We rightly talk much of those who flee from war but seldom about those who welcome. Yet Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, and Moldovans are demonstrating extraordinary solidarity by welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees. Recently, as a huge number of people poured over the borders of those nations bordering Ukraine, their reception was organized mostly by volunteers and charitable associations without whose activity it would have been impossible to help so many people.
Visiting the border, we have encountered numerous examples of solidarity. In Giurgiulești, Moldovans have set up a reception point a few meters from the border with hot drinks, food, and tents for refugees. This small Eastern European country has become a major reception hub, turning it into one of the most complicated and delicate logistical locations in Europe. In this chaotic situation, Moldova is trying to perform a miracle by setting up sorting points, providing volunteers, and various means of transport for refugees, helping them to safely reach friends and relatives across the Continent.
This is why there are so many primary reception centers, some of them of high strategic value, such as the Pala Expo in Chisinau, the capital, originally an exhibition center which has now become a refugee shelter and a place of safe isolation for those who have contracted COVID-19. Thousands of Ukrainians have passed through here and even when we arrived there were buses arriving from the border and just as many buses leaving every evening, heading in various directions to the most disparate destinations.
Here, we met Anastasya, a girl from Kiev: “I arrived at the border by car and then up to here by bus. In a few hours I will take a bus to Romania and from there to Germany or Italy.” While sipping a hot drink she tells us that “the situation in some parts of Kiev is terrible; many parts of the city have been destroyed, and many people are leaving the city, travelling to Poland or Lviv.”
Minutes later we meet another young woman, aged 25 years, coming from the city of Mykolaiv, which has been under attack for days. She is with a dog resting by her side: “I have to get to Germany and then to Denmark. I can’t sleep at night because I can still hear the sound of sirens ringing in my ears.”
Moldova and Romania are primarily first-arrival destinations, with many Ukrainians then travelling on to Western Europe. Many Moldovans and Romanians have made available their homes to welcome Ukrainians, offering them free accommodation. The Purcari winery, one of the most prestigious wineries of Moldova, has opened its doors as a shelter for Ukrainian families.
But there is another aspect to the welcome offered by Romanians, Moldovans, and Hungarians. In Western Ukraine there is a significant Hungarian minority in the Transcarpathian area and a large Romanian minority in the region of Southern Bessarabia. In these territories there has also developed strong Ukrainian nationalist feeling, and over the years this has generated a series of tensions; for example, the study of the Romanian and Hungarian languages in Ukrainian schools is strongly opposed. To this is added a further problem regarding ethnicity. Ukrainians are ethnically Slavs, whereas Hungarians are Magyars and Romanians are a Latin people. There are clear differences of language and also of history, culture, and lifestyle. Despite these differences, Moldova, Romania, and Hungary are welcoming Ukrainian refugees but, if the situation continues for long, tensions could come to the fore.
In the self-proclaimed independent republic on the other side of the Dnestr river, in Moldova, the population lives with a surreal and anachronistic culture based on perpetuating the Soviet Union. Although small and Russian-speaking, Transnistria has not turned into an enclave of inter-ethnic hatred, but rather into a laboratory of coexistence. One-fifth of the Transnistrian population is Ukrainian, and the people of Transnistria are also trying their best to accommodate refugees, in a territory that is swarming with Russian troops. It seems like ancient history, but in the 1992 war of secession from Moldova, Russians and Ukrainians fought side by side, and many from Ukraine settled here. It is mostly they who have taken in a good portion of the 10,000 or so refugees who have arrived so far.
But even non-Ukrainian Transnistrians are doing their best, like Anton, whom we meet in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. He tells us that he has worked to make it possible, by word of mouth, for Ukrainian families to live in small vacant apartments in the city. Sometimes this is for free, but often it is thanks to the contributions of generous patrons scattered throughout Europe who anonymously pay for the rooms for Ukrainians. These are poor—indeed, very poor—countries, where many people only just get by. This makes the displays of solidarity all the more admirable.
It seems odd, in the eyes of a Westerner, that fleeing from a Russian invasion one can find shelter in a pro-Russian region. As problematic as it is, and as much as it is a stronghold of Soviet nostalgia (as well as a strategically important military base just a stone’s throw from the European Union), Transnistria is proving to be pervaded by a feeling of solidarity. Such an attitude may be capable of transforming relationships wounded by decades of conflict. Perhaps this is precisely because, in the end, they are familiar with the suffering caused by artillery fire.