Ukrainians flee Russian troops and fear of conscription

Early on Friday morning Peter Javori, a 42-year-old father of two and his 18-year-old son, Doma, made it across the Ukrainian border into Hungary, visibly relieved at having escaped the worst armed conflict in Europe since the second world war.

Russian troops had invaded Ukraine early on Thursday and Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky ordered a “general mobilization” of men in the country of more than 40m into the military.

“I got very little from the Ukrainian government as I raised my kids,” Javori said, in Beregsurany on the Hungarian side of Ukraine’s western border. “I am not about to let them take my son into war. No way. ”

After just two days of fighting, Russian troops were on the verge of taking the capital Kyiv and Javori was one of thousands to flee to the Beregsurany border point.

Leaders across eastern Europe have condemned the Russian aggression and vowed to help Ukrainians. Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia expect a big influx of refugees and are preparing for 1mn or more people in total, according to various government estimates. Already at border points such as Beregsurany in Hungary and Siret in Romania, cars are backed up several kilometers and thousands of people are queueing up to get in.

In a video posted on Facebook by Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, a strategy map shows that as many as 600,000 refugees might arrive from beyond the Carpathian Mountains. While Orban made clear in a video statement that Budapest would not send troops or equipment to Ukraine or jeopardize its long-term gas shipment agreement with Moscow, he said: “We will naturally extend humanitarian aid.”

Ukrainians get off a train after crossing into Hungary
Ukrainians get off a train after crossing into Hungary © Laszlo Balogh / FT

Poland, home to a large Ukrainian community, said it would send a medical train to its border to treat Ukrainians wounded in the Russian attacks, and ship them to one of 120 available Polish hospitals, Reuters reported. “We will do everything to ensure that every person who enters the territory of Poland has access to healthcare, including hospitalization. Beds are being prepared in hospitals for the admission of the wounded, ”the Polish Ministry of Health told Reuters. Romanian defense minister Vasile Dincu on Wednesday said Bucharest would be able to handle half a million refugees.

Hungary, like other eastern NATO and EU members, beefed up its military presence along its eastern border, with armored vehicles patrolling towns and villages nearby. Workers at the border train station at Zahony checked the tracks to prepare for a possible operation that would ferry a large number of refugees westward.

Orban, who erected a double razor wire fence at the border and vowed to keep migrants out during the 2015 migrant crisis, takes a different tack now, partly because many of the arrivals are ethnic Hungarians, and partly because they do not transit another country before they reach Hungary.

Woman and children wait with their luggage at the Hungarian border town of Zahony
Woman and children wait with their luggage at the Hungarian border town of Zahony © Laszlo Balogh / FT

In a government decree published late on Thursday, Hungary gave temporary asylum to Ukrainian nationals who were fleeing the conflict, as well as third-country nationals with a legal status in Ukraine.

More than 100,000 ethnic Hungarians live in Ukraine, many of whom are entitled to Hungarian passports, which they received under Orban’s program to recognize them as citizens.

In Beregsurany, a four-lane road had more people on foot than vehicles, many of them families with children, bearing bags of clothes. Refugees put down their bags under a sign that read: ‘Welcome to Hungary!’ Nearby the Border Buffet served them coffee and snacks, and a dozen minivans waited to pick up those, such as Javori and his son, willing to pay € 40 for a trip to Budapest.

A dual Ukrainian and Hungarian national, Javori was initially turned back when he presented his Ukrainian passport, but allowed into Hungary on his Hungarian passport. He left his wife and daughter behind and was headed to Budapest, where he hopes to find work.

“The women stayed at home, my daughter, my granddaughter,” he said. “They are afraid, too, but I don’t think Putin wants to enter Transcarpathia [the border region next to Hungary]. At least I sincerely hope so. ”

Andriy, a 25-year-old Ukrainian driver who did not want to give his surname, said he used to be a policeman but, fearing he would be conscripted, quit to become a minibus driver last month. Andriy stopped picking up passengers on the Ukrainian side on Monday, and for now plans to remain in Hungary.

“My family is in Ukraine,” he said. “I worry myself sick, but they won’t be sent to the front like me. They told me to stay here and not risk it. ”

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