Svetlana Z. knew it was time to flee when she noticed that no more planes were taking off or landing at the airport near their home in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
“It was intuition. When the planes stopped flying, we knew this was the start of something bad,” she told AFP, holding her two-and-a-half-year-old son while the family of three waited for the Berlin authorities to process their registration.
That fateful Tuesday, they packed a few bags of essentials, got into their “old car,” and drove west.
Less than 48 hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“There was no accommodation in the west, in Lyiv,” said Svetlana, so they drove on, first entering Poland and finally arriving in Berlin on Friday.
When asked why they didn’t stay in Poland, which is closer to home, she burst into tears and said: “We can’t go home.”
They are in constant contact with loved ones in Ukraine, but “there is now only bad news”.
Her family is among the dozens of first refugees to arrive from Ukraine into Europe’s largest economy.
Germany, which took in more than a million migrants in 2015 — many fleeing war in Syria and Iraq — has pledged to provide “massive aid” should there be a large-scale influx of Ukrainian refugees into neighboring countries.
Until now, the numbers of newcomers are small.
“We have had about 75 Ukrainians today. But we expect much more in the coming days,” said Sascha Langenbach, spokesman for the Berlin office for refugee affairs. AFP†
“They have not been so emotional that we always see tears, but their bewilderment at what is happening in their homeland is almost palpable,” he said.
In the Berlin shelter, officials had prepared 1,300 beds, with a capacity set to double in the coming days.
Staffing has also been increased with Ukrainian or Russian speakers.
Small groups of people seeking help arrived, some accompanied by relatives or friends living in Berlin, others, such as Svetlana’s family, had found their way on their own.
The usual procedure is for officials to register the asylum seekers and then allocate them beds for the first few nights in the reception center before a more permanent home is found for them.
But officials in central Berlin advised Ukrainians who have relatives or friends in the city to stay with them at least for the entire weekend, as they expect the government to make a decision on a simplified asylum procedure for Ukrainians in the coming days.
The relaxed procedure should allow Ukrainian asylum seekers to quickly find work or go directly to other parts of Germany where they have relatives, rather than being forced to stay in the city where they first apply for asylum.
“That would make it much easier for them to find their way here,” Langenbach said, adding that his office expected a decision “after the weekend.”
Nobody asked them
Tattoo artist Dmitry Chevniev, 39, was among those who chose not to register officially pending the decision.
Chevniev was stranded in the German capital.
“I arrived two weeks ago to visit friends, and now I can’t go home,” he said.
His wife and their four-year-old son are visiting his mother-in-law in Russia, he said, adding that he had come to the registration center to find out what he could do to persuade them.
Stanislav Shalamai, 26, was relieved to get a bed for the night in the center.
He had left Kiev on February 15, because war had been predicted at that time.
“I was nervous about that, so I packed my things and left.”
Carrying a duffel bag and a duvet, he took a bus from Kiev to Warsaw before hopping on another bus to Berlin.
Shalamai said he still found it hard to believe what happened.
“There are 40 million Ukrainians living there, nobody asked them what they wanted and another army just came and started shooting at people and killing people,” he said.
Shalamai said he asked his parents to flee with him, but “they said we were born here, we’ve lived here all our lives and we just don’t want to leave.”
“I don’t know what awaits me here… I don’t know what will happen in Ukraine. I’ll have to see it,” Shalamai said.
Hui Min Neo © Agence France-Presse