The opulent rooms of Chateau Purcari in Moldova are now hosting Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country. For the owner of the hotel, accommodating refugees is as much about politics as it is about compassion.
On February 24, just as Russian troops and tanks swarmed into Ukraine, the team at Moldova's oldest winery, Purcari Wineries, got into a brainstorming session.
Preempting an influx of Ukrainians fleeing the war through the nearby Palanca border, the company decided almost instantly to throw open the gates of its traditional French-style manor to the refugees and set up a helping center on the road from the border offering free sandwiches, water, hygiene products and SIM cards.
"Pretty much overnight, this wine estate, Chateau Purcari, was transformed into a first stop for the refugees," said Eugen Comendant, chief operating officer of Purcari Wineries Group.
As a wave of Ukrainians — almost all of them women and children — entered Moldova in the following days, Comendant and his team realized their country hotel in the middle of around 300 hectares of vineyards wouldn't be enough to house them all. So, they made advance payments to other hotels and guest houses in the vicinity to ensure no refugee was denied accommodation. Purcari employees with homes in the region also chipped in.
Over the next week, the staff at Chateau Purcari pulled long shifts, working overnight attending to calls from refugees looking for a place to sleep after hours on the road, or simply a washroom to freshen up. But their physical exhaustion paled in the face of the emotional pain they endured listening to heart-wrenching stories from the war zone.
'Ukrainian men fighting our war'
Over a month into the conflict, the winemaker — famous for its vintage blends like Negru de Purcari and Alb de Purcari — has accommodated more than 3,000 refugees, most of whom have traveled further to the Moldovan capital Chisinau and from there to other European countries.
"The Ukrainian brave men — the husbands of the women that are crossing the border into Moldova, the fathers of the children that are crossing — that are fighting with the Russian army, they are not only fighting for themselves," Comendant told DW.
"They're potentially fighting our war as well. They are holding off Russian troops that could potentially even come to Moldova," he said, echoing the sentiment of other Moldovans.
The Russian invasion has alarmed people in Moldova who fear that the war could spill over into their country, a former Soviet republic, which like Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the European Union. The concerns have eased somewhat following setbacks to Russian forces in the face of brave resistance by the Ukrainians.
More than 370,000 people have crossed into Moldova, one of the poorest European countries with a population of 3 million, from Ukraine since the war broke. A third of them have stayed in the country.
Comendant says being a major Moldovan company, it's its responsibility to stand up for Ukraine.
"We are listed on the Bucharest Stock Exchange. So, we have a fiduciary obligation to create profits for our shareholders. Nonetheless, this is a humanitarian issue that we have to be part of and we have been part of political matters in the past as well," he said, adding that Purcari would continue to make a political statement when values that were at the core of the winemaker such as human rights and freedom were under attack.
The company — named after the village where it was founded by French colonists in 1827 — has placed a large banner in the Romanian capital Bucharest exhorting Russia to stop the war.
In 2014 following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Purcari launched a wine named the "Freedom Blend," a wine made by blending three local varieties from Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, each a victim of Russian aggression over the past three decades.
"This wine has the heart of Georgia, the terroir of Moldova, and the free spirit of Ukraine," Comendant said.
"With this wine, we are trying to bring increased awareness of the situation in the area where the post-Soviet countries, despite having gained their independence following the fall of the Soviet Union, are still fighting for their de facto freedom," he said.
Author: Ashutosh Pandey
First published: March 31, 2022
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