Przemyśl is the last stop on the road between western Europe and Putin’s War.

It’s the first safe haven for those fleeing Ukraine in their thousands.

It’s a mix of hideous apartment blocks, run-down older buildings, striking modern churches, and industrial parks.

Far from being a small town, as it’s often described on British news bulletins, it’s home to 60,000 residents.

The road gets rougher as you head out of town, beyond a large retail park on its fringes and a few kilometres more to the border with Ukraine.

Heading east out of Przemyśl, the number of vehicles carrying aid increased, and buses heading in the other direction brought refugees back towards a centre in a Tesco hypermarket where they could rest.

When we got to the aid centre on the border, the sight was instantly shocking.

A large open area on a tatty retail park had been taken over by aid and medical workers from all over Europe.

Italian medics stood ready to help; aid workers from Europe, the USA, Japan and China; religious organisations from every faith had set up stations to deliver food and relief to the refugees.

We heard how the temperature fell to minus six the night before, and people had to e put up in tents before buses could take them onwards to the hypermarket’s holding area.


Photo: Jon Coles/Herald

THIS young mother has just crossed the border from Ukraine to Poland with her two young children.

Leaning against a wire fence in Poland, she appears equally relieved and distressed.

She took her children from Kyiv, a city under constant siege from Putin’s army, around which fighting has been intense.

The queue at the border crossing into Poland is 5 kilometres long. It takes twelve hours to get from the back to the front.

The number of refugees fleeing aggression means the queue is constantly refilling.

The night before, temperatures hit minus six degrees centigrade. Those waiting to enter Poland had to shelter in vehicles and makeshift shelters provided by aid workers who crossed the border to deliver help to them.

She made the journey alone. Her husband remained behind to fight the Russians.

She looked exhausted and distressed, while her young children looked bewildered at having to leave their home for reasons they could scarcely understand.

In many ways, she is typical of those leaving Ukraine.

She did not know what has happened to her home or what has happened to her husband.

Her family’s home could be rubble; her children’s father could be dead.

Where she went after crossing the border is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps she was lucky to have family in the EU or UK. More likely, she would spend days in the refugee centre in the nearby town of Przemyśl, waiting for paperwork and recovering from her ordeal.


Photo: Jon Coles/Herald

While we watched, several women crossed the border with babies in arms or in pushchairs. In some cases, they were met by familiar faces, either family members who had gone on ahead or those already living in the EU who’d made the journey to meet them.

3.8m people have fled from Ukraine, many of them the very young and the very old.

While we watched, this baby and her mother were greeted, and the infant was swept up in a cuddle while the mother wept with relief out of shot.

The baby is too young to form any memories of this moment or the trauma of being uprooted that lies behind this image.

Her mother, like so many, looked shattered.

A small bag of clothes was tucked underneath the baby’s buggy, and a small pull-along suitcase held the rest of the possessions they’d taken with them.

Medicines, treatment, clothes, and food waited for them, but, for now, simple companionship was enough.

The baby, like most babies, looks surprised at the new experience. However, the relief and joy on the face of the woman holding them communicate more than words ever can.


Photo: Jon Coles/Herald

This young boy was quite the character.

Below the age at which understanding can properly form, he flitted along with the food stalls with his tired mum desperately trying to keep up with him.

He was certainly delighted when one of the aid workers on site dug into the stock of soft toys behind their table and handed him a green dragon that was almost two thirds his size.

The smile hardly left his face as he took his new friend with him.

He headed off, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells of what must’ve seemed like an adventure to one so young. But at every step of the way, he clung to the dragon and refused to let it go.

His energy and smile were infectious. The aid workers loved him and congratulated him on his handsome toy.

Focusing more on the immediate, his mum tried to persuade him to join her and eat some food.

He was having none of it. There was too much to see, and he and his dragon had to see all of it.


Photo: Jon Coles/Herald

When we arrived at the border, we met with Norwegian aid workers and the International Organisation for Migration representatives.

The Red Cross centres – the principal ones – are miles from the border; the largest relatively close one is in the city of Lublin, almost 200 miles and three hours away from Przemyśl.

As temperatures bombed below zero the previous night, there’d been a massive surge of refugees at the border.

The aid workers who’d dealt with the overnight arrivals were tired; their reserves of energy almost spent.

They kept going because they had to and because what they did made a difference to people in far worse situations than their own.

The Norwegian workers were among those who crossed the border to deliver basic items to those waiting to cross.

Warm blankets were at a premium as the mercury plummeted; equally prized were biscuits (described by one worker as “gold”), cereal bars, crisps, and Cuppa-soups.

Especially welcome, however, were items like soaps, shampoo, toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste, all of which we had in abundance.

These were the key items needed. The same basic items we take for granted.


Photo: Jon Coles/Herald

While we waited, the number of people heading through the Polish border with Ukraine increased. They came one by one, then in handfuls, and finally in larger groups.

There was only one gate to enter the aid workers’ camp, which meant more queuing at the last barrier.

Although the sun shone, the temperature was far from warm. The wind whipped along; it sliced through them, too lazy to go around people.

Those waiting to cross wore clothes delivered to them while they waited but still huddled together for warmth and companionship.

Their faces, pinched by the cold and fatigue, were anxious as they waited their turn to get through the gate and to something like a respite.

As they crossed the border, aid workers came forward to help them; guide them to food; even show them where the latrines were.

The closest structure to the border was a chemical toilet, which speaks volumes about priorities.

Not far beyond that lay faith groups eager to greet the refugees. Beyond that lay tents distributing cooked food – often crewed by faith charities.

Priorities: Loo. Food. God.

But first, cross to safety.


Photo: Jon Coles/Herald

People came from all over the world to help those in need.

Their number one priority is the safety and protection of all those escaping Putin’s War. Their aid extends to third-country nationals – those from other countries caught in Ukraine when Russia invaded and those already refugees in Ukraine.

Organisations like the IOM screen for and assess potential short-term and longer-term vulnerabilities, including human trafficking, child protection, health, and mental health

As time passes, more vulnerable people arrive, those with special needs, the elderly, the wounded or the sick.

With the overall objective of providing safe, dignified and sustainable living conditions and shelter, each organisation provides what help they can.

We met those distributing food while others distributed non-food items.

All of them spoke of the non-stop flow of refugees, those refugees’ distress, and the mental toll their plights exacted.

It’s a massive and diverse effort.

And it isn’t ending any time soon.