“THE WHOLE of Europe has united – and we have Putin to thank for it”, said a furious old man as I interviewed him through his car window. He was 73, from Odessa, but born in Georgia.
His wife cried quietly in the front seat. They had just driven off the ferry which crosses the Danube – leaving Ukraine behind. Romanian volunteers were tapping at the other window to offer tea, coffee, snacks.
In the back, someone referred to only as ‘babushka’ – granny – sat, tiny, smiling and waving at our video camera. And a kid, and a dog. People had just gathered what they could and fled, terrified of the bombs edging further west. They were all, to a man and a woman, absolutely as furious as this eloquent Georgian Odessan. ‘How dare he’, they said. ‘What is wrong with him?’
It’s a sentiment echoed all over the world, I suppose. What is wrong with Vladimir? Isolated down his tunnel of disinfectant, visited only by his creepy, paranoid old generals, Putin is now conducting a reign of terror against the very ‘Russian’ people who he vowed to protect (Russian-speaking, at least; the rest of us understand the difference). It makes sense to absolutely nobody, except presumably Putin himself, and I guess those Russians who believe his twisted version of reality.
I’m glad to be out of Moscow. I’m very, very worried for my friends there. I ended up going from Vienna to Bucharest, and then to Isaccea on the Danube, a few days ago.
Ironically I’ve long wanted to visit this beautiful corner of Europe. The great river flows into the Black Sea, dissipating into a huge wetland of twisting streams and marshes. It’s one of the ecological wonders of the world, UNESCO-designated, home to a mind-boggling number of rare species – especially birds.
I’d read about the big efforts to restore the wetland, to make safe this endangered landscape, and wanted to come and write about it. Never in a million years did I think I’d get here, but to cover the influx of refugees coming from neighbouring Ukraine.
But then, even a month ago I couldn’t have imagined all this. It’s somewhat ironic that I’m putting my three months of Moscow language school to good use interviewing the people fleeing Russia’s campaign of terror. One of my teachers, who I loved, was broadly in favour of Putin. I wonder what on earth they’re saying now.
Europe seems to be uniting around the need to help
One week ago, I was packing two bags in my little Moscow flat, and since then I’ve crossed more time zones than I can understand, and spent more time on planes than I care to think about. I hate flying, unless it’s the Islander to Fair Isle with Marshall. Big planes are a miserable experience, to say nothing of the stupidity of flying in a climate crisis. From now on I’ll stick to trains where at all possible; when I go back to Vienna there’s a lovely 20-hour sleeper all the way from Bucharest.
But I’m in no hurry to leave Romania. It’s a wonderful country, what I’ve seen so far. People are so generous and lively and – well – shouty, in a southern European, Italian kind of way.
With the help of an ex-Fair-Isle woman, Elena Mera-Long, who now lives in Romania, I got a lift all the way to this south eastern border post with some guys who’d decided to take a van load of aid. In their early 20s, they are impressive young men – Mihai is just 25, and has been a councillor in his home town for two years.
The rest of the councillors there are past retirement, and he is up against a brick wall trying to change things. But he’s so full of energy, you believe he will. He and his friends were all full of energy, and when we arrived in Somova, near the border, it was nearly midnight – but they set off for the ferry port to deliver the parcels.
The volunteer effort here is just immense. An army of local volunteers, emergency services, and charities keep the cars and people moving through, giving them whatever help they need, from sim cards to sandwiches.
It’s not always straightforward – some of those coming across the river aren’t even Ukrainian, but students or labourers caught up in the war. A busload of Turkmen workers departed just as I got to the port, bound for Bucharest. Then what, I asked. No one really knew.
You can’t help noting the contrast between this refugee crisis and the last, in 2015, when Syrians sought shelter from a brutal war. But Europe seems to be uniting around the need to help. And to say no. Perhaps it can be a turning point.
People here certainly think so – proud of their community effort, proud of their country, which as they always remind me is a poor one, for making Ukrainians feel so warmly welcomed. A bit of light in the dark.
Two local appeals to raise funds to help the population affected by the Russian invasion have been set up. Hamnavoe resident Kate Niesciur is fundraising for UNICEF Ukraine while councillor Thomson’s Shetland Stands with Ukraine campaign will go towards the Red Cross Ukraine crisis appeal.
More reporting from Jen Stout can be found here:
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