Updated: Apr 21
I volunteered at the Ukraine-Poland border for seven days, and will never forget what I saw
The faces of hundreds of Ukrainian refugees, lined up at the railway station in Lublin, haunt me in my sleep.
I met them when travelling to Poland to document the events that were unfolding. What I saw made it impossible to perform my duties with the impartiality required of me. There is no way to remain detached when confronted with so much pain, confusion, suffering, and trauma.
Starting from my first day on the ground, I was met with people who desperately needed aid with everything from practical assistance in the form of translation to psychological support. They made me realize that photojournalism came nowhere near the kind of humanitarian aid these people deserved, and I decided to stay on as a volunteer. After four days, it became clear that preserving the future of the Ukrainian people and honouring their history could not be done from a distance, and I travelled further to the edge of the Polish border.
On the way there, I met two men from #Georgia who were ready to fight for Ukraine and its people. Together with them I crossed the border and reached Lviv. I tried everything I could to stay strong and put aside my emotions to better help those who needed it most, but whenever I was alone I could not hold back my tears. I could barely hold my camera in my hands.
Last month, President Volodymr #Zelensky called on volunteers from around the world to help defend Ukraine against Russia's devastating assault. Within one week, over 20,000 people from 52 countries volunteered to support Ukraine. I have met many of these brave and selfless people, as well as the civilian evacuators Kasia from #Lublin and Zurab and Archil from Georgia, and seen the impact they have made. But I have also witnessed firsthand the tragedy inflicted on thousands of people and their families as they arrived at the Polish borders in freezing temperatures, waiting in endless queues to be processed for periods ranging from hours to several days at a time, some of whom had fled Ukraine primarily on foot. I have seen the frightened eyes of mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and endless lines of confused children and seniors who could hardly believe what had unfolded before them. Fathers, brothers, and husbands accompanied their families into the unknown, holding back their tears as they attempted to reassure their loved ones that everything will be fine in the end. Even cats and dogs appeared to be as frightened as their owners.
At this point, I have passed several border crossing points in #Ukraine and #Poland, clustered together in buses next to Ukrainian refugees, slept beside them in refugee shelters in Jaroslaw station, and shared in their sharp and potent grief. But at the end of my seven days of volunteering, I was once again walking through the Stockholm Arlanda Airport. It was like being suddenly transported into a parallel world. The indoor shopping mall, expensive restaurants, and airport hotels with roof-top swimming pools and sky bars seemed gaudy and unnecessary - a cruel contrast to the Ukrainians I'd seen who had lost almost everything and were on the run, seeking only shelter and the most basic necessities.
As of this week, there are 5,085,360 displaced Ukrainians, and many others remain trapped in Ukraine, where Russian jets and artillery are relentlessly shelling and bombing residential areas, food shortages are increasing, and the most vulnerable segments of the population, such as the elderly and disabled, are disproportionately affected.
My life, and the life of my fellow volunteers, will never be the same again, and neither should yours. We should not forget the privileges we take for granted every day, or ignore the fact that people around the world – whether in Ukraine, Syria, or Somalia – have no access to them. And we should not hesitate to utilize our privileges to help them and take action in any way we can.
to Kasia from Lublin for your hospitality and sharing your place with me, and to Zhanna Gurieva from Canada and your friends for providing financial assistance to Ukrainian refugees.