When the Polish photographer Rafał Milach took these pictures, on his country’s eastern border, the war in Ukraine was less than a week old. During that week, nearly a million people fled Ukraine, half a million of them escaping to Poland. (Both numbers have since doubled.) It was freezing along the border. Before refugees crossed to safety, they endured delays of many hours, or even a few days: in cars, in trains, on foot. The first quality that stands out in these portraits is the exhaustion in people’s faces. The muted colors in the background—the pewter sky, the drab pastel walls, the dead white of the bus—seem to sympathize.
I witnessed Milach at work, and was struck by how long he talked with each refugee before taking a photograph. He wanted to hear their stories. “What can you do when a grown man starts to cry in front of you?” he said to me. “What can you do when people tell you how they had to abandon their homes and their relatives overnight? I can listen. I can document it—to remember, so the images and words can resonate long after this nightmare is over.”
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Despite the heartrending situation, these photographs are full of life. There is sadness in them, but also defiance. The man in the blue jacket is Sher Alkroi, a Syrian citizen. He left his native country in 1996, and ended up in Ukraine, where he owns a furniture business. Alkroi fled his home, in Kharkiv, near the Russian border, when fighting began. He told Milach, “We didn’t take anything—the children, that’s it. We didn’t take any money—the banks were closing, we could not withdraw money, our money was left in the office. We do not have anything, we left. We have enough money only for gas.”
What will Alkroi do next? He didn’t know. Perhaps he would go to Germany, perhaps Norway. All he desired was peace. In Syria, he noted, “there is also a war.”
Cell phones feature in several shots. We are all attached to our devices, but the refugees I met clung to them, for they are a lifeline to news from home—and to ideas about where to go next. If the exodus from the war in Ukraine sometimes feels like a crisis ripped from the pages of twentieth-century history, it is also a distinctly modern one. Refugees are continually consuming social-media content about the conflict they are fleeing. They navigate their upheaval by using Telegram channels that tell them where the shortest lines are, which agencies might help them, or how to get a bed for the night. Technology allows them to share advice, support, and love in real time.
I was not surprised to see pets at the border, along with other cuddly animals. A Ukrainian medical student I met in a Polish railway station told me that, in her haste, she’d packed only one nonessential item: a Teddy bear. Many kids seem to have had the same idea. Milach’s photograph of a girl clutching a giant stuffed shark while her anxious, bleary-eyed mother makes a call captures the essence of the refugee experience: ordinary people, their lives violently upended, grabbing on to comfort.
The mother on the phone, Maryna Klimova, told Milach that she planned to return to Ukraine, alone, and join the resistance. “I am here because of her,” she said of her daughter, who is eleven. “My daughter comes first. But when she will be safe, I can help.” Klimova knew of “a very safe space for my child in Munich.” Then she would go back “to help our people—they need a lot of help.” Klimova is an actor. Were it not for the Russian invasion, she said, she would now be in Kyiv, in a theatre on the Dnieper’s left bank, performing in a staging of Homer’s Odyssey.