The last time I was in Krakow was after Christmas in December 1989, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. I was an undergraduate, just starting out on my journalistic career, reporting on the end of the Cold War.
My first interview break had been to corner Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shulz in the Cambridge Union bar after an evening debate on the end of the Soviet Union. His line was that with the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan and Gorbachev signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 – removing the threat to NATO of mid-range Soviet missiles in Europe – the so-called “Brezhnev Doctrine” was over.
Back in 1989, I was in Poland when the Sejm – the national parliament – changed the country’s name from the People’s Republic of Poland to the Republic of Poland. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would return to Krakow over 30 years later after Russian tanks began rolling into Ukraine.
The main difference between 1989 and now, I sense, is that whilst Gorbachev was happy to thaw the great freeze in US-Russian relations, and didn’t regard Western democracy as a direct threat, a large part of Putin’s motivation is precisely that – the concern of having a western-facing Ukraine right on his doorstep.
On my first day breakfasting at the Hotel Polski, I noticed the hotel was unexpectedly full for a Tuesday in off-season March. The families – comprising women and children only, no men – talked in what sounded like Russian. It was only when I was met by my young Polish translator, Ksawery Danilowicz, that he explained in a whisper: ‘The families are all Ukrainian refugees. The hotel owner has taken in around twenty guests and is putting them up for two months until they have somewhere to live. There are no men as they are required back home to fight’.
Such is the warmth and generosity of the Poles in this refugee crisis. In this case, a wonderful architect-hotel entrepreneur called Jerzy Donimirski, who restored the historic property in 2016. It is now the flagship of the Donimirski hotel group that specialises in restoring historic ruins and turning them into boutique hotels. Indeed, sixty-something Jerzy turned out to be a fellow ‘restore-a-wreck’ addict, having restored an old castle ruin (Zamek Korzkiew, some 8 miles from Krakow) that once belonged to his family. A senior Knight of Malta within the Polish Order, he drove me around Krakow in a black van looking like an unshaven commando from the Polish resistance.
The Polish, I sense, like the English, have a deeply emotional connection with their buildings which tell the story of their country. The urge to rebuild, re-connect and be welcoming hosts is very much present in Poland.
The two days I spent in Poland were to report on the refugee crisis on the border, especially the work of Catholic charities led by Maltese International, the humanitarian arm of the Order of Malta.
This religious, military order dates back over 900 years and is dedicated to helping the sick and the poor, so providing shelter and protection to refugees in Ukraine and those crossing over into Poland remains very much in the tradition of the Order.
Indeed, the large tent that Malteser International has erected close to the border at the refugee station at Hrebenne-Rawa Ruska closely resembles a medieval tent with the distinctive red Jerusalem cross signifying that it is a form of religious sanctuary. It was put up on the first day the Russian tanks invaded on 24th February and was manned for several days by just one volunteer. By the time I got there, several volunteers from Krakow were manning it 24 hours a day. With sub-zero conditions and snow falling, the tent offers a calm and reassuring welcome to thousands of refugees every day.
There is little sense of panic. Ukrainian refugees arriving with their possessions in a carrier bag can help themselves to chocolate Easter bunnies, soup, smoked kielbasa (Polish sausage), dog food and biscuits. Donated second-hand baby strollers are arriving in vans as they could not be taken on the refugee trains out of Ukraine – many arrived at the border with no more luggage than a bin liner.
The Maltese International worker running the Zakon Maltanski relief station said the only men he had seen at the temporary camp had been a ‘man without a leg’ and a blind man. The rest have remained in Ukraine, where there is conscription. So understandably, emotions are high as tearful women try to contact their husbands and sons across the border. Thankfully mobile phones are being distributed with SIM cards thanks to various Ukrainian appeals.
Other faith-based charities have a strong presence at the border crossings, including volunteers working for Caritas and Knights of Columbus. I even saw three smiling nuns that looked like they had walked out of the nunnery of the Sound of Music. They turned out to be volunteers from the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco – known as Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. They asked their mother superior if they could abscond from their convent to help and drove to the border from Szczecin. Not so much Von Trapp as Nun Trip.
Accompanied by my brilliant translator and guide, we drove to the Ukrainian border in a tiny red car no larger than a Soviet Lada. As we left the motorway, we slowed to 10 mph to avoid the deep potholes. Every hour we stopped for a cigarette break and a coffee.
Meeting up with officer ‘brethren’ on the way is also encouraged – in this case, Brooks Newmark – an expert on the Syrian refugee experience, who put aside his Oxford PhD research in Rwanda to help out with the refugee crisis at the Polish border. He teamed up with a friend from Switzerland with experience of running a coach touring business to privately hire local drivers and buy some old coaches to assist with shuttling refugees from Ukraine to the border.
At the unlikely-sounding location of Hotel Restaurant Cafe Punkt by a Shell garage a few miles from the border, we met up with Brooks and his friend. He was angry about the British government dragging their feet over the issuing of visas:
“These are not fake migrants,” he said. “These are desperate women and children. To say they must travel to Warsaw or Paris and then wait a week to get a biometric test is unacceptable and borderline inhumane.”
As a former minister, he said he was asking the UK Minister for Refugees to intervene and “speed up the process”. As of writing, the government appeared to be listening to this wide condemnation and failure to act fast enough.
The Order of Malta, whose humanitarian work in Ukraine started some 30 years ago. In 2014, assisted by Malteser International, volunteers and trained staff helped the evacuation of wounded from the Euromaidan. Order of Malta Ukraine (MRS) has been training volunteers in military medical emergency practice in Ukraine as well as providing humanitarian aid and medical equipment to the ’internally displaced’ person centres in both Mariupol and Zaporozhe.
The MRS has so far provided over 3000 people with basic first aid training. Other cities that have benefited from this training programme include Ivano-Frankivsk (headquarters), Lviv, Mariupol, Kamianske, Kyiv, Zaporozhe, Fastiv, Berehove, Yuzhnoukrainsk. They have also worked with Polish firefighters to provide ‘specialist training in mass evacuation as well as technical training in structural collapse rescue’.
Despite the Russian tanks getting closer to Kyiv, this critical first aid training continues as Putin’s rockets destroy maternity hospitals and shell those desperately trying to flee cities along the so-called ‘humanitarian corridor’. A team of 180 people from The MRS are currently in place to provide the ‘necessary support’ to war refugees from Ukraine in Poland.
Other than the station I visited at Hrebenne, another larger medical facility is in Kombornia. A centre at Glubczyce operates as a halfway home. Further down the supply line, there are refugee points in Katowice (headquarters), Krakow, Warsaw, Poznan, Radom, Krzeszowice, and Nysa. At all these mission stations, the Order coordinates the distribution of aid and money sent from Great Britain, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany.
One of the most touching scenes I witnessed at the Polish border was a Ukrainian man who looked to be in his thirties, in a tracksuit and hat, clutching a bunch of wilting red roses. He told me that he was ‘waiting for his wife’ who had been stranded across in Ukraine. He said he would wait, however cold it got at night. Indeed, the sub-zero temperatures were proving the bitterest obstacle to the refugees as the wind whipped up.
A medic with the Knights of Columbus was ripping open the plastic wrapping of a child’s defibrillator to try and save the life of one child suffering from hypothermia. I saw mothers battling in the cold to change wet and freezing nappies in the sub-frozen dark. Fortunately, the charities’ medical tents are warm well-supplied, and few refugees are arriving on foot now. The new enemy is bureaucracy.
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