VICE News visited the once sleepy town of Rzeszów that’s now home to 30,000 Ukrainian refugees, rare NATO military planes and Patriot Missile batteries.
By Pete Voelker
May 18, 2023
At first glance, the Polish city of Rzeszów is like any other European city in the spring. Residents cycle, rollerblade and meander through historic public squares. Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time” bellows from a construction site.
But Rzeszów isn’t any other city. Look harder and you will see anti-aircraft missiles, military planes and other signs of a state-of-the-art military hub that, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says, is crucial in the fight against Russia.
Upon arrival at Rzeszów-Jasionka airport you can plainly see that this airport is different from most. A large Patriot missile battery spreads across the eastern part of the grounds with an abundance of immediately noticeable missile launchers and supporting military equipment and personnel.
For as long as the war in Ukraine continues, this quiet city will play an outsized role in the European Union and NATO’s efforts to oppose Russia’s invasion.
Sitting just over 100 miles west of Lviv, Rzeszów has hosted multiple world leaders – including President Joe Biden – passing through to visit Ukraine, as well as tens of thousands of refugees, while an estimated 30,000 Ukrainians have been given permanent residence in the city since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. The Mayor of Rzeszów, Konrad Fijołek, himself met with Zelenskyy to receive a symbolic recognition of the city as “Rescuer of Ukraine”.
“On behalf of the entire Ukrainian people, I would like to express great gratitude to the city of Rzeszów, the first rescuer city,” Zelenskyy said.
The city – with its mix of pre and post-communist architecture literally built upon each other – effectively serves as a gateway to the European Union.
A decade ago, it was just another sleepy city with fewer than 200,000 residents, but since then it has benefited from considerable EU investment over the past two decades, including an airport expansion to facilitate airlift operations in 2011, and another €30 million committed last year to further expansion in the near future. Today, that airport welcomes dozens of jumbo jets full of supplies all day and all night. The field to the eastern side of the runway now houses batteries for Patriot missiles.
Lush green farm fields lie just outside the perimeter of the airport as does the Wislok River, which has a levee that plane spotters use as a vantage point to spot military planes.
Magdalenka Hill has a community playground and viewing tower on its peak, offering views of Rzeszów and even the Tatra Mountains at the border with Slovakia to the south. It is a great place to watch the many different types of planes coming in and out of Rzeszów.
“It is EU priority to bring people together to view a common identity as European,” Beata Krzyzagórska-Zurek from INPRO, a local NGO that organised cultural exchanges among young people, told VICE News.
Since the full-scale invasion in February 2022, INPRO changed what it does and became a major facilitator for helping refugees fleeing Ukraine who had just arrived in Poland.
Before larger institutions took over operations, INPRO volunteers were available 24/7 to help with translation services on the train platforms.
Much of the city and its businesses have been transformed by the war effort. Flanking the walls of one office in the city centre, for example, is artwork that represents the many different social programs that have been developed. The paintings were created collaboratively between Polish and Ukrainian children without the use of translators.
The overall responsibility for creating that better city is in the hands of Rzeszów’s mayor, Konrad Fijołek, who has led the city to become a crucial hub.
“It was the inhabitants of Rzeszów who showed how to take care of people in need,” Fijołek told VICE News. “Leaders from all over the world come here; all humanitarian aid to Ukraine passes through our city. In the future we will play an aid role in the reconstruction of Ukraine.”