Ideas Archipelago Ukraine | Moldova

In Moldova, the Ukraine war is causing historical fears to ‘rise to the surface and burst’

Relative to population, Moldova has taken in the most Ukrainian refugees. Since the war, there is fear of the Transnistrian conflict breaking out again. Memories of famine and deportations from Soviet times are also resurfacing, says Moldovan author Emanuela Iurkin.

Published on 28 July 2022 at 10:06
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The first morning of the war was all horror, disbelief, and outrage. There were no more words. It was as if a rocket hit my language and splintered every last word. The outlook was grim, but what happened on 24 February was worse. When I finally opened my mouth and spoke, I swore. Before long, the swearing was replaced by silent prayers.

I doubt Chișinău’s most fervent supporters of Russia expected what happened. They celebrated the Soviet Army Day in the evening of the 23 and then the war on the 24 with vodka and Za pobedu [“For victory” in Russian, the potential source of the “Z” symbol painted on Russian military vehicles – Editor's note]. Others looked dejected, sad, worried. Ours is a chimeric population. We see things differently, our commitments are approximate and firm, and our anger is seething. Deepening poverty only makes it worse.

Most refugees passed through Moldova, but some stayed. As a percentage of our population, we’ve taken in more refugees than any surrounding country. Prices soared – thanks, in part, to local profiteers – but so did fear. Moldovans were paralyzed with fear, and there was the historical impulse to run for our lives, for the city of Iași and beyond.

By 26 February, I was heartened by how well average citizens had organized and begun gathering necessities for newly arrived refugees, but the fear was still nagging. I wanted to gather my own things in case I needed to flee. I wasn’t proud of myself, but I packed a go-bag before taking my donated necessities to the refugee centre. On my way home, news reports confirmed daily trains to Iași. I told my mom we’d wait another couple days. We didn’t know anyone in Iași, but if things got worse, we’d take the train on Monday.

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I unpacked the bag on 9 May. Since then I have read the list of weapons the Ukrainians need, published on Twitter by the Moldovan presidential counsellor Mihailo Podoleac. I have read about Russia’s strategic bombing, cities levelled, nearly annexed. I may have unpacked too soon.

Fear was and is, till this day, the most palpable feeling. Fear from the past rose to the surface of the present and burst. The history of famine, deportation, and forced collectivisation bled into the living nightmare of watching the war unfold on a phone screen.


Fear was and is, till this day, the most palpable feeling. Fear from the past rose to the surface of the present and burst


Throughout the first days, most of the news was horrifying, but there was one picture that stuck out to me. I couldn’t look away. The photo became iconic for me. At one of the border check points into the Republic of Moldova, a mother and child were crossing over from Ukraine. The little boy held a small house plant in one of his arms. He was forced out of his home and brought the plant with him. This picture helped keep my head above water as the nightmarish images poured in, day and night.

March this year marked the thirty-year anniversary of the intensification in the Transnistria War. A ceasefire was declared after just three months, but the conflict never stopped gnawing at the people. March was also when we learned about the terrible crimes in Bucha and throughout Ukraine. People in Chișinău started hovering about bomb shelters in Moldova – to find whether or not they existed, what shape they were in. People started pointing fingers.

The publishing house Cartier announced they’d celebrate their annual “Open Book Night” on 8 April. Books would be discounted, and peopled gathered at the Central Book Store, in a basement, near the interior ministry. Everyone talked about barbarism and war. I realised that the Central Book Store may have been the best bomb shelter we h…

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