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Ukraine invasion / All sorts of people turn up in a crisis

In her latest dispatch from the Ukrainian border with Romania, Jen Stout reports on heartbreak and many acts of kindness as people leave everything behind to escape the Russian aggression against their homeland.

Hug me! All Photos: Jen Stout
Jen Stout.

ALTHOUGH I wouldn’t call Isaccea port a crisis, because so far the flow of people coming through this border crossing has been very well-managed. No long queues, no chaotic scenes.

But of course it is a crisis, for every single person fleeing Ukraine and ending up on the Romanian side of the Danube here.

They’ve left everything behind. Even their loved ones. On the Ukrainian side, which I visited for a few hours last week, men say tearful farewells to their wives and children. They can’t cross, unless they’re over 60.

But what helps is that these women and children are met with immediate kindness and help on the Romanian side. And some of those providing that help have come a long way indeed.

There’s a lad from Hull who was unemployed and just thought he’d come and help. Then there’s Stuart Paver and Steve Ovenden from York, who worked nonstop for five days driving people to Bucharest, collecting medical supplies, and helping local volunteers on the ground.

Happily enough three of those they delivered safely to Bucharest were the Odessan women – Katya, Marina and Lyuda – I’d met near the start of my time here, in the little caravan at the ferry port.

Local volunteers Marian, Cosmin and Stuart Paver fromYork.

A cross-country network of volunteers stepped in to pay for their flights, and my German friends stepped in from there. So now these women are living on a street I know well, in beautiful Berlin, with visits from my friends’ gorgeous kids, and a chance at a bit of a normal life before they can return to Odessa. I think they’re very brave, meeting all these challenges with a smile. I hope I’d be the same, but how can you know?

At the port the other day, waiting to do a report for Irish broadcaster RTE, I took photos above the ferry ramp as the 1.30pm sailing arrived with about 200 people on board. Along the railings, as at other border crossings, someone had tied cuddly toys, elephants and bears and little ducks in shades of pink and blue.

As the people streamed off dragging suitcases and carrying pets, some of the bairns reached their hands out for toys, and when the cars began to bump over the ramp, the ferrymen rushed to cut the strings and push cuddly elephants through the windows of the cars before they disembarked.

I followed the cars onto the pier (the authorities, kindly, let us wander around fairly freely) and noticed almost all the cars had A4 sheets of paper stuck in the back, with a word probably familiar now to anyone who watches the news: ДЕТИ. Deti. Children.

The same letters that were visible via satellite, spelled out huge on the ground next to that Mariupol theatre. It didn’t stop the Russian army bombing that building, where civilians were sheltering in the basement. 

Disembarking at the Romanian side of the border.

In Orlivka, the Ukrainian side of the Danube river here, we crammed in to a WWII green canvas tent where people can warm up by an old stove. Numbers of people passing here have dropped, while Odessa is relatively quiet – thankfully, because this tiny tent with the rickety table of sweets outside could hardly cater to large crowds of people.

In the nearby village, with the volunteers, we visited a pretty little cottage where three Ukrainian women and their young children were staying. They didn’t want to leave the country without their husbands – “It’s just too hard, with babies”, one said – so they’d come right to the border to wait it out, hoping for the best.

They were grateful for their digs – a rural idyll, hens scraping around outside, old lace curtains at the windows – but Anya said, laughing, that they were all city girls, and couldn’t last too long in the countryside.

Let’s hope they don’t have to.

Going back across the Danube, I walked through the crowds of people on the open deck. Some taking selfies, grinning at the novelty of this odd ferry. Some sitting on suitcases, just staring ahead as the Romanian shore became clearer – smokestacks, vineyards, the low mountains still topped with snow.

In a small portacabin, the only shelter, people were crammed tight. A big granny wrapped in several shawls was sitting at the open door. I’d gone to ask if anyone needed a wheelchair on the other side, so the volunteers could phone ahead. Yes, she said, my granddaughter, she can’t walk properly. The family had a lot of kids, and looked exhausted.

Where did you come from, I asked, and the granny gave me that look and said, in a whisper: Mariupol. She couldn’t stop crying, though her family were chiding her to stop. I told them it was safe in Romania, that they’d be welcomed and looked after. They were amazed. “Really? They won’t turn us away?”

A sweet moment

The little girl who needed a wheelchair promptly appeared and introduced herself. “Ochen priyatno! Menya zovut Regina Petrovna!” She was a real bright spark, about seven, confident and cheery, and it was obvious they all looked after her with particular care, even the other children.

Stuart had made the run over with us, and I went to the van to ask if he had any chocolate for the bairns. No, he said, a bit embarrassed, but I’ve got this – and he pulled out this beautiful card his granddaughter had made, back in York. Covered in rainbows and drawings, and Ukrainian letters she’d carefully copied out from Google Translate.

Come on then, I said, and we went back to find Regina and give her the card – and a little white toy rabbit. She beamed at Stuart, and he beamed back, and her granny stopped crying briefly.

I know you can over-romanticise this stuff. The kids needed much more than what we could give them, and hopefully they got it on the other side. Hopefully they’re safe and warm now. But it was, pure and simple, a sweet moment, a happy minute.


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 Ryan 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:

‘Everyone is pulling together’