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March 2, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:05am

‘We couldn’t make sense of what we were seeing’: 5 News chief correspondent Tessa Chapman reports on view from Ukrainian border

By Tessa Chapman

5 News chief correspondent Tessa Chapman, her producer Zoe Kalus and cameraman Adam Boyle joined the thousands of people fleeing Kyiv by road at the weekend.

Along the way they sheltered in hotel basements during bombing raids and saw Ukrainian soldiers setting up checkpoints and hiding a tank.

But it was as the crew approached the border at Korczowa the true horror of the humanitarian crisis unfolding became clear.

Read Sky News presenter Mark Austin’s Ukraine war reporting diary for Press Gazette here, and hear from former Panorama journalist John Sweeney about the challenges of independent war reporting in Ukraine here.

Chapman and her team were among more than 50 UK journalists in Ukraine as the Russian invasion began.

There is a desperate situation unfolding on the Ukrainian border with Poland and I am certain people will die there.

We’d been on the road for almost two days after leaving Kyiv when we finally reached the border. At first, we couldn’t make sense of what we were seeing.

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Thousands and thousands of refugees, many of them children and some carrying babies, stood in the freezing cold by a huge metal fence. It was chaotic. Ukrainian soldiers called women and children forward, but only a trickle of them were crossing into Poland, as behind us 30km of people waited for their turn to come.

People had set fires to try and keep warm. Children were dressed for a day at the park because that is all they had. As we pulled up in our van, some women came over and began knocking on the windows begging to be let in as they were so cold.

On our footage you can hear us saying: “Oh my God, what is this place?”

5 News Ukraine

5 News chief correspondent Tessa Chapman reporting from the bus on the journey to the Ukrainian-Polish border. Picture: 5 News

We were the lucky ones – Ukrainian soldiers had allowed us to bypass the queue, telling us to show the world what was happening. We were asked to take two kids, a 6-year-old and 14-year-old, and their mum. They had just said goodbye to their dad and I asked if she supported his decision to return to fight. She was holding back tears as she said: “It wasn’t his decision, he wasn’t allowed to come with us.” Her bag – containing all their possessions – was no bigger than mine but I was heading towards home and she was leaving everything behind.

The queue was full of stories like hers. Cars were filled with everything people could grab before they fled their homes. I saw a woman with a cat up her jumper. Families carrying their past lives in one suitcase. Some people abandoned their cars, dragging their luggage along the grass verge. One couple told us they were leaving because they believe Putin will kill them if they stay.

There was an overwhelming sense of separation. Every single family we saw had either just separated from male relatives or was about to. Men had taken their wives and children, mothers and sisters as far as they could and were walking back to face the Russian tanks. There were toddlers playing by the side of the road who had said goodbye to dad not understanding they may never see him again. We spoke to one man who said he could cook for the soldiers if they needed him and if he had to shoot Russians he would even though he had no military training. There was a sense of bewilderment but also total pride in their country and the President.

We’d arrived at the border crossing at 1am. It was pitch black and well below freezing. It’s the kind of cold which is bearable when you are walking but once you are standing it gets into your bones, there is no escape.

An 80-year-old woman told me she had grandchildren in Poland who she expected to come and pick her up. She was confused about where she was and said: “My feet are freezing. I’ve lost consciousness twice. I hope my family come and pick me up soon.”

Another woman had become separated from her two children – a four-year-old boy and six-year-old girl – when they went across the border without her. In the midst of chaos, it struck me how calm she was. Like most parents I’ve briefly mislaid a child in a shop, but I can’t imagine not knowing where they are for any length of time. She was now in a nightmare situation where she would rather her children were across the border on their own than be in this hell.

Hundreds of African, Asian and Middle Eastern men were gathered in groups too. The Ukrainian soldiers were prioritising women and children so they were left waiting, some for two days.

This was no food or shelter. People were relying on local villagers who were bringing what they could. Their government is overwhelmed by war.

In the passport hall, there were just two desks with officers checking documents. The room was packed with people cheek to jowl. Children too exhausted to stand, whimpering because they were too tired to cry. I gave my suitcase to a family for a boy to sit on because he’d been standing for hours. There was no shouting, no fighting, as mums nudged their kids forward.

In Poland, the welcome was immediate. There were blankets, food and soldiers helping with bags. I asked one woman how she felt about making it over the border and she was almost too stunned to speak. “Help. Help us,” she said. Some had friends and family to go to but others had no idea what to do next. Many don’t believe they will ever go home.

The UN estimates 500,000 people have already fled their homes in Ukraine but the final number could be in the millions. Having seen first-hand the conditions, I believe unless help is given people will freeze to death waiting to escape what they’ve left behind.

Since Sunday Chapman and her team have been reporting from the Polish side of the border with Ukraine.

5 News airs on weekdays at 5pm on Channel 5. In November it relaunched from two half-hourly bulletins each evening to one hour-long programme with an increased budget and staff.

Picture: 5 News

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