A special report from Slovakia as exhausted Ukrainians flee war

In Slovakia, a group of Ukrainian refugees are huddled around a temporary information stand in Košice train station. There is a sense of urgency and I see flashes of mild panic in some of their faces.

They need to find the correct train or bus connection. I notice a lot of elderly refugees among them. Many appear confused and anxious but Ukrainian and Russian-speaking volunteers quickly put them at ease - offering them directions and guidance.

Having crossed the border into Slovakia, many of the refugees end up at this train station. Košice is the largest city in the eastern region of Slovakia. Having left the border camps this train station is their first major transit hub as they seek to continue their journey onwards to their desired destinations across Europe.

Many of the refugees appear exhausted, having travelled for days to reach the safety of the border. The stress of escaping war is taking its toll. The refugees carry few belongings but many troubles.

Farm robbed of fuel and tractor

I approach an old man. I am drawn to the character in his face, worn by weather and age, but his blue eyes retain a youthful intensity, reminding me of an old neighbour at home in west Kerry. He does not speak English. A young Ukrainian woman kindly offers to translate for us.

Thomas is a small farmer from a rural area north of Kyiv. While his son now farms their 40 acres, Thomas still helps him work the land. They grow potatoes, some wheat and other vegetables. They also have cows. It's a modest holding but it's enough to provide a comfortable living for his son's young family.

Thomas tells me he was reluctant to leave home but that his son's wife eventually convinced him to follow her to Germany. Thomas tells me his son has taken up arms and is helping defend his country. I ask Thomas if he is worried about his son. He tells me he is, but that he is proud of him. Thomas then becomes very animated, and I can detect anger in his voice as he continues with his story.

When the Russian tanks rolled in and took control of the surrounding area, four Russian soldiers entered Thomas's farmyard. The soldiers drained the diesel tank he uses to fuel their trusty 35-year-old tractor. But siphoning the diesel for their own use did not satisfy the soldiers. Before the Russians left the farmyard, they set fire to the old tractor. Thomas tells me it's a disaster for the family, as the success of the farm relies on the power of the tractor.

Over the coming weeks they should be busy ploughing the land and preparing to sow the crops. He now fears for his son's family. They can't afford to buy another tractor. Thomas says he wanted to stay behind to show his son how to plough with a horse, but his son insisted that he leave and find safety.

Thomas's story is just one of the many tales of struggle, sorrow and loss which we have encountered since we arrived on the Slovakian border with Ukraine over a week ago. More than 300,000 Ukrainians have fled across the border into Slovakia since the beginning of the war. The early days proved challenging for a small country with a population similar to that of Ireland. More than 15,000 refugees a day passed through the four crossings along the 97km border.

Among risks and dangers, small acts of kindness matter

Initially, aid organisations struggled to cope with the flood of people and the NGOs criticised the lack of response and planning by the government there.

The chaotic scenes which developed at the border crossings brought potential dangers for the more vulnerable refugees. Human Rights Watch highlighted the risks posed by traffickers and sexual predators at the crossings.

On 9 March, a Croatian bus arrived at the Vysné Nemecké crossing. The female driver said she would only allow Ukrainian women under the age of 30 onto the bus. The police were alerted. The driver refused to give her name and she was removed from the bus. The authorities eventually managed to get a grip of the situation and what appears to be a very well organised and efficient system was put in place.

Over 70% of the refugees entering Slovakia cross the border at Vysné Nemecké. The vast majority are women and children. As they emerge from behind the border barriers, the Ukrainian refugees are approached by volunteers and the children are gifted toys. The little squeals of joy from the children as they receive the toys brings a smile to the faces of their stressed and exhausted mothers. In war, small acts of kindness matter. There's dignity in the warm welcome they receive here.

The NGOs have established a small village of tents here, offering the refugees hot drinks, food, clothes and blankets. There is also a makeshift church in one of the tents, where priests lead prayers, allowing the refugees a quiet moment of spiritual healing and reflection before they face the challenge of the next phase of their journey. Vehicles arriving to collect refugees are regularly searched, drivers are questioned and they must register.

A fleet of buses transport the refugees to the nearby town of Michalovce. Here, a large refugee camp has been built alongside the town's ice hockey stadium. This is where the refugees are registered. This official process gives the refugees 'temporary shelter' status in Slovakia, granting them permission to work, access healthcare and allowing their children to enter the education system. While the vast majority of refugees entering Slovakia have plans to continue on to other countries, more than 60,000 have decided to stay in Slovakia.

"Ukraine is my home. I miss my home. My home is in my heart."

The camp is designed to offer the refugees a temporary resting point. One large tent is filled with rows upon rows of camp beds. Exhausted mothers gently lull their children to sleep. A food hall offers much needed hot meals. Various aid organisations hand out clothes, toiletries and toys. A mobile phone company provides free Slovakian sim cards. There is an information tent where volunteers help the refugees in planning the next part of their journey and assist them in sourcing accommodation.

Many people fleeing Ukraine are deeply traumatised

We visit a tent that offers psychological services. Miroslava, one of the psychologists, tells us many of the people she meets are deeply traumatised, suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders generated by the trauma of war. She tells us that proximity to raging battles has left many experiencing flashbacks.

Miroslava tells us that when ice hockey games are held in the adjacent indoor stadium, the crack of the sticks and sudden roar of the large crowd can frighten the children in the tents, triggering flashbacks of the deafening sound of bombardment they experienced in the towns and cities they have just fled.

Cameraman Jimmy Norman spots another tent run by veterinary surgeons. Many of the refugees carried their pets with them as they escaped the war. The vet tells us that the pets are exhausted and hungry when they arrive here. We see a large dog. The vet tells us her owner has come from Kharkiv, a city which has experienced intense shelling. The dog is shaking uncontrollably - and has been since she arrived a day earlier. Even the pets are showing the strain of war.

The terror the air raid sirens brought

On our first evening at the Vysné Nemecké border crossing we speak to many of the refugees. Each has a story to tell. The narratives are testimony to the human cost of war. Some politely decline to speak about their experiences. That in itself tells its own story.

We meet Victoria. She has fled Kyiv. She recounts the sense of panic and terror the air raid sirens brought, especially at night. She tells us she tried to calm her four-year-old son by covering his ears with her hands whenever the sirens blared.

Bohdana talks of the terrifying thuds of incessant shelling near her town. Her elderly parents refused to leave with her. She now fears for their lives.

Nadiya from Odesa decided to flee as the Russians intensified their assault in the south of the country. She says many people were killed in a town just north of her city. She also describes how differing opinions about the war has divided families and broken friendships in a part of the country which has retained strong cultural ties with Russia.

We meet Anna, who tells us of the destruction in Kharkiv, the difficult conditions experienced by people living underground in bomb shelters, the dead bodies on the streets. It’s no place for children, she says.

Scenes of devastation in Kharkiv, Ukraine

Mothers carry their children, and thoughts of their partners left behind

Darkness falls and we continue to film the steady stream of refugees. It’s bitterly cold. Many of the refugees are not dressed properly for such conditions. The mothers hold the hands of their children, encouraging them to walk faster, anxious to reach the warmth of the camp and a chance to finally rest.

The strength and resolve displayed by the mothers is remarkable. Most travel alone, without their partners. Most men aged between 18 and 60 are banned from leaving and must stay in Ukraine to help with the war effort. The responsibility and care of their children rests solely on the mothers' shoulders, while thoughts of their partners left behind to fight must carry unimaginable worry. Yet in their haste and urgency to cross the border, the women carry themselves with dignity.

With each arrival there's a visual story. An old man clutching a plastic bag of belongings appears lost, unsure of where he should go now. A 10-year-old boy moves slowly along on crutches, but there's a steely resolve evident on his young face. A young mother struggles to carry her bags while keeping her three young children safely in tow. An old woman is pushed along in a wheelchair by her elderly husband. The scenes are pitiful and poignant.

Against the flow, re-entering a war-torn country

It is late and we are about to return to our accommodation when I notice a woman walking against the flow of people. Her name is Veronika and she is carrying a little dog. I'm taken aback when she tells me she is heading back across the border into Ukraine. She fled Kyiv for Stuttgart nine days ago. Even though the Russian army still threatens her city, she tells me that she misses her family and her friends who have remained in Kyiv.

She says she is proud of her country and its beautiful people. I ask her if she is afraid of returning. "No," she replies with conviction. I ask her why. "Ukraine is my home. I miss my home. My home is in my heart. My home is my heart."

Ten minutes later, Veronika disappears across the border, re-entering a country being ravaged by war.

Veronika, who went back into Ukraine

A few days later we are filming high up in the mountains at the border crossing of Ubl'a. The crossing is eerily quiet. The Ukrainian forces have by now recaptured much of the territory once occupied by the Russians to the north of Kyiv. A light dusting of snow is falling and we see a number women and children being dropped off by cars. They are re-entering Ukraine. They feel it's safe to return.

Later that evening, we travel south again to the Vysné Nemecké crossing. We see more women and children walking towards the border here. The majority we speak to live in western Ukraine, in areas that have largely escaped the conflict, and they believe it is now safe to return. Some tell us it will only be a short visit. They want to see their partners, meet relatives and friends and make sure their homes are secure.

Others believe the war has turned in Ukraine’s favour. There's a growing confidence and they now intend to return to their homes permanently.

Back in Košice train station I’ve finished interviewing some of the volunteers and refugees. I decide to go for a walk in the nearby 'old town'. I enter the beautiful medieval church of St Elizabeth. I sit for a while admiring the elegant stained-glass windows and ornate altar. I've spent about 10 minutes sitting at the back of the church when I hear the rattle and creak of the big oak door as it opens.

A young woman enters. She is wearing a distinctive white woollen hat and has a bag on her back. I have seen her earlier, seeking information from volunteers in the train station. She begins to slowly wander around the church. I don't think any more of it. My attention is drawn to a beautiful old sculpture of the scene on Calvary and I venture over to take a closer look at it.

I eventually decide it’s time to leave the church, but as I make my way towards the door, I see the young woman again. She is now off to the side in one of the darker corners. She is kneeling on the cold stone slabs, directly beneath a religious portrait. She has her back to me and she is gazing up at the painting, her hands clasped. In the still silence of the church I can hear her whispering prayers, but I also hear her sobbing heavily as she whispers them. They are prayers and tears for her homeland.

It’s a moving scene. Sorrowful, yet beautiful. I quietly leave the church and sit on a bench on the other side of the little square in front of the church. The young woman emerges a short time later, wiping tears from her eyes before turning the corner and walking back in the direction of the station.

I re-enter the church and walk over to look at the painting under which she had knelt. It's St Jude - the patron saint of hopeless cases and lost causes.