A long road and new life ahead for Ukrainians fleeing war by taxi

MADRID/NADARZYN, Poland, March 15 (Reuters) - Olga and her two children, including six-month-old Vera, are crossing Europe by road, fleeing war in Ukraine with the help of a group of Spanish taxi drivers who drove to Poland to support the mass evacuation of refugees.

Like many of the nearly three million people who have poured over Ukraine's borders in search of sanctuary since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, she is haunted by what she has seen.

Olga also had to say goodbye to her husband, brother and father, who stayed behind to fight.

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"It is a nightmare. A humanitarian disaster, a war, a lot of dead people. And there is no end to it, we don't know how long it will continue," Olga, 38, told Reuters in Nadarzyn, near the Polish capital Warsaw.

There she linked up with a group of 28 Spanish taxis that were delivering aid and picking up 140 refugees on Monday to take them back to Spain.

It is the second time Olga and her family have had to suddenly abandon their home. In 2014, they escaped from pro-Russian separatist forces as they advanced into the eastern region of Donbass.

At that time, Olga, who did not want to give her surname out of concern for her male relatives' safety, left behind the business she built as a computer programmer in the city of Luhansk. In the capital Kyiv, her daughter was born and her 11-year-old son Slavik attended school.

"My heart had just calmed down (after leaving Donbass). Then again I woke in the morning to explosions, again we have to leave our Motherland," she said, wiping away tears before embarking on her journey.

Citizens from across Western Europe have made their way by car or minivan to Ukraine's European borders to help refugees find new homes.

Some 2.95 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland since the conflict began, including 1.8 million in Poland, the U.N. refugee agency said. Some 300,000 have gone on to Western Europe.

'MY HEART IS BREAKING'

In Nadarzyn, a taxi driver played with baby Vera, while another lifted a little girl wearing a colourful backpack onto his shoulders, having greeted them with toys and sweets brought from Spain.

The taxi convoy, with two drivers in each vehicle, had left the Spanish capital Madrid on Friday.

A Ukrainian woman called Olga, 38, holds her 6-month-old daughter Vera near Spanish taxis, in front of the reception center for refugees, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine,in Nadarzyn, Poland, March 14, 2022. Picture taken March 14, 2022. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

Their 40-hour round trip of more than 3,300 km (2,050 miles)was organised in less than a week by the drivers themselves. They estimated the cost at 50,000 euros ($55,000), which they said was funded by themselves and additional donations.

"At first I was organizing the trip just for me but got to know that other colleagues also wanted to help and take people away from that hell," said driver Javier Hernandez, who said he had lost a Ukrainian friend in the fighting a few days earlier.

Pablo Ucero, a 58-year-old driver, welled up as he spoke to Reuters. "My heart is just breaking for them. Nobody should have to live through something like this."

Their initiative is just one of many springing up across Spain and Europe aimed at helping refugees.

Mayte Pérez, 51, her husband and four neighbours returned to Spain on Friday from Poland with seven refugees.

Four of them - a mother, her two children and a girl who came alone – will live in a flat provided by a neighbour in San Clodio, in northern Spain.

Perez said she had not asked her passengers about what happened before they met in Poland.

"I'm afraid of hurting them," she told Reuters by telephone en route back to Spain.

The taxi drivers were expecting to return early on Wednesday to Madrid, where the refugees would be checked by medics and Spanish authorities before being set up in temporary accommodation.

"Some of our drivers are already talking about doing the route again. We have saved 140 lives and you cannot put a price on that," said Jose Miguel Funez, spokesperson for the Madrid Professional Taxi Federation.

In Spain, Ukrainians should be issued with European Union temporary protection orders allowing them to swiftly obtain residence and work permits.

Spain's Inclusion Ministry said that by the middle of last week, 1,000 Ukrainians had entered the state reception network, although far more were entering with the help of family and friends.

The authorities have stressed the need for refugee arrivals in Spain to be planned, coordinated and formalised to ensure their safety, particularly in the case of children.

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Reporting by Diana Mandia Alvarez and Aida Pelaez in Gdansk; Christina Thykjaer and Michael Gore in Madrid; Vicent West in Irun; Kacper Pempel in Warsaw; Writing by Emma Pinedo, editing by Aislinn Laing and Mike Collett-White

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