Ukrainian children walk to the Polish border with their parents not far behind. Provided photo
Ukrainian children walk to the Polish border with their parents not far behind. Provided photo

A sea of individuals carried their precious belongings in suitcases or backpacks, in plastic bags or sometimes in the palms of their hands.

Children, with tears streaming down their faces, cried out as they were ripped away from the only home they’d ever known and then told to say goodbye to loved ones who had to stay behind.

Frigid temperatures, long lines and the lack of toilets didn’t make the journey any easier.

It was Feb. 24, 2022, near the Ukrainian-Polish border.

Russian forces began to invade Ukraine just hours earlier, forcing millions to flee the country or face uncertain peril.

Hoosier missionary Michelle Pratt — who has lived in Lviv, Ukraine, for over a decade — her daughter and son-in-law, Nicole and Josh Baldonado, and their three children, were among the masses that day.

Michael, Michelle’s husband, had stayed behind in Lviv to tend to refugees at their makeshift shelter.

The couple said they knew it was the right decision to split up that day, for Michael to stay behind and the rest to go.

But though they said they knew it was the right decision, it was still one of the hardest ones to make.

‘What’s the matter, Mama?

The typical route to the Baldonado house often takes the Pratts around 20 minutes.

On the morning of Feb. 24, however, it took well over an hour.

“Air raid sirens were going off, and everything was chaotic,” Michelle said, speaking recently to the Tribune from the couple’s home in Lviv.

Nicole chronicled the family’s experience that day — and for several weeks after — in diary-form on her Facebook account.

“We closed our front door,” she wrote in part. “My stomach lurched, and I choked at the tears spilling down my face. I wanted the kids to feel safe and secure. Didn’t want to break down in front of them yet. … We said our last goodbyes and got into the van. I watched our house and my dad’s car in the side view mirror as we pulled down the street.

“And we cried,” Nicole continued. “Our kids started asking why. ‘What’s the matter, Mama? Why are you crying?’ I don’t remember how we answered.”

That was just the beginning of a journey that would ultimately last about 36 hours, Michelle said.

Creeping toward the Polish border

Michelle and the Baldonados stopped off at a gas station to get some food and stretch their legs.

It took about an hour to fill up their van with gasoline, a task that often takes a matter of minutes.

The group then pulled away and continued to head to the Polish border.

They came to a halt a few miles outside of Poland, where hundreds of other vehicles were waiting on the road in front of them to cross into the country too.

Nicole recalled the experience in a social media post.

“We were soon closed in from behind and from both sides as more vehicles joined us,” she wrote. “It was mid-afternoon. For the next 21 hours, we would make slow progress toward the safety of Poland. The number of cars increased. Soon, there were more and more people walking on foot toward the border, pulling rolling suitcases or carrying backpacks. People were now ditching their cars on the sides of the road.”

Michelle described that scene too, admitting how strange it all felt to witness firsthand.

“It was strange because every time someone walked past rolling their suitcases, it sounded like planes, so everyone kept looking up to see if something was happening. It was so surreal to see,” she said.

That first night on their trek to the border was spent in the Baldonado’s van, the six of them huddled together to maintain warmth and security.

By the time the group woke up the next day — Feb. 25 — they had been waiting in line to cross the border for 15 hours.

It was a clear and sunny day, Michelle and Nicole remembered.

And though the situation was horrendous, the pair said many of the refugees around them were still trying to make the best of it.

“I remember one mama holding her young child’s hand and skipping up the road,” Nicole wrote. “The child was probably six or seven, and mama had a smile and encouraging look on her face. I thought, ‘Amazing how she’s holding it together for her child. I know she must be dying inside.’”

Because men of military age (18-40) in Ukraine had to stay behind to fight against the Russian forces, many of the refugees were women and children, Nicole and Michelle said.

And those men who did accompany their families to the border were met with the realization that they would just have to kiss and hug their families goodbye before turning around and making the trek back.

“I watched one father hug his 4-year-old son goodbye, kiss his young wife and walk away with a look of acceptance,” Nicole recalled. “She wiped tears off her cheeks and climbed back into her car. … The men continued to walk by us, back into Ukraine. Some looked like kids, and my heart broke at the thought of the horrors they would experience in war. Others looked far too old to fight. I did not see a single man crying. Few even looked fearful or desperate. I wondered what they were thinking.”

Later that day, Michelle and the Baldonados finally reached the actual border crossing.

Life as a refugee

On a normal day at the Ukrainian-Polish border, customs agents often ask questions such as ‘What brings you to this country?’ or ‘How long do you plan on staying?’

But on Feb. 25, Michelle said those logistics were pretty much thrown out the window.

“They weren’t asking questions this time like they normally do,” she said. “Usually, they’re checking passports and checking COVID certificates. None of that was happening. Passports, yes, but even people that didn’t have an international passport were still getting across.”

And as the group finally entered onto Polish soil, another question began to emerge in all of their minds.

Now what?

Because the internet was relatively spotty prior to the family entering into Poland, Michelle and the Baldonados couldn’t really look up places to stay.

Another question mark was how long they’d actually be there, Michelle and Nicole noted, which made booking a place also a bit problematic.

But they eventually found a location about an hour outside Krakow and virtually in the middle of nowhere.

The group arrived at their destination, a small apartment on the second floor of a Polish couple’s home, that night.

“We just needed a place to shower and sleep,” Michelle said. “They (the couple) didn’t speak a bit of English or Ukrainian, but between their Polish and our Ukrainian and Google Translator, we made it all work out. It was actually only about 25 minutes from Auschwitz (Holocaust concentration camp), so they knew what war was like. They knew what genocide was like. So there was a definite compassion there.”

About a week after arriving in Poland, the group moved again into houses near Krakow that are typically used for summertime rental properties.

It was where they would spend countless days as they watched and waited to see when they’d be able to finally return home.

Michelle and Nicole began leading a small group centered around trauma training at a nearby shelter, helping refugees learn to cope with everything they had just endured, while Josh helped drive supplies back and forth.

It was around the same time that news began spreading around Ukraine about Russian forces possibly attacking or kidnapping ministers and others offering humanitarian aid around the country.

With that warning in place — although he said he didn’t want to leave the shelter in Ukraine — Michael joined Michelle and the rest of his family in Poland.

It was the first time that Michael said he saw the “desperation” at the border that he had heard so much about.

“We call it ‘No Man’s Land,’” Michael said, “the area between the Polish and the Ukrainian border. It’s about 100 yards, the space between. And the first time I crossed; it was a terrible scene. You just had people walking, and they were freezing cold. They were just wearing blankets and looked so tired.”

The Pratts and Baldonados are now able to travel back and forth from Poland to Ukraine with a little bit more ease than they were able to in the beginning days and weeks of the Russian invasion.

But when they cross the border now, they said they can’t help but think about their countless neighbors who also made that same journey.

“I will tell you this,” Michael said. “The resolve of the Ukrainian people is unwavering. You see it in every face. Ukrainian people, our resolve is that we’re going to win. We are winning. Nothing’s going to change that. We will win. Period.”

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