In a hotel in Romania, a ballroom welcomes refugees fleeing Ukraine

SUCEAVA, ROMANIA —
As Olga Okhrimenko entered a bustling ballroom-turned-refugee shelter at a four-star Romanian hotel, her corgi, Knolly, tugged on the leash, anxiously seeking warmth inside. It had taken them three days to flee Ukraine by car, bus and taxi in the freezing cold.

The 34-year-old Ukrainian marketing manager could barely contain her emotions, and a simple “Are you okay?” fills her eyes with tears she thought she no longer had.

The first refugees began arriving more than a week ago at the Mandachi Hotel and Spa in Suceava, Romania, where the owner has decided to make the sumptuous 850 square meter ballroom available to them. Since then, more than 2,000 people and 100 pets have taken refuge here, with rows of numbered mattresses under an incongruous glittering disco ball.

They are part of the fastest refugee exodus this century, in which more than 1.7 million people fled Ukraine in just 10 days, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Since the start of the war on February 24, more than 227,000 Ukrainians have crossed into neighboring Romania, according to local authorities.

Like Okhrimenko, some of the Mandachi refugees fled from towns on the frontlines of the war.

“Every time someone asks me where I’m from, and I say Kharkiv, their expression is like I’m from Hiroshima,” Okhrimenko told The Associated Press from mattress number 60. “Then I remember everything that happened there and I crumble.”

After five days of shelling, she decided to flee Kharkiv on March 1 with Knolly, a couple of friends and their two cats. Their car passed by the central Freedom Square just 20 minutes before being engulfed by a giant ball of fire during a Russian military strike.

“It was difficult for me before saying that I am a great patriot of my land,” she said. “But on February 24, I became a 100%.”

As she spoke, volunteers with megaphones repeatedly interrupted her to announce that buses were leaving for Italy, Germany, Bulgaria and other European countries. The room was chaotic, filled mostly with women and children, as the men stayed in Ukraine to fight. Some spoke Russian, underlining the feeling of a war against the family.

The majority of the refugees were Ukrainians, but there were also Nigerians, Moroccans, Italians, Chinese and Iranians. Toddlers wept into the arms of exhausted mothers, who breathed deeply to calm themselves and their children. Cats and dogs of all sizes shared beds with their owners, and a stressed Chihuahua with bulging eyes bit anyone who tried to pet him.

Some 300 volunteers, translators and social workers take turns to help here. In the morning, they change the mismatched sheets of the vacated mattresses, affixing a handwritten “reserved” or “free” sign on them. At the reception, the two bars display not alcohol but a panoply of diapers, toothbrushes, snacks and even surgical masks and disinfectant gel.

At the opposite end of the King Salon, on mattress number 82 near the stacks of red velvet chairs, Nellia Nahorna, 85, sat silently, combing her gray hair with her fingers.

It was the second time that this Ukrainian grandmother fled the war. In 1941, when she was just 4 years old, Nahorna was injured by shrapnel during Nazi Germany’s invasion of Ukraine, she said.

“The first night of the war, my mother grabbed me at my crib and ran to get the last car that carried the wounded to the border,” Nahorna recalls in a soft, low voice.

Now, more than 80 years later, it was her daughter, Olena Yefanova, 57, who caught her on the first day of the war and crossed the border. They came from the city of Zaporizhzhia, where Europe’s largest nuclear power plant was hit by Russian bombing last week.

“This war is different,” Nahorna said in Russian. During World War II, the enemies were the German “fascists”, she said. But now she was running away from her “brothers”. They had to make stops along the way to get him a Ukrainian passport.

“I would like to say to Russian mothers…. help by keeping your sons right next to you and don’t let them fight and attack other countries,” Nahorna said.

In a stunning realization, the same grandmother who leaned on a cane to get from her mattress to a table a few steps away had walked the last 5 kilometers (3 miles) to Romania. At one point, Nahorna’s heart seemed to give out and a doctor gave her pills so she could continue, her daughter said.

“My mother clenched her will in a fist and left,” Yefanova said proudly. “She understood that it was going to be hard but she took it firmly.”

Yefanova had left behind her husband and a son, conscripted to fight the Russians. She cried as she showed a photo of them on her phone’s screen saver.

“Our children are playing a game called little tanks – (Russian President Vladimir Putin) is playing his own version of this game,” she said. “And he (uses) his people in this game.”

A row behind Yefanova on Mattress 34, Anna Karpenko thought of her partner as their 6-year-old son played with a yellow ball.

Before she left him at their home in Chornomorsk, on the outskirts of Odessa, Ukraine’s biggest port city, he promised they would marry after the war. But “when we said goodbye, it felt like it was forever,” Karpenko said, wiping the tears from his eyes.

Normally, she says, he is an optimistic person. Now she and her son cry every day.

Russian ships have repeatedly attempted to fire on the Black Sea port of Odessa, according to Ukrainian officials. Karpenko said residents of his town gathered on the beaches to fill sandbags.

Originally from Crimea, Karpenko speaks Russian, has worked for a Russian-language school and has family in Donetsk, one of two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has divided his family, with those close to Donetsk supporting Putin.

“They think all their problems are caused by Ukraine,” she explained in frustration. “They worship (Putin) as if he were a god.”

She gave up telling them that it was the Russian strikes she was fleeing from.

The next morning, Okhrimenko and his corgi were gone. Her husband, who had moved to Germany only a few months ago, picked them up. She had planned to join him eventually, but never thought she would suddenly be chased away by sirens and explosions.

“We just breathed a deep sigh of relief together and hugged each other so tightly,” Okhrimenko told AP via text from the road to Germany.

Karpenko, his son and his mother boarded a bus also bound for Germany. On the same bus were Yefanova and Nahorna, the 85-year-old grandmother.

Thirty hours after leaving the makeshift shelter, they were still on the road. “The longest trip of my life,” Karpenko wrote to AP from a gas station in Austria.

As one bus left, others arrived at the Mandachi Hotel, full of freezing refugees carrying their children and belongings. With no end to the war in sight, wedding parties that once took place in the ballroom have been postponed indefinitely.

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