Families carry their belongings through the Zosin border crossing in Poland after fleeing Ukraine. © UNHCR/Chris Melzer

Live from Ukraine: From Frontlines of a Refugee Crisis

It was 7: pm Ukraine time on the evening of Friday February 25 when I caught up with my guest today, journalist Cátia Bruno.

She had recently arrived in Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine not far from the Polish border. She was there to report to bear witness to the growing refugee and displacement crisis caused by the Russian attack on Ukraine, which began three days prior.

This conversation provides a valuable perspective on the choices facing Ukrainians as many seek to leave the country while others are forced to remain.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What is Happening on the Ground in Ukraine? 

Cátia Bruno [00:02:55] Hi, Mark, you are reaching me in Lviv, I’m in Lviv right now, currently in the hotel lobby. We’ve been out reporting during the day, me, and my colleague, who’s a photojournalist. I will introduce myself first, of course. My name is Cátia Bruno, I’m a 31-year-old journalist. I write about foreign affairs for a digital Portuguese newspaper which is very much focused on longform. And we also have a radio service, so we are also trying to do two daily updates on the situation for our radio service.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:38] You arrived in the Lviv yesterday. Can you describe the scene yesterday, the last 24 hours since you’ve been in Lviv?

Cátia Bruno [00:03:48] Yes. So, we entered the border through Poland by car, and as soon as we left the border premises, we started to see the big, big line of cars waiting to cross to Poland. And this was miles and miles of cars just stopped by the side of the road waiting to move forward. And as we moved along, we ran into a checkpoint that was being monitored by the Ukrainian army, and we got the feeling they were asking IDs for everyone. So, we got the feeling that due to martial law, they were not allowing men to cross anymore. So that meant that when we got further and further into Lviv, sometimes we would find like one guy or a couple of guys walking back to Lviv. So, I think that gives a real sense of how there are a lot of people trying to leave the city. Many from Lviv and people are coming from other parts of Ukraine to Lviv, even then to try to get to Poland. And the situation is one where almost every man cannot go through. And so, we end up with only women and children.

Why is the Ukrainian military barring men from leaving Ukraine?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:09] So just to be clear, the Ukrainian military is preventing Ukrainian men of fighting age, presumably from leaving Ukraine?

Cátia Bruno [00:05:20] From 18-year old’s to 60-year old’s due to martial law. They have to be in the country ready in case they are called to fight.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:32] Did you speak to any of those men, or have you encountered any of those men in your reporting yet?

Cátia Bruno [00:05:38] I did talk to a couple today who were in the train station waiting for the train to take their wives and their kids. One of them was still trying to reach the border and see if he can go through. The other one wasn’t. He was ready to say goodbye to his wife and his three children and stay here. And that was a particularly moving story because his wife was here in Lviv due to a work travel, and he was in Kiev with their children. And when the situation got crazy yesterday, he just hopped on the car and came to meet her here in Lviv. And then he will let his wife and kids go to Poland and he will stay and wait to be called for the frontline pretty much.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:33] So the women and the children who are headed to Poland—and just to be clear, to situate listeners geographically. Lviv is not far from Poland as well. If there’s no traffic, it’s a 45-minute drive?

Cátia Bruno [00:06:46] No, it’s a bit further away because you still have a bit of a distance between Lviv and the actual border, but it’s pretty much less than—it’s like one and a half hour tops if there is no traffic. Currently it is a lot longer because the line of cars is just huge.

How will Ukrainian refugees in Poland find shelter and humanitarian aid?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:08] So the women and children that you spoke with who are headed to Poland from Lviv, do they have a plan? Do they have friends in Poland? Where do they intend to stay? Do they have any sort of idea of what their next 24-48 hours will look like?

Cátia Bruno [00:07:29] There are very different stories. Some people have family and friends who live in Poland and will meet them there. Others even have family and friends from outside Poland in other EU countries that will try to travel to Poland to meet them. Others are going completely on their own. Others are in a situation where they have no idea where they will be in the next two hours, they have all their belongings in one two three suitcases’ tops, they stress how they left their house, they left their cars, they left their parents and they’re just going with their children into complete uncertainty.

How are Polish citizens and the Polish government reacting to the influx of Ukrainian refugees?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:13] I know that you entered from Poland, headed to Lviv just yesterday, but do you have a sense at all of what the situation is at the border, like, how Polish authorities are processing these refugees?

Cátia Bruno [00:08:30] I haven’t been able to see that that side of the border, but from what I’ve been reading and contacting with our journalists who are around here, they tell me—and this is not only happening in Poland but in Romania as well—there is a lot of creative ways that people who live there are trying to implement to help the refugees that come. So, we have improvised kitchens with hot meals, we have improvised beds where they can spend the night in a heated place, but I have no idea if there is enough capacity for the amount of people that are trying to cross right now. And I know that the Polish government seems to be involved in that, and they seem to want  to put up a system to get refugees but I don’t know if the capacity right now is there to the amount of people who are trying to cross because we are talking of a real exodus, not just from Lviv, but from the whole of Ukraine and then many, many people coming from Kiev in the last few days who are doing what used to be a six hour drive in 20 hours, 30 hours inside a car to get to Lviv, to get to Poland.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:49] So can you sort of describe as Lviv is, of course, in western Ukraine, has it come under direct attack yet?

Cátia Bruno [00:10:01] We are not sure yet, because as soon as we arrived, it was four a.m. last night. We heard a couple of sounds that seemed like explosions far away, and then we heard the sirens going off and then that siren sound went on through the night. And today during the day, we also heard sirens two times. The rumor, what people have been saying over here, is that there was an attack on military facilities outside of the city of Lviv, so in the region. But there are also reports online that tend to say that the Ukraine military was able to sustain attacks—air attacks. So, the situation is very fluid. We don’t know for sure, and I don’t think anyone here knows for sure if Lviv is also under attack or if there were just attempts that failed. If it’s a small minimum thing, or if it’s just a big confusion and so far, there are no Russian troops trying to bomb Lviv. So, everyone is quite scared. Today was the first day over here that people really, really got scared because there was a feeling that Lviv, considering how close it is to the Polish borders, there was a feeling that you might be safer or safer because it would be too close to a NATO border for Russia to attempt something. And with these sirens going on and with the uncertainty of what that means, I think people are becoming much more scared and waiting to see how it goes tonight. There was a curfew imposed for tonight, so after 10 p.m., no one can be outside. We will see what happens tonight. I think no one will sleep probably.

What is it like to be a journalist in Ukraine right now?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:07] Are there any sort of conversations you’ve had or things you’ve witnessed in your 24 hours in Lviv that are sort of illustrative of that kind of sense of fear and foreboding that you just described?

Cátia Bruno [00:12:23] Yes when we as reporters approach people, there is at first a big suspicion on who we are, if we are real journalists. What are we? What do we want from them? When of course we show our IDs and our passports if needed then people tend to open up and be more lax. So, there is a sense of distrust of stranger people that might approach them. I think people possibly think there might be connections either to Russian media or other types of Russian presence in the region. And then when people do trust you and realize you are real journalists and then talking with you, they start by being very calm, quiet, collected but then in a few seconds after talking, they usually start to cry very, very quickly and they start to collapse emotionally quite quickly because they’re definitely scared and either planning to leave or instead deciding that they will stay to fight whatever comes. In that case, many people say things like being prepared to face whatever might happen.

What is living in Ukraine like for families who plan on remaining in the country?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:47] Have you encountered people who have decided—women and children, not men, entire families—who have opted to stay as opposed to try to leave?

Cátia Bruno [00:13:59] Not whole families, not yet, but there are some men in that situation. I’ve met some women, single women, in that situation as well. I mean, I spoke to a woman today who is from Kyiv. She was here in Lviv also in a work trip, and suddenly got stuck here. And she said, I will have to go back to Kyiv because my whole families there. My father, he’s there, he’s in a nursing home. There’s no way he will get out, so I have to go back to his side. I won’t go anywhere. It’s just a matter of when will I be able to travel to Kyiv. I will wait to see if things calm down and then get on and go there because it’s my home. I’m not leaving my home.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:44] Well, and I just have to imagine if you have so many people fleeing Kyiv headed to Lviv, then just the amount of humanity, just the number of people around Lviv must be sort of swelling at the moment. Where are people staying? Where are people sheltering?

Cátia Bruno [00:15:02] Absolutely. When we arrived last night, we were trying to call frantically every single place we could stay. No one would have us. The city was completely booked, completely full. We just headed straight to a hotel, asked to spend the night in the lobby. That’s what we did this night. Very, very kind manager let us in and gave us water, food and told us we could sleep here on the couches. And so, I think people are mainly improvising, and many people are trying to connect friends with their families and try to help see if people can host them just to manage to spend the evening and then continue the trip tomorrow to the border. And I believe many people right now are sleeping in their own cars at the border, just trying to get there.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:57] And so, Cátia, we’re speaking I guess, a couple of hours before that 10 p.m. curfew. What are your plans for reporting, you know, in the coming days from Lviv? Do you do plan to go elsewhere if you’re comfortable speaking about that?

Cátia Bruno [00:16:13] We’re completely doing it hour by hour to the. We know for sure we will say tonight here in Lviv, we plan on tomorrow going to see the situation at the border, the land border, and then we are still waiting to see. We have a few meetings and interviews pre-arranged in the city tomorrow in the afternoon and then we don’t know yet. I mean, of course, the situation that is the most tragic right now is Kyiv. But we believe it is too dangerous right now to go there. And there’s a risk we might not get in and if we do, there’s a risk that the city can be held for quite some time, and no one will be able to leave. So, we are still waiting to check if we’re staying in Lviv, if we’re visiting villages nearby. That’s also a possibility. I know some people who are with their parents in nearby villages, so there might be a shot of going there. But we are really, really taking it hour by hour because the situation is very fluid. And I guess it really depends on this evening if there are sirens going on and possible airstrikes, that situation, if that does not happen, then I think it means Lviv is quieter and calmer than we anticipate. So, we have to wait and see.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:46] Cátia, is there anything else you’d want to add and any points you’d want to make? You know, questions I didn’t ask that you’d want to address?

Cátia Bruno [00:17:54] Well, one point I wanted to make is that a lot of the people I’ve talked to feel strongly, very strongly let down by the West. There is a feeling that, ‘oh, we’ve been warning you that Putin’s Russia was a danger to our security. That’s why we wanted to enter NATO. You didn’t let us, but then you also didn’t manage to protect us in other ways.’ And people feel very let down because they feel they have been held as pawns. And just in that the West has just let Ukraine fall.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:38] Well, Cátia, thank you so much for your time and for your reporting. I look forward to following your reporting for the next several days and throughout this crisis. Thank you.

Cátia Bruno [00:18:50] Thank you. And keep up the good work Mark.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:54] All right. Thank you all for listening. Huge thank you to Cátia Bruno for speaking with me on such short notice. We caught up on Twitter spaces and I took some questions from the audience afterwards, though she had to go and do her radio spot. I will continue to do these Twitter spaces as events unfold in Ukraine and beyond. So please do join me @MarkLGoldberg whenever you are able. Thanks, and we’ll see you next time. Bye!