BERLIN (AFP) – Ms Svetlana Z. knew it was time to flee when she noticed that planes were no longer taking off or landing at the airport near her house in the north-eastern Ukrainian town of Kharkiv.
“It was intuition. When the planes stopped flying, we knew it was the start of something bad,” she told AFP, holding her 2½-year-old son close while the family of three waited for Berlin authorities to process their registration.
That fateful day – Tuesday (Feb 22) – they packed up a few bags of essentials, and piled into their “old car” and headed westwards.
Less than 48 hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“There was no accommodation in the west, in Lyiv,” Ms Svetlana said, so they kept driving, first crossing into Poland before finally arriving in Berlin on Friday.
Asked why they did not remain in Poland which is closer to home, she burst into tears, saying: “We cannot go home.”
They are in constant contact with loved ones back in Ukraine, but “there is only bad news now”.
Her family counts among dozens of first refugees arriving in Europe’s biggest economy from Ukraine.
Germany, which in 2015 took in more than a million migrants – many fleeing war in Syria and Iraq – has pledged to “provide massive help” should there be a large-scale influx in neighbouring nations of Ukrainian refugees.
So far the numbers of new arrivals are small.
“We have had about 75 Ukrainians today. But we’re expecting far more in the coming days,” Mr Sascha Langenbach, spokesman for Berlin city’s refugee affairs office, told AFP.
“They haven’t been so emotional such that we always see tears, but their bewilderment at what is happening in their homeland is almost palpable,” he said.
At the Berlin reception centre, officials had readied 1,300 beds, with capacity to be doubled in the next days.
Staffing has also been boosted with Ukrainian or Russian speakers.
Small groups of people seeking aid were arriving, some accompanied by relatives or friends living in Berlin, while others like Ms Svetlana’s family had found their way themselves.