As refugees began to flee Ukraine on 24 February, reporters headed for the major crossings into Poland and Hungary – Záhony, Barabás, Medyka – and for Siret in northern Romania. I had been on a fellowship programme in Moscow, which advised us to leave the country, so I headed for Isaccea, a small Romanian town on the Danube, close to the Black Sea. Few other journalists were going this way. Isaccea is a ramshackle port town, dwarfed by huge electricity pylons. The river is half a mile wide here, and if you arrive from Ukraine by ferry – the Danube marks the border between the two countries – as around a thousand people a day did at the start of the invasion, it’s the substation you see first. From the shore, you can see the new arrivals, all in puffer jackets and blankets, crowding to the front of the ferry.
When they get off, they’re offered sandwiches, hot dogs, hygiene products, coffee, tea and sim cards. After this some head inland. The landscape is mostly farmland and forest, and vineyards rising up under the Măcin mountains. The whitewashed Orthodox monasteries stand out against the faded brown of late winter. They are the destination for some refugees: anyone with room to spare is encouraged to offer it up. The government sends people on to Bucharest, for instance, if they want to continue their journey. But otherwise it’s the luck of the draw: you might end up in a repurposed classroom or a private home.
Some are taken to the nearby city of Tulcea. Here, the Danube begins to divide. Tulcea, which has seventy thousand inhabitants, sits on a bend of the Sfântu Gheorghe (Saint George). Approaching from the west, you see the cooling towers of the alumina refinery close to the main road. A small lake is encircled with warehouses and cranes, but downtown the waterfront has a shabby, relaxed Black Sea feel. Tourist boats bob by the quayside, waiting for the season to start. The delta is a site of great ecological importance and Tulcea is the jumping-off point for most visitors. It’s the sort of place you pass through. But it has its attractions: winding, cobbled streets; red-tiled rooftops and the golden domes of churches; the pale minaret of the late Ottoman Azizyie mosque. The Independence Monument, commemorating Romanian independence in 1877, stands on the site of the ancient city of Aegyssus.
Dobrogea has a complicated history, and remains home to disparate groups: some Ukrainians have been surprised to find themselves billeted in Russian-speaking households in the villages along the delta. Around twenty thousand Lipovans still live here, descendants of the Old Believers who fled Catherine the Great. Ukrainians have also settled in Dobrogea over the years. These communities have kept to themselves for the most part, fiercely preserving their distinct identity. When Romania’s unofficial princess, Margareta, visited the border post recently in her position as head of the Romanian Red Cross, she was greeted in Tulcea by ethnic Ukrainians in full regalia: vinok flower headdresses, embroidered tunics, Cossack sheepskin hats. They carried a huge platter of bread and salt, a traditional Slavic welcome, and spoke of the plight of their ‘brothers and sisters’.
I spoke to a group of refugees unpacking their things in the Ukrainian Union house on Tulcea’s long Strada Corneliu Gavrilov. They told me they had come from Mykolaiv, Odessa and Izmail. There was a stark difference between those from Izmail – a city on another branch of the Danube that once belonged to Romania – and those from Mykolaiv, a port city further into Ukraine that has been besieged and bombarded since the start of the invasion. I found that those who had suffered most wanted to talk most. Some of the women from Mykolaiv had spent days or weeks in basements before making their escape. When I interviewed them, they were overwhelmed with rage. They repeatedly referred to Russian propaganda: ‘Who are we being saved from? Ourselves? Who are all these fascists? Isn’t it they who are fascist, these Russians?’ The idea that Ukrainians were being ‘protected’ by Putin was particularly enraging. ‘I am Russian-speaking, from Russian-speaking Odessa,’ a young woman told me, ‘but my state is Ukrainian. Is this so hard to understand?’ I didn’t say it, but this wasn’t a reality shared by most of the people I had met in Moscow, who seemed wildly deluded about Ukraine’s political identity.
I have been spending most days at the Isaccea port. When the ferry arrives – there are eight a day – the foot passengers get off first, followed by buses and cars with ‘Children!’ signs in Russian taped to the windows. A retired sailor from Odessa told me that although his generation has deep roots in Russia, and broadly supported the Donbas separatists, his children look to the West. The war has destroyed what remained of his former affiliation, what he described as ‘the life that is past’. No Ukrainian person I have spoken to during five weeks at the border has expressed anything other than hatred for Russia.
Romanian-Ukrainian ties, however, grow stronger every day. Many refugees weren’t sure what to expect and seem overwhelmed by the welcome. Orlivka, on the Ukrainian bank of the Danube, where they caught the ferry, was once Romanian, as was much of that part of Bessarabia. Snake Island, in the Black Sea, was the subject of a forty-year border dispute – resolved but not forgotten. And the treatment of the Moldovan and Romanian minorities in Ukraine is a recurrent theme in the Kremlin-controlled media. There are exceptions to this outpouring of goodwill – stories (as yet unverified) of Roma refugees facing hostility from volunteers at Isaccea, for instance – but it is hard not to be impressed by the scale and enthusiasm of the response.
In Orlivka, locals have been working with Romanian volunteers to get supplies to towns and hospitals deeper in Ukraine. When I visited, an old green canvas tent, painted with a white cross and flying the Ukrainian flag, was pitched at the side of the road to provide assistance to those waiting to cross the border. It was a poor sight compared to the brand new tents around Isaccea, with pub-garden space heaters running all hours. In Orlivka, people gathered round a wood-burning stove to warm their hands. The temperature at night was below zero. A young soldier, sitting on a sagging camp bed, announced that his wife had just had a baby girl and held up his phone. Cheers went up. Everyone spoke Romanian, though you could get by with Russian and Ukrainian. One volunteer told me he wasn’t worried about being bombed because a major Gazprom pipeline runs just a few kilometres away. ‘Putin wouldn’t bomb his own pipeline.’
The volunteers I met were energetic but anxious. One woman, who had taken in three Ukrainians, said: ‘We might be next.’ In Tulcea, a friend showed me what he calls his ‘bunker’. It’s just the cellar of his house, where he stores pickled vegetables and homemade tomato sauce, but he was only half-joking. His business, like many here, relies on tourism. Who will be taking their holiday in the delta this year? People living near the border keep a bag packed, ready for a quick getaway. Some were trying to stock up on iodine tablets. Romania has been a member of Nato for eighteen years and an attack here would start a spiralling, catastrophic war. But such logic is not as reassuring as it once was. In the days before the invasion, even as the US issued dire warnings, the general feeling – from Moscow to Kyiv, Tallinn to Bucharest – was that an all-out attack on major Ukrainian cities was impossible. On the morning of 24 February, we all woke up feeling stupid.
Towards the end of March, I sat watching TV with a group of locals in Tulcea. Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, was making a speech. ‘We cannot take peace for granted,’ he said, announcing the deployment of four new battlegroups in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia. It was, he added, a ‘fundamentally changed security environment’. The Romanians in the room listened warily. Many of these troops have now been deployed to the Mihail Kogălniceanu air base in Constanta, seventy miles south of Tulcea: hundreds of Belgian and French soldiers, plus equipment and vehicles. (The base is also home to two thousand American troops.) Three days after Stoltenberg’s speech, four British Typhoon jets arrived for an ‘air policing mission on the Romanian Black Sea coast’. The Wall Street Journal described this as ‘a new front line for Nato in Romania’.
The number of people crossing at Isaccea each day has dwindled to a few hundred; some are even making the return journey, convinced it’s safe to go back. The volunteer operation continues, but there is a sense of things winding down. No one is hopeful though. Odessa is a big prize for the Russians and the forces retreating from Kyiv are redoubling their efforts near the Black Sea.
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