For the last three weeks I have been volunteering at the Polish-Ukrainian border as a Russian interpreter. Every day I spend up to fourteen hours meeting refugees off trains, directing them to their next destination, and advising those who have come without plans on what to do next. This often involves taking them to the station café and settling them down with a coffee or a hot meal to discuss their next steps. There aren’t many volunteers here who speak Ukrainian or Russian. There are even fewer who speak either Russian or Ukrainian and Polish. In order for refugees to communicate with the police or local government officials, we often have to form a translation train: the refugee tells me what they need, I translate to an English-speaking Pole, and they pass it on to the relevant authority.
As well as the millions of refugees arriving from Ukraine, and thousands of Polish and international volunteers, there are Americans and Western Europeans who have turned up in their vanloads, erecting colourful tents, playing music, and handing out sweets and teddy bears to children who have not cleaned their teeth for days and are unable to carry any more toys than the treasured items they have brought from home.
I’m often reminded of the passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being in which Milan Kundera’s narrator describes an American senator’s feelings on seeing children from Czechoslovakia playing:
There was more than joy at seeing children run and grass grow; there was a deep understanding of the plight of a refugee from a Communist country where, the senator was convinced, no grass grew, or children ran.
If Ukrainian refugees enter Poland by foot, their first experience of the European Union is likely to be the Medyka border crossing. They then walk down a short path to get a bus either to the Humanitarian Centre, in an abandoned Tesco, or to Przemyśl railway station. A man who has driven a piano from Germany plays sad music. There is a candyfloss machine, and a Frenchman dressed as pirate handing out crêpes. Members of religious sects strum ukuleles, sing kumbaya, and pray loudly at people. Turn your back on the refugees and you could almost imagine you were at Glastonbury.
I make my way to the station each day past a man playing a wooden flute, and push through a crowd of American evangelicals trying to hand out postcards with cartoon drawings of rainbows and castles. When English-speaking volunteers arrive at the station they tend to be directed to me. I ask about their language abilities, and find out if they have a car or minibus. If it transpires, as it often does, that they speak only English and do not have transport, I wonder what has made them come all this way instead of donating the hundreds of pounds it has cost them to one of the relief funds. What do they have to offer that is worth their taking up a bed desperately needed by a displaced person?
The kitsch circus isn’t helped by the photographers who swarm around every exhausted babushka and crying child with foot-long camera lenses. Some are journalists; others are bloggers or film students who tell me that they ‘simply had to be here’. I have lost count of the occasions I have been asked by a man with a camera to get out of a shot or to adjust my position while I am trying to advise a mother and her children where to go next, or how to find somewhere they might spend the night.
War tourism is nothing new. During the Franco-Prussian War, people would follow the fighting, collecting souvenirs. After the Crimean War, Mark Twain led tours through Sevastopol where the sightseers collected shrapnel. And Benjamin Robert Haydon recorded in his diary that an English button manufacturer from Birmingham rode through the smoke and carnage of Waterloo on a cob. He had always wanted, he told the Duke of Wellington, to see a battle.