Poland rebuilds train tracks to Ukraine to help refugees fleeing war
The effort is part of a tidal wave of support the Poles are offering their Ukrainian neighbors, with whom they share a tumultuous history marked by Russian aggression.
“I would go and kill Putin myself,” said Piotr Gubala, 35, a muscular construction worker, “but we will each do our part to help Ukraine.”
His team and others have worked dozens of miles of trail from sunrise to sunset over the past three days, repairing steel sleepers and shoveling dirt from tracks, and they said they don’t did not expect to be paid. Miroslaw Siemieniec, spokesman for Poland’s national rail operator, said at least six trains a day could carry refugees from the border to towns across the country once the lines are ready.
Across southeastern Poland, residents organized the distribution of donations, food and offering their homes to the flood of Ukrainians facing indefinite displacement, often with nothing but a suitcase.
The ad hoc response has blurred the line between civilians and government, and Poland’s infamous bureaucracy has momentarily backed off as the government enlists volunteers to mobilize humanitarian efforts. From Gubala’s construction company to private schools and hotels operating as drop-in centres, there’s a feeling now is the time for self-help, funded from people’s wallets instead of government coffers – at least for the moment.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Poland’s top infrastructure official, Andrzej Bittel, thanked everyone for their efficient work.
“Poland cannot be indifferent to the tragedy of the Ukrainian people,” he said. “Railway workers will help where possible.”
The revamped slopes cross the Carpathian Mountains, an arc of forested hills dotted with ski resorts that stretches from Poland to Romania to Ukraine. Many fleeing Ukrainians chose to cross the mountains to the border, seeing it as a safer option than crossing towns and villages along main roads that could come under attack.
The Polish Carpathians, while a tourist destination, are also a place of trailer parks, run-down towns and relative poverty.
Gubala’s crew happened to be working on a section of track that crossed land owned by Lech Motyka, 62, a truck driver whose flannel shirt was fraying, his jacket stained with grease and who had built his own tractor from scratch.
He was eager to join the volunteer effort and drove the gurgling, smoking contraption he affectionately called “Mercedes Original” down the lanes.
“My company has no drivers because they were all Ukrainians and they left to fight,” he said. “They will do what they must and we will do what we must.”
Motyka’s wife, Boguslawa, fully agreed but said she was too consumed with fear to do much. It was not so much the influx of refugees, surely both good and bad people, she said, as the prospect of war reaching Poland that made concentration difficult.
“My daughter says she’s not afraid – and besides, I don’t believe her – but in any case, I’m doubly afraid, for her and for me,” she said. “Not a generation has lived in this region without war.”
Her adult daughter, Justyna, rolled her eyes and told her mother that she watches too much TV and believes too much in what she reads on Facebook. Boguslawa gave him a stern look.
“We have Ukrainian friends – it’s right there,” Boguslawa added, pointing to the hills to the east. “Can you imagine, women of my age, saying that they will stay because they cannot bear to leave the country where their children will die in combat?