WARSAW — Warsaw’s largest pediatric hospital has put Ukrainian patients on its waiting list for liver transplants, sometimes ahead of Polish children. Schools in the Polish capital have had to seek additional teachers to cope with the influx of new pupils. Public transport risked collapsing under the pressure of so many new residents.
Yet, to almost everyone’s surprise, Warsaw continued to operate, defying predictions of a blackout and an angry public backlash. The city, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees, has adorned itself with Ukrainian flags and banners of support for Poland’s war-ravaged eastern neighbor.
But just when the tsunami of refugees, which has boosted the capital’s population by almost 20% in just a few weeks, seemed to be receding, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski is now bracing for a possible new influx as that the Russian military is striving to achieve what President Vladimir V. Putin promised last week that his war in Ukraine would be “completely over”.
“Warsaw is at full capacity,” Mr Trzaskowski, a liberal opponent of Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice party, said in an interview. “We have accepted more than 300,000 people but we cannot accept more. With Russia escalating in eastern Ukraine, we could have a second wave.
It seemed for a few days that the scramble for Poland was over as Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, encouraged some Ukrainians to risk returning home and others to stay put. For the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the Polish border service announced in April that the number of people arriving from Ukraine exceeded those crossing in the other direction. .
But this trend, the mayor fears, is unlikely to continue and, if significantly reversed with a new wave of refugees, could push an already strained city beyond its limits.
“Imagine your city suddenly growing by 15-20%: what an incredible strain that would be and what it would cost normal city services like public transport, sanitation, education, etc. “said the mayor. “These costs amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.”
At Warsaw Central Station on Friday, a major hub for Ukrainians going in both directions, Natalia Glinskaya, 54, said she left Ukraine in March, traveled to Sweden via Poland and was returned to Warsaw this week with the intention of taking a train home. .
But after learning that Russian shells fell on her hometown east of Dnipro early Friday, she put the plan on hold. Although a Russian speaker, like most Ukrainians in the east of the country, she cursed Mr Putin, who claims to defend Russian speakers from persecution, calling him a “mad terrorist” capable of anything.
“I’m going back and forth on what to do now,” she said, predicting that Russia’s offensive in the east would deter many Ukrainians from returning home and encourage others to return. leaving, especially after Sunday’s Orthodox Easter, an important family holiday.
“Then there will be a second wave,” she said.
Figures released last week by Polish border authorities showed that the number of Ukrainians leaving and arriving roughly balanced out on some days. However, as Orthodox Easter approaches, more people have returned to join their families in Ukraine than arrived, with the Polish border service reporting on Saturday that 19,900 people had entered Poland from Ukraine the day before. , while 23,800 went the other way.
After a peak of more than 30,000 Ukrainians arriving in Warsaw each day last month, that number fell to a few hundred last week. The figure is now rising, with two to three thousand refugees arriving in the capital every day, mostly from the eastern Donbass region.
Many Ukrainians who have fled to Poland since the Russian invasion are shocked by the quality of their reception.
“It’s wonderful to have such a kind neighbor when our eastern neighbor is attacking us with such cruelty,” said Roksolana Tyymochko-Voloshyn, 34, who arrived last month with her 7-year-old son Volodymyr , suffering from cancer.
Driven from the border directly to Warsaw in an ambulance, they were taken to the Children’s Memorial Health Institute, a sprawling medical complex southeast of the capital, to be treated for the tumor in her son’s eye. He was halfway through a course of 25 radiation treatments in Kyiv when they fled Ukraine. His mother, who left her husband to fight, is at his bedside day and night.
Marek Migdal, the director of the children’s hospital, said Ukrainian patients were “getting exactly the same rights to treatment as Polish citizens”, and he initially feared that “if their numbers increase, our capacity will not be sufficient”.
The number of Ukrainian admissions, however, leveled off as hospitals elsewhere in Poland and abroad took in Ukrainian children in desperate need of medical care.
Few Ukrainian children admitted to the children’s hospital in Warsaw needed treatment for war injuries. But the war, by stifling the supply of medicines and diverting doctors, put their lives in danger. “If we cannot help these children, we will be responsible for their death,” said Piotr Socha, a Polish doctor at the health institute in charge of a liver disease treatment unit. “Ukraine cannot help them. We have to help.
This extraordinary carpet of welcome deployed by millions of ordinary Poles in the first weeks of the war could well crumble, said the mayor of Warsaw, if another wave of traumatized people descends on his city and the national government , which has so far left most of the heavy lifting to private charities and individuals, is not stepping up with a clear plan.
“The numbers have come down significantly, but now they’re going up a bit,” Mayor Trzaskowski said. An upsurge in fighting in eastern Ukraine, he added, could trigger a new exodus to Poland of people who had previously decided to stay but who “saw the atrocities in Bucha, Irpin and elsewhere and are now on the move” as Russian forces. fall on the villages and towns of the east.
“We can’t improvise any longer,” he said, recalling how, in the absence of a clear national strategy, he had to call fellow mayors and beg them to send buses to Warsaw to help relieve pressure on the capital.
Most of the aid for Ukrainian refugees, the mayor said, has come from local governments, private citizens and “exactly the same type of organizations that have been starved of central government funding for years because they fought for refugees, for women’s rights, the LGBT community, all minorities.
“It was the non-governmental groups that saved us,” he said.
In total, Poland has taken in almost three million Ukrainians, earning the country praise abroad and helping the central government shed its reputation for insensitivity and hostility towards foreigners. Just months ago, Polish border guards and soldiers used batons and water cannons to stop potential asylum seekers, many from the Middle East, crossing the border from Belarus.
Mr Trzaskowski, a longtime enemy of the conservative national government, will travel to the United States next week seeking help to ease the heavy burdens in his city.
“It’s great if Poland’s image improves,” he said. But, referring to the ruling Law and Justice party, he added that “it should not be forgotten that these guys always violate the rule of law and attack independent institutions”.
The city government provided temporary housing for more than 70,000 Ukrainians in unused office buildings and sports halls, but, Trzaskowski said, many more refugees found refuge with family members and friends or “complete strangers who, in a month or two, might say, ‘I can’t extend this offer any longer.’
Those with sick children often sleep in the hospital. Alina Babyna, who traveled to Poland to treat her 11-year-old son, Yevgenii, who is seriously ill with a rare liver disease, is sleeping by her son’s bedside and has no intention of staying in Poland indefinitely, saying she only left Ukraine after medics at a kyiv hospital where her son was being treated left to treat wounded soldiers near the front line.
“I will definitely go home when we win the war,” she said. “Fate will decide. But I believe in God. I hope and know that he will help.