Moldovan Alex Bonjoca was working in Ireland when he learned that Russia invaded Ukraine and booked a flight home that same day.
He was worried for his family, who remained in a small village near the Ukraine border, and for his neighbors: the Ukrainians. Only 50 km from the border is Odesa, the city the Russians were shelling. Refugees were making a run for it, toward Moldova.
Bonjoca now spends his days wheeling food back and forth to a kilometres-long queue of cars streaming into the border, as Russian troops continue their advance along the coast, leaving devastation in their wake.
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“This is our job now,” Bonjoca tells Global News with a smile.
“This is a problem for all of Europe. We are the neighbor to Ukraine… this is our motivation to help the Ukrainian people.”
He says he does not intend to return to Ireland until the war is over.
Bonjoca is one of many volunteers who have stepped in to help where the Moldovan government cannot. The small, land-locked country, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, struggles with the influx of refugees.
According to UNHCR, some 230,000 Ukrainian refugees have entered Moldova since Feb. 24. As one of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova does not have the resources to cope with the constant stream of new arrivals and authorities have warned of a looming humanitarian crisis if the country does not receive financial aid.
Concerns exist, too, over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will set his sights on Moldova next. In a video posted online from a national security council meeting, Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko suggests Putin’s battle plan — indicating troops will move onwards to Moldova.
Its president, Maia Sandu, is seeking protection from the West to join the European Union. So has Ukraine and Georgia.
Refugees mainly women, saving families
The desperation at the Palanca crossing is evident in the speed at which refugees run to buses pulling in en route to a nearby relief camp. The anguish is etched into the faces of the predominantly female Ukrainians who cross, mostly on foot, having left their cars and lives behind on the other side of the border.
Many of their husbands, fathers and brothers remain behind to fight for their country.
The women are fleeing Russian troops who are currently advancing along the Black Sea, near Russian-annexed Crimea, and bound for Odesa. Russia has already taken the port city of Kherson and arrived at Mykolaiv, about 180 kilometers from Palanca.
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On Wednesday, amid intermittent snow storms, the line of cars on the Ukrainian side of the border is smaller than it has been in recent days, about 60 cars long, volunteers say. Other days it has been as long as 20 km long.
Refugees on foot are herded into a large tent to be fed and given supplies before they are squeezed into a small, roped-off pen. They stand in place there, blankets pulled around them as they await a customs officer to call each of them over and granted them access to Moldova.
Once they reach the Moldovan side, a non-stop caravan of buses pull up to take people to a nearby relief camp.
Bonjoca says in the past two weeks he’s witnessed an increase in Ukrainian military checking the cars for men of a certain age and turning them back. A presidential decree has banned Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving the country, as they may be called to fight.
This morning, Bonjoca watched as an 18-year-old, who was with his mother, was turned around and sent back to a war zone, his mother looking on in tears.
Ira Verba, her two sons aged 2 and 7, and her mother are approximately 12th in line at the crossing. The family left Mykolaiv, 150 km away, at 6 am and have been waiting in their car at the border ever since.
Both Verba’s husband and her father stayed behind to fight. The family remained with them for as long as they could, but then a block nearby was completely bombed.
“We saw it getting worse and worse,” Verba says.
Olga Vorobyova crossed the Palanca crossing at about lunchtime, pushing her 78-year-old mother, Jana, in a wheelchair and being tailed by her young son, Boris.
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She says she decided to leave when her neighbor’s house was bombed.
“It’s just crazy… they started to bomb just normal houses… nothing military at all. That’s why we run away.”
But Vorobyova says she wasn’t trying to save herself.
“I was scared more for him. We are already old, we can die,” she says.
As a bus arrived, Vorobyova picked her mother up and carried her onto the bus, struggling under her weight, as two other volunteers attempted to manoeuvre her up the stairs and into a seat. The whole time, Jana was crying out in pain.
‘In one spot you see so much need and so much humanity’
A few kilometers away, a makeshift relief camp has been set up to feed refugees before buses arrive bound for destinations further afield. Children run through the mud laughing and carrying fistfuls of pastries. Women sit and chat over tea.
In an open paddock adjacent to the camp, about 60 tents sit mostly empty — they were set up for refugees, but there has not yet been a need for them as locals and people in other countries have been so generous about opening their doors.
Buses show up regularly offering Ukrainians safe passage to European countries such as Romania, Poland and even Germany, more than 2,000 km away.
Anatol Malancea has taken on the role of de facto relief camp organizer. Back in Chisinau, he operates a modular housing business, but he redeployed his staff to Palanca at the outset of the war. He’s now offering up his timber for firewood to build large campfires to keep the refugees warm.
Malancea says the camp is staffed by a mixture of volunteers and local church groups — the government has little involvement here.
Malancea says the camp receives between 5,000 and 7,000 refugees per day, some of whom have had to walk up to 15 km to get across the border, because the line for cars is so long.
“They don’t know where they are, they don’t know where to go and we try as volunteers to direct them to give them warmth, to help as much as we can,” he says.
Chisinau’s refugee camps and accommodation options are now largely full, Malancea says, so Moldova is now largely a transition point.
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However, he says the country is ill-equipped to deal with the current volume of refugees even on a short-term basis and worries they will be completely “overwhelmed” if Odesa is bombed.
He believes the country could run out of food supplies within days. It currently costs 5,000 euro per day to run the camp, all of which comes from donations.
“We’re doing as much as we can with the little resources we have,” he says.
“In one spot you see so much need and so much humanity.”
At a social center for the children and the elderly nearby, a team of female volunteers is in the kitchen cooking soups and mincing chicken. One of the volunteers says, through a translator, that she’s a widow with four children. It’s difficult work, says, but she feels she is needed.
The upstairs floor of the center has been transformed into a halfway point for refugees who are too afraid to continue onwards or have no idea where to go. Mattresses line the floor.
We run into Vorobyova and her mother again at the camp, in a van. They each were clasping a cup of tea and were smiling, saying they hoped now to reach The Netherlands, where they had friends.
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Less than 10 km away, at the Tudora border crossing, the flow of refugees is much smaller. This corridor is mostly used by commercial vehicles, a volunteer says.
A whiteboard outside an army tent informs refugees that inside, they’ll find toast, wi-fi and a ride to Chisinau. Boxes of supplies line the walls — Costa coffee cups, bibles, newspapers, toilet paper, crackers and ramen. Volunteers routinely pop their heads in to call out when a number of seats are available to Chisinau as volunteers arrive.
It’s snowing outside, but tables near the entrance of tents offering soup and food are always staffed by volunteers from a local church.
When refugees arrive with nowhere to go, volunteers call around their congregation to see if anyone has spare space.
Inside one of the tents, Nastia has arrived from Odesa with her three young children, mother and sister. They have a small dog in a carrier in tow and a plastic bag overflowing with toys. Nastia’s husband, father and brother-in-law have stayed behind to help defend their city. They speak optimistically about going onwards to Chisinau.
But it’s not a happy ending for everyone.
Outside the tents, Violetta Vasilieva is heading the opposite way as everyone else: back into Ukraine. The 18-year-old is clutching her Ukrainian passport in one hand and pushing her 11-month-old, Eva, in a pram in the other, as snow swirls around her.
She speaks through tears as she says, through a translator, that she has been in Moldova for four days and was offered refuge in Canada, but cannot bear to be without her husband, who remains behind in Odesa. So she’s returning to his side. Her brother has been fighting Russia in the Donbas region since 2014.
As she turns on her heel and walks back into a war zone, past the border guards, Eva starts crying — as if anticipating what lies ahead.
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