Ukrainian refugees stream into Hungary amid Russian assault

More than 85,000 people have crossed from Ukraine into Hungary since the start of Russia’s invasion, as refugees receive a warm welcome.

Anastasia Natalia and Kristina Zahony
Along the Ukraine-Hungary border, refugees are met with hot chai, locally made sandwiches, and logistical help [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

Záhony, Ukraine-Hungary border – The train from Chop arrived at the quaint Hungarian village of Záhony almost two hours late. When it eventually pulled up to platform one, medics and station workers met each passenger before gently escorting them inside. There were children, mothers, grandparents, and two cats, all arriving from neighbouring Ukraine, a country faced with war since Russia’s invasion began on Thursday.

There were no signs of relief, only a determination to carry on. Peoples’ bodies had arrived to safety, but their minds were still at home with fathers and brothers on the front line, and elderly relatives bunkered down after refusing to leave. Foreign students quickly got on the phone to tell loved ones at home that they has escaped danger.

Alexandra said she did not want to leave Dnipro in central Ukraine and wanted to pick up a gun and defend “the motherland”. But her mother told her she had to look after Anna, her five-year-old daughter, who travelled to Hungary with a much-loved pink rag doll.

“I woke up on Thursday to a bang in the distance. At first, I thought it was a problem with the metro construction, I couldn’t believe an invasion had begun,” she told Al Jazeera. “I wanted to stay but in war, the men have to fight, and we have to look after what’s left behind that’s what I was told.”

Alexandra and daughter Anna Zahony
Alexandra hadn’t wanted to leave Dnipro in central Ukraine. She wanted to pick up a gun and defend ‘the motherland’ [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

The 37-year-old was full of disdain for Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I’m convinced he wants all of Europe and that is why everyone has to help Ukraine,” she said.

More than 85,000 people have crossed into Hungary since February 24. Along the 135km (84-mile) frontier, refugees are met with hot chai, locally made sandwiches, and logistical help – embassies can be rung, tickets booked for free, and even children entertained.

But these are small comforts for those whose lives have been upended in a matter of days. A feeling that something bad was going to happen had been gnawing away at Natalia for more than two weeks. The mother of two from Kyiv had mentioned to her daughters that the family should consider leaving the country as the Russian troop buildup on the border continued; it was a comment met with eye rolls and silence, she said.

Nonetheless, the scale of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine was largely unexpected and people were quickly forced to leave their homes. On Friday, the three women said goodbye to their father who stayed behind in Kyiv to help the war effort.

Mother and daughter arrive in Zahony from Chop
More than 85,000 people have crossed into Hungary since February 24 [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

The family, who like Alexandra, only wanted to give their first names, is now en route to Spain because all three of them speak Spanish. Alexandra planned to wait out the war in Budapest with a friend and return at the first opportunity.

According to UNHCR, more than 670,000 people have fled Ukraine in the past six days. The agency has warned “the situation looks set to become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century” if the Russian assault continues. Compared with the situation on the Polish border, where people have had to wait up to 60 hours in freezing temperatures to cross to safety, Hungary’s crossings have been considerably calmer.

Hours after Russia’s first attack on Ukrainian soil, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán reversed Budapest’s hardline migration policies.“We’re prepared to take care of them [Ukrainians], and we’ll be able to rise to the challenge quickly and efficiently,” he said in a statement.

Hungarian troops were deployed to the border as early as February 22 to reinforce the area and carry out “ humanitarian tasks”. Despite this open door policy and Hungary’s support for sanctions on Russia, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó announced on Monday that the country will not allow lethal aid to transit its borders en route to forces in Ukraine.

Family arriving at Zahony from Chop
According to UNHCR, approximately 660,000 people have fled Ukraine in the past six days [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

Waiting quietly for friends from Sweden to pick her up from Záhony station, 19-year-old Maria, from the central Ukrainian Kropyvnytskyi, said she was worried about her parents. Still, in Ukraine, the couple, who are both doctors, will shortly start work helping the wounded.

“In many ways, I didn’t expect such unity from Ukrainians, but I guess when you’re under attack all of the smaller troubles seem insignificant,” she said. “Even President Zelenskyy, I didn’t like him that much. But now, looking at his behaviour and the fact he is still in Kyiv, I’m so proud of him.”

On February 23, she had planned to go on a city break with friends, one of the first since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic nearly two years ago. The group was looking forward to enjoying good food and delicious wine. Instead, the weekend brought war and saw Maria saying goodbye to her parents, unsure if she would ever see them again.

Source: Al Jazeera