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We cross into Romania from southeastern Hungary and immediately there’s a hint of things to come. We are travelling by car; because Romania is not part of the Schengen Area, our passports are taken for inspection and our vehicle is waved to one side, leaving us feeling temporarily stateless. On our journey we will often find ourselves in this no man’s land between two countries. Such situations make you think about the arbitrary nature of demarcation and how time stretches as you wait for your right to enter.

The first Romanian city that we come to is Arad. Its factory yards lie empty in the early-morning fog; its streets are filled with round-the-clock amusement arcades. You see these gaudy distractions all over the country. When I mention them to a Romanian friend, they roll their eyes and say that they are like coronavirus, a disease, but one that mostly plagues middle-aged men with little money to spare.

But this isn’t Romania’s biggest problem. Its real scourge is chronic corruption, which has persisted despite its accession to the EU in 2007. A deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest sparked a wave of protests across the country in 2015; the protesters said that government corruption had led to the disaster and the ineptitude of the emergency services had increased the death toll. Romania is poor by European standards. This invites the uncomfortable question: with the country in such dire straits, will Romanians bridle at the stream of refugees coming from Ukraine?

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Rosian Vasiloi (centre), chief of the Moldovan border police, with members of his team.

There’s no one to ask on the streets of Arad at this time of day so the answer comes when we reach Romania’s mountainous northern frontier with Ukraine, where residents are usually more concerned with problems such as illegal logging or cigarette smuggling (though people in the area tell me that the conflict has put an end to the latter, at least for now).

Satu Mare has a population of about 112,500. It has a magnificent brutalist city hall and brightly coloured villas that hark back to when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Though it sits closer to Hungary than Ukraine, the effects of the invasion are being acutely felt. “It’s as though everybody forgot about the pandemic and economic problems,” says Florin Muresan, a presenter at a regional television station. “Everything has changed. The only thing that we’re talking about now is Ukraine and how we can help.”

The closer you get to the Ukrainian border, the more evident the scale of the crisis becomes. About eight out of 10 cars that I see on the road into Romania have cheerful blue-and-yellow Ukrainian registration plates. These convoys tell a story of displacement, of a world set violently in motion since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on 24 February. It’s poignant to see the expensive Audis and bmws of the well-to-do overtaking their fellow citizens’ budget cars, crammed with luggage.

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Refugees crossing the Romanian border in Sighetu Marmatiei

Romania has few motorways so the road to freedom runs through winding mountain passes and quiet villages whose inhabitants, with their horse-drawn carts and shaggy Carpathian shepherd dogs, might look oblivious to the conflict but they are not. In Remeti, a village commune that is separated from Ukraine by only by a narrow brook, we stop to speak to three elderly women sitting by the side of the road. When I ask what they make of the conflict they throw up their arms. “We cry every day and we pray,” says one. “People in Romania pray for Ukraine. We just wish it would return back to normal.”

“We never expected that Russia would do such a thing or that the attack would be so vicious”

Romania is home to a sizeable Ukrainian minority, mostly in the north, and the Hutsuls, a highlander people who live in the border county of Bukovina and are Ukrainian in heritage. For all of them this conflict feels personal. In Sighetu Marmatiei, another town on the border with Ukraine and one of the entry points for the exodus of refugees, Nicolae-Miroslav Petretchi heads the local chapter of the Union of Ukrainians in Romania (uur). “We share a lot of the same traditions and culture so we are alarmed by what’s happening in Ukraine,” he says, with a large portrait of the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko, hanging behind him. Petretchi compares the Russian invasion to Ukraine’s Stalin-era famine, the Holodomor. “We never expected that Russia would do such a thing or that the attack would be so vicious,” he says.

The uur, along with government and local authorities, as well as ngos, volunteer organisations and the Romanian Orthodox Church, is providing support, transportation and accommodation to the new arrivals. Its headquarters in the region is in a state of chaos due to bags of donated clothes and ready-made meals. Petretchi hasn’t had much sleep. I ask him how he is managing. “Are the Ukrainian soldiers sleeping now?” he says.

Border crossings in a time of crisis are messy. No matter how streamlined the process, there’s always litter, dirt and exhaustion. But both at Sighetu Marmatiei and Siret, which is further east and another important gateway for fleeing Ukrainians, the authorities are doing their best with limited means to offer a warm welcome. Those walking across the border on foot are embraced by volunteers or crying relatives and friends, who give them food, clothes and, most importantly, hope. At the time of writing, about 2,000 people are crossing by foot every day at Sighetu Marmatiei and many more were coming through Siret, sometimes as many as 600 people an hour.

“No one has been sent back,” says Ilie Poroch-Seritan, chief commissioner of the border police at Siret, his well-pressed grey uniform exuding a sense of order and calm organisation. “We have found a solution for everyone.” The numbers vary wildly, depending on the time of day, he says, but the stream of people normally eases towards evening as the curfew across Ukraine comes into effect and civilian movement ceases. “It’s our job to process them but we also feel compassionate and have empathy for these people.”

“I cannot believe that a nation that produced such great literature could also produce such ignorant, gullible, unthinking people”

National sentiments run high in times of conflict. Many of the Ukrainians whom we meet recoil when they hear my Moscow accent (I was born and grew up in the Russian capital; then I moved to Vienna 10 years ago as Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency after a four-year respite under Dmitry Medvedev). Some become tense and others mildly standoffish but most just wave me away, perhaps as much because of their exhaustion as anything else.

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Refugees struggling to board the day’s only train to Bucharest from Sighetu Marmatiei

But many are keen to share their stories and opinions, though they are often wary of giving their full names. Irina from Poltava, a central Ukrainian city some 140km from Kharkiv, is at the crossing with her two teenage children but her husband has stayed behind, a pattern that repeats itself over and over with the families whom we meet. With martial law in force, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are forbidden from leaving the country but many – most even – have willingly stayed to fight.

“I cannot believe that a nation that produced such great literature could also produce such ignorant, gullible, unthinking people who are blind to our plight,” says Irina, who trained as a teacher of Russian literature. Tears streaming down her face, she quotes Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, “Dis-tance: versts, miles… We’re dis-severed, dis-persed.”

“I want to call on all the democratic powers of the world to intervene and stop this war,” says Irina. “If the world doesn’t help, our men and children will die.” Yelena has come with her daughter-in-law, Veronika, and her three small children. They spent several nights in a bomb shelter in Kharkiv after Yelena’s block of flats was hit by an airstrike. It took them three days to get to Romania. “We didn’t want to leave,” says Yelena. “We love Ukraine too much and we want to be among our people. But we were too afraid to stay any longer.”

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Border towns such as Sighetu Marmatiei offer refuge but getting there can be difficult. Many have walked 3km from the nearest railway station

We enter Moldova at its northern tip and everything changes: the quality of the roads, the people, the surroundings. Here dilapidation is the norm. The poor former Soviet republic seems frozen in time. In Moldova, as in Romania, many road signs say, “Drum bun”, or “Have a good ride”, which is exquisitely ironic given the volcanic enormity of the potholes. The empty villages on the road are quiet and “for sale” notices in many windows look faded and forlorn.

Moldova has its own troubles with Russia. In 1990 a region called Transdniestria declared independence from Moldova, becoming a self-declared nation. Mainly Russian-speaking, it is recognised only by Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia, all of which are breakaway regions with strong Russian ties and frozen conflicts. Russia freezes everything it touches. 

As elsewhere in the world, the war in Ukraine has sparked a backlash of resentment in Moldova. In the days before our visit, the Russian embassy in the capital, Chisinau, complained of “blasphemous acts of vandalism” towards Soviet Red Army monuments in the country. The monuments dot this tiny country like a disorganised army, often accompanied by the gilded busts and statues of Vladimir Lenin. Like Ukraine, Moldova has now applied for EU membership but its prospects aren’t good. The conflict in Transdniestria, for one, will hamper its chances of accession. 

Otaci is on Moldova’s northern border with Ukraine, it’s a grimy town that sits on the Dniester river. The first thing that we hear as we arrive is an air-raid siren sounding in Mohyliv-Podilskyi, a Ukrainian town on the other side of the water. No one seems fazed and nobody heads for cover; there’s a man peeing in the direction of the border as though he owns the place. But here too, as in Romania, there is a sense of purpose and unity against a common enemy.

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Refugees arriving in Isaccea, Romania, after crossing the Danube

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Nicolae-Miroslav Petretchi of the Union of Ukrainians in Romania

The French embassy in Bucharest has sent a two-person team to greet and help French nationals who are fleeing the conflict. In the first week, there were only 20 French passport holders. There are other diplomats here: Chinese, Germans, Israelis. The carabinieri, Moldova’s paramilitary force, have also joined the general assistance effort. We are taken to see a refugee centre that has been established in a former retirement home near Otaci. Here the young carabinieri are providing security and food. In the back garden there is a mobile Soviet military wood-burning stove. Out of it comes tea, baked potatoes and placinta, a traditional Moldovan pie made with cheese and parsley. There are only 17 people at the centre, many of whom have travelled there with elderly relatives.

Sergei Sidorov, an official in the Ukrainian customs service and his wife, Svetlana, are originally from the Donbas region but moved away in 2014 as Russia made its first advance. They settled in Mariupol on the Sea of Azov before relocating to Kyiv. Now they are on the move again, with Svetlana’s blind 90-year-old mother, Nadya, who has no documents but thankfully has been allowed through. Despite all of this they are optimistic. “We feel safe here but we wish it would end soon,” says Sergei. “We want to go back to Ukraine.” 

At Palanca in the south of Moldova, there are similar scenes of desolation and poverty but there is also something new: a sense of urgency and desperation. We come on the day when Russia announced a brief ceasefire in the south of Ukraine to allow civilians to escape from the worst of the fighting (Ukraine says that no ceasefire happened) and cars are backed up on the Ukrainian side of the border. At one point, the queue stretches for 23km.

In the neutral zone between the two borders, pedestrians, many of them from Odesa, are huddled together against the cold. Unlike at the other border crossings, most people here don’t know where they will go, what they will do. Yelena, a tourism specialist from Odesa, tells me that she packed and left in one day; her only hope was to get away before the Russians came. She is travelling with her sister, her daughter and her boyfriend, and their two dogs, Willy and Josya. “I just can’t understand it when Russia says that it’s saving us,” says Yelena. “Who are they saving us from? Odesa is a friendly, kind, international city. What do they want from us? Who are the fascists here? Why should I flee from my home and my loved ones? I don’t understand why I’m here.”

“I just can’t understand it when Russia says that it’s saving us. Who are they saving us from?”

Rosian Vasiloi, chief of the Moldovan border police, takes us in a three-suv convoy to lunch at a refugee camp near Palanca. Like everything and everyone around us, he is always moving and speaks with military precision. In the previous 24 hours 10,300 people have entered Moldova from Ukraine with 9,000 continuing straight on to EU countries. After lunch, he takes us to the border. There are two posts sticking out of a grassy ditch; the border line runs between them. A jittery Ukrainian soldier brandishes a machine gun 20 metres away. Behind him there’s a military vehicle with bullet holes. Two of Vasiloi’s policemen, Andrei and Oleg, say that it’s best not to aggravate him; tensions are high. We wave to indicate that we understand and retreat. On the way back, Andrei and Oleg tell us that a long-abandoned Soviet anti-aircraft installation some 8km from the border into Ukraine was bombed by the Russians a few days before. “What did they want with it?” says Oleg. Another time, they tell us, during a friendly cross-border cigarette break with the Ukrainians, they saw a missile flying past. The Ukrainians didn’t finish their cigarettes and ran back to their positions.

We leave Moldova and head back towards the safety of Romania, in the EU. The Romanian police scan my Russian passport suspiciously and once again tell us to wait. I have a brief moment of panic and understand some of what Ukrainian refugees must feel crossing the border out of their nation. Fortunately I am let in. My hope is that others, both Ukrainians and Russians fleeing the chaos, will be allowed in too.

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