People fleeing Russian invasion of Ukraine head toward Shehyni border crossing
Russia started its Ukrainian invasion on Thursday, forcing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians out of their homes. In photo: people fleeing Russia's military operation against Ukraine walk toward the Shehyni border crossing to Poland past cars waiting in line to cross the border, outside Mostyska, Ukraine, February 27, 2022. Reuters / THOMAS PETER

Thousands of people are fleeing war in eastern Ukraine for the relative safety of its western border with Poland, only to find that a punishing new ordeal awaits.

By Sunday afternoon, an unmoving line of cars, buses and trucks stretched for 35 km (22 miles) from the border crossing at Shehyni, all packed with people and belongings, all waiting their turn to squeeze through the overburdened border checkpoint to Poland.

Hundreds of other people headed for the border on foot, trudging along the highway's trash-strewn verge in sub-zero temperatures with children, pets and whatever possessions they had the strength left to carry.

"Last night we moved 100 metres," said Anastasia Dymtruk, 31, who had slept in her car for three nights along with her friend's family, who she was ferrying to safety.

"It is unimaginable that this is happening to my country, to my people," said Dymtruk, an English teacher from Lutsk, in northwestern Ukraine. "It's a mess."

There was a disproportionate number of women and children among the crowds. Ukrainian men aged 18-60 are forbidden to leave the country in case they are needed for its defence.

Among those walking towards Poland were Valerie Marenchika and her daughters, aged 9 and 7. The younger one wept inconsolably.

It had taken her two days to get here from Kyiv - an eight-hour drive in normal times. "There's a lot of bombing there," she said. "It wasn't safe for my family anymore."

Marenchika's husband had remained in Kyiv. "He stayed to help the people. And if he has to, he will fight."

She planned to stay with her sister in Poland.


By late afternoon the temperature plunged and a hail storm began. Amid the anxiety and exhaustion there was stoicism and kindness.

Volunteers had set up stalls to serve up hot soup and tea, or handed out snacks and other supplies. One woman cut up sausages and bread on a blanket laid on the bonnet of her white Mercedes.

Other volunteers donned fluorescent vests to direct traffic or stop cars suspected of pushing in, a source of growing agitation for those waiting in line.

"As the time passes it gets more and more difficult to keep quiet and calm," said Dymtruk, the English teacher.

Abdullah Elkobbi, 21, had just arrived in a town near the border after a 26-hour journey from Dnipro, in eastern Ukraine. He hailed from Marrakesh in Morocco and had studied medicine in Dnipro for three years.

Elkobbi was travelling with 11 other medical students - all Moroccans - and with his two kittens, Stella and Santa, tucked into his coat.

He said Ukrainian solders had told him he could not go to the border. "We'll stay here tonight and walk to the border in the morning," he said.

Elkobbi said he was leaving reluctantly. "I love this country," he said. "I'm so sad that it will be destroyed."

Mila Liubchenko, 39, an IT manager, fled Kyiv on Saturday after a rocket fell near her 24th-floor apartment, rattling its windows.

She took a train from Kyiv and then a bus, which was now lined up with a dozen others about 3 km from the border.

Liubchenko hoped to make it to Warsaw and then to Paris, for a reunion with her American boyfriend.

She was gloomy about the prospects for Ukraine. "Knowing how Putin sees us, we're in big trouble. There won"t be real peace in our country for years, maybe decades."

(Editing by Alison Williams)