Wednesday, November 29

The hope and the horror: my week as an interpreter on Ukraine’s border | refugees

ORn the morning of Sunday 6 March, the writer Gavin Knight, who lives a few miles from us in Cornwall, texted to say he’d got a message from a friend on the Polish-Ukrainian border. Ten thousand refugees were coming over, his friend of him Wes said, and Russian speakers were urgently needed to interpret between the Ukrainians, who mainly speak Ukrainian and Russian, and the Poles, who speak Polish and English. I’m going, he said. Do you want to come and share the driving?

The next morning we set off in a borrowed van, crammed with everything we’d been told to bring – sleeping bags, blankets, dog food, toys.

In the 1990s, during the three years I lived in Moscow, my Russian was pretty fluent, but living on a muddy creek in Cornwall I haven’t been getting much practice. As we drove across Europe, Gavin and I frantically tried to brush up our Russian, looking up vocabulary we thought might come in handy (shelling – obstrel; destruction – razrusheniye; I am desperately sorry mne priskorbno).

Charlotte Hobson, left, with Caritas workers at the border. Photograph: Handout

day 1
We arrive in Hrebenne on Tuesday to find Wes and Valera, Gavin’s friends, surrounded by a crowd. A constant stream of people – on foot, in cars, on buses, appear from over the border. Some are calm and businesslike; they refuse all help. Others are clearly distracted, in tears and shaky.

Our first task is to persuade them to sit down and have some soup or tea. The children’s faces light up to be allowed to choose a biscuit, sweets, bubble mixture. There are nappies, warm clothes and blankets; but many people are in shock or simply too proud to accept anything.

Then we ask them if they have any idea where they want to go next. This is the main part of our job – part social worker, part minicab dispatcher. Volunteer drivers offer lifts to refugee centers or train stations or further afield – to Warsaw, Berlin or even Finland.

We finally make it to our hotel at 7.30pm. We try to sleep for two hours, then set off back to the border. I am handed the clipboard, which means I am in charge of logging drivers’ and passengers’ details. There are always fewer drivers at night but even though it’s quiet we have some wonderful successes. Four Zambian girls who have come from Sumy are taken to Warsaw almost immediately. A group of seven women and children are picked up by an off-duty fire engine; as they leave they hug us and weep. An Azerbaijani couple who refuse to go to the refugee centre, and sit looking despairing, are finally taken to Warsaw. And on it goes, through the night.

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A man surrounded by bags of bedding and crates of water bottles
Gavin Knight unloading supplies we were asked to bring, such as sleeping bags, blankets and nappies. Photograph: Handout

Some of those we meet have experienced great distress; the worst stories come from Sumy and Mariupol, where people speak of being terrorized by Russian soldiers who steal food and throw them out of their houses at the point of a Kalashnikov. Yet there is also warmth, love, compassion and humour. All the volunteers here – Polish priests and nuns, students, workers, people from all over Europe – are unfailingly kind, gentle and calm. There is a sense that a whole continent is coming together at this chaotic border post to offer whatever they can.

Day 2
“I sing of arms and the man, exiled by fate… hurled about endlessly by land and sea…”: Virgil wrote 2,000 years ago. Yet here we are at Hrebenne in 2022, in the midst of yet another exodus, more people exiled by war, hurled about endlessly. All the refugees express blind shock: “out of nowhere”, they say, “they began bombing and killing us! I have a house, I run a business, my daughter is in medical school…”

Arriving for our night shift we find Wes, Natia, Valera and Denny reeling after the latest arrival – a woman with her tiny premature baby. The baby was in an incubator when the bombs started falling and his mother de ella had to snatch him up and run. The temperature here has fallen and she was half-frozen and she has only just had a caesarean. Wes tells us they got them to hospital and the prognosis is good. But the horror of it!

Day 3
A young woman called Tanya arrives, distracted; she is here to meet her 14-year-old son who is traveling alone to the border, but the information is confusing. First, she hears he is four hours away, then two, then four again, and she can’t bear the stress. We decide she needs to be busy and take her with us, giving her jobs to her.

A giant of a man from London, stars tattooed on his face, arrives with a huge van of supplies. The problem of stuff is significant here – generous people give blankets, food, medicines, all vitally needed somewhere, but in the wrong place they are an encumbrance. After talking to one of the guards, we unload everything into an empty tent, hoping that somehow we can send it into Ukraine. A few hours later one of the nuns, Alina, runs up smiling: “This superman is going to take some of the supplies!” She leads us to a bearded man in a beaten-up minivan, which we race to load up; he whizzes off towards the border. “Here, every day is full of miracles.”

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A smiling man in a cap with a field kitchen
A farmer arriving with a field kitchen containing huge pots of soup towed by his tractor. Photograph: Handout

Day 4
Every day is so different. In the afternoon a group of about 300 mothers and children arrive, the families of Ukrainian military personnel. They fill the tents and spill out on to the road, waiting for the coaches that are to take them to the Netherlands – an initiative by the Dutch police and Ola, who is the smiley, powerful head of the Committee for Ukrainian Armed Forces’ Families . “The best way we can support our forces is to make sure their families are safe,” she says.

The coaches are six hours late and the waiting women grow increasingly frazzled, the children fractious, the babies despairing. A mother holds her severely autistic teenage daughter, trying to soothe her, but it is all too much and she wails inconsolably.

All the time, in the back of my mind, lurks the thought of all these women’s husbands, the fathers of all these children. Today, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, announced that Kyiv will hold out until it is “razed to the ground”. How many will survive to collect their families from the Netherlands?

Day 5
Before I left Cornwall, I had 20 laminated cards printed. They read “I speak Russian” in Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and English. The interpreting team wear them around our necks on yellow ribbons. Sometimes, people see them and approach us. Others look at them in horror. In two weeks, Russian has irrevocably become the language of the oppressor.

Day 6
At about four in the morning on Sunday, the Russians bombed Yavoriv, ​​a military airfield about 30 miles from the border at Hrebenne. Karolina was in the cafe at Hrebenne and saw the rockets. “Like fireworks, fire falling, falling.” The sky lit up and there was a dull booming. Thirty-five people died, more than 100 were wounded.

A smiling woman stands in front of a table laden with toys and food
Karolina Szajewska, a local who works in a nearby cafe, helps out during a night shift at the border. Photograph: Handout

Today was a long day, even though part of me feels I have found my calling in life. At Hrebenne, I am “the transport girl”. My badge of office is my clipboard, with its scrappy pieces of paper with two columns: drivers and passengers.

Today, I had drivers willing to take people to Gdańsk, Warsaw, Kraków and Berlin, and miraculously, each time, the right passengers appeared. I love how the volunteers here treat every arrival with so much respect. They are doing an amazing job, as are all the cooks, the medics, the Polish Humanitarian Action workers. Slava Ukraine! Heroyam Slava! (Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!)

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Day 7
We are very aware of security issues here. Every driver has to go to the police on arrival to register and show their passport, and for police to check they have no criminal record in Poland. Otherwise we have to use our judgment.

Gavin, Chloe and Ali sit with the most vulnerable cases and try to work out a plan. Sometimes, thanks to our GoFundMe money, we take direct action – today, for example, an elderly woman, traveling on her own with her little dog tucked under her arm, insisted she needed to go straight to Przemyśl where her friends were meeting her at 9pm. So we simply ordered her a taxi: £50 well spent.

Sometimes it feels as if I’ve bumped into old friends. A warm, chatty woman called Tanya is traveling with her two daughters of her, one of whom is pregnant. They live outside Kharkiv and at first, Tanya tells me, she was reluctant to leave. “But then my daughters said to me, ‘Mama, we have to get our priorities straight.’”

They had already been under bombardment for two weeks, sleeping in turns, running up and down stairs to the cellar when the alarm came through on their phones. She shows me a picture of all of them in the cellar making silly faces for the camera. “The noise,” she says. “It just goes on and on, you can’t think straight, the terror…”

The writer with a man gesturing towards huge pots of food
Charlotte Hobson with a local chef, Damian Poterucha, who is cooking 700 meals a night for refugees. Photograph: Handout

Tanya and her girls have a fairly well thought-out plan. They are going to friends in the Czech Republic, where she worked for three years. Her elder daughter de ella, Vika, will be able to have her baby in peace and her younger daughter de ella will carry on with her schooling.

The husbands of Tanya and Vika are still at home in Ukraine. “He says he will look after the house for us,” says Tanya. “Stop people from looting and destroying it.” She looks at me with a tiny lift of her eyebrow. Neither of us say what is on our minds, which is – he’ll just stop the soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs at the door, will he?

Their lift finally arrives at 2am, just as Gavin and I are finishing our shift. They scurry to load up their luggage and leave. Tanya and her daughters de ella have crossed the border into their new lives. Now begins the long, painful task of living them.

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This article was amended on 18 March 2022 to refer to those who work with the spoken word as interpreters, not translators.

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