It’s been over 70 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. The refugee camp at the Palanca border crossing in the Republic of Moldova was one of the first responders to the crisis. “We built this site the moment the invasion happened on February 24th,” Ion (name changed) explained to me, “And I started working here at 7:30 am that same day.” He has stayed at the camp every day since.
I remember the first day I met him. It was a holiday weekend and he mused over the idea of going back to Chisinau for a break. “I could have gone home and made two souls happy,” he jokes. But, as he explained to me later, it was his patriotism for Moldova and his commitment to helping refugees in the direst of circumstances that kept him at camp. His normal days as a Moldovan police officer seem like a distant memory as he and his colleagues take on a very different kind of job: managers of the refugee camp at Palanca.When you drive to Palanca from the Moldovan side you are first struck by how quickly the landscape opens up. The Lower Dniester National Nature Park on the Odessa side of the border can be seen from a few kilometers away as you make your way down the last of Moldova’s wide expansive hillsides. “We’re not so far from the action.” I think out loud as I see a sign displaying “Odessa - 60 km.” In fact, from the border crossing at Palanca, Odessa is closer than Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, by about 80 km.
There are 340 heated tents erected at the Palanca refugee camp, holding a total of 5000 beds. Around half were immediately provided by the Moldovan government, while the remaining tents came in from a variety of international NGOs. In the early days, those tents were filled; their plastic canvas walls cut the ceaseless winds, rain, ice, and snow of February and early March. One thing that is undeniable about Palanca: it is windy… all the time.
“The work in those first few days was very intensive. We had to build everything we needed from a kitchen to the bathrooms,” Ion tells me, “And it was difficult in those first days because we didn’t have any transportation system developed yet.” Instead, individual volunteers drove down to Palanca of their own accord to offer rides to Ukrainians crossing the border.
“There was a large influx of people at the beginning,” Ion tells me, “But since then it has lessened considerably.” Unlike the many stories of refugee camps in far-off places, the camp at Palanca doesn’t house anyone for longer than 8-12 hours, even less today. Now, only a handful of refugees can be seen throughout the camp on any given day. They are mostly sticking around for a brief respite before hitting the road again and heading west, but with a bus station erected just a few steps from camp, few see the need to stay. The brevity of the refugee’s layover at the camp also speaks to the historic relationship between Moldova and Ukraine. As we talked about in our Smokehouse article, “Moldovan, Ukrainians, and even Russians are deeply connected through history, language, and culture. If you look at a map, Moldova looks like it is midway through being eaten by Ukraine. Moldova shares a border on three sides with Ukraine. There are cities and towns in the north of Moldova that have a high ethnically Ukrainian population and where you can hear Ukrainian being spoken regularly. Similarly, there are parts of Ukraine with a high number of ethnically Moldovan people and where Romanian is commonly spoken as well. And both countries speak Russian in addition to their native languages. Both countries also send their kids to school in Moscow, or their husbands to work in Russia. If Ukraine falls, Moldova is next.”
Ion goes on to explain, “It was a new experience for us, setting up a working refugee camp and a bus station here, but we worked to develop everything with a lot of enthusiasm, patriotism, and strength of human spirit. We wanted to make this site as comfortable and effective as we could for the Ukrainians coming over because this is not only a critical time for the region, but they are also our neighbors and we are one of the first countries they pass through on their way to safety.
We have a common language here,” Ion says, “It has been a beautiful experience to get to know the people coming across the border and working to meet their needs. Our ultimate goal is to help everyone, so we are doing everything we can to meet that goal. That is not only the goal at the camp, but also the goal for Moldova as a whole when it comes to the Ukrainians passing through or choosing to stay.”
I am interested in how Ion repeatedly talks about patriotism and fraternity. Despite the fact that Ion is only a police officer from 9-5, he and his colleagues have taken on their new job as a 24/7 deal. “In the early days we hoped that our work here wouldn’t last very long,” he said, “Because we hoped the war would end quickly. We obviously love our home lives, but we are the first responders here and we are going to stay as long as we have to.”
Ion and his team have seen the situation change radically in the last 70 days. While the camp has slowed down considerably, there has still been a variety of new and developing needs from day to day. As the refugee response progressed, a bus station was developed and the nearby dirt road was re-graveled. Ion helped lay the gravel and saw the semi-permanent offices of the new station go up as a dozen international NGOs set up shop. He and his team also dug the latrines at camp, oversaw getting wifi, lighting, and electricity installed, and helped develop the camp kitchen.
“We were busy in the early days, but as things slowed down we were able to rest a bit.” Recalls Ion, “Yet, my team has stayed here even as things have slowed down and we have shifted our work accordingly. We are maintaining the facilities because we never know when another influx of refugees is going to come in.”
His last statement gets to the point of the matter: the war is far from over and a new wave of refugees can crash at any point. Especially now as Moscow trains its sights on places like Odessa, as well as (in this writer’s opinion) initiates poorly executed false flag operations in Transnistria. The refugee ebb and flow is somewhat unpredictable, so Ion and his team need to remain on duty so they can be ready for anything. As Russia continues to bombard the southeastern region of Ukraine, Palanca becomes ever more important as the key southern exit out of the country for refugees. This has only been exacerbated by Russia's bombing of the Zatoka drawbridge across the Dniester Estuary (a key train line for grain export, as well) further south, which led directly into Romania.Despite the exposure, the wind, and the spring rains, “We just adjusted to the conditions at the camp and we are planning to stay here as long as we need to,” Ion assures me. Now, his sights are focused on maintaining what they have built, as well as understanding what the needs of the future are.
“People need to understand that Moldova has put in the maximum amount of effort when it comes to addressing this crisis and doing what is best for the refugees coming in,” says Ion, “The best!” He clarifies in English. “In the future, everyone is going to have to start thinking about what programs we can develop to help integrate Ukrainians that have come into the country. Parents need jobs and their children need an education.”
Luckily, many people in the country are starting to have that conversation, but only time will tell how things progress. While it was the norm for the first few weeks of the conflict for international organizations to pigeonhole Moldova as a transit point, 400,000 refugees have chosen to stay in the country with the hope that they can go home soon or because of the two countries’ shared language of Russian. A variety of programs are developing in response, including the Sunflower Center, which we will cover in a future article.
Ultimately though, in the first days of the invasion, those who came to Palanca were indispensable when it came to addressing a clear and immediate need. “I’m thankful I had the opportunity to do this work.” Ion tells me again and again and again.
As we finish our conversation, one question keeps nagging at me: What happens if Russia invades Moldova too? It is a question that feels far away and yet, imminent. It is undeniable that if Russia makes gains in the south, Moldova would be a key stronghold to secure the Black Sea. While Russia does not seem to care much for Moldova ultimately, they do seem interested in re-establishing in Transnistria. Moldova, without much of a military to speak of, would just be a territorial perk. So I ask Ion, “What will you do if Russia invades?”
“I’ll stay here,” he responds simply, “Who else is going to be here if that happens? Put simply, it is my patriotic duty to stay here and help.” The comment is reminiscent of the Transnistria war in the 1990s when Moldovan police forces stepped up to fill the gap in the country’s military. Only time will tell when it comes to Russia and Moldova. Until then, Ion and his team will be in Palanca to help those fleeing the war, while hoping that war does not knock on their door as well.