AWhen the war came closer to Odessa, Ann listened to the pleas of her friends abroad and fled to Holland. A month later, as she tried to calm her son on the phone as Russian missiles shook the Black Sea port city around him, she decided to return. “I couldn’t hold on,” she says. “I needed to come home.”
The 50-year-old mother walked through a crowd of women and children at Przemyśl station in Poland on a Wednesday afternoon to board her train. “I don’t care what happens to me,” Ann says. “If something happens to my family, why do I need to live?”
As the war continues and allegations of Russian war crimes reach the international community, it is difficult to understand why anyone would risk returning to Ukraine. But since the Russian invasion on February 24, of the more than 2.5 million people who have entered Poland, an estimated 502,000 have returned. Official figures provided by Polish border guards show that between April 4 and April 10, a total of 117,129 people entered Ukraine from Poland.
It is not possible to know who among these numbers are civilians, as the figure includes aid workers and other officials, but volunteers at the border in the Polish village of Medyka say they have seen an increase in the number of people the previous week. For the men, travel may be necessary, after Ukraine drafted men between the ages of 18 and 60 to fight.
Over the course of a week, the Guardian spoke to women at two different train stations, on either side of the Ukraine-Poland border, to find out why they were returning home. They gave a range of reasons, but many, like Ann, were driven by a desperate desire to reunite with loved ones. They were grateful for the support of their European hosts, but love for family and home set them back.
“We saw around 200 people queuing to go to Ukraine the other day. Sometimes there are a lot of people going out,” says Ralph Yatsko, at a World Central Kitchen stand in Medyka.
Jim Clayton of the non-profit organization Siobhan’s Trust, which has been handing out pizza to people at the border for 11 days, says he has seen a marked increase in Ukrainians returning. “It’s nice in a way, but also scary. It’s hard to know if they’re going back to a dangerous situation.
The fear of living in the besieged country is still very real. “If you’ve heard the news, you know,” says a mother as she guides her two young children through passport control at the train station. Her parents need her in eastern Ukraine, she says, although she is eager to return to Poland.
On the blue and yellow sleeper train to Odessa, smartphones light up the carriages with calls to relatives, until the blinds are closed to prevent the train from being spotted by Russians. Checks by armed soldiers and plainclothes Ukrainian agents delay the first stop in Lviv by two and a half hours.
In Odessa, Ann will join his son and his wife as well as his father-in-law, whose house in Kherson was destroyed by Russian bombardments. They were together for the last time, sipping wine hours before the invasion on February 23 – a Soviet holiday known as Men’s Day. It now feels like an eternity, says Ann.
“I dreamed that my son was hugging me and saying, ‘Please don’t leave me again,'” she adds. “The atmosphere of my presence can help.”
On the same train, Tatiana, 57, is heading for Kolomyia in western Ukraine, where her mother moved after their apartment in the northeastern city of Kharkiv was bombed. She briefly accompanied her daughter-in-law and grandson to Poland before returning to care for her mother and other elderly residents. Her Ukrainian friends in Germany are also returning to regain a sense of belonging that was lost in fleeing the war.
While Tatiana’s 27-year-old son is in Odessa, her eldest son, 34, has been unreachable for weeks. “He’s a frontline doctor,” she says. “I don’t know where he is and he can’t call for security reasons. All I can do is pray for him everyday.
Iryna, 29, only stayed one night in Poland before taking the train. She took her daughter for biometrics so the 10-year-old could get a passport and apply for a UK visa. After that, she says, they will move from Ternopil in western Ukraine to a host in Warwick, England.
“It was so difficult to come back to Ukraine,” she says. “I have to take care of my baby. I don’t want her to feel that I worry and cry all the time. If the Russian army does not come to this part of Ukraine, it will be more rockets or whatever.
His daughter plays with someone’s pet terrier as videos of Russian atrocities play between the adults.
Tatiana K, 58, from the western Ukrainian town of Khmelnytskyi, was receiving medical treatment at a kyiv hospital when the invasion began. Her medical records were lost in the upheaval as the hospital was forced to close. She is now traveling across Ukraine for up to 12 noon to see a cancer doctor in Poland.
“I didn’t believe in the possibility of a war in Ukraine until the last day,” she said, looking exhausted and touching the bandage on her face from a biopsy. “Now I don’t know what to think.”
At Lviv train station a few days later, near the border with Poland, returning refugees wait for train and bus connections alongside eastern Ukrainians, heading in the opposite direction after the horrors of strike at Kramatorsk station in the Donbass and an expected Russian offensive in the region.
Near the station, Yulia, 30, gets off a bus from Krakow with her two children and her sister. Before boarding the next bus for her hometown of Ternopil, she recounts how old Polish women had cried in sympathy for Ukrainians during her month-long stay in Krakow. But I couldn’t find a job [in Poland], and without work it is hard. It’s easier to be here, it’s my home.
Back from Poland and now in a minibus bound for the western town of Kamianets-Podilskyi, Lyudmila, 59, is hurling invective at Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I never thought the Poles would help us and the Russians would kill us,” says the grandmother, who spent half her life under the Soviet Union. “We don’t need to be liberated by the Russians.”
She has returned to care for her ailing husband, while another grandmother, Helena, travels from Milan with her daughter and 10-year-old grandson to their home near kyiv, which they left two weeks ago.
“A lot of people are returning to Kyiv and Kharkiv because they heard it’s become quieter,” says station volunteer Yelizaveta Sokolova. “They want to be in the country where they were born.”
Uniformed soldiers crowd around a truck at one end of the station. “It’s very dangerous,” said a soldier, who requested anonymity. “A lot of people are coming back but they have to wait longer. It is too early.”
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