‘I didn’t believe stories of atrocities in Ukraine. But then I saw the photos’

When women at the border started talking to me about rapes and murders happening inside Ukraine, I thought these were just rumours; I wouldn’t let myself believe it. I told myself that it was just people sharing scare stories or that women were just trying to rationalise their feelings of guilt about leaving their husbands and sons. Maybe my psyche was trying to defend itself.

Then a woman in her 70s, who said she was from one of the occupied areas close to Irpin and Bucha, crossed the border with her daughter and great-granddaughter. They were being treated by medical volunteers at the French mission. The daughter, who was in her 50s, had cancer and was very sick. The medics could not believe that someone like this, with a hole in her stomach and no bandages, was so desperate to leave that she would risk travelling for so many hours with no medical support.

The woman told me that her grandson served in a military brigade that had been the first to go into recently liberated areas. She said he took photos of what he had seen. She showed them to me, and it was only then I understood it was worse than I could have ever imagined.

She said that after her grandson had returned from duty, he had come to her house and begged her to leave Ukraine. He told her that women were being raped and killed by Russian troops but she refused to leave. In desperation, he showed her the photos and she knew she had to flee.

One of the photos she showed me was the hanging body of a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than 14. She said her grandson told her he was walking through the woods looking for dead bodies left by the Russians and lifted his head and saw these girls strung from the trees, all of them very young. They were naked and torn up. She said he had passed on the photos to investigators in Ukraine who were gathering evidence of war crimes.

I was not ready to see something like this. In Ukraine now there are many photos of what happened in Bucha but in Poland these are not widely circulated. Since she showed it to me I think my brain has tried to blank it out because I can’t even recreate it in my mind. All I remember is a white blur in the top-left corner of a shattered phone screen.

She told me that after she had seen these photos she went to the hospital where her daughter was being treated in the oncology ward. She went in, took out her daughter’s intravenous drip and helped her walk to the car and they just took off.

When I met them on the border, the car they were driving was shattered. The lights were broken, they had foil instead of windows. They had driven all that way in a car where the wheels were still turning but that was about it. But this lady said that after she started driving she didn’t stop until she had left Ukraine.

Often when women first cross the border they’re elated, happy to reach safety. They start smiling, joking – you’d never guess they’ve had any sort of trauma. Since I have seen that photo, I keep thinking back to those other women I have met and wondering what they might have gone through.

There have been women who have been asking me about getting hold of pills that cause menstruation. At the time I didn’t understand what they meant.

There was another woman who came over with a 17-year-old daughter. The daughter would not stop crying. I asked her how I could help, and what was going on. She asked for thick menstrual pads, underwear and trousers for the girl. I remember her as she had the same name as my own daughter. That woman also told me that when she went through the last checkpoints outside Kharkiv, she kept driving without stopping.

It isn’t just the ones who talk about the violence they have faced or witnessed. You worry about all the women who make the crossing. There are many who just cannot deal with being this helpless.

There was one woman, you could tell that she was wealthy. Her clothes were very nice, her shoes were very nice. The children were dressed nicely. And from their manners you could tell they were well-off. And their older girl, about 10, sat at the table in the reception centre and said: “Well, here you have free soup.” And the little boy said: “I don’t want a free soup.” The mother sat not saying anything until she just exploded and yelled: “You’re refugees now, and you need to eat everything they give you.”

This was the change they experienced – that when they crossed the border, everything they had had before had stayed behind in Ukraine. Then they leave you and you never find out what happened to them next.

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