‘Have a good trip”, says the faded tourism leaflet taped to the window of the Ukrainian border guard post with Hungary at Beregsurány. I was entering as part of the Order of Malta’s Hungarian humanitarian mission. This was possible as the Order is – still, thankfully – recognised as an independent sovereign state and my guide, the Hungarian Order’s director of foreign affairs, Daniel Solymari, has diplomatic connections. The border was closed to journalists and tourists. The sentry guard didn’t seem bothered that I had no visa. We were given a tiny paper exit chit – like a cloakroom ticket – and crossed the border by foot. After we walked through no man’s land, this chit was exchanged for a passport stamp at the Ukrainian checkpoint.
The first car I saw on the Ukrainian side was an ancient white Lada. A man got out and started picking up old rubbish, including plastic bottles and old cigarette boxes. “For lighting his fire,” Daniel said. “These people have no money for firewood.” Then I had a jolt when I saw a new bronze Porsche parked in the line of refugee cars crossing into Hungary. It’s clear that there are different types of refugees – not all are carrying their only possessions in a bin bag.
The media prefer to stereotype Ukrainian refugees, especially the narrative that the Hungarians (and Poles, for that matter) have been self-selecting in welcoming white Christian immigrants, but less so to African students (mainly from Kyiv) escaping the country. At the Order of Malta’s refugee camp at Berehove, I saw a group of African refugees enjoying a warm welcome as they were greeted with salami sandwiches, canned ravioli, panna cotta cakes and packets of pasta the size of small sandbags.
The moment you enter Ukraine, you step into a 1980s time warp. The main difference from when I was in the Soviet Union in the 1980s was that I never saw so many female soldiers on patrol as there are here. Most were glued to their iPhones which they carried in little pouches next to their small weapons. Clearly, the military uniform has been designed for the times.
Inside the Order of Malta’s base at Berehove, its walls decorated with crucifixes, the front desk was manned by a 15-year-old girl called Esther, wearing glasses, whose father travels to Russia regularly for work. “They are good people,” she says. She has family friends, not much older than her, serving in the Ukrainian army at the front. She has had texts saying that 1,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in a day, adding, “Some Russian soldiers don’t even know where they are”. Nobody knows what to believe.
Crater-like potholes are everywhere on Ukrainian roads. When we passed a horse and cart driven by a Roma, wearing a black hat and coat out of a Tolstoy novel, my guide said that one of the unexpected aspects of the refugee crisis was that it has given Roma an opportunity to claim asylum in the EU.
We visited the Knuppel textile factory which the Order of Malta had rented as a storage unit for essential supplies. The former looms are now abandoned and replaced with piles of food, nappies, sleeping bags, mattresses, chocolate Easter bunnies and baby food. The reason for stockpiling is that it might be only a matter of days before border access is cut off due to shelling.
Diplomatic sources I spoke with said that they expect a negotiated settlement sooner rather than later. Putin will hope to annex a large chunk of Ukraine and then hold a swift “democratic” election to legitimise his land grab. There is even a Hungarian word for this “salami slicing” tactic of wiping out your enemies one at a time: szalámitaktika.
Catholic faith-based charities are not just helping refugees get across the border for a new life in Hungary, Germany or even Britain. Their mission is also to look after the elderly and the disabled who have been left behind as they can’t access buses and trains and have reached the time in life when moving to the West is, alas, impractical.
At the Order’s mission station, a hearty-looking Ukrainian cook called Edith conjures up stews, soups and pasta dishes every day for the town’s local elderly. Lenten guidance is observed. Fish on Wednesday and Friday.
In Ukraine, my translator was Tunde Huatik, from Yanoshi, who spoke excellent English despite the language not being taught at school. How then, I asked? “Watching movies like The Untouchables and Game of Thrones. Studying the subtitles.” I think it’s fair to say that Putin is the barbarian enemy beyond the Wall.
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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