It is hard to find a city outside Ukraine and Russia more transformed by Vladimir Putin’s war than Rzeszów in south-eastern Poland.

The city, about 60 miles from Ukraine’s border, has become the main gateway for western allies to ship weapons and humanitarian aid, dispatch wounded soldiers to hospitals around Europe and for world leaders to land at its small airport before taking a train to the Ukrainian capital.

Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Rzeszów was a “small and conservative place”, according to one resident, with an airport only known to low-cost airlines. Now, with Ukraine turned into a no-fly zone, Rzeszów-Jasionka airport doubles as a military facility, with a runway lined with Patriot missile defence systems. Hotels are block-booked by army subcontractors and international donors.

“It’s not as if all roads must lead to Rzeszów, but many now are and more will,” Poland’s infrastructure minister Andrzej Adamczyk told the Financial Times while visiting the city. The war made Rzeszów “essential to Ukraine and I believe that such processes of change then become irreversible”.

Map showing Rzeszów, the Rzeszów-Jasionka airport, Lublin and Krakow in Poland, as well as Lviv in Ukraine

The scale of Rzeszów’s transformation has been astounding for its residents.

For many years, “almost no foreigner even knew” Rzeszów, said psychologist Jan Markovíc, who runs a local cultural association. “But people from all over the world have now been coming here, so it’s a very big change but also a big opportunity for us to learn and grow.”

The airport’s transformation into a western logistics hub for Ukraine was apparently not lost on Russia: Poland last month arrested 12 foreigners from unspecified eastern European countries and accused them of spying for Russia and preparing sabotage attacks in the area. The authorities also found illegal cameras close to the airport.

“It’s a real problem if our airport is now a target for Russian intelligence services,” said Sławomir Porada, deputy mayor of the Trzebownisko municipality that hosts the airport. “It’s made people in our community feel much more uncomfortable.” 

The US put Rzeszów on the map in February last year shortly before Russia’s attack when it deployed paratroopers to bolster Nato’s eastern flank. Its 82nd Airborne Division arrived at an airport that until then had been used mostly by budget airline Ryanair.

The airport has also been used by world leaders on their way to and from Kyiv, including US president Joe Biden, who made a surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital in February, and Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy before and after his trip to Washington last December.

Ryanair now shares the tarmac with military helicopters and Boeing 747 cargo planes operated by freight carriers such as Kalitta and Atlas Air.

US military equipment parked near the Rzeszow-Jasionka airport
US military equipment parked near the Rzeszow-Jasionka airport in February 2022 as Russia was preparing its invasion of Ukraine © Kuba Stezycki/Reuters

A US army helicopter lands at the airport
A US army helicopter lands at the airport in February 2022 © Agencja

The Polish city has been a refreshing change for those previously stationed in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan. “Compared to Bagram [air base], this feels amazing,” said a mechanic working for the US subcontractor Amentum, which specialises in the maintenance of military hardware. “I can try the local beer and food here.” The company has booked an entire hotel for its employees in Rzeszów.

Near the airport, a medical evacuation centre funded by the EU started last September to dispatch Ukrainian patients to hospitals across Europe and then bring them home after their treatment. “I’m hoping we will not be needed here much longer, but I’m also sure we will still want to support Ukraine after the war stops,” said Wojciech Soliński, its deputy medical co-ordinator.

Vladyslav, a soldier returning to his homeland, stopped at Rzeszów’s medevac having had surgery in a Czech hospital on a hand partly ripped off during fighting in eastern Ukraine. “I don’t want to be back on the frontline but perhaps I can do something else to help our army,” he said. Asked what he would remember about Rzeszów, he said “the people and all the care they have given me”.

While many Ukrainians who came to the city went on to other places, tens of thousands have settled there, swelling the local population by up to 20 per cent.

In February Natalia Anpolska escaped with her two children from Bakhmut, the city that has endured the longest Russian assault and has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. She previously worked for her country’s railways, but found a job at a Rzeszów beauty salon.

“I was very worried about not finding work here, so this job is very important,” she said. “I still want to go home, but only without the war.” 

Wojciech Soliński
Wojciech Soliński is the deputy head of the medical evacuation hub in Rzeszów © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

Natalia Anpolska
Natalia Anpolska is a refugee from Bakhmut who found work at a beauty salon in Rzeszów © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

While locals are proud to help Ukrainians, they also struggle with more aircraft noise and road closures to make way for Ukraine-bound convoys. Land prices increased 50 per cent over the past year because “developers now think about the military officers who will be living here for the next 10 years or more”, Porada said.

After a pandemic lockdown, “it’s great for the city to have all hotels and restaurants full”, said Anna Brzechowska-Rębisz, managing director of the regional tourism board. “But that doesn’t mean the war brings economic benefits to everybody and encourages more tourists to visit the region outside Rzeszów.”

Some residents are already thinking about spearheading Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction. Volodomyr Dyba, a Ukrainian who fled Donetsk in 2014, found work with a Rzeszów transport company and created his own foundation last summer to send humanitarian aid trucks to Ukraine.

“I think Rzeszów will remain very important after the war because we have all the logistics to rebuild Ukraine,” he said.

Additional reporting by Barbara Erling in Rzeszów


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