Polish village struck by Ukraine war missile struggling with trauma

Przewodów ‘trying as much as possible to keep life normal’ – but tragedy has underscored proximity of war for tiny border village

On Tuesday afternoon, for the first and only time since he moved to Przewodów, a small Polish border village, Father Bogdan Wazny said mass to an empty church.

Barely an hour earlier, a Russian-made missile had flown out of Ukrainian territory, killed two of his parishioners and shattered the illusion that geography and international law would protect the villagers.

“The physical border here also mentally separated us from the war [in Ukraine]. We always felt this way,” Wazny said, the day after the missile landed. “We never felt the danger here.”

Now however, fear, horror and a sudden swarm of police and military kept the faithful at home as news of their personal tragedy began ricocheting around the world, transmuted into a geopolitical crisis.


The nightmare Kyiv and its allies had warned about for months had become a reality: war in Ukraine had spilled over the country’s borders and thrust this sleepy hamlet, just four miles from the border, into the international spotlight.

“We talked about this before, but it never felt like a serious threat,” said Justine Mazurek, who was born in the village 71 years ago. “Of course, I was aware that the war is going on, but I never heard any explosions.”

A day later, she says she can still hardly believe that two men she knew well have been killed by a missile. “People are afraid but still haven’t had enough time to talk to each other, to process it.”

Within hours the US president, Joe Biden, and Poland’s leaders said they believed the missile, although Russian-made, had been fired by Ukraine in self-defence. That reduced the fear of escalation, but did nothing to ease the pain in Przewodów.

The village is small enough that everyone knew the victims. It has a registered population of 900 but only 600 actually live here – like swathes of eastern Poland, it has lost many of its young people to migration.

“We bumped into each other all the time and now they are no longer here,” Mazurek said, after attending mass where Wazny prayed for the dead – fathers and devout churchgoers who were killed as they worked at a grain sorting centre.

One was married to a woman who worked at the school, so overnight, principal Ewa Byra switched from overseeing education for 71 students to organising psychological support for a traumatised community.

“We [in Przewodów] managed to calm down after 24 February [when Russia invaded Ukraine] despite the fact that we live next door to the war,” Byra said. “The emotions had subsided and we managed to cope. But yesterday’s event awakened those emotions again.”

The school, where a poster reading “safety above all” hangs in the main hall, had already closed for the day when the missile hit, but the next day it stood empty again, with parents too frightened to send their children to classrooms just a few hundred metres from the site of the explosion. “It was too fresh. This is a very hard experience for them,” said Byra.

She has already started connecting children and their parents to psychologists and experts in trauma, who have come from larger cities nearby. “Psychological help began today,” she said, describing an online meeting to connect people with first, basic support.

Byra expects the recovery to be hard for a community now living with the reality that the war has crossed the border once, and may do so again. “We are trying as much as possible to keep life normal – the children’s feelings are the most important thing.”

She also played host overnight to journalists, part of an overwhelming influx to the town, where country roads were swarming with military and police cars. Police had cordoned off a large swathe of land around the missile site, as investigators scrambled to work out what happened.

The missile landed just before 4pm local time on Tuesday, as the light was ebbing from the sky. By Wednesday morning the remote village had become world-famous, swarming with journalists and police.

“Unfortunately, for this tragic reason, everyone is going to remember Przewodów. We would rather our village had remained obscure, and these two were both alive.”

Additional reporting by Mariusz Cieszewski


Emma Graham-Harrison in Przewodów

The GuardianTramp

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