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CREDIT: Henrietta Zsebe

Eyewitness: Ukrainian refugees in search of safety

RPS member Henrietta Zsebe returns to her homeland of Romania to document Ukrainians fleeing war

After photographing the protests in London against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Henrietta Zsebe realised she needed to go further.

Watching the humanitarian crisis unfold through coverage on mainstream news and social media channels, she decided to travel to the Ukrainian border with Romania, the country of her birth. A friend who had been at the border alerted her to the efforts to help refugees fleeing the war and so the London-based photographer felt compelled to return.

“I have three friends living in Ukraine – friends I made while studying abroad and working in the US for a few months,” says Zsebe, who graduated in 2018 with a BA in photography from the Art and Design University of Cluj-Napoca.

“Ukraine is still a neighbour country for me and my family in Romania. After attending the protest in London I decided to go home, to the border between Romania and Ukraine, and see the situation with my eyes. I was sure if I will not do this work, I will regret it all my life.”

A few days after Zsebe reached the Siret border crossing in Romania, the intensifying humanitarian crisis was spelled out by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

“Almost a quarter of Ukraine’s population – more than 10 million people – have been forced from their homes,” he stated. “Some 3.7 million refugees have been forced to flee the country, making this the fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Second World War.”  

Zsebe, who is a member of the RPS, cites Magnum Photos as the reason she began taking photography seriously. “I consider Robert Capa my main inspiration. The passion he had for photography motivates and empowers me whenever I face life's challenges.”

Here, Zsebe shares her experience of photographing – and volunteering – to help refugees whose lives are in turmoil.

 

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“I reach the Romanian-Ukrainian border at 3am on 13 March 2022 and sleep in a car until 5.30am, when I get my cameras and walk to the control point. 

“I talk with the firefighters’ supervisor and one person in charge from the gendarmerie. They are both glad to meet me and are happy that I can help with translating. At 6am it is minus six degrees and everyone is being offered hot tea, coffee and toasted sandwiches.  

“Between 6am and 10pm, the refugees cross the border by foot. The first question asked of the refugees is where would they like to go, as the tents are organised by cities/countries.  

“From 10pm until 6am buses enter Romania – minibuses or cars. These buses are on the road with no lights. The refugees have no sim cards because light and signal could make them a target.    

“On the first morning a group of US veterans arrive. I have to translate and help organise a trip to Ukraine, where they are awaited by another group. They bring medical supplies and other special equipment.  

 “The Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) are helping at the border and going to the closest cities in Ukraine to bring food, water and medicine. 

"The whole time is really busy. I see so many mothers crying, children who don’t understand why and what is happening, elderly people taken to hospitals in Romania. Many of them don't know where are they going – they don’t speak any other language than Ukrainian. The first night I am woken up twice by one of the organisers to attend meetings and help translate. 

“The second day is busier than many previous days, volunteers and organisers say. A group of volunteers are crossing the border every day to bring food, hot tea, fruit, water and blankets to the ones waiting on the other side of the border. [They wait] up to five hours in the queue. I ask to join one of the ‘short trips’ and sign up as a volunteer. So many children have tears in their eyes when they thank me for the cup of tea and the food I give them.

“I can’t see the end of the queue for cars. Next to the cars, on the middle of the highway, two mothers are making milk with powdered milk and another is holding a child. This is one of the most heartbreaking things I see while I’m here. 

“On my last day, one of the organisers sees me and tells me about an emergency ambulance waiting for two injured children from Ukraine. A helicopter has arrived close to the border, waiting for the children who, I later find out, are five days old and 14-days-old. The first transfer happens at the control point from the Ukrainian ambulance to the Romanian one, then to the helicopter. The parents witness the moment of the transportation in tears. 

“Transportation to the border is carried out by volunteers, so there is no fee charged for journeys to and from the border.” 

All images were taken by Henrietta Zsebe at the Siret border crossing, Romania, 13-14 March 2022

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