ON THE UKRAINIAN-MOLDOVAN BORDER — The war in Ukraine has set off the fastest mass migration in Europe in at least three decades, prompting comparisons with the Balkan wars of the 1990s and providing echoes of the vast population displacement that followed World War II.
At least 660,000 people, most of them women and children, fled Ukraine for neighboring countries to the west in the first five days of Russia’s invasion, according to the United Nations refugee agency, which collated statistics recorded by national immigration authorities. And that figure does not include those displaced within Ukraine, or who fled or were ordered to evacuate to Russia.
In less than a week, the flight of Ukrainians is at least 10 times as high as the one-week record of people entering Europe during the 2015 migration crisis, and nearly double the number of refugees recorded by the United Nations during the first 11 days of the Kosovo war in 1999.
The historic westward movement of people has caused lines of up to 24 hours at border checkpoints along Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, and prompted a vast humanitarian response by both governments and civilians. Refugees have been sheltered in repurposed schools as well as private apartments, makeshift camps, conference centers, upscale wineries and even the home of a Moldovan lawmaker.
“We don’t know where we’re going,” said Anna Rogachova, 34, a homemaker from Odessa, a city on the Black Sea, minutes after crossing into Moldova with her 8-year-old daughter on Tuesday morning. “And we don’t know when we’re coming back.”
“Let the world know,” Ms. Rogachova said, pointing at a multicolored suitcase in the back of her car. “We left everything. We put all our lives in this single bag.”
Then, as the snow began to fall, she started to cry.
Some refugees believe the war will end soon, allowing them to return quickly. Ms. Rogachova wasn’t so sure.
If the displacement stretches out for years, it would present long-term challenges for Ukraine, which would face a brain drain of rare proportions, and for host countries where resources are limited and anti-immigrant sentiment has run strong. But it could mean opportunities; Eastern European countries like Moldova, which have experienced depopulation for decades, could suddenly find themselves boosted by a large, educated immigrant population.
Migration statistics can be imprecise, particularly in the opening stages of a chaotic new crisis, Peter Gatrell, a historian of European migration at the University of Manchester in Britain, said in a phone interview.
But to leading migration historians like Professor Gatrell, the scenes nevertheless already summon echoes of the great migrations in European history, including those in the 1940s, when several million people were displaced throughout Europe at the end of World War II.
United Nations officials have said the war could produce as many as four million refugees. If the fighting becomes protracted and Ukrainians continue to migrate at the current rate, that could be a conservative estimate, said Philipp Ther, professor of Central European history at the University of Vienna, and the author of a history of refugees in Europe since 1492.
“That would be on the scale of the postwar situation,” Professor Ther said in a telephone interview.
Large numbers of civilians on the move could restrict the Ukrainian military’s ability to maneuver, just as huge refugee flows hindered armies at the end of World War II, he said.
Such was the extent of the migration this week that secondary logjams also occurred at subsequent crossings far beyond Ukraine’s borders, including on the Moldovan-Romanian border, 70 miles west of Ukraine, as some Ukrainians attempted to push on to friends and family based in Central Europe and beyond.
In some ways, the crisis was no surprise. In Moldova, the government had planned for months for a sudden influx, the Moldovan interior minister, Ana Revenco, said in a phone interview. But the scale of the crisis was shocking: By Monday night, 70,000 people — more than double the government’s projections — had entered Moldova, a nation of just 2.6 million and one of Europe’s poorest.
The flows include hardly any men aged between 18 and 60, whom the Kyiv government has barred from leaving Ukraine unless they have a medical condition that would restrict their ability to fight.
“In terms of the intensity,” Ms. Revenco said, “it was probably something nobody was prepared for.”
Lost in the grand narratives were the small and sad stories of individual people. Many were in shock — not only at the war itself, but also at the suddenness with which they had been ripped from a life of normalcy.
When war broke out on Thursday, Ms. Rogachova had just returned from a figure-skating competition in Kharkiv, where her daughter, Maria, 8, took first place.
A 17-year-old high school student had just celebrated her birthday in Odessa.
A 34-year-old singer had just come back to Ukraine from Russia, dismissing the talk of war.
On Tuesday morning, all three were in the Moldovan snow, unsure when or if they would return.
The singer, Julia Kondratieva, was even planning to press further west, fearing the war would spill over into Moldova. “It’s not a good idea to stay,” she said. “Maybe there will be fighting here.”
Leaving in such a rush, many had forgotten or abandoned their most prized belongings. Apart from clothes, food and essential documents, Ms. Rogachova had packed just her daughter’s skates.
As is common at the start of mass migrations, the earliest arrivals were often those with the money and the means to move quickly. At the Palanca border crossing in Moldova on Tuesday, the cars leaving Ukraine included four-by-fours and German-made sedans. At a nearby winery-cum-resort, most of the guests were Ukrainians, waiting to see if the war would ebb before deciding whether to push onward.
But there were also many without such options.
Trudging across the snowy border, there were mothers pushing strollers, a schoolgirl clutching her books, a woman carrying a bag of toilet paper and another carrying a small dog.
Some had decided to leave only hours before, after an increase in air raids around a previously calm Odessa.
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Pushing her 1-year-old son in a stroller, Anna Hak, 28, said she’d initially tried to make a game of hiding in the air-raid shelters. “At first we played ‘Let’s hide from the thunder!’” said Ms. Hak, a teacher. “But then you see your hands are shaking and you realize you can’t pretend anymore.”
For some foreign nationals, particularly from the developing world, escaping from Ukraine was particularly traumatic. A group of Vietnamese workers were quickly housed in a makeshift government camp in Moldova on Tuesday. But African refugees have reported widespread discrimination making it especially hard for them to leave; on the Polish border, a Times reporter observed that Africans were being processed far slower than Ukrainians.
Christian, 30, an electrical engineer from Congo, who only gave his first name to avoid problems with the authorities, said he had been waiting 20 hours to pass. After traveling by train from Odessa, he was worried what was to come. After eight years studying and working in Ukraine, he said, he did not know where he could go. “There is war here and there is war in Congo.”
But at least he had documents, he said. “There are many here without papers,” he said. “What will happen to them?”
One Ukrainian woman went into labor while on a bus to the border, forcing her to stay in Ukraine, according to an Israeli charity, United Hatzalah, that assisted her.
Another pregnant woman, Maria Voinscaia, made it to Moldova just in time, and was scheduled to give birth by cesarean section on Wednesday.
Did she wonder when her child might first see Ukraine? “I don’t even want to think about it,” Ms. Voinscaia, 31, said in a phone interview from a hospital. “Last week I couldn’t even imagine it.”
For some, the thought of a permanent rupture from their homeland had deepened their sense of Ukrainian identity.
On the night before they all left for Moldova, Ms. Rogachova hunkered down with her daughter, Maria, and mother, Viktoria — all native Russian speakers.
“Never, ever forget you’re Ukrainian,” Viktoria had told Maria.
“We’ll speak Ukrainian at home,” Maria had promised.
But now it wasn’t clear where home was.
Viktoria was heading to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, to stay with an aunt. Ms. Rogachova and her daughter were heading to Germany to stay with friends of friends.
And standing in the snow, Ms. Rogachova was again in tears.
Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Medyka, Poland, and Irina Perciun from Palanca, Moldova.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism