In a Polish Village, Renewed Fears of War Spilling Over From Ukraine

PRZEWODOW, Poland — Lying amid sprawling corn fields, the tiny village of Przewodow and its 500 residents are accustomed to a quiet existence, even with a war raging across the border in Ukraine, just a few miles away. So when a missile exploded nearby on Tuesday night, Iwona Margol said she felt a surge of panic.

“There was a sudden huge ‘kaboom’,” she said. “It was unclear if we should pack, flee, or what to do in general. Will we sleep through the night, will we live to see the next morning?”

In the first hours after the missile slammed into a grain silo, killing two local residents and raising alarms about the war spilling outside Ukraine, she was far from alone in her fears. Western officials have since concluded that the missile was in all likelihood fired by a Ukrainian air defense system, not by Russia. That may have eased global fears, but anxiety levels remain higher in Przewodow and its neighboring region than at any time since the early weeks of the war.

Scores of Polish soldiers and police officers descended on the village, which consists of a couple of colorful, Soviet-style block houses, a school, a grocery store and a farm, blocking access to anyone except residents. Drones and a helicopter buzzed overhead. A four-day period of mourning was announced and the local school shut its doors, offering counseling to teachers, students and parents.

A photograph released by Polish police showing forensic experts investigating the site where a missile hit.Credit…Polish Police, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Margol, a school cafeteria cook, said she did not sleep at all on Tuesday night, as the blast brought back tensions from the early days of the war.And not just for her; students and teachers at the school where she works are “disheartened and worried,” she said.

When the war first erupted next door, residents rushed to supermarkets and gas stations to stock up on supplies, worried about a possible spillover of violence. Ukrainian refugees streaming over the border in the tens of thousands were a vivid reminder of the physical proximity of the war.

The State of the War

  • Explosion in Poland: A blast that killed two people in Poland near its border with Ukraine was most likely an accident caused by a Ukrainian defense missile, Poland’s president and NATO said. The explosion heightened anxieties on a day of broad Russian strikes in Ukraine.
  • Retaking Kherson: On Nov. 11, Ukrainian soldiers swept into the southern city of Kherson, seizing a major prize from the retreating Russian army and dealing a bitter blow to President Vladimir V. Putin. Days after the liberation, signs of torture are emerging.
  • Winter Looms: Many analysts and diplomats have suggested there could be a pause in major combat over the winter. But after pushing the Russians out of Kherson, Ukraine has no desire to stop.
  • Beta Testing New Weapons: Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems that Western officials predict could shape warfare for generations to come.

“We are living just next to the border, so these sentiments have been heightened since Feb. 24,” said Marta Majewska, the mayor of the neighboring town of Hrubieszow.

But in recent months, with western Ukraine largely spared from the fighting and the streams of refugees turning into a trickle, Ms. Majewska said that local anxieties had subsided.

“People have been worried more about local problems, such as inflation and the lack of coal,” she said, noting that Poland’s inflation rate hit 18 percent recently, with even higher levels predicted.

Polish soldiers and police officers in Przewodow, on Wednesday.Credit…Wojtek Jargilo/EPA, via Shutterstock

But then came Tuesday’s blasts. Although there was no panic shopping, the customers in a grocery store in the nearby town of Wisznow spoke of nothing else, said Iwona Okopinska, the store’s owner.

The victims were two men in their 60s, both farm workers. One, a tractor driver, had just come back from the field with a load of corn when the missile hit at around 4 p.m. local time on Tuesday.

“We are terrified by this situation,” Grzegorz Drewnik, the governor of the surrounding region of Dolhobyczow, told the local media. “I knew the people that were killed. They were very decent members of our community.”

Przewodow is in one of Poland’s poorest areas, with small villages scattered across fields and forests, many of them, like Przewodow, former collective farms under communism. Like other rural areas of Poland it suffered high levels of unemployment after the Communist regime collapsed in 1989,with mass emigration to Polish cities and, after Poland joined the European Union in 2004, to Western Europe.

In eastern Poland, the war in Ukraine also stirs painful memories of World War II, when it was occupied first by the Nazis, then the Soviets, and then by the Nazis again. Before 1939, the population of the village was evenly split between Poles and Ukrainians, including a substantial Jewish population.

Krystyna Mazurek praying at a church in Przewodow on Wednesday.Credit…Omar Marques/Getty Images

The broader Lubelskie region including Przewodow is now home to over 60,000 Ukrainian refugees, and the shock waves of the blast smashed their newly acquired, fragile sense of security.

Vitalik, 15, is a mentally disabled orphan who was evacuated together with 40 others from an orphanage for children with special needs in Zaturce, in western Ukraine, in the first weeks of the war. When he heard about the explosions, he ran to his caretakers asking whether they have to flee, ready to pack his teddy bear.

“All their traumatic experiences came back yesterday evening,” said Piotr Zygarski, the head of the foundation, Honor In Helping Children, that evacuated the children to a hotel in Kaweczynek, some 40 miles from Przewodow.

When the children arrived, they fled for cover every time they heard American military airplanes, which are stationed in a nearby town, Mr. Zygarski said. But after months in psychological care, they started behaving like children their age: playing, dancing, and having fun. All that changed last night.

“It fell on us from the sky,” he said of the news about the blast. “It was a shock, to us and to the children. We kept telling them they could feel safe in Poland. And this sense of security has been shattered.”

Ms. Margol, the cook from the school kitchen, said she was now deeply worried that war might come to Poland. When Volodymyr, a city in western Ukraine 30 miles across the border was shelled, she was volunteering at the border crossing.

“I heard it and I saw the reaction of these Ukrainians,” she said. “You just can’t forget these faces, it’s hard to explain it in words. Honestly, I am worried that this may come to us, God forbid.”

A police checkpoint on Wednesday.Credit…Omar Marques/Getty Images

Ada Petriczko and Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.

Back to top button