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«I can't live in comfort denied to my fellow compatriots.» Why Ukrainians are returning from evacuation

Diana Fishman

According to the United Nations, 14 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since the Russian invasion, more than six million of them ended up outside the country. Having recovered from the initial shock, many refugees decide on making the return journey, even though the war is far from over. The vast majority of refugees are women and children (men of conscription age cannot leave Ukraine). According to refugee women interviewed by The Insider, Europe made every possible arrangement to accommodate displaced persons at the highest level, but they especially wanted to be with their country during the war.

ALL CARDS
  • Natalia Naumova: «I'm a fan of my land, I have a house here, trees, flowers, spring

  • Anna Yastremskaya: «Almost all of our friends who left Ukraine have already returned»

  • Elena Osikova: «In Poland I had a sense of guilt for being in such comfortable conditions

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Natalia Naumova: «I'm a fan of my land, I have a house here, trees, flowers, spring

Odessa - Wroclaw (Poland) - Odessa

We made our first attempt to leave as early as February 24. My relatives had been calling me since five in the morning, they were hysterical, shocked, panicked <Odessa was shelled on the first day of the war - The Insider>. In the evening I left with three children for the village of Mayaki, and the next day we tried to get to Moldova, where there were relatives waiting for us at the border. In peacetime, a distance of 40 kilometers takes no more than an hour to cross, but we were stuck there for 18 hours, not even halfway through. In the end we turned around and drove back home.

Natalia Naumova
Natalia Naumova

If I hadn't have children, I wouldn't have gone anywhere. I was never interested in traveling, I had never been abroad in my life, except for Russia. But my mother and the man I love were very persuasive, telling me it was necessary to take the children out. Naturally, I had a sense of guilt, because being responsible for myself alone is one thing, but being responsible for three minors is another. On March 12, we went to the train station in Odessa and waited several hours there for the evacuation train to Przemyśl (a Polish border town that serves as a transit point for Ukrainian refugees heading to Europe - The Insider). When the train arrived, it turned out that only four cars were going to Przemyśl, while the rest were going to Uzhgorod. And those four cars were so densely packed that I decided to go to Lviv, and then get to Poland somehow, where a friend was supposed to meet us.

I've never been interested in moving to Europe, I've never been abroad in my life

We lived in a friend's apartment in Wroclaw for seventeen days. I didn't ask for help, I only went to the volunteer center once to pick up some things - we didn't have any clothes or shoes with us, only our documents and the essentials. I left PLN 200 for the volunteers, and they were very surprised. Then I found a second-hand store, and we bought everything we needed for next to nothing. I also went to the same volunteer center and helped them sort things.

In order to settle there, to get a job, to apply for benefits, you need to get an identification number. And then the moment came when we had to decide what to do next: if we were to settle there for a long time, I had to return to Ukraine to take the cat and the dog. I was weighing up the pros and cons for a long time, I was looking among my friends for a woman who could come and stay with my kids while I was away. It didn't work out. And then I made the largely impulsive decision to go home.

In Poland we were received nicely, there were no complaints about me or my children, and we easily overcame the language barrier, too. I just lived there with the feeling I was occupying the living space of people who didn't invite me. All this happened against my will, I was not to blame for it, and they didn't owe me anything either. Well, I love my country, I have a private home 20 kilometers from Odessa, I have my trees, flowers, and spring there.

I lived there with the feeling I was occupying the living space of people who didn't invite me

To be honest, I did not expect Ukraine to be so resilient. Our utilities work, our schools work remotely. There is water, gas, light - without interruptions, the Internet works, telephone operators work, the stores are full of everything on the shelves. So, it is possible to live. Of course, the situation has been aggravating lately. Apparently, Odessa will not be left alone so easily. But we decided for ourselves that if we change our location, the whole family will evacuate to the western part of Ukraine without going abroad.

Anna Yastremskaya: «Almost all of our friends who left Ukraine have already returned»

Berdichev - Haldensleben (Germany) - Berdichev

When we heard the news on the morning of February 24, we packed up our IDs, took the kids, and left for our parents' house - we thought it would be safer there than in a seventh-floor apartment. I had no intention of going anywhere until March 5, even though my husband and father kept sending me away. At first there was no panic in Berdichev, everyone was holding on, we were determined that even if the Russian military came, we would defend ourselves, and we created territorial defense groups. My husband was also in the territorial defense - he barely came home in the first week of the war. But then the situation escalated, and everyone started leaving. And it broke me psychologically, so that I also decided I would go, but not abroad, just to Western Ukraine. My friends who had left during the first days were waiting for us there. My husband was with us, he didn't want to let me travel alone with four children, the youngest of them aged a year and a half.

The situation escalated, everyone started leaving, and it broke me psychologically

For ten days we lived in a sanatorium in the Transcarpathian region, in Vinogradov. And then air raid sirens started going off there too, rockets started flying, the atmosphere was heavy. Our friends were leaving, and so were we. Our acquaintances invited us to Holland and Ireland. But in the end, we went to Germany, where my friend lives. She kept writing to me: come, I will help you. We got in our car and drove to the town of Haldensleben where she lived. My husband, as a parent of several children, was also allowed to leave.

Anna Yastremskaya
Anna Yastremskaya

The city gave us a great two-bedroom apartment downtown, and they even made sure that my small child and I would be more comfortable living on the first floor. They provided us with everything we needed, from new pillows and blankets to spoons and forks, and kept asking if anything else was missing. We got on the municipal register. And we became very friendly with the woman who took care of us. When we left, she invited us to her house for a farewell dinner. And now when we correspond with her, she says that if the situation in Ukraine gets worse, she'll always be glad to see us and will always help us.

We were provided with everything we needed, from new pillows to spoons and forks

I am very grateful to Germany and the people (especially Frau Marlies Schüneman and Olene Orhan) with whom we crossed paths. But to be honest, I was ready to go home the first day after we left. I am a patriot. And it was psychologically very hard for me to cross the border of Ukraine. I felt bad, I wanted to go home, and my older children were asking me to go home. So, after two months in Germany we decided to go back. And almost all our friends who had left had already returned. Plus, we realized that since the Russian troops had pulled out of Bucha and Irpen, they would not reach us. The only thing that could happen is a missile strike, but no one is safe from that anywhere. Several missiles have struck Berdychiv, there are still sirens going off from time to time. But I'm in my town and my country, my whole life is here. And I believe that everything will be fine.

I am a patriot. And it was psychologically very hard for me to cross the border of Ukraine. I wanted to go home, and my children were asking me to go home

Elena Osikova: «In Poland I had a sense of guilt for being in such comfortable conditions

Severodonetsk - Gdynia (Poland) - Kyiv

In Severodonetsk (the administrative center of the Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk region since 2014 - The Insider), it was quiet on February 24, no shelling. We went through all of that eight years ago, so we took the news calmly at first, unable to believe things would escalate into such a tragedy. But over the next few days things escalated. They shelled our deserted airport, then more and more air raids began to hit the city, and that's the worst thing that can happen. We were in Severodonetsk until March 9. It was very hard to make the decision to leave: my mother is 82 and I have a dog. We thought: what if we could stay and wait it out. But after reading the news and realizing that Donbass would be the hottest spot, we made up our mind. My husband insisted that we go abroad.

Elena Osikova

We did not initially succeed. When we arrived for the evacuation train, there were twice as many people on the platform as the train could hold. Even though two hundred people were crammed into each wagon, there were still several hundred outside. We tried to find other ways, but in the end we went to Dnipro, and from there to L'viv. My daughter also came there from Kyiv. On the way, we left my mother to my sister, who lives in Europe, and we headed for Poland with our daughter and our dog. My husband stayed in Ukraine.

My daughter used Booking.com to find accommodation in Gdynia, near Gdańsk, so we were going to a specific address. When the hosts found out we were from Ukraine, they offered us accommodation for free. Eight other people - girls with small children - lived there with us. We stayed there for a little over a month. We were looked after by two wonderful women - our hostess and her friend. They immediately began adapting us to the life in Poland, helped us get an identification number, apply for benefits. There was enough room, the conditions were great, we were well received: they were always asking what we needed, provided every aid they could, for which we are very grateful. My daughter worked remotely, I tried to find something for myself somehow. But it didn't work out.

When the hosts from Booking.com found out we were from Ukraine, they provided accommodation for free

Despite people's positive attitudes and all the opportunities and prospects that were open to us – plus we could have gone anywhere in Europe, just to have a look at least - all our thoughts and feelings were occupied with what was happening in Ukraine. Besides, in Poland I had a constant sense of homesickness, and even guilt for having the opportunity to be in such good conditions when most people didn't have that opportunity. So as soon as things calmed down more or less in Kyiv <after the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Kiev region in early April - The Insider>, we packed up, bought our tickets and came back. In Ukraine I am definitely calmer. And we still correspond with the owner of that house in Gdynia, she keeps track of my life here and keeps inviting me over all the time.

In Poland I had a constant sense of homesickness, and even guilt

I am a violin teacher. I keep in touch with all of my students, two of whom remain in Severodonetsk <now the city is one of the main targets of the Russian army in Donbass - The Insider>. They sit in basements almost all the time, sometimes come out and even try to study, which of course pleases me immensely, but at the same time I can also imagine the danger they are in. As far as I know, it's already very risky for volunteers and those who organize evacuations to go there. And there is no point: those who have chosen to stay there won't leave. The water there is no good, and there are frequent power outages. And endless bombardments.

We hope this will not happen, but if the LNR comes to Severodonetsk, we won't be going back there. The LNR is obviously not for us. We are lucky: we have a place to live near Kyiv, my husband and daughter have jobs. So, we are trying to start a new life all over again.

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