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In Poland, a lifeline for Ukraine at war

Photo: Brendan Smialowski Archives Agence France-Presse Crucial operations for Ukraine, lacking ammunition, are being organized at Rzeszów-Jasionka airport.

The hangar door barely opens before the stretchers start moving and the medical staff get busy.

There are 16 of them. Some crippled, lying down, others leaning on crutches or sitting in a wheelchair, metal pins placed on the leg, some on the arm. The patients' faces are closed, tired. And this man with graying hair grimaces in pain, curled up on his stretcher. Outside, in the rain, two injured people puff on a cigarette. This is their only moment of respite before returning to this old warehouse converted into a back-up medical center. All are men, most of them in their thirties or forties. They come straight from war-torn Ukraine.

There is a disconcerting calm on the spot in view of these damaged bodies arriving one by one. It has been two years since this medical evacuation center located on the outskirts of the town of Rzeszów, in the far east of Poland, saw the ravages of Russian aggression in Ukraine unfold.

Here, “we make no distinction between civilians and military,” assures Adam Szyszka, who coordinates the medical emergency team of the PCPM Foundation (Polish Center for International Aid) on the site. Severe burn victims, injured or sick children, people with cancer, elderly people, mutilated soldiers: no one is left behind. But on this February afternoon, the khaki green clothes worn by some of the seriously wounded who can be seen under the orange blankets seem to betray the horrors of the front.

Inside, dozens of medical screens, each covered by a curtain, await them. On deck, ready for any emergency, paramedics, psychologists and doctors live indirectly to the rhythm of the salvos of Russian strikes.

More than a thousand patients were taken out of Ukraine through this medical evacuation center set up jointly, in September 2022, by the European, Polish and Ukrainian authorities. Established in record time, the structure serves above all to relieve a Ukrainian health system ravaged by war while Russian strikes spare neither hospitals nor civilian infrastructure.

“Our role is to ensure that the patient is in a stable condition for the rest of the journey,” explains Adam Szyszka. Because, 24 hours later, everyone will be evacuated to different European hospitals — sometimes in Germany, sometimes in the Netherlands, sometimes in Norway — for prolonged hospitalization.

Rzeszów-Jasionka, a strategic hub

A stone's throw from the medical evacuation center, adjacent to the highway, is the Rzeszów-Jasionka airport: it is from there that these patients will reach a specially chartered plane.< /p>

It is also there, on this same tarmac, that crucial operations are organized for Ukraine, lacking ammunition in the face of the Russian invader. Nearly 80% of Western aid, both humanitarian and military, passes through Rzeszów before heading to the Ukrainian border, 70 kilometers away.

For a modest time, the airport transformed into a logistics platform. Like the entire city, which has become a hub for humanitarian NGOs, which currently welcome 30,000 refugees. You only need to take a look over the fence surrounding the airfield to understand the highly critical nature of the place. Everywhere near the runway, dozens of Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries are aimed skyward. The rumble of military cargo planes is now part of residents' daily lives, taking over that of commercial flights, which are also on the rise.

The military victory so hoped for by Ukraine, dependent on its Western allies, was largely orchestrated in Rzeszów. And Moscow is aware of this. Also a network of Russian spies tried to monitor the comings and goings at the airport by installing mini cameras around the site. The cell, on the orders of Russian domestic intelligence, was dismantled by Warsaw in the spring of 2023, and 13 of its members were convicted. In addition to observing strategic infrastructure, they planned to derail a train carrying military equipment.

At the beginning of January, on the Russian state channel Rossiya 1, propagandist Dmitri Kisselev even brazenly declared that “Polish Rzeszów airport is becoming an increasingly obvious target.” Real threat ? Simple provocation ? In any case, the municipality of Rzeszów, which is regularly targeted by Russian cyberattacks, is on alert.

A city “forever transformed”

Once a little-known city that some perceived as provincial, even boring, Rzeszów gained notoriety as a European crossroads having welcomed 100,000 Ukrainian refugees at the height of the crisis. Official delegations of heads of state and government have been arriving there for two years: Rzeszów is a must for anyone wanting to go to Ukraine, where the airspace remains closed.

“This is a revolutionary change. From a mono-ethnic city, we have moved to an international city,” says its mayor, Konrad Fijołek, who receives us dressed to the nines in his office. You just have to listen to the market square with its pretty 19th century facades to see it: Polish mixes with Ukrainian and English. “We don't know how long we're going to stay here, probably several years,” candidly says an American national we met near the airport, who explains that he is employed to serve the needs of the American army on site before declining to reveal his identity.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 American troops are deployed as part of NATO support operations in Rzeszów alone. Between hamburgers and fried foods, some restaurants have adapted their menus to this clientele from across the Atlantic. “Of course, those who live here complain that hotels are almost always full and accommodation is more difficult to find,” continues Mayor Fijołek. But on the other hand, it delights restaurateurs, hoteliers, hair salons, gyms… Not to mention bar owners! »

The anxiety of the first days has dissipated. The elected official remembers being woken up in the early morning of February 24, 2022 by the roar of a NATO fighter plane patrolling the sky. The risk of an escalation ? Of a spillover of the conflict ? Many Poles then held their breath. In Rzeszów, gas stations and ATMs were stormed. Several residents rushed to the supermarkets to stock up on supplies or pack an emergency suitcase, “just in case”. Since then, the front has been pushed back into eastern Ukraine, then frozen.

“Residents feel safe seeing all these anti-missile systems. Better that it be this way rather than having aggressive Russians on our borders… And everyone in Poland knows that a Ukraine that defends itself is a guarantor of our security,” underlines Konrad Fijołek, who believes that his city, “ transformed forever”, will fully play its role in the reconstruction of Ukraine when the time is right.

Among other distinctions received during these two years, displayed here and there inside the city hall behind glass plaques, one in particular catches the eye: the one awarded in person by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, which attributes to Rzeszów — and its 200,000 inhabitants — the title of “saving city”. Like the rest of Poland, the outpouring of solidarity there was massive.

The weight of exile

Oksana Virt, long black hair and graceful face, has made Rzeszów her temporary home. Sitting in a café at the dawn of the second anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, this uprooted person from Lviv, in western Ukraine, remembers the anguish of fleeing, of those hours spent at the Polish border on February 27, 2022. This then-pregnant mother wanted to keep her children safe in Poland. And give birth safe from bombs. “A few days later, due to stress, I suffered a miscarriage,” she tells us.

Oksana's life in exile is far from the one she led in her old makeup salon. Today, it consists of raising her children, who both attend a Polish school, and raising funds for the soldiers at the front. Her gaze filled with sadness, she explains that not a day goes by “without [her] thinking about the war”. “It’s like I don’t allow myself to smile anymore. »

His 16-year-old son only thinks of one thing: joining the Ukrainian army as soon as he can.

This report was financed with the support of the Transat-Le Devoir.< International Journalism Fund /i>

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116