Fall 2022 – Day Two: Ukraine Mission- Mateszalka, Hungary

Over breakfast, Sandor gave a briefing on the history and geography of the region. He pointed out that the current nation state boundaries are an artificial construct as a result of World War I. Historically, the interactions of peoples (Ukrainian, Romanian, Moldavian, Slovakian and
Hungarian) was fairly seamless with most people then and now speaking several languages. Roughly the region can be divided into east and west of the Carpathian Mountains.

East of the crescent formed by the Carpathian’s the land is gently rolling or flat much like the
Great Plains of the U.S. This grassland geography extends all the way to Moscow and beyond.
The two relevant features of this topography are its agricultural importance and its military
significance. Russia has no natural defensible boarders. It has been invaded by Germans,
French, Turks, Swedes and many others over the centuries. The distance from Kyiv to Moscow
is a trifling 538 miles. Putin’s Czarist ambitions aside, Russia believes it needs to forward
position it’s military at the Carpathian Mountains and the North European Plain to provide a
buffer against invasion.

An early morning departure from Hungary had the team arriving in Sighet Marmatei, Romania
on the Ukrainian border, mid-morning.
We were met by Ms. Ingeborg Mihalik (grey dress below), President of the Sighet Hungarian
Youth Association which runs a refugee integration center and Ishvan (orange jacket) also with
HYA. Ingeborg took us for a conversation with Mr. Vasile Moldovan, Mayor of the town.
Mayor Moldovan (center) explained that in the early stages of the war tens of thousands of
refugees flooded across the boarder. He noted that in normal times there is a significant
Romanian population living across the boarder in Ukraine and a large Ukrainian population
living in Romania with people commuting between the two countries for work, shopping and
family visits.

Sighet has a population of around 37,000 and was stressed with the large flow of refugees.
However, the town was a processing and stopover place not a destination with most refugees
moving onward to other places in Europe. The city, local NGOs and citizens stepped up to
provide housing, food and health care. Residents were given a stipend to house refugees and
the Romanian government came forward with refugee programs. The flow of refugees has
slowed to a handful per day now.

The mayor stressed, however, that they must be prepared for
another wave as Putin has announced an escalation of the war in Ukraine. It wasn’t spoken but
Putin’s thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons was on everyone’s mind.
The mayor felt that the local response at present was managing the situation. Housing at
residences and hotels was adequate. The local hospital is managing. Dr. Gokhan later met with
the hospital’s administrator who confirmed that assessment.

After the meeting with Mayor Moldovan, Ingeborg took us to a children’s community center.
Ingeborg pointed out that once the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, the
difficult job of providing some sense of normalcy to refugees begins. Refugees cannot stay
cooped up in a room or home absent the normal routines of life – work, socializing, school,
play, etc. To help in that regard the Hungarian Youth Association has pivoted to provide
educational and recreational activities to refugee children. The children’s art projects speak
volumes.


Ingebog explained that war refugees represent a cross section of the society. As such the
community’s response needs to be broad based and far beyond the refugees’ immediate
needs. Many arrive traumatized having witnessed unspeakable things. Many have lost friends,
loved ones, or parents. All arrive with no sense of a future.

We were taken next to the border crossing with Ukraine. It is a single lane wooden bridge over
the river Tisza.

The point was not so much a photo-op but to point out an unfortunate aspect of the
international response to the crisis. On the Romanian side is a UN processing center (see
above) along with a center sponsored by Save the Children. Our local NGO sponsors pointed
out that: a) with only a handful of refugees crossing per day (less than 10) these centers are not
necessary and b) even when there was a significant flow they did very little other than to, in
their words, “..tally up numbers to justify their existence.” The real work was done by local
NGOs, local citizens and the Romanian government, all of whom pivoted from their normal
work to meet the crisis at their doorstep. Ingeborg stated that donations do the most good
when they are directed to the most local point, to the lowest rung on the humanitarian ladder.

Later that day we traversed the Carpathian Mountains traveling to Botosani, Romania.

The Carpathians are a formidable barrier separating Central Europe from the flatlands of
Ukraine and Russia. Forward positioning Russian troops to block the gaps through the
Carpathian Mountains is central to Russian military thinking.

Beyond the mountains, the landscape is gently rolling farm fields interspersed with small
towns. Unlike the U.S. practice of farmsteads built on the farm, most farmers here live in
villages and travel out to their fields. Grain crops like wheat, corn and sunflowers dominate.


This practice of living in villages makes the rural population much more vulnerable to Russian
massed artillery warfare.

We are traveling in a large van provided by a Hungarian service operated by a husband wife
team, both Ukrainian. The husband drove us as far as Botosnai, Romania, where we
overnighted, but could not drive us into Ukraine as he would be detained for military service.
The wife drove through the night to meet up with us in Botosnai and drive us into Ukraine.

Refugees come for many reasons and fleeing military service is one. In Romania it is
government policy not to differentiate among refugees. All are accommodated. As mentioned
before, the populations in these border regions fluidly move from one country to another. A
Ukrainian citizen may very well cross the border to a neighboring county – e.g Romania,
Poland, Moldova – to go to work each day or to visit family on the weekend. With the Ukrainian
restrictions on the movement of military age men, some choose to keep their jobs by becoming
refugees.