Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 20+ minutes

Women on the Brink

Originally published in The London Review of Books.

The Russian assault​ on Ukraine has produced the largest and swiftest mass movement of women since the Second World War. More than four million women have been displaced within Ukraine and around the same number have fled the country. Many of those who left, congregating in towns and cities in Poland, or taking buses and trains to other European capitals, went reluctantly. Their male relatives – men between eighteen and sixty have to remain in Ukraine – pushed them to go, saying they would be happier to fight if their families were safely out of the country. Whether it is safer out of the country, however, is far from clear. Ukrainian women have been among the most trafficked in the world since the fall of the Soviet Union. And since the war began, instances of predation have surged at border crossings and railway stations, and on social media platforms where women seek shelter and work.

The Ukrainian women arriving in Poland find a country experiencing a different kind of conflict. The Polish government recently tightened what was already a near total ban on abortion, and both emergency and basic contraception are tricky to access. Many women arrive in need of medical care for problems ranging from those caused by sexual violence (STDs, pregnancy, trauma) to infections, injuries and already existing illnesses. Proper medical care also enables evidence to be gathered about the prevalence of rape and sexual assault more generally in Ukraine. When arriving in Poland many refugees are met at train stations and border crossings by religious groups and belligerent anti-choice activists, who see their plight as constituting a new front in Poland’s long-running battle over faith and reproductive freedom. Across Poland, local councils, mayors and central government, with different political agendas, are vying for control of the humanitarian response. There are huge disparities in the treatment of refugees. This is part of the reason that, as of Easter weekend, for the first time the number of Ukrainians crossing back into the country outnumbered those leaving.

Just before Easter I travelled to Poland’s border with Ukraine. At the main station in Kraków, a volunteer pushed a pet assistance trolley filled with dog and cat treats; she was looking for a woman who needed bird seed for her parrot. A boy with Down’s syndrome wandered around the concourse on his own. The area designated for refugees was covered with fliers warning that ‘armed conflicts are usually accompanied by human trafficking. Be ready!’ Mothers and tired-looking teenagers queued for free train tickets back to Ukraine or on to Warsaw. Among them was a man wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap emblazoned with the American flag. He carried a green army bag and said he was travelling to a city, the name of which he couldn’t pronounce (he spelled out ‘Dnipro’), to evacuate civilians and then, lowering his voice, to do ‘some other things I probably shouldn’t say out loud’. He told me he was a ‘private defence contractor’, by which he meant he was joining the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. But most of the carriages on the night train from Warsaw to Przemyśl were full of Ukrainian families heading back to the border.

The new arrivals ... were leaving unwillingly after surviving weeks of Russian shelling and living in basements.

Before the war, the only pedestrian border crossing into Poland was at Medyka, thirteen kilometres east of Przemyśl. Within days, all eight crossings between the two countries had been converted to allow both car and foot traffic. Hundreds of thousands of people converged on these crossings in the first week; during the busiest period, 140,000 people crossed into Poland every day. To reduce the long waits in freezing temperatures, border guards stopped registering those crossing. For the UN, which organises its services by tracking refugee flows, this has made it harder to target and deliver relief. There are millions of ghosts in Poland now, an official told me. When I arrived in Medyka, around two hundred Ukrainians an hour were crossing. Many were going in the opposite direction, heading to Lviv or Kyiv for Easter, or to assess whether their home cities were safe enough for them to move back. The women who were still arriving came from battlefield areas, such as Mariupol, Bucha or Kharkiv, or from Kramatorsk, which is under fire from missiles and rockets. The early wave of refugees had crossed in cars and with carefully packed suitcases. Some had even been trained by their employers in the logistics of conflict evacuation. The new arrivals, by contrast, were leaving unwillingly after surviving weeks of Russian shelling and living in basements. They carried their belongings in supermarket bags.

A bus left Medyka every hour to take refugees to ‘the Tesco’, as it’s known, in Przemyśl: an old supermarket warehouse converted into a refugee processing centre. Security was tight. Polish soldiers monitored the entrances, and you had to scan the QR code on your wristband to go in or to leave. There was at least one woman soldier on duty at all times and any car leaving the site was inspected by police. Sleeping quarters were marked by flags for those who knew their destination countries, so when the time came they could leave together. The undecided slept in a large open room. An Israeli relief charity ran a disco where volunteers danced with Ukrainian kids under strobe lights. A clown in a top hat and red nose roamed around doing magic tricks. A canvas sheet was spread along the length of a wall, and children crouched over it painting a mural. Someone played Schubert piano sonatas.

The Tesco is the best large-capacity refugee hub in Poland; its approach is refugee-focused, apolitical and humanitarian. It’s led by locals with support from volunteers and international charities. When I arrived, the first person I met was a Russian-speaking Israeli social worker who was setting up a makeshift beauty salon. She told me that trauma causes the mind to switch off from the body and that getting women to care for themselves can aid recovery. She also said that Ukrainian women cared a good deal about their appearance: grooming ‘makes them feel human again’. A colleague called her away to speak to a 23-year-old woman who had arrived from Bucha after spending more than a month in a basement with her grandmother and child. The family had been at the Tesco for days, and the mother refused to leave because her child was sick.

‘All the children here are sick,’ the social worker told me. ‘They’re all vomiting because of the journey they took, but this mother is fixating on that.’ She left me to look after the beauty parlour. I painted nails, plaited hair and pencilled in eyebrows for the rest of the evening. Most of my clients were little girls. The adult women didn’t want to play salon, but they gradually began to chat while their daughters received manicures. ‘I won’t wear make-up until the war is over,’ one of them told me. ‘But maybe I’ll dye my hair.’ Alissa, aged seven, asked me for a different colour on each nail. Her mother, Nella, said their hometown, Shostka, had been partially destroyed by Russian artillery. The soldiers hadn’t occupied the city for an extended period, but they had blockaded it and sometimes marched through the streets. Nella left when a humanitarian corridor finally opened.

Vika, a young manicurist from Kharkiv, sat down with us. Two days earlier, after a Russian missile struck the railway station at Kramatorsk killing more than fifty people, she had packed her gel nail lamp and a hundred bottles of polish and forced her mother to leave Kharkiv with her. She said she was proud of Ukraine’s resilience, but that it deserved more military help. ‘If not, this war will come to other countries soon,’ she said. Zarina, a 14-year-old from Cherkasy, of Roma background, came over in her wheelchair to ask for smoky eyes. There were a number of Roma families among the refugees at Tesco, but they seemed reluctant to approach volunteers. Suspicion towards the Roma dogs them at every step. I asked a psychologist at the centre whether she’d worked with Roma families. She replied that they were exploiting the war to make money and didn’t need as much help as other Ukrainians, because ‘they’re more used to these kinds of situations.’

The café at the centre was serving chicken soup and apple cake, delivered by chefs from nearby towns. I sat with Daniela, a woman from Balakliia, near Kharkiv, who had just arrived with her teenage daughter. She couldn’t stop crying. ‘What about our soldiers, what are they eating? Do they even have food?’ She showed me pictures on her phone of a Russian flag hoisted over Balakliia town hall. ‘I don’t know if it’s true or not,’ she kept repeating. Her daughter, Ana, snapped at her to stop talking so much. Something terrible happened to them in Balakliia, Daniela said, and ‘kind people warned us to leave.’

They had been travelling through Kyiv on 9 April, the day Boris Johnson took a surprise tour of the city with President Zelensky. ‘Now that is a leader,’ she said, reaching to squeeze my hands. ‘Please thank the people of the United Kingdom.’ A tall man in a leather jacket walked past, attracting some attention. Ukrainian men of fighting age can only leave the country if they are single parents, have a medical exemption or have three or more children. This man was a single father from Mariupol, where he and his son had survived the bombardment by melting snow to drink. They had tried to find accommodation in western Ukraine, but every city, every town, every hostel and hotel, was full to the brim, and they had a dog, which made things more difficult: six months earlier, after his wife died, he had bought his son an Alsatian puppy. They were heading to Warsaw in the hope of finding a flat. The salon volunteers shared a table with animal welfare. Many of the pets had walked great distances, so we found them carriers. The only dog we failed was an extremely long dachshund.

The unregulated movement of millions of women and children ... has created what the UN calls a ‘protection crisis of vast proportions’

The unregulated movement of millions of women and children, many too disturbed or exhausted to think clearly, has created what the UN calls a ‘protection crisis of vast proportions’. A volunteer told me that the women she met at the border often had little sense of what to expect, were not always lucid and feared they would have to pay for anything they were offered. Although thousands of people from across the world have rushed to volunteer alongside the Poles, and UN agencies have been working with the Polish government on co-ordinating its response, caring for this number of refugees is beyond their means. The threat of trafficking, kidnapping and sexual violence is extremely high. A volunteer at the Tesco told me that in the early days of the war, before private drivers had to register their cars with the police, one mother and her child accepted a ride, only for the mother to be pushed out halfway through the journey. The child has not been found. Every reception centre has stories like this from the war’s chaotic early phase. Measures such as the wristband system at the Tesco and checkpoints at exits are becoming more widespread, but they are not consistently applied.

Almost​ as soon as Ukrainian women began to arrive at the Polish border, the traffickers descended too. Anti-trafficking groups such as the Netherlands-based La Strada braced themselves. In the volunteer lounge at the Tesco, I spoke to Irena Dawid-Olczyk, the head of La Strada Poland, who told me that traffickers often recruit through Tinder and other apps. Some of the online activity was grooming: promises of friendship, transport, a place to stay. Knights in shining armour. But some of it related to a phenomenon that, she said, people didn’t like to acknowledge: ‘We have observed in Europe during many wars, women deciding [to take up] prostitution voluntarily because they need money for their families.’ ‘If you compare it to being a cashier in a supermarket,’ she added, ‘working three nights in a week and having time and money for your children, maybe you choose this second opportunity.’

I mentioned that I was concerned by the presence of so many international volunteers, most of them with no training. The atmosphere at Medyka reminded me of the early expat scene in Kabul before Afghanistan became dangerous, when gap year bohemians and conflict voyeurs headed there. Iuliia, a human rights worker originally from Donetsk, who was translating for me, logged into her Tinder account while we were at the Tesco to see what was going on nearby. There were dozens of foreign volunteers, active duty US servicemen and medics in uniform as well as fighters with the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. The profile of Matt from Portland announced he was ‘here to find a foreign wife’ to take to the US. One man said he lived in Abu Dhabi but ‘can be in Ukraine if the situation calls for it’. Many profiles used the same line: ‘You will be safe with me.’ A man calling himself Tom posted that he was ‘sleeping in a warehouse full of supplies but would much rather spend the night in your bed’. Sean from Maine said he had travelled to volunteer in Poland but had contracted Covid and was ‘looking for a lady to spend time with who has or has recently had Covid’. You could tell yourself that these men weren’t seeking to exploit Ukrainian women for profit so much as looking for a wartime hook-up scene, but that wouldn’t explain why (or how) so many of them had published their profiles in Ukrainian.

One argument for quick resettlement is that it reduces the amount of time women are left vulnerable to such dangers. The Tesco centre was full of charities promoting their countries as host destinations. France advertised itself with a cartoon of baguettes. The Irish stand was decorated with a large smiley face and run by a woman in a glittery green fedora. The Danish had a children’s book which explained that their country was the home of Lego and ‘flat as a pancake’. The UK stand was unadorned. Nadia, who had fled Ternopil, approached it with her young daughter to ask about the visa process. A volunteer from Bristol asked my translator to tell her that processing could take up to three weeks. ‘So she’s aware of that, in case it changes her mind.’ He said his charity could try to provide accommodation during the wait, but the board behind him showed everywhere was full. Around dusk, a woman in a Christmas jumper began mopping the floor, forcing everyone to move their belongings (and encouraging them to move on).

Women Take the Wheel ... now has eight hundred women drivers moving refugees around the country.

When I arrived back at the Medyka crossing, the Polish side was rowdy. A group of young male volunteers were drinking across the road from the transport bus. They looked rough and intimidating. One man had stripped down to his vest despite the cold and was waving his tattooed arms around. Couldn’t they drink somewhere else? I met Ella Jarmulska, the Polish organiser of Women Take the Wheel, in a nearby car park. She had driven to Medyka in the first days of the war, when the temperature hovered around zero and there was little in the way of transportation. She saw groups of single men waiting around with their cars, and Ukrainian women and children huddled at the reception point refusing to go with them. She drove two women back to Warsaw and wrote in a Facebook post that ‘this is a war where men should make the soup and women should take the wheel.’ It was shared thousands of times, and her network now has eight hundred women drivers moving refugees around the country.

They also take on other tasks. I went with Ella to deliver three cats that had just arrived from Lviv to their owner in Korczowa, a border village 26 kilometres north of Medyka. The cats – Tisha, Mitrushka and Patya – protested angrily from the boot. Their owner rang midway to check they had been given a pee break and was distressed to learn it hadn’t been possible. ‘I should never have entrusted them to you,’ she snapped at Ella. I asked Ella who was most in need of her network. Women with newborn babies, she said, and severely traumatised women, who may have suffered sexual violence. Then there were women from rural villages who had never left Ukraine before and were scared to be driven by men, even those screened and vetted by the police.

In Hrubieszów, a small town further north along the border, I met Marta Majewska, the local mayor and a lawyer by training. She had reacted quickly when war broke out, designating a sports centre in the woods a refugee hub. Surrounded by fir trees, it had the advantage of being both serene and easy to secure. Eight police officers guarded the site at all times. She had also dispatched uniformed and plainclothes police to the local border crossing and installed CCTV cameras there and at the centre. When I visited there was a psychologist on duty – a Ukrainian woman called Vika – and small private rooms available for ‘people with epilepsy or madness or acute depression’. Refugees slept on cots in the sports hall, and at night, when the lights were dimmed, a television played relaxation music over pictures of edelweiss. Basia, a local businesswoman who was volunteering at the centre, said Hrubieszów was attracting the most vulnerable refugees. Increasingly, however, these women were choosing to go home. She had been told by her accountant that the owner of a local brothel had been offered six Ukrainian women ‘at a discount’. The mayor said there would be agricultural work soon, picking beetroot and blueberries.

Vika had arrived at the centre at the beginning of the war and decided to stay. She slept on one side of the sports hall with her young daughter and newborn baby, in a tent fashioned from a velvet blanket. She had previously worked with soldiers returning from the Donbas and felt she could be useful. Many of the women at Hrubieszów couldn’t move on until they had received medical treatment. The mind and body needed to be treated together. She described a woman who had arrived the day before with a leg wound. She didn’t seem to notice her injury, but insisted on showing Vika pictures of her chihuahua, which had been tortured. A Russian soldier had swung the dog round in the air by its hind leg until it broke. Another woman lay still all day, staring out of the window. She had hidden in a basement when the first Russian tank rolled into town; when she emerged her husband had been shot and the naked corpse of her neighbour, who was eight months pregnant, was lying in her garden.

The​ extent of rape by Russian soldiers in Ukraine is difficult to estimate. Ukrainians think it’s rampant. Politicians tweet details of attacks that would fit the legal scholar Sherrie Russell-Brown’s definition of rape as genocide:

It is also rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill and to make the victims wish they were dead. It is rape as an instrument of forced exile, rape to make you leave your home and never want to go back. It is rape to be seen and heard and watched and told to others; rape as spectacle. It is rape to drive a wedge through a community, to shatter a society, to destroy a people.

Genocide has a complex legal definition and I don’t want to pre-empt the findings of those investigating what’s happening in Ukraine. It’s possible to say only that the types of rape that Ukrainian officials (such as the human rights ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova) are reporting sometimes fit Russell-Brown’s description. After Russian troops withdrew from Bucha, ending their three-week occupation of the suburb, the accounts that emerged suggested brutal and widespread sexual violence. Denisova said her office had evidence of numerous crimes, including the rape of a group of women and girls who were held in a basement for more than three weeks. Some of the girls were as young as fourteen and several of the group are now said to be pregnant.

The success of the Ukrainian resistance effort has been demoralising for Russian troops, particularly for young conscripts with little or no military training who didn’t want to fight in the first place. Intercepted messages show that many of them are refusing orders or abandoning their positions. Russia says it is no longer using conscripts in active battlefronts, but a European defence official told me they are still being deployed in Ukraine. The culture of abuse within the army’s own ranks – a legacy of its impunity despite atrocities committed in the Chechen war – and years of low-level propaganda about Ukrainians being Nazis and traitors make what happened in Bucha not very surprising. Privately, some diplomats point out that Ukrainian propaganda can be misleading, exaggerating the extent of particular abuses. No one talks much about Ukrainian propaganda, one official told me, because it’s for a good cause, leveraged by the weaker power in a brutal and asymmetrical war. I asked a long-time Ukrainian human rights activist what she made of the accounts of rape. She said it was difficult to assess because both victims and evidence collectors were displaced. But she saw no reason to doubt Denisova’s reports.

My arrival in Poland coincided with the trial of an activist accused of helping a woman get an abortion. Both the activist and the woman, whose partner had been violent and controlling, were Polish. But the prosecution, the first of its kind, was a troubling sign at a time when many women were turning to the country for protection. Ukrainian women ‘did not expect such a draconian law’, Krystyna Kacpura, of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, told me. I learned from Iuliia that accessing even regular contraceptive pills is difficult. ‘If you can get an appointment with a gynaecologist within a week, it’s better not to go,’ she told me. The good ones, the ones willing to prescribe contraception, have a waiting list of three or four months. ‘Here they prevent people from not having kids,’ a displaced interior designer from Kyiv told me.

This militant stance over reproductive choice is at odds with the recent depiction of Poland as a haven for Ukrainians.

This militant stance over reproductive choice is at odds with the recent depiction of Poland as a haven for Ukrainians. Polish anti-choice activists have confronted refugees. The Fundacja Pro paraded one of its vans, bearing the image of an aborted foetus and the slogan ‘Abortion Pill Kills’, past the refugee hub at the main station in Warsaw. The country’s most prominent anti-choice activist, Kaja Godek, claimed that feminist groups were proposing to help women fleeing the war kill their children. Others have distributed leaflets with similar images and a quote from Mother Teresa: ‘The biggest threat to peace is abortion.’ I heard from four people involved in front-line psychosocial services that Ukrainian women who had been raped by Russian soldiers were choosing to stay in Kyiv, where teams are gathering evidence of war crimes and where services for post-rape trauma and reproductive health are better established and less punitive.

Ukrainian women in Poland who are still in the early stages of pregnancy can get treatment most quickly through underground channels. First, they are told to contact a particular Polish women’s group, which sends them a legal briefing. They are then introduced to a sister organisation in Europe that offers advice and questionnaires in Ukrainian. This organisation then supplies the women with abortion pills within two to three days. ‘Don’t ask me how it happens,’ Krystyna said. Women in refugee centres, who have no postal address, must get help from local volunteers. Those in need of surgical abortion must navigate a different system. Polish law permits abortion in cases of rape, but requires an investigation and the approval of a prosecutor, which can take weeks (two Polish MPs have recently introduced legislation requiring the prosecutor to process cases within seven days). The law also allows for abortion when the pregnancy would threaten the woman’s life. Some feminist groups work with psychiatrists to assess women facing difficult pregnancies, in line with the WHO’s definition of health as a holistic condition that encompasses psychological wellbeing. Most Polish hospitals don’t accept such problems as life-threatening, but some do, and it’s to those that women are directed. Since the war began, Krystyna’s group has heard from more than two hundred women seeking surgical abortions. ‘I am expecting a wave of pregnancies,’ Kyrstyna said. ‘They are not aware [that they are pregnant] right now, but we know many women have been raped. They are just waiting for the facts.’

Many​ of the women I spoke to at Hrubieszów worried about where they should go next. Most Ukrainian refugees don’t want to be in rural Polish areas. A Ukrainian woman called Tatiana, a bank manager who had moved into the centre with her daughter, filled out registration forms for new arrivals. The morning I met her, she had reviewed the paperwork of a mother and daughter bound for Ireland. She told me that refugees often asked her where they should go. ‘I tell them I am not God; I cannot see into the future for you,’ she said. ‘They should write down on a piece of paper what they see in their new lives and think towards it.’ But she discouraged people from going to Germany. ‘Do you really want to go there, after all they’ve done to us? To be what, a fourth or tenth class citizen? People don’t want to go there after I say these things.’ She said she also cautioned young women who were travelling alone, putting information leaflets in their folders and taking their mobile numbers so she could check up on them later. As I sat with Tatiana, a young woman called Ola approached me. She had spent two weeks in Hrubieszów with her family, waiting for UK visas. Her mother was agitated by reports that host families in Britain were not being screened properly. ‘She picks fights with everyone here,’ Tatiana whispered to me. I agreed to help them make sure their sponsor family, whom they had met on Facebook, looked safe.

The huge reservoir of personal information about these displaced women available online has attracted the attention of large criminal gangs. Today it’s rare for traffickers to control women using physical violence; that’s the stuff of TV dramas. Recruitment starts on open groups on Viber or Telegram, organising travel to France, for instance, or offering jobs or accommodation in luxury villas. Gangs pick places like Lourdes, which they know the women will be familiar with. Once a group has enough followers, it goes private, and the recruitment drive intensifies. Anti-trafficking activists pose as participants in these groups to monitor them and so that they can warn users when the content starts to move towards sex work. Often the activists are then kicked off by admins, who accuse them of being pimps. Irena from La Strada told me that many Polish hosts are getting in touch, worried that their Ukrainian guests are making dubious contacts on the internet. They’ve had reports of men in Mexico inviting young Ukrainian women to stay, claiming that they’ll find it easier to get to the US by crossing a land border and applying for asylum. A man in Sweden invited three teenage girls to stay.

Traffickers on Tinder and other dating platforms use ‘fishing’ (an attractive offer of care or romance) and ‘hunting’ – identifying the most vulnerable women. This isn’t difficult. The Help for Ukrainian Refugees group on Facebook, for example, which links refugees with British sponsor families, features many profiles of beautiful young women who, as they try to appeal to potential sponsors, reveal information useful to traffickers: one woman wants to start a band or is learning French, another writes that her parents have stayed in eastern Ukraine and she is alone. The men often start an interaction by expressing paternal concern, Irena told me. ‘They say: “I have a daughter the same age who’s also interested in that!”

Teenagers, separated from their families and socially isolated, are a perfect target [for traffickers on dating platforms].

Teenagers, separated from their families and socially isolated, are a perfect target. A 14-year-old Ukrainian girl in Warsaw disappeared with a 36-year-old Syrian man. Of the 134,000 Ukrainian refugees officially recorded as entering Spain (a gateway country) since the conflict began, more than a third are under eighteen. The Spanish Red Cross detected possible trafficking cases among them and passed them to the police to investigate. Irena told me that in one case someone in Spain had been trying to sell two Ukrainian teenagers, aged fourteen and sixteen.

The scale of the difficulties faced by refugees in Poland has distorted accepted ideas about what constitutes exploitation. One Ukrainian family took shelter with a man who owned a large orchard; he confiscated their papers and set them to work picking fruit. The mother spoke no Polish, and when her youngest child fell ill, didn’t know how to get a doctor. She called a hotline for help and was linked up to La Strada. Irena sent the police to the house, only to have them tell her that everything was fine and the house was large and well-appointed. She had to explain to them that it was possible to be held captive in elegant conditions, and sent them back to extract the family. Irena predicted a great wave of forced labour in Poland. ‘The war will be a good alibi.’

The​ bus I took to Lublin was full. As the only reasonably sized city close to the border, a hundred kilometres away, it is especially attractive to Ukrainians biding their time until their return. Ukrainian and Russian are spoken everywhere. A local human rights group, Homo Faber, has set up a call centre to deal with refugees’ problems. By the end of March, volunteers had received more than twelve thousand calls from women needing help. Many of them had experienced sexual violence and were looking for private places to stay. There were so many of these calls that the group decided it needed to train all its call centre staff in rape crisis response and set up secret shelters for women survivors. All the Polish authorities need to be trained in this way, so that they can identify traumatised women and recognise traffickers and their potential victims. During her first night shift at the train station in Lublin, a Homo Faber staffer saw a woman in her fifties sidling up to young Ukrainian women and offering them rides to France and stays in fantasy villas with swimming pools. ‘The police just didn’t know how to behave,’ she said.

Civil society groups, municipal government and individual Poles led the early response to the crisis. Now, two months into the war, the ruling Law and Justice party has belatedly moved into action, attempting to take over the management of refugee centres and transit hubs from city authorities, most of which are controlled by the opposition. ‘The political side of this response is now coming into play,’ a UN official told me. In practice this means imposing limits on the involvement of women’s rights groups and local communities. Centres will become less safe and less hospitable, meaning that refugees will be more likely to risk returning home or else feel forced to keep moving.

I went back to Warsaw from Lublin on a train carrying large groups of refugees. A Roma woman told me she was in Poland to buy baby formula; she planned to go back to Ukraine after she had found it. A group of American soldiers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where US special forces are based, were heading for a weekend break in Warsaw. They complained to the conductor that their seats were occupied, even though the carriage was full of refugees and their children. I met three twenty-somethings from Lutsk, squeezed into two seats. They were travelling together to Hamburg, where they hoped to find jobs as hotel maids. They talked politics for the whole journey: the absurdity of Putin’s plan to reinstall the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and the good looks and bravery of the Ukrainian army, who, they were sure, would prevail over the Russians. One joked that the Russian army had ‘searched for the ugliest men of all of Russia and sent them to Ukraine’. Another said she thought it was better that the war was happening now rather than five years ago. Ukraine had had the chance to prepare itself, to develop a strong fighting force and a sense of national purpose.

At Warsaw Central, volunteers directed new arrivals to the city’s two big refugee centres, Expo Centre and Nadarzyn. A black and white flier about a missing woman called Julia was taped to the information counter. One volunteer said she didn’t want to send anyone to Nadarzyn. Conditions there were terrible and she’d heard of at least one rape, but there weren’t many options because the mayor had closed off private accommodation in the city. ‘Is that because Warsaw is full?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s because he’s an asshole.’ I took the bus to Nadarzyn with a large Roma family. They spoke perfect Ukrainian, but no one would sit next to them, preferring to crowd at the back of the bus. I’d heard bad things about Nadarzyn back in Hrubieszów. You can survive a day or a week there, but not more, one volunteer said. A woman on the bus was clutching a plastic bottle of soup to give to her young child. She said there was no fresh food or hot meals at the centre, just canned food that was making everyone sick. When I asked about the living conditions, she began to cry. ‘They treat us like animals.’ She said the centre was never cleaned and no one seemed to be in charge. The previous day, a couple had started having sex in a communal room in front of gaping children. She was due to spend four more days there before going on to Vienna. She said she wished she had stayed at the Tesco centre in Przemyśl. I complimented her on her nails, and she smiled. ‘I brought my gel lamp with me, want me to do yours?’

Insecure, deliberately unbearable, filthy places where thousands of women are kept in close quarters breed trafficking and exploitation and bad decisions.

Nadarzyn is about twenty minutes north of Warsaw. About seven thousand refugees are currently housed there in three massive convention halls once used for trade expos, surrounded by fields of scrub and a stream that smells of sewage. There didn’t seem to be any security. I walked into two halls full of unsupervised children without once being asked who I was or what I was doing there. Inside, there were no trafficking leaflets, no play areas, just a poster for a film about the lives of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Insecure, deliberately unbearable, filthy places where thousands of women are kept in close quarters breed trafficking and exploitation and bad decisions, because desperation means they are prepared to do things they would never normally contemplate. ‘You can imagine sitting there,’ Irena said. ‘Someone is telling you you’re beautiful, you’re not in a good place, you shouldn’t have to be there, I’ll take care of you.’

I spent Palm Sunday with Olga and Katrina, refugees staying with their four children in a log cabin in the northern outskirts of Warsaw. It was Olga’s birthday. She had been displaced once already, from Donbas, and believed that only divine providence could have protected her flat there from the intense shelling. On the preschool WhatsApp group, her daughter’s teacher, still in Ukraine, sent parents updates when their children’s classmates were killed. Katrina had recently learned that her husband had been badly injured in fighting near Dnipro and his leg had been amputated. Both she and her husband were being counselled on WhatsApp by a psychologist, who kept sending them photographs of oiled and muscular bodybuilders with prosthetic legs and the caption: ‘It will be fine!’ She showed me one of the images, adding quickly, ‘This is not my husband!’ Olga apologised for the modesty of the lunch she’d prepared and raised a toast: ‘May we celebrate my next birthday in Kharkiv, with wine and Brie and grapes.’

As the war enters its next phase, the Russian military will press to make gains around Kharkiv and to take areas held by Ukrainian forces in northern Donbas. Many of these regions have significant urban populations, and, depending on the way Russian forces conduct their assault, much of the fighting could take place in busy towns and cities. After what we’ve seen in Bucha, this is a terrible prospect. If the Russian military is as depleted as some believe, an operational focus on Donbas might preserve the safety of parts of western Ukraine. Many of the refugees who have returned home in recent weeks have done so in the belief, according to the UN, that their homes and communities are reasonably secure.

I asked Maryna, the interior designer from Kyiv, what it would take for her to go back. She said she worried that there wouldn’t be any work for her: decorating would be the last priority for devastated people surviving in a war economy. ‘I have this feeling of guilt for leaving my country, this feeling of treason,’ she said. ‘It grinds me down.’ She said she felt embarrassed by the kindness of Polish people, from the old woman who offered her a banana at the supermarket to the architecture firm that allows Ukrainians to hot desk from their offices at night. ‘I hope they understand that if they don’t help they will have a border not with Ukraine but with Russia. Maybe it’s not such a big price, when you look at it from this perspective.’

Listen to Azadeh Moaveni discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.

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