Fleeing a brutal war, millions of Ukrainian refugees face a bleak and uncertain future

Nearly 10 percent of Ukraine's population has been displaced in almost three weeks of war. While almost 2 million people have moved within the country's borders, over 2 million more have fled. The majority of those Ukrainians are escaping the war to the west by crossing into Poland. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on the exodus from the Polish capital of Warsaw.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly 10 percent of Ukraine's population has been displaced in almost three weeks of war. Almost two million people have moved within Ukraine's borders, and more than two million have left the country. The majority of those Ukrainians are fleeing war by crossing into Poland on the west.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports for us now from the Polish capital, Warsaw — Malcolm.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Judy, the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, has signed into law a series of measures which is going to make it easier for Ukrainian refugees to settle in exile here.

    That means they will be able to get government identification, they will be able to work, get state benefits, their children will be able to go to school. This comes as the number of Ukrainians crossing the border into Poland has risen to 1.8 million.

    Overwhelmed by exhaustion and despair, Ukrainians bed down in Warsaw Central Station, 170 miles from their homeland. They may be safe, but sleep doesn't come easily. They have no idea how long their new existence as refugees will last. The Poles are trying to soften the children's trauma with toys and games and food. Their innocence helps to shield them, unlike the adults, who comprehend what they have seen.

  • Maria Kalashnikova, Student:

    We left, like, three or four days ago because our village was very heavily bombed. And we wanted to stay there but, lots of houses were destroyed, and we just couldn't. We feared that our house would be destroyed too.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Maria Kalashnikova is a 20-year-old student from Horenka, a village of 5,000 people Northwest of Kyiv. She fled with her mother, Alina, sister Lydia and their cat, Luna.

    One key family member is absent, her father Oljek.

  • Maria Kalashnikova:

    I'm very frightened, but I hope that he will be OK. He dropped us near the railway station, and he stayed there to fight the evil. I think so.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The station is a key transit point for refugees from the east. From here, they obtain tickets to head west, deeper into Europe. But their minds are on their homeland and the menfolk they have left behind to fight the Russians.

  • Maria Kalashnikova:

    I think that they are really brave. And I met a lot of men who are fighting, already fighting for us. And they're really good people. And I hope that they will be OK.

    Pawel Jablonski is Poland's deputy foreign minister. He says the country will require billions of dollars in assistance to accommodate the lion's share of Ukraine's exodus.

    How big do you think the exodus could become and the influx into your country?

  • Pawel Jablonski, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister:

    If Putin's barbaric methods continue, if he continues to shell residential districts, schools, hospitals, if he continues to murder civilians, certainly, more people will be fleeing the war and fleeing for their lives.

    And we will obviously be ready to help them. But what we are already facing is unprecedented, incomparable to anything that Europe has experienced post-World War II.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The choir of Saint Mary Magdalene Orthodox Cathedral provided temporary solace, as Ukrainians joined their Polish hosts to pray for peace.

    The congregation is providing food and shelter for a limited number of refugees. Their open arms draw people like Olena Vasurenko and her niece, Julia Bondarenko, from near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, that has been heavily bombarded.

    Julia shared video of her residential college.

  • Julia Bondarenko, Student (through translator):

    All the infrastructure, everything is being destroyed. Everything that took years to build, all the private homes that people saved up to buy were just ruined in a moment.

  • Olena Vasurenko, Cleaner (through translator):

    The Russians want us to think that they will reach Kyiv. I hate Putin. I hate him and want him do die. I can't — I was there, and I saw everything.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Poland knows what its like to be invaded by Russia.

    Parish Priest Anatol Szydlowski is old enough to remember Soviet occupation.

  • Rev. Anatol Szydlowski, Saint Mary Magdalene Orthodox Cathedral (through translator):

    It's a tragedy. It's a tragedy. I can't wrap my mind around it. It's Satan's work. It's a fratricidal war.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Does this feel like it's the start of the Third World War?

  • Rev. Anatol Szydlowski (through translator):

    Oh, no, we don't believe it is. We pray to our God so he acts as soon as possible. Everything is now in God's hands. No one acts like God does. The war must end quickly, so people can go back to their homes and live peacefully.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For now, the key word here is the old anti-communist slogan solidarnosc, or solidarity. This sports center in the village of Wieliszew, an hour from Warsaw, has become a center for aid donations from across Europe.

    Mayor Pawel Kownacki is grateful for the response to his appeal for help.

    How afraid are you that this war is going to spill over into Poland?

    Pawel Kownacki, Mayor of Wieliszew, Poland: So, all the time, I say to my wife, don't be afraid, because she's afraid a lot. But if I have to be honest, I am afraid.

    So I can feel that the next move of the Putin and the evil people will be next countries. So, that's why we have to support Ukrainians just to focus to stop this Russian army, and if we can't just send them weapons, so we have to send them food. We have to support the families.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dozens of refugees are being sheltered in an empty sports camp nearby. But sickness is spreading among some of the children, and British doctor Jeeves Subramaniam says the cramped conditions aren't helping.

  • Dr. Jeeves Subramaniam, British Physician:

    Rotavirus has been going out throughout these schools and these areas where lots of refugees are being put in the same place.

    It's happened at a school nearby, where six people had it at the same time. And now this child has it. There's 50 people in along this corridor. So, it's really like now that it's going to spread amongst all the kids. So, we will have to keep an eye for the next time another child starts vomiting, another child starts vomiting.

    Unfortunately, children, they dehydrate very quickly. And if they can't hold fluids down, like this kid, then they need to go to hospital to get a drip.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For the moment, the Ukrainians have space, and it's relatively comfortable. But refugee camps have a tendency to become permanent and overcrowded.

    How optimistic is Poland about the progress of the peace talks?

  • Pawel Jablonski:

    We are very pessimistic. We have always been pessimistic about Russia. Russia does not want peace. They don't want to sit down and talk. They want to win. And they are ready to inflict death, they're ready to inflict terror in order to achieve this goal.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    If the minister's pessimism turns out to be justified, then these scenes at the Central Station are just a taste of worse things to come.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Warsaw.

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