In the Polish village of Przewodów, 5km from the Ukrainian border, pensioner Urszula was relaxing before going to church on Tuesday afternoon when a missile struck near her home.
“I was just on the couch with a cup of tea, when suddenly, one after another, there were two huge, dull bangs. It pushed me back,” she said. “I rushed to the balcony and saw black smoke coming from the area of the grain silo.”
The missile hit the only agricultural building in an expanse of open fields, killing two farm workers and setting off fears of an escalation that might have led to a direct encounter between Russia and Nato, should the missile turn out to have been fired by Moscow in its war against Ukraine.
Poland and its Nato allies announced the missile was probably fired by Kyiv’s air defence forces during a Russian attack. The outcome has eased fears of a broader conflict, but for residents on the Polish side of the border, the anxiety of the days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 has returned.
“We have lived in fear since the beginning of the war. Explosions are heard regularly,” Urszula said. “When the war is near, you need to have in mind that death may come anytime.”
That day nobody in the village made it to church. “I’m not surprised at all that people didn’t come,” said the local priest, Fr Bogdan Ważny, who was reading a book when the missile struck.
“The explosion was so huge that people from neighbouring towns called, asking what had happened,” he said.
Ważny knew the two victims — 62-year-old Boguslaw Wos and 60-year-old Bogdan Ciupek — since both were involved in parish work. Wos was married to an employee of the local school, which is 300m from where the missile hit but was closed at the time.
The school remained shut the day after the strike but reopened on Thursday. Counsellors were brought in for staff and the 71 students, although not many had yet taken up the service, said Ewa Byra, the school director. “Yesterday there were two people, today several,” she said. “Kids are open to talk, we try to make them understand what happened.”
Right behind the school building, a police cordon controlled the entrance to the restricted zone that covers most of the village, including the crater left by the missile’s impact. Only the 500 or so local residents are allowed to enter the area.
“I am not informed about the proceedings at the scene,” said Grzegorz Drewnik, mayor of Dolhobyczow, the municipality that covers the village.
“We don’t feel safe now. I hope that the government somehow tries to avoid such situations in the future.”
Przewodów’s history has been marked by the ebb and flow of foreign occupation, notably during the second world war when Soviet troops invaded eastern Poland in 1939, were briefly ousted by the Nazis and then reclaimed the area in 1944 on their way to Berlin. The war killed or uprooted swaths of the local population, many of whom had been Ukrainians and Jews.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, refugees have again been travelling across the Polish countryside. Overall, about 1.4mn have registered for temporary protection in Poland, while many more have passed through on their way to other countries.
Shortly after Tuesday’s missile strike, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, urged Poles “to remain calm in the face of this tragedy”. But anxiety over exactly what had happened in a remote village reverberated across the country.
Commuting to work in Warsaw on Wednesday morning, language teacher Ewa Nolte said she had rarely been in a crowded underground train that was so silent.
“I felt people were really in shock, realising that this war is very close to us,” she said. “We all know Poland’s history, but I’ve never seen war hit one of our little villages and it’s frightening not to know what will happen next, even if only by accident.”
On Thursday evening Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, visited Przewodów to inspect the scene and meet the victims’ families. “The work will probably continue for several dozen hours, because investigators are still extracting the remains of the rocket and collecting traces,” Duda told reporters. The president reiterated that this was “an unintentional incident” and “nobody wanted to hurt anyone in Poland”. He added: “It is our common tragedy.”
The incident is unlikely to alter the “solid majority in Poland in favour of our continuous support for Kyiv in the war against Russia”, said Piotr Buras, who heads the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Meanwhile, Polish residents in the area surrounding Przewodów are struggling to adjust to the renewed sense of peril.
Bożena Dorota, a pensioner from Grodysławice, a village 30km away, travelled to Przewodów to hear first-hand what the president had to say. “We heard the explosion. At first we thought it was in Ukraine,” she said. “Living so close to war you need to expect it every day. Of course, it’s hard to live like that.”
Her husband Jerzy said local authorities had offered psychological support to people living near the border but he and his wife had not asked for help. “If we need to, we’ll run away to Pruszków, near Warsaw, where our daughter lives,” he said.
But not everyone has such an option. Urszula said her family lived near Medyka, a village on the border with Ukraine, which would not be a safer alternative.
“We, people living in a border area, have been used to it since childhood,” she said, having herself lived through the trauma of the second world war. “We were told that if anything happens we are on the front line. There’s nowhere to run.”