Letting go, Poland

I remember being told once by a psychologist that if you bottle sadness up inside, it will eventually overflow, sometimes after being triggered by something unexpected. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one bottling sadness by the six-pack on the Polish Ukrainian border.

From our camp we began crossing into Ukraine in the early afternoon, providing hot drinks and food to those queuing for up to seven hours to enter Poland. Two huge rectangular tents had been erected to provide shelter, and each day we set up our trestle tables inside.

One day I was returning from our storage area with some gear for the stall, and got talking to a young Ukrainian woman who was wheeling a little suitcase down the path towards the border. She spoke very good English, and I told her that last September I had spent a wonderful month exploring her country. We talked about different parts of Ukraine, some of which I knew and others that I hadn’t reached during my visit. ‘We’re all so sorry and so angry about what is happening in Ukraine,’ I said. She looked at me and replied: ‘It is 2022 and we are dealing with barbarians.’

Returning to the tent, I rejoined my colleagues at the stall. Christian missionaries in their twenties were preaching to their captive audience of weary Ukrainians. People who had left behind their homes and loved ones (either alive or dead), and some of which may have witnessed, or been the victims of, Russian atrocities. With breathtaking yet unintended insensitivity, the missionaries told them that god had not forsaken them, and that Jesus suffered more than they are suffering. Thankfully the bouts of preaching were short, and before long the earnest youngsters were gathered in small groups, laughing and hugging one another and taking photos as if they were on a church camp.

I filled an empty cardboard box with mandarins, and walked up the queue handing them out. The mandarins are always a favourite, and it felt good to be giving out something healthy. The box didn’t last long, but I assured those in line that I would refill it and come back.

It was at that moment I noticed a small dog amongst the legs and luggage. I bent down to have a closer look. It stood there and stared at me with large, dark, watery eyes. ‘Hello little mate’ I said. It raised its head. The poor little thing look bewildered, and although with its family, completely freaked out. I walked quickly back to the stall as my eyes brimmed with tears.

Late afternoon turned to evening, and evening to night, and eventually the line of refugees waiting to cross into Poland began to shorten. After having offered refreshments to all those still waiting, we began to pack up the stall, piling the gear into shopping trolleys for its return to our storage area. After carrying the last of the rubbish up to the skip, we joined the queue to return to Poland.

Back at camp, I grabbed some clean clothes and headed to a nearby motel where, for a fee, we could shower. It was late and I was pretty weary after another long day. (After witnessing the final part of the journey of so many Ukrainians, whenever we complained to one another about being tired we always added a disclaimer.) I sat on the stool inside the shower cubicle and began to unlace my boots. Then I started thinking about the dog, that frightened little creature, far from home, surrounded by unfamiliarity and uncertainty. Before I knew it there were tears streaming down my face.

Of all the despair and sadness I had witnessed during three weeks on the Poland Ukraine border, it was a little dog that finally broke me down. After a bloody good cry, I started to wonder why I had fallen apart about the dog, rather than all the human sorrow I had seen. Then I remembered what the psychologist had said. My tears weren’t just for the dog. All the bottling I had done had finally overflowed.

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