Over the last two weeks two million people have left their homes in Ukraine and crossed the border into Poland. Each week a million refugees, mainly the elderly and women with children, have poured into my country. The poor of this world are fleeing from soldiers who shoot at women and children, at hospitals, at schools and housing estates and who bomb Russians’ blocks of flats.
.I am writing these words in Warsaw, Poland, some 150 km from the border with Belarus, a country that is currently collaborating with Russia. And yet, there is no panic here, no one is running away. All our strength is directed at helping the Ukrainians. Our paper Wszystko co Najważniejsze is being printed in two language versions: in Polish and in Ukrainian. We are doing everything we can to take good care of the people fleeing Ukraine as it comes under attack.
No, there has never been a need to build refugee camps for Ukrainians in Poland. The Poles have gone of their way to help their neighbours: they post information on how many people they can accommodate, feed and support. Ukrainians are picked up at the borders and transported across the country free of charge by ordinary people. Polish national railways offer free domestic services to all Ukrainian passport holders. The Polish government decided to extend benefits available to Polish nationals to Ukrainian refugees, i.e.: PLN 500+ for each child, plus medical care and social benefits.
We have divided our Polish success into two and we are sharing all we have with the Ukrainian people.
Two million Ukrainian refugees are mainly being accommodated in Polish homes. And still, there is no need to build refugee centres. The Ukrainians have experienced traditional Polish hospitality. They are finding shelter in Poles’ private homes, but also in other facilities, such as student dormitories and hotels, while the Polish state pays for their food and lodging.
Polish schools have increased the limit of pupils per class so that they can accept additional pupils. Just last week 64 new pupils were enrolled in a school near my house in Warsaw. They were taken care of instantly. They don’t speak Polish, but as Poland has already welcomed one million Ukrainians fleeing from the Crimea and the Donbass, so the children of this previous wave are now helping the newcomers. The teachers are faced with the daunting task of helping Ukrainian children cope with this traumatic experience. All inscriptions found in Polish schools are now printed in Polish and Ukrainian. And all schools, just like Polish streets and public spaces, are decorated with Polish and Ukrainian flags.
The Poles know what Ukrainians are escaping from. We share a similar history. We have also been betrayed by bigger countries. Regardless of signed guarantees of support, they failed to help us in September 1939. The Ukrainians must feel something similar now, when the Germans refuse to cut ties with all Russian banks, while oil and gas revenues are being used to purchase arms for Russia. The Ukrainians must sense the same kind of betrayal when they learn that weapons are still being sold to Russia, regardless of the sanctions.
Being forsaken by the world is the hardest pill for the Ukrainians to swallow. The Poles met a similar fate when after fighting side by side with more powerful states in WWII they found themselves betrayed by the latter and their future handed over to Russia at the Yalta Conference. After the war, Poland and Ukraine were forced to pay large contributions to the Soviet Union, while Ukraine itself was forcefully incorporated into the USSR. The sense of treachery leaves a bitter taste, but it teaches us a lesson: the nations of Central and Eastern Europe can only primarily count on themselves and help those in need. Today it is the Ukrainian nation that is in need.
Freedom, democracy, solidarity are not just empty slogans for Poles and Ukrainians, and nor are they for other countries that have freed themselves from the ‘red tyranny’. The recent mission to Kiev undertaken by the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and his Czech and Slovene counterparts Petr Fala and Janez Janša required enormous courage. Indeed, it verged on madness. But it is through such actions that we demonstrate that other nations can rely on our support.
War crimes committed by Putin’s army in Ukraine are already being addressed at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. When Ukraine’s men fight Russia, they don’t have to worry about their families and friends that we are hosting here in Poland. Today, the word solidarity must be taken very seriously. We will not end this war unless all of Europe is willing to joint together. In my country, there is no doubt that if Ukraine is conquered, in two or three waves of attacks, or over two or three years, the Russians will then come for Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and for Poland, too. How the world reacts to Russian’s invasion of Ukraine today will tell us how it will respond to any Russian invasion of Poland. This much we know already.
When I recently took an Air France flight from Warsaw to Paris, the entire plane was filled with the elderly and women with children. I believe they will find a place for themselves in France, too. When I took the plane back from Paris to Warsaw a few days later, I saw mainly young Ukrainian men. They were in their 20s and 30s, sporting khaki backpacks and Ukrainian flags and saying openly that they are going back home to fight, and maybe to die. Sometimes Russians try to argue that Ukraine is a country with no identity or nation. These young boys ready to give their life for Ukraine prove the Russians wrong on that one, too.
.This war can be won by Ukraine and Europe. Let’s make it happen together.
This text was published in the French daily L’Opinion. [LINK]