Patriot missiles ring the airport in the Polish border city of Rzeszów, and US troops have taken over the Holiday Inn opposite the terminal. On its runway, once the preserve of budget carriers, private jets are lined up beside cargo planes crammed with weapons.
The bristling circle of military protection, set up hastily in early spring as the historic town became the world’s gateway to the war in Ukraine, is both a shield and a constant reminder of the conflict on its doorstep.
When a Russian-made missile slammed into a farm and killed two men in the village of Przewodów, about 100 miles away, many people wondered if it was enough.
“After this incident in Przewodów, I and many of our citizens had a moment of great fear,” said Rzeszów mayor Konrad Fijołek, sitting in his busy town hall office. “Is this the beginning of something worse? Was it a Russian missile or not? And why didn’t our systems catch it?”
This war has changed the world, but perhaps nowhere outside Ukraine has the transformation forged by Moscow’s guns, tanks and missiles been as immediate and far-reaching as along Poland’s border.
Here, the day of the invasion, 24 February, is etched into history. People use the date as shorthand for Vladimir Putin’s annexation project, the way Americans refer to 9/11.
Ukraine has named Rzeszów “saviour city”, for its role as a gateway for refugees pouring out, and aid pouring in over the last few months. Help was offered so eagerly and spontaneously when refugees first started crossing the border, that many outside Poland did not understand that they were witnessing a dramatic shift.
Just a couple of generations ago, there was bitter fighting between Poles and Ukrainians in nearby border areas including the city of Przemyśl and parts of western Ukraine, as both tried to forge a nation out of the ruins of European empires.
The violence, which lasted for much of the first half of the 20th century, included mass deportations and killings. Its legacy lingered in often bitter cross-border politics, with some parties on both sides courting Russia even as they played on local tensions. But Putin’s war changed Poland’s relationship with Ukraine – and people’s understanding of their own history – virtually overnight.
“Feb 24 forced people to see we have something in common, a common enemy,” said Prof Tomasz Pudłocki, Associate Professor at of the Institute of History at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University, who is a native of Przemyśl. “It was very clear to Poles and Ukrainians that whatever their political position, Russia is now the aggressor. “Ours is a difficult history, with trauma and stereotypes, and politicians on both sides of the border exploit this. Our past is part of our identity. It’s a huge challenge to rethink who we are and how we perceive the world … What is very stimulating and hopeful is that people proved they can do it.”
Małgorzata Kozicka runs a grocery shop in the village of Dołhobyczów, close to Przewodów. Her uncle and aunt were killed by Ukrainian forces in the chaos at the end of the second world war. But when Ukrainian refugees first staggered across the border eight months ago, she didn’t hesitate to offer help.
“If you see a mother and children running away from their home and country, you don’t ask too many questions. You just help,” said the 59-year-old. “The past was difficult here, but times have changed.”
The turmoil of the first days of the war has passed, but the conflict continued to cast a shadow even before last week’s missile claimed the first deaths outside Ukraine’s borders.
“You have to be afraid because the war is right behind the door, but also you have to live and work and hope it won’t come back,” said Kozicka.
Her village is in a sparsely populated area where last week the first snow dusted forests still hung with autumn leaves. Mounds of sugar beet wait for collection by the road. This part of Poland is called domestically “the eastern wall”. It’s an area many young people move away from, and those who stay often work in agriculture or the public sector; salaries are far lower than in the country’s west.
“Some say our region is at the very end of the world; others say it is at the very beginning. It depends which way you are looking,” said Grzegorz Drewnik, mayor of a group of villages including Przewodów. “Now we are at the centre of global media attention. Though two people being killed is not a reason to be proud of.”
Until 23 February, Fijołek, Rzeszów’s mayor was mostly worried about economic growth. “This situation was like a big revolution for us, Rzeszów was not such a big city, it was next to the EU border and quite far from big political centres like Warsaw, Brussels.”
“Now we are in the eye of the cyclone of history, so its quite a different situation …Sometimes I have this feeling that maybe I am still in my bed and sleeping [and dreamed it all].”
In February he faced the real possibility that Russia’s military – then trying to seize Kyiv, and considered a far more formidable force than it later proved – might sweep up to that border.
“I thought maybe in a week, there could be thousands of crazy Russian soldiers next to my city,” he said. “There are no rules any more. You don’t know when they might drink two bottles of vodka and push the button on a missile aimed at Poland. You don’t know what they can do.”
He believes the immediacy of that threat helped forge the commitment to Ukraine. “That’s why our people help Ukrainians: we know they are fighting for our freedom and our democracy as well.”
“For sure older people also changed their opinions about Ukraine and our relationship, and that’s a good thing,” said Fijołek. “If you have a common enemy, such a crazy, out of control enemy, this can accelerate better communications between our nations.”
Younger people, focused on European integration, were already building bridges, he said, and he believes the wartime solidarity will endure beyond the conflict. In the village of Przewodów, survivors showed the strength of the new unity against Moscow.
It became clear within 24 hours that the missile had been a Ukrainian one that went astray. It might have been easy to lay some of the blame for the village tragedy on Kyiv rather than Moscow, but everyone who spoke to the Observer was unanimous about who was ultimately responsible.
“If it wasn’t for the war, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Halina, a pensioner who knew both the dead men. “The missiles wouldn’t fly here if not for the war.”
• This article was amended on 20 November 2022. An earlier version referred to Prof Tomasz Pudłocki of Kraków University. The institution is Kraków’s Jagiellonian University.
Additional reporting by Mariusz Cieszewski