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In Rzeszow, a Polish city near the border with Ukraine, Patriot rockets surrounded the airport, while the Holiday Inn opposite was taken over by the US army. On a runway once reserved for budget airlines, private jets now sit side by side with cargo planes laden with weapons.

Created in early spring when the historic city became the antechamber of war in Ukraine, this defensive military perimeter is both a shield and a constant reminder of the conflict raging on its doorstep.

Like September 11th.

When a Russian-made missile hit a farm and killed two people in the village of Przewodov, about 180 kilometers to the northeast, many wondered if the shield was enough.

“After what happened in Przevodov, I and many of my voters were very scared,” – says the mayor of Rzeszow Konrad Fiolek, sitting in the noisy lobby of his town hall. “Is this the beginning of us getting worse? Was there a Russian rocket or not? And how could our systems miss it?

This war changed the face of the world, but outside of Ukraine, probably here in Poland, along the border, the upheaval caused by Moscow’s weapons, tanks and missiles was most immediate and profound.

Here, February 24, the day of the invasion, is written into history – the date in Polish has become synonymous with the entire scheme of Vladimir Putin’s annexation – much like September 11 in the United States.

Building a nation on the ruins of empires

Ukraine defined Rzeszow as “Saving the City” for its role as an exit door for refugees and an entry point for humanitarian aid. When the Ukrainians began to cross the border, the generosity and spontaneity were overwhelming, which baffled many observers outside of Poland.

For a long time, until about sixty years ago, a devastating conflict pitted Poles and Ukrainians in these border areas against each other, especially in the Polish city of Przemysl and in parts of Ukraine.