Ukrainian border town sees an influx of refugees and a Hungarian exodus | Daily Express Online
About half of Berehove’s population of 22,000 is of Hungarian descent, the bilingual road signs, architecture and historic plaques testifying to its Magyar heritage.
But despite its location next to the Hungarian border and far from the fighting, the war has turned life in the city upside down.
Its hotels, private boarding houses and even schools now host refugees, among the two million Ukrainians internally displaced by the war so far.
“We are full, they have rooms booked for weeks, some for months,” said Konstantyn Popovych, 34, owner of the “Olesja” hotel in downtown Berehove.
According to Deputy Mayor Istvan Vincze, “4,000 to 5,000 refugees are currently in Berehove while a large part of the population of Hungarian origin” has fled across the border.
Today, you hear mostly Ukrainian in the streets, while a screen in the main square plays a promotional video of the army on a loop.
Flee to the “motherland”
“As soon as the war broke out and the government introduced conscription, many Hungarians left quickly, mostly to join relatives or friends in the motherland,” Vincze, 51, told AFP.
Speaking outside City Hall where Ukrainian and Hungarian flags fly, Vincze said he was worried about the long-term impact of the war on the city.
“I understand why people have left, the economic outlook is better, especially now that there is war, but obviously we hope everyone will come back soon,” he said.
Transcarpathia, cut off from the rest of Ukraine by the Carpathian Mountains, was ruled by Budapest until after World War I.
It then changed hands several times, falling under Soviet rule after World War II when thousands of Ukrainians and Russians settled in the area.
About 1,000 kilometers from Kiev and bordering Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, it finally became part of independent Ukraine in 1991.
Some 1.2 million people live there, with Hungarians the most numerous – around 150,000 – in a patchwork of ethnic minorities alongside Ukrainians.
But emigration and assimilation have chiselled the Magyar population, and locals fear the war will further strain already strained ethnic relations.
Hungarians in Berehove have long complained of being neglected by Kiev and that Ukrainians “from the hills and the east” are buying up empty properties.
A controversial 2017 language law is also seen by Hungarians as discriminatory and prompted Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government to block Ukraine’s progress towards NATO membership.
Some Ukrainians point to Orban’s close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the war, and suspect him of wanting to annex Transcarpathia.
Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, who granted dual citizenship and voting rights to Diaspora Magyars after he came to power in 2010, has also refused to send arms to Ukraine.
On the main street outside a high school renovated with Hungarian state funding, a pensioner – who asked not to be named – said “only Orban takes care of us”.
“Without Hungarian support and money, we would have nothing,” she told AFP, adding that she would vote for Orban in Hungary’s upcoming parliamentary elections on April 3.
According to Istvan Vincze, “the hour is not any more with the ethnic quarrels, but with the common action.
“Our municipality immediately set up five emergency shelters where refugees receive accommodation and meals three times a day,” he said.
Hungarian relief workers, religious groups, volunteers and authorities also helped Ukrainian refugees at the border and delivered trucks loaded with aid to Ukraine.
At the city’s Hungarian-language “Bethlen Gabor” boarding school, where classes have been suspended since the start of the war, its dormitories now house internally displaced Ukrainians.
“We are grateful to this city for hosting us,” Kyril, a 41-year-old theater director from Kharkiv who preferred not to give his full name, told AFP on a bunk bed next to his wife. his daughter and his niece.
“We had planned tours and sold out tickets for this week in three cities, Kryvyi Rih, Chernihiv and Kyiv, but everything changed overnight, and here we are,” he said.
“There are so many heartbreaking stories,” Arpad Szabo, 64, the school’s principal, told AFP in the outside hallway.
“I just hope and pray that school can get back to normal soon,” he said.