BRONNYTSIA, Ukraine — The Ukrainian border guards here at the crossing into Moldova once waved through six to 10 cars a day — mostly locals quietly going back and forth.
Now, the guards have simply lost count. Several of them never even expected to be here.
There’s Igor, a former border guard from nearby Mohyliv-Podilskyi, who said he voluntarily donned his military uniform again three days ago to help the war effort, leaving behind a long-haul trucking business. Working with him is Oksana, a 42-year-old bookkeeper at the border guard base, who was called up for active service a month ago.
“I thought, these are peaceful times, I’ll just serve as usual guarding the border. And now these are not peaceful times at all,” Oksana says. “I haven’t had training, I was still studying, and now I’ve been dropped straight into practice. They haven’t even trusted me with a weapon yet.”
Peace was shattered last week when Russia, unprovoked, sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine, encircling cities on the ground and bombing them from the sky. People fled.
At this border – the closest crossing facility to the capital Kyiv – Oksana and Igor have now become witnesses to that mass exodus, which the United Nations said could soon become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.
In this remote, rural corner — with nothing much either side of the Dniester River crossing but sleepy villages, woods and orchards — they’ve seen families having to separate, with some going on to Moldova while others return to fight. They’ve seen the Moldovans lend a hand to those who make it across.
Early on Thursday, there were long lines of cars trying to cross from both Bronnytsia and Mohyliv-Podilskyi.
At the entrance to Mohyliv-Podilskyi, people had to wait eight hours or more to get through a new checkpoint built of concrete blocks and sandbags, where local civilian defense force members searched cars thoroughly before letting them approach the crossings.
At the Bronnytsia crossing, which leads to Unguri in Moldova, the guards couldn’t say how many people have come through in the last six days — they can’t keep track.
Igor, who had left military service to start his business, said he felt compelled to come back when war broke out.
“It turned out I was good at it, and the business really took off,” he says. “But I had to come back to do my duty.”
Oksana serves at the border while her son, 24, was called to the army recruitment center a few days ago.
“He didn’t really want to go,” Oksana says. “But these are the times we are in. In principle, Russia tried to stifle us for eight years. But now it’s really terrible, innocent people are dying.”
A new Ukrainian law bans men aged 18-60 from leaving, so they can be called up to fight. Many cars here are driven by men dropping their families at the border before returning home alone.
“A few men try to leave as well,” Igor said. “There are cowards everywhere. But not many.”
The law leads to many heartaches.
While fathers of large families (three or more children) are exempt, their children aren’t. Such a father arrived from Kyiv at the border on Thursday. But his eldest son is 18, meaning that while the father could leave with his remaining children, his son could not.
That same day, Oksana says, three Ukrainian cars had returned from Moldova.
“We have had men coming back from working abroad to fight for Ukraine,” she says.
Villages on each bank of the Dniester have mixed Ukrainian, Moldovan, Roma and Russian ethnic populations. Moldova also has its own Russian-backed separatist enclave of Transnistria, where Russian troops have been stationed since the early 1990s.
In the last week, Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, has taken in over 80,000 Ukrainians. The country has set up a refugee center at the larger border crossing through Mohyliv-Podilskyi, which the Moldovan president visited on Sunday.
“We’re all united now,” Oksana says. “The Moldovans are really helping.”