A week at the Polish-Ukrainian border. Interview with dr Michał Rychłowski

Almost every day, at one of the faculties of the University of Gdańsk, initiatives are born to help Ukraine. This time we are looking at the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology. Every Wednesday, a fair is organised by mgr Weronika Babinska, and a collection of donations is also held. In turn, dr Michał Rychłowski has been transporting refugees from Lviv to the Polish-Ukrainian border for a week. We would like to invite you to an interview with a biotechnologist.

Marcel Jakubowski: - On February 24, Russia attacked Ukraine. Most Poles found out about it in the morning. What was your first reaction?

dr Michał Rychłowski, photo by Marcel Jakubowski

Dr Michał Rychłowski: - It was a shock. Everyone feared something like this, but it was still a big surprise that Putin decided to attack. Like everyone else, I thought the war would last two or three days. But the Ukrainians put up a tough resistance and things turned out very differently.  

- When did you decide to help? Why exactly in this way? 

- Because I have travelled extensively in Russia and Ukraine, I have many friends there and I know the nature of these areas. A colleague of mine told me that there was a difficult situation at the Lviv train station because a real exodus of refugees had begun there. People were needed to drive them from Ukraine to the Polish border. At first, many drivers were willing to do this, but when it came down to it, it turned out that someone couldn't, someone was afraid, someone said that it was too much for them. I decided that there was no need to think about it, just get on and go. 

- Did you go alone? 

- We started with two nine-seater buses. Then a third bus joined us.

- That first trip must have been worrying. The situation was changing all the time. You could not predict what you'd find. How do you recall that journey and your entry into Lviv?  

- We were all very anxious. Nobody knew what was going to happen. These are the kinds of situations that are difficult to predict. I didn't tell everyone at home that I was going to Ukraine so that they wouldn't worry. Those who knew didn't want me to go. At that time, there were a lot of volunteers on the Polish side, who were taking refugees from the border to the aid stations for refugees. But hardly anyone wanted to cross the border. We, travelling for the first three days, saw only a few cars coming from Poland, but with time, this changed. This aid developed very quickly.

Entrance to Lviv, photo by dr Michał Rychłowski

Who did you find when you arrived in Lviv? What stuck in your mind?

- I remember a lot of things. There was no queue at the border to Ukraine, no one was going there, but there was a very long line of cars going back. We crossed the border in Zosin, and from there we went to Lviv. It was amazing how organised the Ukrainians were already at that time, I think it was the fourth of March. There were a lot of checkpoints on the roads, set up by the self-defence units. When Ukrainians saw a car from Poland, they would immediately say 'Thank you very much for being here. We appreciate your help' and they quickly let us through. 

During the first few days, it was not a problem getting to Lviv. The city also looked relatively normal. However, there were frequent bomb alerts. During such alarms, you never knew what was going to happen and there was great anxiety. It took us almost two hours to get to the station because Lviv was completely jammed. When I first arrived at the station, I found crowds of people there. As soon as we stopped the cars, everyone was immediately banging on the doors and asking if they could take us to Poland.

There were a lot of people in need. At that time buses from Kyiv and Kharkiv were arriving at Lviv. There were also 13 or 14 trains every day, and three left for Poland. People couldn't get out of that Lviv at all. We decided to help those most in need, single women with children. Such a mother with two little ones was unable to get on a crowded train; it was difficult to get into the station itself, let alone onto the platform or the train. These were the people we tried to take with us. We also established contact with volunteers working at the station, who found the neediest people for us.

- Who is the most memorable person for you?

- Together we transported about 400 people. I remember a mother with two children packed in one small backpack. They left home that way because they were surprised when their block of flats was bombed. Usually, it is the case that the men are in the army and the women wait at home until the husband returns and the situation normalizes. Suddenly, however, the flat next door is hit by a bomb, and then no one thinks twice, just runs away, sometimes without a hat and warm shoes, and it is much colder there than in Poland. 

- The media create a certain image of what is happening in Ukraine. You were there and saw it first-hand. How does the media picture differ from what you saw?

- After a week or so, we decided that there was no longer any need to transport refugees from Lviv. It happened more and more often that people came up to us and asked if we were going to Cracow, for example, and when we said that we were only going to the border, they gave up. This is when the media appeared, with photos and reports. People started to say how terrible it was there. Of course, I don't want to generalise, but that's more or less how it was.

At first, Lviv was in chaos, but the Ukrainians quickly changed that. It took two hours to get to the station, but after two days, it took half an hour. The first humanitarian aid tents appeared, with effective traffic management. Ukrainians no longer had to camp out at the station or in its vicinity by barrels in which branches were burning.

Queue to cross the border, photo by dr Michał Rychłowski

Around the fifth of March, a large number of buses began arriving from Poland to pick up people at the Lviv train station. These buses shuttled and dropped refugees off at the border so they could cross on foot. It was then that the exodus moved there. At that time I was carrying, among others, an old lady with two cats, a daughter and two small children to the border in Medyka. The policemen told me to drop everyone off 2 km before the border. I stated that she would not be able to walk there. When the policeman took care of the other cars, I unceremoniously drove with my passengers to the crossing itself. Unfortunately, after just a few hundred metres I had to drop them off and turn back because 1.5 km before the border a crowd of people started walking slowly across the road towards it. I do not know how long they had to stand there, but I suppose many hours.

Help abroad, photo by dr Michał Rychłowski

- So within a week the chaos from Lviv moved to the border, the media appeared, and the Ukrainians got organised better. Has anything else changed? 

- When I arrived there on March 4th, a lot of help had already been organised on the Polish side. At the border itself, there were tents with heating and mascots for children. Refugees could take something to eat - a banana, an apple, a candy bar. There was also some baby food, shaving razors and diapers. There was also hot coffee, tea, soup and sausages, all for free. The volunteers organised transport or explained where to go to register. 

- So you spent a week in Ukraine? You didn't go back to Poland, to Gdańsk?

- Not to Gdańsk. The first night we slept in the car. Then we got to the parish. The priest gave us a room with a shower, so it was normal. To do as many courses as possible we slept 4-5 hours a night. We left in the morning, packed the car with humanitarian aid (medicines, bandages, clothes, blankets) and took it to various places in Lviv. Then we took the first transport of people, which we drove to the nearest crossing point, Medyka. There we dropped them off so that they could cross the border on foot, and we returned to Lviv. At the station, we picked up the next refugees and drove them to Poland to the small border crossing in Zosin, so that those most in need could cross the border in a warm car.

After crossing the border, we took Ukrainian women with children to the reception centre for refugees in Hrubieszów. There they were all registered, volunteers found them a place to sleep and transported them to further places in Poland. We returned to the parish, slept for a few hours, got up in the morning and set off to the border. This is what every day looked like.

-When did you travel? 

- I travelled from Friday, I think it was the fourth of March, until the night of the twelfth of March. At first, the main task was to transport people from Lviv to the border. Then it became a challenge to transport people across the border, because of the huge queues of people on foot and in cars. Fortunately, the situation steadily improved because, in my opinion, the organisation was very good for the scale of this migration. 

There is now prohibition in Ukraine and at 9:00 pm the curfew starts, the so-called 'Komandorskiy czas', which means a ban on movement. We often didn't leave Lviv until around 8 pm, which meant we had to travel after curfew. It wasn't pleasant, because when you drive up to a police station at night, soldiers with long guns get nervous.

Fortunately, there are ways around this. When you arrived at the post, you had to turn off the outside lights and switch on the light inside the car so that the soldiers could see who was inside. The Ukrainians were always very kind, they thanked us and said they would never forget how we helped them. They did everything so that we could pass as quickly as possible. 

- What will you remember most from this week? 

- I saw a lot of heart-wrenching scenes. I remember a family: a grandmother, a mother and a daughter with two small children carrying cages of cats and a dog on a leash. The lady was walking in the cold in sneakers. They were packed in two plastic bags and in them there were some nappies, food and small things. This is how they left home in Kyiv. It was simply shocking, and there were many such people.

Photos by dr Michał Rychłowski
Marcel Jakubowski / Press Office UG