An American Patriot anti-aircraft system at the airport in Rzeszów.

An American Patriot anti-aircraft system at the airport in Rzeszów.

Foto: Brendan Hoffman / DER SPIEGEL

The Trials of Rzeszów A Polish Town Learns to Live with War on Its Doorstep

Rzeszów in eastern Poland has become an outpost of the West, receiving refugees from Ukraine and operating as a hub for weapons transports from the EU and U.S. The city's mayor has his hands full.
By Jan Puhl in Rzeszów, Poland

It’s going to be a quiet day, says the mayor, but what does that really mean when you govern a city that is located just 100 kilometers away from a war? A city like Rzeszów in eastern Poland, population 200,000.

DER SPIEGEL 28/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 28/2022 (July 9th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The town in the Subcarpathian Voivodeship is suddenly a front town, just as all of Poland sees itself as a nation on the frontlines ever since Russian forces rolled into Ukraine in late February. And Mayor Konrad Fijołek, like many in his country, seems both unsettled and galvanized.

Fijołek grabs a glass of homemade grapefruit soda and a handful of nuts as he rushes out of his office for a visit to an industrial park, his first stop of the day. A prosperous citizen has made a building available for use by the city.

It lies right behind the OBI DIY store, and a reception center run by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is moving in. As the guy from UNHCR reads through a longish speech about human rights, asylum, civic duty and aid, Fijołek shuffles from one foot to the other. He doesn’t have much time. Even if today is a quiet day, there is a lot to do.

Rzeszów carries the proud title "City of Saviors," bestowed upon it by the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In March, shortly after the invasion, the city took in around 100,000 refugees. "We didn’t have a camp," says Fijołek. "The Poles took in their neighbors with open arms." The refugees were put up in private homes or in hotels and pensions, some of the vast majority of refugees from Ukraine that Poland has taken in – with very little discussion.

Around 30,000 of them are still in Rzeszów, making up more than 10 percent of the city’s population. There is no registration process and people from Ukraine are able to enter the EU without a visa. Only their passports are checked. Sometimes, a few head back to Ukraine, others stay for a short time before continuing westward. Still others come over a second time.

Mayor Konrad Fijołek, like many in his country, seems both unsettled and galvanized.

Mayor Konrad Fijołek, like many in his country, seems both unsettled and galvanized.

Foto: Brendan Hoffman / DER SPIEGEL

As such, it is impossible to know the true number. Every now and then, City Hall commissions an IT company to determine how many Ukrainian mobile phones have been linked to the Polish network for more than three days and uses that number as a basis for estimates. Most of the Ukrainian refugees are women and children, while the men are fighting in the war. These days, though, few refugees are still coming across the border.

The Ukrainians aren’t the only newcomers in Rzeszów. Since early February, American soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, have been based in the convention center. They're there to secure Rzeszów’s airport, which is where most of the weapons deliveries from the West arrive before being sent across the border into Ukraine.

Setting Aside History

Fijołek rushes to his car, late for his next scheduled appearance to lay the cornerstone for a new police station. The drive passes by suitably renovated buildings from the Austro-Hungarian era on streets that are free of potholes and lined with well-marked bicycle lanes. "It doesn’t appear to me that the Poles are getting tired of the refugees," the mayor says, adding that the willingness to help is just as pronounced as ever.

And this despite the fact that this corner of Poland is considered a stronghold of Polish nationalism, and many here still have a historical score to settle with the Ukrainians. In World War II, Ukrainian fighters descended upon the region, skewering children on pitchforks, murdering and raping residents and burning down their homes. Some 60,000 people were killed. "We have set aside this history. The people here understand that the Ukrainians are now fighting for our freedom," says Fijołek.

Mayor Fijołek at the dedication of a refugee center in his city

Mayor Fijołek at the dedication of a refugee center in his city

Foto: Brendan Hoffman / DER SPIEGEL

The 45-year-old is not a member of a political party and was only elected mayor one year ago. He has spent his entire career in municipal politics and has a good reputation even among the opposition for always being open to discussion and for pragmatism.

Recently, Fijołek visited the German city of Bielefeld, one of Rzeszów’s sister cities. The subject of his talks with the "German friends" was the refugee issue. "You in Germany have far more experience – the guest workers , the refugees from Yugoslavia and then 2015. You know how to handle such things. For us Poles, it is the first time." During his stay in Bielefeld, he learned: "We have to educate the children and provide work for their parents." Rzeszów has been experiencing an economic boom for the last several years and enjoys full employment. Indeed, there is a shortage of workers, but still, it’s not quite so easy to find work for the Ukrainians.

Rzeszów is the heart of Aviation Valley, a term that is meant to recall Silicon Valley in California, a place many tech companies call home. Just that here in southeastern Poland, airplane parts are produced. Even back in the 1930s, the small city was a hub of technology. Later, the communists built airplanes here, and the University of Technology is still specialized in propulsion and aerodynamics.

Bzeszów is a perfect example of successful post-communist development: Western investors found extremely well-educated specialists with reasonable salary expectations. Pratt & Whitney builds engines here, while Lockheed Martin produces parts for its Blackhawk helicopters in the region. The German company MTU Aero Engines also has a factory in the region. "These companies are looking for specialists, of course," says Fijołek. He is now planning on at least eliminating the language barrier for the Ukrainian newcomers by investing in language courses for them.

Every day in his city, Fijołek sees the struggles of the Ukrainian refugees, but he has also seen how much his own compatriots have learned. More than 4 million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Poland since the beginning of the war, and around 2 million of them are currently in the country. "We now know that we can help, and that our own society won’t rupture," he says.

"A More Open Country"

For many in the country, it would seem to be a more recent realization. Just last fall, the entire country was in an uproar over a few thousand refugees that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko sent to the country’s border . A significant portion of Europe looked on with a mixture of shock and condescension at the way Poland treated those who showed up at the border fence. Fijołek shakes his head. "Poland wants to be a freer, more open country in the future," he says, sounding almost as if he is channeling former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s famous "we-can-do-this" pledge from 2015.

Back in City Hall, he pours himself another glass of the grapefruit soda as his assistant drags the EU flag from his office into the plenary hall. Today is a special day: Rzeszów is to become formal partners with the half-destroyed northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. The assistant says that many in the city are concerned that Rzeszów itself could become a target and that a Russian missile might hit the airport.

Ukrainian refugees in a UNHCR reception camp in Rzeszów

Ukrainian refugees in a UNHCR reception camp in Rzeszów

Foto: Brendan Hoffman / DER SPIEGEL

The airport has flights to places like Venice, Antalya and London. But these days, it is also the destination for numerous cargo planes, some of them painted in camouflage. Rzeszów and the airfield in nearby Mielec have become important hubs for the transfer of weapons from the West to the battleground in Ukraine. Though even Fijołek doesn’t know much about the deliveries of military materiel and weaponry, saying merely that much of it is then likely sent across the nearby border in trucks.

Members of the 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg, for their part, likely don’t know much about the day-to-day of the mayor either. Every now and then, you can see muscled young men going for a jog behind the makeshift fencing at the convention center. Their task is to secure the airport, and their barracks containers, fire-control station and radar units can hardly be seen beneath the camouflage netting at the edge of the tarmac. What can be seen, however, are the long crate-like objects pointed threateningly to the eastern sky. Commercial jets landing and taking off here now fly through a phalanx of Patriot air defense missiles, and drones also use this airport for surveillance flights to the border region.

One month after the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden came to this region in southeastern Poland to visit the troops. The soldiers offered Biden a piece of pizza – the Nr. 22 with salami and jalapeños – from their favorite Italian restaurant, called Pizzeria Gusto. Owner Damian Drupka could hardly believe his good luck, and since then, Nr. 22 has been his bestselling pizza.

Where Is the EU?

Mayor Fijołek also believes the presence of the soldiers presents opportunities for his city. Indeed, if it were up to him, his town would become a permanent NATO base. The alliance, after all, is interested in boosting its defenses on the eastern flank for the foreseeable future.

Strangely inconspicuous in the city, though, is the European Union. "We have mostly managed to provide aid to the refugees on our own," says Fijołek, who considers himself to be "pro-European." The government in Warsaw initially provided 40 złoty per person per day (around 8 euros) to everyone who opened their home to refugees, but that aid program expired at the end of June. Konrad Fijołek had hoped that the EU would actually eliminate red tape given the war in Ukraine. He believes that municipalities such as his own should be able to approach the EU directly for financial support.

The U.S. military is providing security at the airport in Rzeszów. The mayor would like NATO to establish a permanent presence in his city.

The U.S. military is providing security at the airport in Rzeszów. The mayor would like NATO to establish a permanent presence in his city.

Foto: Brendan Hoffman / DER SPIEGEL

The fact that they cannot is partially the result of years of conflict between Warsaw and Brussels on issues relating to the rule of law in Poland. The European Commission has accused the national-conservative government in the country of seeking to rein in the judiciary. For that reason, some 36 billion euros in corona pandemic recovery aid hasn’t yet been paid out to Poland – and Fijołek sees himself as one of those who has to bear the burden. "If Warsaw hadn’t systematically destroyed relations with the EU, a lot of things would now be much easier," he says.

The mayor was actually supposed to receive a visit on this day from Vladyslav Atroshenko, his counterpart from Rzeszów’s new partner city of Chernihiv. But the Ukrainian border guards didn’t let him cross into Poland. All Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to remain in Ukraine and defend the country, and they may only leave the country if they get special permission to do so. Was that permission not granted in Atroshenko’s case? Rzeszów officials have no specific information on that score.

So Fijołek grabs is mobile phone and opens WhatsApp. "Hello Vładek, how are you doing?" The mayor of the "City of Saviors" is on a first-name basis with his counterpart from the "City of Heroes," a title that Chernihiv received due to its defensive battle against the Russians. "We have become friends," says Fijołek.

"We'll Help You"

"I’ll take good care of your people. You’ll get them back in good shape," the mayor of Rzeszów promises the mayor of Chernihiv. Some 77 percent of the infrastructure in the Ukrainian city has been destroyed, including train tracks, the electric utility, hospitals, schools and kindergartens. "Since we have to rebuild anyway," says Artroshenko, "we should do so in a climate-friendly manner." Fijołek says: "We’ll help you." He's proud of the fact that the European Commission has included Rzeszów in the exclusive group of 100 exemplary cities that are to be climate neutral by 2030.

"We are helping the Ukrainians today just as our German partner cities helped us prior to our own accession to the EU," the mayor says.

The city council meets at 2:30 p.m., and Atroschenko joins by video link. He reports that more than 700 citizens of Chernihiv have been killed by Russian bombs. Other sources note that 68 children have been killed in the Chernihiv area.

The city council of Rzeszóv votes in favor of the partnership with Chernihiv. Unanimously.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.