Romania-Ukraine border on the right side of history
About three weeks after the start of the war in Ukraine, I had a call with FLORIAN SALAJEANU, a friend who coordinates the refugee reception activity in SIGHETUL MARMATIEI on the Romanian-Ukrainian border.
The phone call dealt with details about the influx of refugees flooding the Romanian border, the difficulties of the refugees, the coping of the supporting teams, the spirit of volunteering, and other humanitarian issues that FLORIAN deals with. By the end of the conversation, I decided to experience and take pictures of everything that could be documented there.
I went out there on 17.3.2022 along with COSTAS DUMITRESCU, a friend, a gifted photographer of the National Geographic Romania who lives in Bucharest.
After a long drive of about 9 hours, we reached the border. First of all, we were impressed by the entry flow and reception processes of the refugees. Everything is neat and organized by the book. With the entry of the refugees through the SIGHETUL MARMATIEI border crossing, they are greeted by volunteers with food, hot drinks that calm the unusual cold for this season, children's toys, phone cards, physical help to carry the refugees' belongings, warm clothes and other important items for a man who ran for his life and left everything behind from the horror of fear.
The local volunteers, international volunteer organizations, the police, customs workers, first aid personnel and everyone else there, are working, showing endless patience, warmth, hugging, strengthening, and listening.
I am listening to the horror stories of those who speak, and feel the silence of those who do not speak.
The immediate impression is that most of the refugees who have left the war zones already suffer from initial signs of post-trauma syndromes. There are those who speak nonstop or those who sit in heavy silence. Sometimes a hug or an accurate word of the support teams can unleash a volcano of pain and crying.
I'm among them, shooting pictures and trying to get the exact frame. Every now I stop shooting and I’m just listening to stories.
A woman around the age of 40 talks about the fighting of Chechens in her city who use children as a protective wall against Ukrainian fighters. Around her are several volunteers, priests, monks, police officers with the shock and outrage on their faces, alongside the warmth and empathy directed at the poor woman.
Most of the refugees are women and children, with very few men. Florian tells me about a guy who managed to cross the border with his little brother at 11:40 P.M., 20 minutes before his 18th birthday. For him, it's the 20 minutes that might have saved his life from the war.
After the Romanian crossing point, I notice an impressive bridge, through which the refugees enter after passing the Ukrainian checkpoint. The commander of the Romanian border station is taking us there. Notices that half of the bridge is filled with dolls and toys on its sides. He talks about the initiative of several people to scatter the toys on the bridge, thus a happy and colourful reception for the children of the refugees. Of course, any child could take what they wanted from the scattered toys.
The station commander tells us endless stories about the refugees, the volunteers, the police, and himself. Notes his around-the-clock investment, with high adrenaline, and shares with us his reaction at the beginning of the crisis, his crying and pain he felt towards the refugee children, in parallel with thoughts about his own child. No doubt, a sensitive and proud person of what he does and his mission wherever he is.
Looking around and seeing a lot of kids of all ages. All in a quiet, unnatural manner for children their age. The mothers are focused on the logistics issues, feeding the little ones, conversations with the volunteers and other mothers.
There's not one direction everyone's going on. There are those who continue to Bucharest where they will stay or continue to other countries with the immediate intention of obtaining refugee status so that they can first work. Others travel towards the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and more.
Some prefer to stay close to the border and wait for the winds of war to stop. From here they will be able to return faster to their home country. To complete the picture, we decide to visit Romanian families and other organizations that host refugees near the border.
First, we arrive at the home of a man and his mother who host two girls aged 12 and 13. They're alone in Romania. The mother of the girls works in Italy, the grandmother who brought them to Romania, went back to Ukraine to finish her arrangements there. She will return to them of course. The girls rarely speak. One draws without a break, the other dreams of returning to skiing. I ask the hosts how much longer they can host them? The answer is short and simple: as much as the guests want.
Moving on to the next house. The hostess is a nurse at the hospital. They have three women and two young children in their home. My first question is why is she (the hostess) doing this? Her answer is also very simple: someone must do it. I’m asking her: is it difficult? Not simple, suddenly she takes care of another 5 people, and not only for their usual logistical needs but also for their so vulnerable souls.
Suddenly I feel like in front of me is sitting a great woman, like the women we read about and talk about them in the news, in history, in books or in movies.
The next visit is at a spiritual centre of the Greek-Roman Christian Church, a part of Catholic Christianity, the centre is operated by nuns who every day deal with spirituality, taking care of the soul of the believers, helping people and the needy and the centre's housework.
In the centre are hosted by several dozen women and children. The accommodation conditions are of a high standard, like a nice hotel. Everyone is running around, the energies in the air are positive, feeling that the refugees have found a corner of Eden Garden. I knock on a door and walk into the room. Ask permission to take pictures, the woman agrees but asks that her face not be seen because … she hasn't had time to wear makeup yet – suddenly there's a moment and a place of returning to the daily sanity of life.
In front of the room there's another room where an old lady refugee can't open the door from the inside, two nuns solve the problem. The nuns stay a few more minutes for conversation and communication with the lady refugee. The communication is difficult, the nuns don't speak Ukrainian and the refugee doesn't understand any other language, the warmth and empathy are felt in the air, and that's enough for everyone...
I'm starting a conversation with the nuns. There are no dilemmas or questions here. Everything is simple, you must help and give from yourself. This is their Christian life from abstinence to the end of life.
The next morning, we decide to go to the train station, which at the height of the influx of refugees has become a major transit point towards the south and western Romania. This time the station is quiet with a small number of refugees continuing to the unknown. The train station is small, simple, probably from before WWII.
Before we leave for Bucharest, we decide to pass through the MONASTERY of PETROVA, located about 30 km from the border crossing. The monastery is located on the mountainside, with beautifully magnificent valleys. We are greeted by the abbot
AGATON OPRISAN. We hear the story of the monastery, about the dozens of refugees who are hosted for different periods. The refugees are in constantly dilemmas when to leave and where to go. Father AGATON is constantly engaged in making everything easier for them, that the food will be delicious for them, that the children will continue to receive an education and that they will not stop studying, organizing plays for them in the nearest city and of course taking care of each one's medicine. All the time the children run to the father AGATON, hug him. The father does not remain indifferent, pays attention to each child as if he has all the time in the world.
Father AGATON takes us to the room of ANASTASIA who left Ukraine along with her son and mother. Before the war, ANASTASIA dealt with journalism and public relations. Proudly tells us that during the election period, her company provided public relations services to President Zelensky. Talks about the president in terms of admiration laced with pride and love. ANASTASIA, an eloquent English speaker, tells of her husband who remains on the front lines of the fighting, tells of how he is the only one who volunteered to enter with his bus to Mariupol to get children out of hell. She did not know that he (her husband) is so brave, smiling and saying shyly that he had fallen in love with him all over again... We are sitting in her room with her mother, son, and the abbot. She continues to tell us about her family, the war, and her deliberations for the future. Talks about everything in full self-control, points out every detail and in a sequence of neat documentation, exactly like a professional reporter she is. Then comes the breaking moment - I ask her what she left behind? Suddenly her eyes fill with tears when she shows me the pictures of the beloved dog that remains with the neighbors there in Kiev. Begins to cry as she repeats the phrase: “In my dog’s last pictures, after we left Kiev, his eyes are saddest”.
Later, we meet Tania, the mother of two children who are with her. Her husband stays to serve on the front lines, and it really bothers her that she's not there with him to fight back. She comes to terms with reality, as she cares for her two children who are Ukrainian and who will grow up to be proud patriots in their own country.
Before leaving the Monastery of Petrova I ask the abbot how much longer can he host refugees and how many more can come? His answer was also quite simple: as much as necessary and as much as God would like and send.
After 48 hours of visiting the Sighetul Marmatiei border, we decide to return to Bucharest.
It's hard to sum up a visit so short that it's a drop in such a great sea of this irrational war, in 2022 in the heart of Europe. Since time was short and the coverage was scant, I would not summarize anything related to the refugees, they had just begun their difficult journey. I will only refer to the Romanian people. As one who was born and lived there for a while, I was most moved by the spirit of giving and volunteerism that is displayed in every corner of Romania, nonstop around the clock.
A huge thank you to FLORIAN SALAJENU for getting us into the wonderful world of giving and caring for others and for introducing us to the wonderful human beings of kindness and voluntary endeavour at Sighetul Marmatiei of the Romanian-Ukrainian border.
Great appreciation to abbot AGATON OPRISEANU for his divine work for humankind and a lot of thanks for his precious time spent visiting us.
A lot of thanks with great appreciation to the people hosting refugees who patiently let us into their homes with endless patience for the questions and time we were there.
On a personal level, I’m most proud of my belongs to the Romanian people, that in this humanitarian crisis is on the right side of history.