Moldova was not ready

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When the first Ukrainian refugees crossed on foot the Moldovan border of Palanca, a town of about twenty low houses not far from the Black Sea coast, the Russian invasion had just begun. “Our estimates indicated that in the worst case we could have accommodated a maximum of 15 thousand people,” said Eugeniu Sinchevici, a young Moldovan parliamentarian who in those days was participating in the government task force to welcome the first Ukrainians who fled the war.

Three weeks after the start of the Russian invasion, more than 350 thousand people arrived in Moldova: about 250 thousand left west, while another 100 thousand have chosen to stay here, at least for the moment. To have a term of comparison: it is as if 130 thousand new inhabitants arrived in Rome in less than a month.

Moldova was not prepared to handle such a large number of people, and besides, it couldn’t be. It has just 2.6 million inhabitants, is the country with the lowest GDP per capita in Europe, and for thirty years it has been dealing with a pro-Russian separatist region, Transnistria, which does not recognize the authority of the central government. Backed by a network of local and international NGOs, government agencies and foreign countries, the Moldovan government has nevertheless embarked on an impressive collective effort.

(Valentina Lovato / The Post)

People have arrived in Moldova who were fleeing mainly from the cities of southern Ukraine that have been bombed by Russian forces for weeks now, with names we are getting to know – Melitopol, Mykolaiv, Kherson – but also from cities spared from fighting, at least for the moment, like Odessa.

Almost all of these people crossed the border between Ukraine and Moldova in a marshy area created by the mouth of the Dniester River, and until a month ago very little frequented.

The border of Palanca (Valentina Lovato / RockedBuzz)

After a week of irregular flows and somewhat improvised aid, an informal system has been created since the beginning of March which, however, thrives on precise mechanisms, which are repeated every day.

Once set foot in Moldova, the refugees are loaded on to minibuses made available by NGOs, the church, the fire brigade and the government, and transported two kilometers away to an open space on the outskirts of the town of Palanca. From here the buses that allow you to reach the next stop leave: the smaller means lead to Chișinău, the capital, where you can choose whether to stay in the country or not; while the large ones, much more in demand, lead west to other European countries.

The clearing just outside Palanca from where the buses leave (Valentina Lovato / RockedBuzz)

The buses do not depart at regular times, and the wait is filled in an attempt to meet the primary needs of the refugees. Everyone has given themselves specific tasks.

The Italian NGO INTERSOS runs a mobile clinic for those who need a doctor. Moldova For Peace, a cartel of youth associations that supported the Moldovan government in the first reception, is responsible for facilitating transport to and from the clearing. The UN refugee agency has provided thermal mushrooms, essential in a place where the temperature is around freezing. In various points of the clearing, Wi-Fi networks have been equipped to allow you to use WhatsApp.

(Valentina Lovato / The Post)

In the main tent, a group of volunteers distribute piles of food, prepared by still other people. Some of them come from Transnistria, a place where the autonomous government has recently asked Russia to recognize its status as an independent entity.

Valentina, who worked as a caregiver in Italy and speaks excellent Italian, shows those willing to listen to a video found on Facebook by a well-known Italian conspiracy theorist, Franco Fracassi. The atmosphere for now does not seem too gloomy: the volunteers who distribute the food joke among themselves and smilingly distribute generous portions of plăcintă, a kind of stuffed puff pastry, omnipresent in Moldovan cuisine.

However, there is no lack of problems. Fausta Micheletta, an expert in emergency medicine at INTERSOS, says that in these days dozens of elderly people who had run out of drugs to treat diabetes or hypertension, cold children, and young women in psychological difficulty have passed by. “They take the children in their arms, carry them off doing the chutzpah, then come here and collapse,” says Micheletta.

A young volunteer from ACTED, a large French NGO, says that he hasn’t slept well for a few nights: the scenes he sees in the open space during the day give him nightmares.

The interior of one of the buses departing from the Palanca clearing (Valentina Lovato / RockedBuzz)

From the first days of the war, public centers were opened throughout Moldova that could accommodate as many people as possible. In Chișinău, some spaces have been converted into temporary centers both in the Moldexpo exhibition center and in the Malldova shopping center. Dozens of small and medium-sized centers have been set up across the country, from north to south.

In Popeasca, a town lost in the windswept hills in southern Moldova, a school facility has been converted into a refugee dormitory. In all, there are 70 people in the structure: 42 adults – mostly women – and 28 children. The head of the center, Jon Cazacu, proudly shows that refugees have showers and bathrooms with hot water available: a small luxury in this predominantly rural area.

The mayor and the head of the Popeasca refugee center (Valentina Lovato / RockedBuzz)

A huge share of refugees were instead housed in private homes. There are many Moldovan families who have made available a room in their home or an apartment that is not currently used (it is estimated that more than one million people residing in Moldova actually live and work abroad).

Government and humanitarian sources told the Post that at the moment 80-90 per cent of refugees are staying in a private home. NGO operators exchange stories of Moldovans who in the early days arrived by car at the Palanca border to offer beds to complete strangers.

In Căușeni, a small town in the south of the country, Mayor Anatolie Donțu was also impressed by the number of people who welcomed Ukrainian refugees into their homes. “I was very surprised by the welcome that my fellow citizens gave to refugees,” Donțu said, with the help of an interpreter. Less than 8,000 people live in Căușeni, and today about 1,100 Ukrainian refugees live in the territory, to whom food, clothing and medicine have been guaranteed by theItaly-Moldova association. At least 60 percent of them are staying in a private home.

“I think this happened for two reasons”, explains Donțu, elected in 2019 with the party of the pro-European president Maia Sandu: “First of all, let’s talk about a war. And people know that war is war, none of them wanted it. Furthermore, the Moldovans know that today it is the Ukrainians who find themselves in a difficult situation, but tomorrow it could happen to them ».

Mayor Anatolie Donțu (Valentina Lovato / RockedBuzz)

Moldova is often cited by international observers as the next country that could suffer an invasion by Russian forces: both because of the presence of Transnistria and because Russia has always considered Moldova as part of its legitimate sphere of influence.

In the now famous television clip a few days ago in which he explained how the Russian invasion of Ukraine was developing, the authoritarian president of Belarus Aleksander Lukashenko showed a map with an evident red line corresponding to the territories of Moldova that border with Ukraine. In the Moldovan public debate the hypothesis has made its way that war will also come here.

«The data and analyzes we have available tell us that Moldova will not be invaded», explains Sinchevici: «but the Moldovans are worried and do not know exactly what will happen. And I think in recent days they have channeled this fear into their efforts to help refugees ».

A thousand or two thousand people arrive at the Palanca border a day: a huge flow but all in all manageable, thanks to the network of hospitality that has been set up. The situation could worsen if Russia attacks Odessa, which is just fifty kilometers from the border. Sinchevici cites an estimate that in the event of a permanent occupation of Odessa, Moldova could welcome nearly one million refugees in one month. And in that case only a spit of land of a few kilometers would separate the new territories conquered by Russia from the pro-Russian region of Transnistria.

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