At Przemysl train station in Poland, the first stop before Lviv in Ukraine, a young family queues for a train heading east that will take them home to a country at war.
Sasha, with seven-year-old Artem and thirteen-year-old Zara, made the exact same journey in reverse at the beginning of March, when Sasha rushed to take her children to safety in Poland a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine. Now they’re heading back to Odessa.
A growing number of Ukrainians are heading home, either reversing journeys they made when Russia invaded, or returning to the country they found themselves outside of when war broke out.
But while their reasons for returning vary – to reunite with relatives, to return to work, to fight, to volunteer – one thing unites everyone I spoke to: when back at home a few days later, they were all content with their decision, even those who returned to the war’s frontline.
“Yes, it was the right decision. You’re somewhere where you need to be,” says Eduard Yurovsky, an IT professional who travelled to his hometown of Kharkiv from Germany, where he had been for 20 years. “I am somewhere where the war occurs, but I feel very peaceful. There is peace inside me.”
It is not only a sense of belonging that is fuelling people’s decisions to return. After a month of war, Russia’s advance has largely stalled, and many are now confident that areas where there is no active conflict, such as in Western Ukraine, are unlikely to be threatened soon. “My relatives are still in Odessa, and there’s no war there,” Sasha explains in the queue at the station. “Everything is fine at home, it’s quiet, so we decided to return.”
The stalled Russian advance is also partly behind a recent decrease in the number of people leaving Ukraine, as many fleeing their homes around Kyiv and in the East seek shelter in the relative safety of Western Ukraine rather than leave the country. (Aid groups point out, however, that many are also unable to leave because of destroyed infrastructure and failed humanitarian corridors.)
Olena, a 39-year-old yoga instructor who returned this week to Zhytomyr, 135 kilometres west of Kyiv, admits she might go back to Poland again if the situation worsens, but for now, she is glad to be reunited with her friends, her husband and her two cats. Teaching yoga online during curfews and air raid sirens, she tries to lead as close to a normal life as possible.
“People are still nervous because we don’t know when the war will stop. Every day you’re thinking about new bombs, new attacks on your country… But you’re not so afraid when you have some friends close to you,” she says. “I know many people that went across the border for a few weeks, and they missed Ukraine, their relatives, their pets, and they’ve come back and just stayed in the West.”
Others appear nonplussed when asked why they chose to return to a country at war. “A lot of people come back because they come [to Poland], they live in some camp, it’s not comfortable, and they don’t have money,” said Inna, an accountant embarking on the long journey to Kyiv. “I don’t have money and it’s hard to find a job. At home at least I have a place to live.” For her friend Marina, the decision was more emotional: “I won’t fight with a weapon,” she says. “But I will cook food, bake bread, I’ll make things to help. I don’t want to leave my husband alone.”
Even in Kharkiv, a city on the frontline where Yurovsky spends long days helping to repair friends’ homes destroyed by Russian shelling, the challenges of his life are separate to the peace he now feels inside.
“In Germany, I was torn apart… As I came here, I felt freedom, not war. I was very calm,” he says. “The first night was quite intense. You’re sleeping and then you hear and feel the building shaking, and you don’t know what to do… But now it’s become so normal that actually, I sleep well,” he laughs softly.
What he really fears now, beyond bombs or Russian troops, is that Ukraine will be forgotten. “The worst thing would be if people will say, ‘Okay, we’re tired of this news again and again, Ukraine, Ukraine,’ and so on… If it becomes like the same frozen conflict as in the Donbas region before, and everyone forgets about it… That would be the worst thing.”
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