All photos by the author.
Taraclia is a rural village in the southeast of Moldova with a documented population of 3,700 people, though it is likely much less since many Moldovans work abroad. The village lies along the border with Ukraine, not far from the port city of Odessa. Taraclia is close enough to Ukraine that I received a “Welcome to Ukraine” text message when I first rode the microbus into the village in 2018. There is one main road through Taraclia and, if you followed it as I have and as many Ukrainian refugees currently find themselves doing, you would see houses furnished with decorated gates and large gardens on all sides. At this time of year, families are preparing the soil and planting crops for the fall harvest. Entering from the east, you would go down a hill past the high school and primary school. As the road dips down into the valley, you would see the golden dome of the church to the left and the bright blue crosses of the cemetery to the right. A sharp turn south at the store would take you past the library, the mayor’s office and the kindergarten and out of the village again.
Moldova, a former Soviet republic, is home to three million people and one of the poorest nations in Europe. While the national language in Moldova is Romanian, television in Taraclia is mostly in Russian, and Moldovans are exposed to a significant amount of misinformation and disinformation via television and social media. People in Taraclia were not sure what to believe about the war in Ukraine until they heard the sounds of bombs exploding in Odessa for themselves and saw the refugees with their own eyes.
Refugee women and children began to cross the Ukrainian-Moldovan border in large numbers; the first to arrive were Ukrainian refugees with money and expensive cars, then came those with less resources. Refugees who can afford to travel further west stay for a few days and continue their journeys, while those with less money remain. Others return to Ukraine to be with their husbands and fathers, fighting for their country. There are currently around 50 refugees in the village of Taraclia.
Waiting for family
Valentina Borzin is a retired schoolteacher living on the outskirts of Taraclia. She grew up in Soviet Ukraine in a village near the town now known as Bashtanka, in the district of Mykolaiv. She lived there for 24 years before moving to Donbas to study foreign languages. After finishing university, Valentina returned to her village and married a Moldovan man. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Moldova gained independence, Valentina and her husband moved to Moldova and settled down in Taraclia. Valentina and I taught English there together.
Most of Valentina’s family still lives in Ukraine in the village where she grew up. Her mother, her sister Larisa, Larisa’s daughter Oksana and Oksana’s children live in Valentina’s childhood home. Over the past few weeks, Valentina has Facebook messaged me over 30 voice memos. Internet connection is not strong enough in her house to video chat. I spoke Romanian with everyone else I interviewed in Taraclia, but Valentina and I communicate in English.
When I first reached out to Valentina to ask her about the situation in Taraclia and the safety of her family in Ukraine, she was still unsure, herself. Her voice shook as she spoke.
“Telling the truth, I couldn’t believe that Russia bombed my village, but then I saw it on the internet, and I began to believe,” Valentina said, concerned but not sure whether to trust what she read online. “Now Oksana is coming, but I don’t believe that she is coming. When I see them here, then they will be in safety, then I can believe.”
Valentina is especially worried about her 80-year-old mother who is too feeble for the journey. When the air-raid warning siren sounds, the family goes into the cellar, but she needs to be carried in a blanket because she cannot climb down by herself. Valentina encouraged her sister to come with the others, but Larisa stayed behind to care for their mother as well as their animals, including a cow that just gave birth to a calf. Larisa’s other child, Seriozha, is currently defending Mykolaiv. Valentina copes with her fear and uncertainty by preparing for her guests: Oksana with her two children Sergiu, 14, and Timosha, 3, as well as Oksana’s friend, Roslana, with her two children, all of whom Valentina now refers to as “my refugees.”
The next day, Valentina visited her sister-in-law, Natasha, a Russian teacher who I gave English lessons to, who also has a family of refugees staying at her house. Valentina asked them about the safest way to get to Moldova. At that point, Valentina’s refugees were in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, where Volodymyr Zelensky was born. They had to choose between traveling to Poland, where Oksana’s husband works or Moldova where Valentina lives. They decided to try to get to Moldova because the large number of refugees entering Poland has made it nearly impossible to find a place to stay.
Sunday is market day in the village. Valentina bought multiple sets of shirts, pants and slippers so that her guests would have fresh clothes upon arrival.
“Oksana said there were bombs, so she didn’t take many things with her, just rubber boots on her feet and a jacket and took her child by his hand and got in the car and left the dangerous zone in my village,” Valentina said.
Valentina’s home is heated by a soba, a wood-burning stove that is a common heating method in Moldova. She worries her home is too cold for her relatives who are accustomed to central heating. Nevertheless, Valentina tried to create a comfortable space for her guests.
“I bought a bed and we put two beds together and we will sleep together as in the hotel,” Valentina said, quite happy with the setup, almost a giggle in her voice.
On Sunday evening, I received a message that Valentina’s family had arrived in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and were on their way to Taraclia. It was not until Valentina’s relatives arrived at her home that she truly believed what she had been hearing about what was happening in Ukraine.
“Sergiu, my nephew, told us that, in our village where I was born, Russian armies marched through the village and there were many guns — they saw the tanks at four in the morning. It’s real, it’s real, it’s real,” said Valentina, convinced at last.
Pavel Halicov, 15, is a ninth-grade student at the high school in Taraclia. When war broke out, Pavel agreed with Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. In his view, if Ukraine became a part of NATO, then Russia would be surrounded by NATO countries, so Putin had no choice but to invade. When Pavel had the opportunity to hand out food to refugees in the border village of Palanca, he was curious to see what was happening for himself. I messaged Pavel to ask him how that experience changed his mind about the war.
“When I saw how bad it was and saw small children crying because they were cold and hungry, it broke my heart,” Pavel said. “I understood then that nothing is more important than safety, at least for these babies, and war is not worth it at all, because the innocent people suffer, not the actual people who are causing the war.”
There are volunteers of all ages at the border crossing in Palanca — more women than men. Since the wait at customs is often long, volunteers serve refugees food such as sarmale (stuffed cabbage) and sandwiches. When it is cold, they offer tea and a place to get warm inside tents. Fresh clothes are available for anyone who needs them. The volunteers help with childcare while the parents answer questions. Many refugees do not have any form of transportation, so Moldovans wait on the Moldovan side of the border crossing with cars to take refugees wherever they need to go and microbuses to take larger groups farther distances, all for free.
Like Pavel, Marinela Stambol, 19, is part of the group of youth that volunteer at the border every day. In addition to welcoming refugees in Palanca, Marinela invited a Ukrainian family with three children to stay at her house. This is the sixth refugee family to stay with her; the rest traveled farther west. This family does not have friends or relatives outside of Ukraine, so they will be staying with Marinela until the end of the war. I called Marinela to ask what motivated her to open her home to strangers.
“They don’t have anywhere to stay. They don’t have anywhere to sleep. They don’t have anything to eat. If I have the possibility, why not?” Marinela asked. She echoed the response that I had received when asking others this same question: “It’s for the soul.”
I saw a photo on Facebook of my former host mom, Lilia Ursu, helping refugees at the border. I called Lilia, who is the vice school director and a Romanian teacher at the high school, to check in and ask about her experiences. In the first days of the war, Lilia volunteered in Palanca. However, she soon realized her efforts would be put to better use in Taraclia to support refugees once they had arrived. Lilia coordinates between the school and the mayor’s office. The Moldovan diaspora working abroad sends money to help the refugees, which Lilia and the other teachers use to purchase food and clothing.
Refugees in Taraclia, including a Korean family who was living in Ukraine, stay with host families, not in refugee camps. In the village group chat, the mayor writes how many people are in a family of refugees, and residents share how much space they can offer. The group chat is also used for organizing donations.
The Eastern-Orthodox church in Taraclia has also been an important place of organizing in the village. I spoke with the village priest Eduard Betestean, known as Father Mihai, who also works as the history teacher at the high school, about the role of the church in this crisis.
“The church has always been an institution that unites and mobilizes people, and our most important role is to pray for world peace. We pray for the heads of state. We pray that everyone can go home,” he said.
Father Mihai emphasized that, while Taraclia is taking action to help the refugees pouring across the border, Taraclia is not unique; villages across Moldova are doing the same thing to support their Ukrainian neighbors.
As refugees settle in with their host families and the people of Taraclia provide their new neighbors whatever support they can, the life and work of the village continues. The children go to school (including a refugee boy in the 5th grade), the teachers teach, and the librarian checks out books. The priest delayed our conversation because he was busy planting potatoes in his garden as Moldovans do this time of year.
In addition to the refugees, there are further reminders of war in Taraclia. Occasionally, the bombing in Odessa is audible and wakes people up at night, especially residents in the southern part of the village. At the store, the shelves were bare for the first week of the war; the shelves are full again, but prices rise continually.
In the beginning of the conflict, teaching was challenging, as students were distracted by the events going on around them. However, the school is back to its normal routine of lessons and afterschool programs, with an attempt to incorporate the promotion of peace in these activities.
“The first days, we could not have lessons,” Lilia said. “We tried to explain what happened without making it political. We tried to explain that this conflict is not necessary and that it does not need to be this way, and that is all.”
For Lilia, like Valentina, she only believes what she sees with her own eyes. She only trusts information from ministerial telegrams. She does not watch television because she does not know what is right and what is wrong.
“We do not know how it actually is in Ukraine, but nevertheless, it is not good if [refugees] left. They come to Moldova — a poor country — yet they come here. Thus, we consider that it is not good in Ukraine,” Lilia said.
The village library is the information center of Taraclia. Ana Bocancea, the librarian, puts on programs to promote digital literacy and combat misinformation. Her job is more important now than ever. The library does not have any books in Ukrainian, but Ana checks out Romanian children’s books for refugee children. The Moldovan children who visit the library ask Ana about the war.
“We talk about the war in Ukraine because the children are also disturbed. They hear from their parents, from television, from the internet. They also want the war to finish quickly. And they are afraid because we are close,” Ana said.
Lilia has a 15-year-old daughter, Corina, who is also disturbed by current events.
“Corina is very sad, because she says her childhood is not nice,” Lilia said. “There was the COVID pandemic, and she stayed at home. Now there is a war.”
The refugees staying in Taraclia face a great deal of uncertainty, but they still manage to hold onto hope.
“They have hope that everything will finish soon, and they will return home. ‘Maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow…’ They do not unpack their luggage,” Father Mihai said.
For some, Taraclia is a spot to rest before continuing on a longer journey. But for those who call Taraclia their home, it is a community that supports, comforts and feeds its neighbors.
Lindsay Myers served in the Peace Corps in Moldova from 2018-2020.
Please support independent media today! Now celebrating its 22nd year publishing, The Indypendent is still standing but it’s not easy. Make a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home.