between lines that we are too small a group. I told the Polish Red Cross that we are active, effective and open to cooperation. said: They said, ‘Yes, yes’, but to no effect. I don’t give up hope that it will work out in the end.”
At first they stayed with their friends, a bit in Rzeszów, a bit near Przemyśl.
Finally, the Civic Fund gave them money to rent an apartment: three rooms in an old tenement house, housing a dozen people. Today Jana is sitting in their “base”, a few blocks from the train station in Przemyśl, writing instructions for new volunteers.
“Previously, there was transportation from Medyka to Przemyśl organized by the police, fire department and the governor,” recalls Jana. “Since April 1, only city buses have been left. But they take a break between 10 pm and 4 am. It rained last night. The warming tents in Medyka were overflowing as well as ‘Tesco’ too. People were getting wet outside. We wore down the police officers so as to run two buses that went to the station: at least warmer than the street. Sometimes a familiar shift of police would give someone a ride, other times they managed to persuade firefighters to drive people to a sleepover. But this is an exception rather than the rule. There are no people to manage it.”
“At the train station in Przemyśl there is a point with a placard of the Crisis Management Center,” I note. “They hand out sandwiches and donuts there.”
“The food probably comes from volunteers,” replies Jana. “Try to find any food from the state. It took us quite a while before we were able to come to an agreement that we could call ‘Tesco’ to determine if and how many places they had. We failed to make the coaches on their way from Medyka to the train station to stop at ‘Tesco’. And we think it’s better to send people right away to different countries in Europe.”
“Do you doubt Polish society?”, I ask.
“No,” answers Jana. “But let the Polish society take care of those who are already here. When I ask people why they are returning to Ukraine, they say, ‘I stayed here for a month, I have nowhere to leave my child, I have no job and I have to pay $400 for a room.’,” she explains
“Sometimes there are Russian-speaking volunteers. But they come and go. There is no systemic management of them, no transfer of knowledge. If there was money, we could recruit people to work, train them, compensate them. For the time being, we have to make do with whatever we get: some fundinf from Fundusz Obywatelski (Civic Fund), some from a Belarusian programmer from the US collected among her friends. And since March 8, more than 90,000 people have passed through our “flying point” in Medyka. We can’t get to those who go by car and bus, although it would be nice. We would also like to transfer what we do to other crossings. I asked about the information available in Hrebenne. They said there was information. When I went there, it turned out that they were handing out leaflets with the number of the non-functioning government hotline and addresses of reception points that no longer exist.”
Karolina and Andrei drop by. They bring pizza. “Gifts from heaven,” Jana reacts.
Karolina is twenty-six years old. In Belarus she worked as a veterinarian and was an activist in various organizations. After she was kept in detention for fifteen days, she found it necessary to leave. She and Andrei fled to Ukraine last March.
“On February 24, as soon as I heard the sirens, I thought it was necessary to flee, because we wouldn’t make a living there during the war,” says Karolina. “Stores closed, exchange offices too, and the ones that were open set whatever rates they wanted.”
They waited in traffic jams for three days before entering Poland.
“There was no way to sleep, to breathe. I had to constantly take tranquilizers, so I somehow survived the panic attacks,” Karolina admits.
They arrived at night on March 1st in their van. Andrei now uses it to haul materials for bulletproof vests and other aid to Ukraine. They have been working with Jana in Medyka since mid-March. I ask them about further plans.
“Plans?” Karolina replies. “Tomorrow I start my shift at 12 p.m. Before that I will go to church. And that’s it. When we fled Belarus, I was still planning something. After leaving Kyiv, I stopped. Because the future is unknown”.
Psychologist carries luggage
Fifty-year-old Tatiana is coughing. Before she left Ukraine, she had Covid infection.
“My mother is from Donetsk, and I was born and lived in Kyiv,” Tatiana says. I spoke Russian all my life, but I love Ukraine and I don’t want any Russia or Putin. There is corruption in our country, but it’s a free country. No one will put you down for what you say. We have to survive somehow and it will be normal. In Russia, it won’t.”
Tatiana kept putting her departure off. She believed that the war would be over in a week, maybe ten days. She gathered herself only after spring came. She arrived at the Polish border on March 25.
“On the bus, I paid attention to Jana as she gave information,” Tatiana tells me. “I liked it very much, so I remembered her.”
From the border she went to ‘Tesco’ for the night. She saw an ad that they were looking for a voluntary psychologist. She applied because she is a psychologist by profession.
“A psychologist’s role is first of all about language,” says Tatiana. “Well, and the approach. People need you to give them information, help carry their luggage, take them to a volunteer and then to ‘translate’ what the volunteer said in common terms. Some volunteers have been living abroad for years, and here comes an ‘aunt’ who had never left Mariupol before and she doesn’t understand what they are talking about. It’s not enough to say” ‘I’m a psychologist’ and sit down in a chair.”
“When I see that a woman is weeping, I approach her and ask what’s the matter. She’s already been sitting in ‘Tesco’ for a week with her daughter and she doesn’t know what to do. I took her to the volunteers, explained what was going on. They found them transportation and an apartment in Germany. After twenty minutes they left. The point is not to say: ‘Calm down’, but to solve the problem and the person will calm down on their own. We are not waiting for people with developed PTSD to come; there are maybe 1 per cent of such people. The rest need help with the situation they are in at the moment. And for that you need to know the language and customs, and then be ready to do anything,” says Tatiana, adding that “Tesco” is badly needed. “They wanted to close them down. That can’t be allowed. People keep fleeing from Ukraine.”
In the meantime, she decided she would go to England. She applied for a visa.
At ‘Tesco’ she met Kola, a Belarusian and a psychologist who worked as a volunteer. They became friends, and he introduced her to Jana. She worked at ‘Tesco’ for a week, and now he is working with her in Medyka.
“There is no organized system there,” says Tatiana. “I managed, because I am able to approach anyone, ask questions, make demand. But there are people who won’t do that. They don’t have a passport, they’ve never left country befire. They keep asking the same questions over and over again. I explain, but they do not understand. Those who have the strength, discernment and energy, will find accommodation and transportation. Those who don’t, won’t. That’s why a lot of people go back to Ukraine.”
“Why don’t you want to stay in Poland?” I ask her.
“I don’t have the money to rent an apartment. In England I will live with a family, who may also help me find a job.”
– “In Poland you can also live with a family,” I say.
“I don’t know where to look for it,” Tatiana replies. “No one helps with this. The Poles only inform where to go on to. Maybe that’s a good thing, too. From the beginning I heard that Poland is overcrowded.”
Zenya, who has been ill for several days, woke up. He is thirty-one years old and an LGBT activist.
“In Belarus, people are afraid to admit their orientation, says Zenya. “The state tries to prove that all LGBT people are dumbasses, drug addicts and prostitutes. I fled to Ukraine, and now to Poland.”
There he worked as a construction worker, here he realized that he wanted to do something more creative. He took up cooking.
“So why is it me who cooks?” Tatiana throws in jokingly.
Svieta and Tania stood up. Sasha returned from his shift. The kitchen became crowded and bustling. Conversations and discussions over what to include in the new leaflets continue into the night.
So as not to become desensitized
I was going to ask Jana whether they have psychological help for themselves. But yesterday it was late, everyone was sitting at the table, eating together, joking, laughing. Now, after a night shift at the border, Tania is crying. Tatiana locks herself in one of the rooms with her. So I ask Jana if someone helps them psychologically.
“There are psychologists among us,” she laughs. “Because of the fact that I have burned myself out several times, I know what to do to prevent this from happening. Or to not desensitize myself completely. I was at the ‘Wysokie Obcasy’ award ceremony. I went there with Karolina and Andrej to talk about what’s going on here and what we are doing. I arrived as I stood: with my head unwashed, in our “uniform”. We might have gained one potential partner there. And recently a man from Budomierz called us. He used to hold the ‘Folkowisko’ festival there, and now he organizes humanitarian aid. They will pass the same information which we share on the buses on the Polish side, but at the Ukrainian side of the border.”
And what does Jana’s partner have to say about her doing this for two months?
Jana calls Jakub: “Hi darling. A journalist asks what you think about me living here.”
“I would prefer you here, but what can I do?” Jakub replies. “You like living in a kolkhoz. Forgive me for not being there with you all the time, but for me it’s already a bit unbearable.”
Image works, opposition does not
“I’m afraid that this war will be fought out of our sight,” says Jana. “It already has been. As a visual artist, I know that images work and hence the idea for our uniforms: they are also a way to remind people about Ukraine, about the situation on the border, when everyone is already bored with filming long lines of people.”
The coats working as their “uniforms” were sewn by Risk made in Warsaw. On the ankle-length aprons there are white and blue maps of the world with no borders, and a blue and yellow piping. On the front there are signs “Information” in Russian and English.
“I think this is also a way to show who is helping here. When a van with fries from the Netherlands arrives, it puts up a Dutch flag. That’s why we have a Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian flag at our stand,” Jana explains. “I suggested to Zenya that we also hang a rainbow flag to mark his presence. Because it helps to build a narrative about LGBT people. And war is such a time, suchan earthquake, that it’s worth highlighting it all.
Everyone marks their presence. There’s also a Marsz Niepodległości (Independence March) tent in Medyka, with volunteers wearing vests that say “Straż Narodowa” (National Guard). There are also tents of large international organizations at the crossing: IOM, UNICEF.
“One night it was pouring,” Jana recounts. “People waiting for the bus were getting wet. I went to see what those organizations were offering in the tents. There was nothing and no one. They could at least be used for people to hide from the rain.”
“I also find it frightening that the opposition is doing nothing on migration issues. There are no people who have the courage to say: ‘There is a lack of this and that, we have these solutions.’ Will the government reject them? Probably so, but the opposition’s lack of action strengthens PiS. As a result of the lack of systemic solutions, some people are returning to Ukraine. Some because they left a dying mother or a son, husband or son-in-law who will soon be taken to the army and they want to be together. But there are also people for whom the Polish government is responsible. This morning began for me with a phone call from a Ukrainian woman I met at the border: a woman with two children and her sixty-year-old mother. They were cheated in Poland, not paid for their work. They want to go to Belarus, because an acquaintance there offered them housing and help in finding work.
“We try to help people who leave, but we don’t have the competence. We need psychologists to persuade them to stay. But for that we would need specific information, an offer. People who have not found Poland rarely talk about it because they would have to admit that things are not as good here as they thought they would be and ask for help. And that’s difficult.”
People can’t stand it
The free bus shuttle from Medyka to the train station returns to the border empty, while it could take people who are returning to Ukraine. But no one has thought to organize it. There is also no information on where buses and vans to Medyka leave from: neither the ones operated by the city nor private ones. Returnees are looking for them, going to-and-fro between the train and coach stations.
I observe this while sitting in a private bus to Medyka. Finally, a tightly packed bus takes off. The residents of Przemyśl no longer fit into it. A young woman sits down next to me. Ela is from Kyiv. When the war broke out, she went to Lviv. I ask if she knows why people are returning.
“I think it’s because they want to be home, with their families. Poland is overloaded. It wasn’t easy for a foreigner to find a decent job before [February], now it’s even harder. So some come back because they can’t find a job, an apartment, especially if they don’t speak languages other than Ukrainian and Russian,” Ela explains.
Today on duty in Medyka are Sveta and Tania. They met on their way to Poland.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I had been alone. At the border I only cried,” Tania recalls. She doesn’t want to say more. Her son, also a refugee from Belarus, is in Ukraine and fighting.
“One boy and I did not have passports. They were left in Kyiv, where we applied for protection as political activists,” Sveta says. “In the end, they let us go without documents. Volunteers with whom we had prior arrangements took us to Warsaw. Then Tania and I came back here to help because we remember how we crossed the border by ourselves. We had appointments with people who were supposed to help us, and we still didn’t know what would happen next. The fact that we can reassure people here at the very beginning, support them, is very important.”
Sveta is boarding the bus filled with refugees. She introduces herself, then explains that the bus will go to the train station in Przemyśl. She warns people to keep their money and documents with them, and not to get into the cars of people who aren’t wearing a green wristband on their hands which indicates that the driver is reported in the system. She also tells people to send information about the driver to their relatives.
“There is also a World Kitchen hot food point at the station. Come up, help yourselves. No one will leave hungry. If you have a train in a few hours, ask the volunteers where you can wait. If it gets to you at the train station that you don’t know where to go, you can go to refugee support center called ‘Tesco’. From there, buses leave for various European countries.”
Jana’s shift is in the afternoon. There is already a long line for the next bus. Jana talks to each person in it, asking where they are going and what information they need.
At one point, a firefighter brings a young man to Jana. He is carrying his disabled father in a wheelchair. The younger man is deaf. Jana takes out a piece of paper and a pen and writes questions. She learns that the men have no one here, the older one is very weak and needs to rest. Today, buses from Medyka to ‘Tesco’ do not run. “Apparently there are no vacancies there,” explains the driver.
“Bullshit,” chuckles Jana and calls the coordinator. She calmly explains the situation. Yet the woman on the other end apparently still doesn’t understand, and Jana starts shouting into the receiver: “There is a disabled person in a wheelchair who won’t survive another transfer!”
I hear the driver say to the fireman: “For me there’s no problem to drive there”. The firefighter: “I’ll call ‘Tesco’ right away, because they’re playing silly games there”.
Jana ends the conversation and turns to the driver: “Ok, it’s arranged. You will go to ‘Tesco’.” After which she takes the microphone in her hand, tucks the speaker under her arm and gets on the bus. He explains where trains will go today from the train station in Przemyśl, as well as where to get a Polish sim card and that you need to register it.
“I will now hand out leaflets with the number of our helpline”. – She distributes yellow cards with the inscription: “Free Belarusian hand to help Ukraine”.
“I am Belarusian,” Jana tells bus passengers. “Belarus is not Lukashenko. Belarusians are fighting in Ukraine, too, so that one day, in a free country, we can have tea together.”
The passengers nod their heads, some wipe away tears.
“Русский военный корабль…” shouts Jana, and the passengers join in: “иди на хуй!”! (“Russian warship… go fuck yourself!”). And they burst with laughter.
“It’s good that we evoke emotions,” Jana believes.” It gives people a few seconds of normalcy. We want to be here as long as we are needed. It’s silly to think that the wave has already passed. People are coming all the time”.
On May 21, 23,000 people entered Poland from Ukraine.
All under the voivode
I’m trying to find out how the situation in Medyka, ‘Tesco’ and the Przemyśl train station is seen by those in charge. First I ask at a window in the main hall of the train station. A sign on a sheet of paper hanging there reads: ‘Centrum Zarządzania Kryzysowego, Urząd Miejski w Przemyślu’ (Crisis Management Center, Przemyśl City Hall). What do they do?
“We distribute food, provided by the city and residents of Przemyśl, as well as donors from abroad…,” explains a woman wearing a ‘Volunteer – UM’ vest.
In addition, you can get medicines at the point, and in the window next to it you can find out if there is a special train going. Information is provided by a railroad security guard, but when asked at which stations in Germany the train stops, he can’t answer. He asks people who sit behind his back and do nothing. They don’t know either. “Somewhere here was this spreadsheet. But where?” they wonder.
I call the Municipal Office of Crisis Management and Civil Protection in Przemyśl. The manager refers me to the voivodship (provincial) services, because the reception point and organization of what is happening in Medyka and transportation is handled by the voivode (provincial governor). I ask about the city buses that run from Medyka to Przemyśl and back. “But you have reached the district administration. We are in charge of helping refugees in Ukraine and carry out the tasks commissioned by the Podkarpackie voivode” I am told. “So why don’t you tell me something about it, since you are implementing them?” I ask. “Talk to the starost (head of district), deputy starost or to the mayor of the city of Przemyśl, please”, the person answers.
I find another phone number, this time to the City Crisis Management Center in Przemyśl. “Crisis Management speaking, how can I help you? Talk to me? Rather not, due to the fact that we are not at the border. We have been handling everything remotely from our building. You would have to talk to the people who frequent there. Who frequents? You would have to call… You need to talk to the director.”
The director refers me to the people authorized to deal with the media. And besides, he explains that it’s not the city’s area of operation, you have to contact the office in Medyka. I still try to find out what the department does. The director explains reluctantly that they deal with civil registration, issuing identity cards and issues related to emergency management.
“Then perhaps you know something about the buses with refugees running between Medyka and the train station in Przemyśl? I ask. “It’s up to the voivode,” concludes the director.
The media contacts at Przemyśl City Hall do not answer their phones.
In Medyka I ask to speak to someone responsible for organizing support at the border crossing. They connect me with an official from the population department. She suggests that I contact crisis management in Rzeszów because they only deal with the point at the Sports Hall in Medyka. She says that people are directed there from the border by designated people by the voivode and that transportation is provided. When I inquire how to find the transportation, she gets annoyed: “If you have such questions, please write an email and we will answer. Alternatively, please contact the voivode.”
A spokesman for the Podkarpackie voivode, Michal Mikołajczyk, replies to the questions I emailed.
He writes that the point at Tesco is run by the local government in city of Przemyśl and transportation to that location is coordinated by the city. The voivode issued an order to organize transportation from the state border to the reception point at the train station. This route is covered by coaches of the Przemyśl municipal government. The frequency and schedule of departures is carried out adequately to the number of people arriving.
Services cooperating with the provincial governor, i.e. the WOT, the Fire Department, the army, the police secure the needs of refugees at border crossings, carry out transportation and provide assistance at reception points with regard to, among other things, provisions, rest facilities, medical security and psychological support. A special role is played by the police, who vet volunteers and volunteer organizations, taking care of every aspect of the safety of those fleeing war. At the border, refugees receive leaflets in Ukrainian, Russian and English, which contain, among other things, addresses of reception points. At the crossings, WOT soldiers cooperate with Border Guard officers, who also provide such information. Coordinators appointed by the voivode, work only at reception points in the voivodship, but all information is provided immediately after crossing the border. Each person who wants to benefit from the Polish state’s assistance is given information leaflets at the crossing and can be transported to the reception points. Shuttle buses between the crossing and the reception points have the appropriate signage and move only on the planned route.
The voivode also believes that cooperation between government administration, services, local governments and volunteers is going very well, and an adequate number of people have been assigned for the proper functioning of this system. The involvement of services and volunteers is monitored, with reports being sent to the Podkarpackie Voivodship Office. Thanks to this, should the need arise, the office has the ability to quickly reinforce the staffing of specific locations. However, according to the voivode, the onflow of migrants caused by the war has weakened significantly. “Just a few weeks ago, nearly 80,000 people a day were entering Poland – using the border crossings in Podkarpackie voivodship – but today these numbers are a maximum of a dozen thousand. These figures include volunteers, journalists and Ukrainians shopping in our country. Only a small percentage are refugees. That’s why we are reducing the support of services involved in work at the crossings and reception points.”
No man’s land
Someone in Medyka told me that the coordination of volunteer activities at the Medyka crossing is handled by the PCK (Polish Red Cross).
Łukasz Szaruga of the Podkarpackie branch, responsible for the operation of PCK medical points, denies this: “At our point just outside the border crossing in Medyka, we distribute tea, food, clothing, powerbanks… We have foreign volunteers working for us, but they are checked, and we sign contracts with them. The idea is to ensure that patients are not taken care of by people who have no idea what they are doing. Which sometimes happens since anyone can come here and wear a vest. The people who work with us wear the same uniforms as we do, or if they have their own uniformes, they get badges.
“Who is in charge of supervising and coordinating what happens in Medyka?” I ask him.
“There is no institution or person responsible for the entirety of this ‘town’,” answers Szaruga.
In search of an answer as to why, I call Maciej Maruszak, the director of the Subcarpathian PCK.
“We wanted to take control of the place, but it is the head of the municipality of Medyka who is responsible for the area up to the border fence. We did not get permission to manage it.”
“What arguments did they give you against it?” I want to know.
“There were no arguments,” Maruszak tells me. “We have only been informed about the refusal to be granted the supervision over the area. Some people are doing good work there, for example, providing accommodations, although nobody was supposed to stay the night here. People crossing the border were supposed to go to reception points as soon as possible. However, there are times when there is an influx of people at night, and the coaches do not arrive.”
“I believe that there is, to put it mildly, a ‘volunteer festival’ going on at the crossing, says Maruszak. “People want to help, but the excessive kitchen points that has blossomed in Medyka are, in my opinion, unnecessary. Here all you need is water, or an energy drinks to hand out. The presence of foreign rescuers who don’t speak Polish means that ambulances sometimes don’t want to take calls from them, because they pass information incorrectly. What happens in Medyka is not based on developed structural models, but on personal contacts between reception points, coordinators and volunteers at the border. This should not be the case. Interestingly, the authorities don’t notice this place. No one wants to hear about it. The same applies to ‘Tesco’: it is not officially a reception point, while there are more people there than at the reception point in Korczowa.
“Why is that so?”
“There was an idea that Podkarpackie and Podlaskie voivodships were to be transit provinces. In Medyka, people were only supposed to board buses. Well, but when the buses are waiting, people need to be taken care of. We are all learning, but there has been already enough time to organize it decently. It can’t be based on volunteers in the long run.
I ask the head of the municipality of Medyka: who manages the ‘town’ of volunteers at the border crossing. Marek Iwasieczko answers that there is no ‘town’, some foundations hang around there.
“The municipality administers the area,” Mayor Iwasieczko says. “People have entered our land and the voivode’s land, because part of it belongs to the voivodship, and they try to help refugees through voluntary work,” says the mayor. – “Since this is being prolonged, I’m trying to determine who has the right to stay there and on what basis, in order to take the situation under control.”
“The PCK offered to take control over it,” I say. “They didn’t get your permission”.
“They didn’t get it, because my intention is to narrow down, not develop, what’s going on there,” says the mayor. “The municipality and various services control it.”
“ I can’t tell you”, he says.
“How is the control exercised?”
“We register, we watch, we check who put up a particular tent,” says Iwasieczko. “If I come and say I’m from the municipality, people seem surprised. So I go around with the police, and in this way we made a list of these supposedly possible tenants.”
“Volunteers are supposed to rent the area and pay for it?” I want to make sure.
“What did you think?” asks Iwasieczko. “I can’t give it to someone for free. There are specific regulations for this, under the Law on Real Estate Management. If I don’t apply them, someone will accuse me of not caring about the municipality’s income. I have to say “give five PLN, seven PLN, fifteen PLN”, depending on the area of the plot, so that it won’t be said that I’m giving the area for free. Volunteering is volunteering, helping refugees is a special case, but the rule of law applies. So I’m between a rock and a hard place about this. I don’t bother anyone, especially those who volunteer. It’s just that it’s already been going on for three months. Please also accept the fact that these are not volunteers alone. These are various people who are trying to act for themselves under the pretext of volunteering. We have to make a selection.”
Translated by Agnieszka Piskozub-Piwosz.
Agnieszka Rodowicz: Reporter, photographer, graduate of the Polska Szkoła Reportażu (Polish School of Reportage) and the Sputnik Photos Mentoring Course, honored, among others, with a nomination for the “Teresa Torańska” Newsweek Award (2020) and the Prix de la Photographie Paris (2009, 2016). Finalist of the 4th edition of the competition named after Krzysztof Miller (2021)