Bombed and burned out of their cities and villages, thousands of exhausted women, children, elderly men and people with medical issues or disabilities are bleeding across Moldova’s borders daily. From the north to the south, authorities are setting up tents and converting old boarding schools, exhibition centres and kindergartens to house those who are fleeing.
The first step to safety is getting out of Ukraine. Kirill, 28, left Odesa for Palanca, Moldova the morning of March 21. He will go on to Budapest where an acquaintance is waiting for him. Martial law in Ukraine prevents men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, but Kirill has a prosthetic leg.
Kirill set out alone when explosions near the city began to get out of hand, leaving his parents and sister who are “not yet ready to leave” behind. “Every morning you wake up to sirens and [sometimes] bombings, this morning there were around 15 or 16 explosions in Odesa,” he says.
While the bombs are not in the centre of Odesa, Kirill says, he saw news that the Russians were attacking the city’s outskirts the morning he left. According to Ukrainian Pravda, Russian naval artillery damaged several homes in the city.
At the Palanca border crossing, several volunteers and a photojournalist confirmed they had met Ukrainians who are returning. A volunteer from Israel met a family that has been in Moldova for two weeks but has now “had enough”; another returned to Odesa after only two days because they believe it is safe. One woman, also from Odesa, had to get back to work.
Kirill, 28, left Odesa when explosions near the city began to get out of hand. Author: Haley Bader.
Kirill, laughing, tells me he hopes he will soon be able to return. “The world is with Ukraine, and it will win… and so I think everything will be okay. I’m even sure.”
His hope is to return by the end of April before the summer season starts. “Anyway, in Odesa there is the sea, the sun, you need to be there!” When asked how he could smile through everything, Kirill responds that losing his leg got him used to difficult situations. “And I’m from Odesa, we all smile!”
Unlike Kirill, many refugees do not know where to go. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, partnered with REACH, a research organisation that works to inform more effective humanitarian action, to determine the intentions of Ukrainian refugees entering Moldova. According to an internal document from the two organisations, of 270 respondents, 33% say they intend to stay, though the majority were not sure for how long. The other most popular destinations were Germany (14%) and Poland (10%).
Some larger-scale projects can provide longer-term haven. In the village of Congaz, west of the refugee crossing in Palanca and 30 minutes south of Comrat, the capital of the Russian-speaking Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, there is a defunct boarding school for young people with special needs that has been reopened to house refugees. While most of those fleeing Ukraine stay here for one, two or perhaps three nights, some have registered to remain for much longer.
“There are people who don’t know what will come next, they don’t want to go very far, and they have no one to go to. Some of them write applications so they can stay for three months. It’s calm here, and [they] want to wait very close by, 90-100 kilometres from the border with Ukraine. They hope that peace will arrive soon,” Maksim Bolgar, the head of the project in Congaz, explains.
Bolgar has been running the refugee site since opening its doors on February 28. The Gagauz regional authorities asked Bolgar to run the centre because of his background leading summer camps for young people and managing logistics for large-scale events.
While the halls of the converted school are dusky when daytime skies are overcast, and there is the inevitable dust of a long-disused building, those who stop by have all the amenities they need: beds with clean sheets, showers, three free meals per day and WiFi.
“People can take a break, gather their thoughts, get in touch with their relatives, because very many of them are going to Europe through Romania,” says Bolgar. By the time they reach the former school, refugees have been on the road for at least two days.
Maksim Bolgar, head of a project to host refugees in Congaz, Gagauzia, with a family from Mykolaiv.
Anna Celac, a 29-year-old Moldovan who has been running donation efforts in Gagauzia, has traveled to different sites to deliver more expensive goods such as refrigerators, sinks and boilers that the average Moldovan donor could not afford.
There are still few places for those who want to remain in Moldova, Celac says. Moldova’s foreign minister, Nicu Popescu, stated that most refugees are placed in private homes.
According to REACH, 76% of refugees moving through Moldova choose to travel to certain European countries because they already have friends or family living there, but others who have fled Ukraine have no such connections and will depend on rental apartments, hotels, hostels or refugee centres for accommodation. 5% responded they do not know where they will stay.
At first there were only 100 beds at the Congaz site, but within the first week two large waves of evacuees demanded more space. With the help of Turkish partners, who often donate to projects across Gagauzia, the centre managed to increase capacity to 160.
However, most refugee aid has depended on the graciousness of strangers. People from all over the south of Moldova have come to the Congaz centre to help, whether it be with logistics or the donation of foodstuffs, which include preserved meats and other foods, compotes and jams taken from winter stores.
Crying for help
Mayors who have taken on the task of welcoming and housing Ukrainians are “crying”, Celac says, because they are not yet receiving funding. People are asking: how long can we continue with these efforts? Moldova is a poor country, and without proper help “they will not make it another month”.
The Moldovan government is responsible for funding the Congaz centre, but as of now “we have absolutely no money,” Bolgar says. “Everything depends on volunteers because there is no financing mechanism. The chef who is making food is working without weekends since February 28 when everything began.”
UNHCR has reported that as of March 21, almost 368,000 refugees have entered Moldova. As of last week, 110,000 Ukrainians planned to stay.
When people arrive in Congaz, they are usually “very emotionally upset,” Bolgar says. Every family has a story, some more dire than others. A young couple needed to send their one-year-old girl to the hospital for five days because of a tooth infection, and her father volunteered with the Congaz centre while she recovered. Some refugees arrive and must be hospitalised due to COVID-19 (this has happened only twice so far in the Congaz centre); many need help with further transport.
A woman from Mykolaiv, now staying at the refuge in Congaz.
One family of women arrived in Congaz with a three-year-old daughter and a two-week-old boy, Bolgar recalls. “It was only the first few days, and it was cold here, [so] we offered [to take them to] the neighbouring centre [for youth but] we could only send the mother with her young children. But the older mother also came with her mother, 92 years old… who would be here to look after her? And so we convinced [the centre] to take the grandmother, the great-grandmother, the daughter with two young children… because really, how could we separate them?”
Another group arrived from Mykolaiv, a city on a large river north of the Black Sea that is besieged and shelled daily; it is considered the last holdout before Russian foot soldiers can move forward to Odesa. The three young women have been sheltering in the former school for a week with their children because one of their fellow travellers became sick and was taken to the hospital.
Once their friend recovers, the young women and their families will travel by car through Romania then on to Germany to meet relatives. On March 12, German Foreign Minister Annalena Bareback met with Moldova’s Popescu and offered to relocate 2,500 refugees from Moldova to Berlin, but this is only a drop in the bucket of those who will need shelter.
62% of the refugees REACH surveyed across border checkpoints left their homes because of active conflict, 36% because of shelling in or near their homes, and 14% for fear that conflict will break out. The tide of refugees will only increase as the violence in Ukraine spreads, and it is possible that the crisis might last for years.
Even if this war stops today, Celac says, it will not be the end of the refugee crisis. People will continue to flee, and more will decide to return to Ukraine. As a major point of transit that is already accepting the most refugees per capita, Moldova will still need aid.