They left their chickens, goats and dogs with the neighbors and now pensioners Ludmila* and Vasile have finally arrived where the borders of Ukraine, Moldova and Romania meet.
The couple come from a village near the Ukrainian town of Tatarbunary, halfway between Odessa and the Romanian port city of Galati.
They managed to pack their most important possessions into a small red suitcase – it now weighs about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) – and dragged it for about an hour and a half, walking from the Ukrainian border crossing to the town of Giurgiulesti, in Moldova. The city is located at the junction of the three borders.
It’s only 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 Fahrenheit) outside and a strong wind is blowing. The elderly couple’s faces are red with cold, they are both frozen. They are exhausted from the long walk.
Ludmila is sad and nervous. Even though they traveled all night, they still don’t want to take the bus.
“It would have been even more horrible,” Ludmila told DW. “To see so many single mothers on the bus with their babies.”
“I couldn’t bear to hear these poor children crying any longer, knowing that they have no home to return to,” her husband added.
Before leaving Ukraine, they had learned on the news that a Russian attack was expected between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. “When are you supposed to sleep?” Ludmila asked. “How are you supposed to live like this?”
Despite all this, the elderly couple do not want to talk about Russia, politics or war. They always seem worried about blaming anyone for the dire situation they find themselves in now.
To the west
They looked forward to a quiet retirement, they admitted. “After decades of hard work, we wanted to enjoy a few more great years,” Vasile explained, noting that they had both worked their whole lives. “Instead, we must escape a war.”
A Romanian border guard called Ludmila’s cousin from her own mobile phone and asked her to pick up the couple in Giurgiulesti. While waiting for the cousin’s arrival, Ukrainian pensioners wait in a large room where Romanian volunteers distribute tea and coffee.
But Ludmila and Vasile don’t want to eat or drink anything. They just want to get as far away from the Ukrainian border as possible.
Where will they go? After a long conversation, they eventually reveal, hesitantly, that they have two adult children who have been living in Austria for a long time. They hope to get there.
Thousands of Ukrainian refugees make the same journey daily, crossing the border at Giurgiulesti, although most do so in their own vehicles.
According to local authorities, about 75% of them head for Romania’s western border. On Saturday, the Romanian Interior Ministry reported that nearly 2,400 Ukrainian refugees had already applied for asylum.
In this border area you also see a lot of expensive cars. Most likely belong to the most prosperous Ukrainians who live around Odessa. A white Audi Q7, one of the German automaker’s luxury SUVs, speeds off after Border Patrol checked driver and passenger papers.
This annoys Mariana*, a volunteer who helps new arrivals from Ukraine. “So many refugees are freezing here and have no transportation, and there they are, just the two of them, in such a big car,” she complained. Mariana has been up in the cold for three hours now, handing out free phone cards.
She is actually Ukrainian, although she has lived in Romania for 15 years. Since the start of the war more than a week ago, she has been volunteering and acting as a translator. Fortunately, she says, her parents were visiting her in Romania when the war broke out and had arrived the day before the Russian invasion began.
Everything is well organized on the Romanian side and things are moving fast. Unfortunately, for anyone crossing this triangular border area, they will also have to pass through the Moldovan border post, and this is where some of the longest queues are.
Yet in both countries there has been great support and solidarity for the Ukrainian arrivals. There are countless volunteers everywhere, and free transport and emergency accommodation are also available. Numerous buses with Moldovan license plates take the refugees to the largest Romanian town of Galati, about 30 minutes away.
never come back
A 46-year-old librarian from the Ukrainian town of Kiliya arrives in Giurgiulesti, accompanied by a friend. Both have two children in tow and prefer not to share their names.
This is actually the second time she has had to flee, the librarian told DW. She had to leave Crimea in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed the region. The librarian said she never wanted to hear from Russia again, and she would never come back either.
She locked the door to her apartment in Kiliya – she had only recently bought it – turned and did not look back, she said. As a divorced mother, she has been caring for her children on her own for some time now, and she said she would take any job offered to her.
Starting over in a foreign country will not be easy, she conceded, especially since she will have to learn another language. But she wants to do everything to give her children a better future and a good education.
“So they never have to go back to the Soviet Union,” she explained, adding that she had never been happy there, not even as a young child.
The librarian told DW that she already felt better here in Giurgiulesti, because there were no more anti-aircraft sirens. She didn’t yet know what the future held for her or her children, but she had one wish for the man who had caused them to lose their home, not once but twice.
“I would like to see Putin in prison,” she said.
*Editor’s note: DW has not released surnames for security reasons.
This text was originally published in Romanian and was translated by Dana Alexandra Scherle