More and more Ukrainian refugees in Poland are returning “home”, despite the threat

The danger ? “Of course I hear it, look what’s happening in Khmelnytskyi…” Svetlana Kravchuk takes out her phone and shows the notification of an anti-aircraft alert being broadcast in this region of western Ukraine. This is where Svetlana lived, until the Russian invasion forced her to take refuge in neighboring Poland with her two daughters, Amalya and Aryna. It is also there that she is about to resume her course.

On this warm May evening, the three are waiting on platform 10 of the Zachodnia bus station in Warsaw. Seven-year-old Aryna leans against a large suitcase with a Wolna Ukraina (Free Ukraine) pin. Some buses bound for the war-torn country are already lined up in the starting lane and what they are waiting for will arrive soon.

After two months of exile in the Polish capital, Svetlana has chosen to “go home” to Ukraine. Even though you know that over there, on the other side of the border, you still have the threat, that Russian bombs keep dropping. “But I’m so tired of being here. So I prefer to go back to Ukraine to help weave camouflage nets for our soldiers. In fact, in Warsaw, Svetlana Kravchuk “couldn’t wait any longer, do nothing”. She also says now that she prefers the discomfort of air-raid shelters to the feeling of helplessness that she inhabits her far from home.

His stay in Poland was studded with hardships. First, the rent: the owner of the accommodation where she was staying was asking her no less than “US $ 1,500 a month”, three times more than the average rent for an apartment in Warsaw, where the accommodation capacity is true, reaching the saturation point. Then, when she learned of the American embassy’s refusal to issue visas to her and her children, it was too much: that same evening she packed her bags.

In Ukraine, this 36-year-old mother will find her husband, engaged in the Territorial Defense Forces, those civilians who voluntarily agreed to take up arms. Khmelnytskyi is still spared from fighting, but Svetlana will remain on her guard. “The situation may be relatively calm in our city, but there is no completely safe place in Ukraine. Especially since there is a nuclear power plant near where we live. “

“Sure, I’m worried, how could it be otherwise? But I can’t sit here forever, I’m mentally exhausted. It’s hard to leave your husband when you don’t know if you’ll find him alive. We thought there was going to be a war, but no one could imagine it would be so terrible. “

Leave your life behind

Ola Spychak also wants her life back, or at least what’s left of it. “Seeing how my loved ones in Ukraine are enduring the ordeal gives me the strength to go back, I want to be among them. At the Warsaw bus station, this Thursday evening, he accompanies her sister who will soon be returning home to the Lviv region. The next day, Ola will join her with her children. Aware of the risk “like everyone else”, he admits his concern to set foot in his own country, which he had left two months earlier. But she misses her husband terribly

“What matters to me now is that my children find their father and that we are reunited despite the circumstances. My husband even made our air-raid shelter more comfortable in case we needed to hole up there, “she says. run over … Suddenly, running away, you realize that we have nothing left, just a suitcase. Being separated from his family in this way causes a great sense of loneliness. “

Many Ukrainians imitate Svetlana and Ola. It must be said that, for some, exile is sometimes as painful as the anguish of war. Since the war began, more than 5 million Ukrainians have fled their country, most of them to Poland. But the number of Ukrainians who are now taking the opposite route continues to grow, after having taken refuge for a few weeks in a border country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 1.1 million refugees have already returned to their country in the same period.

At the Zachodnia station, for several weeks already, the hum of buses headed to Ukraine has symbolized this crossover. It was, in the first days of the conflict, one of the centers of the Ukrainian exodus; it has become that of Ukrainians returning home. As the sun sets, mothers and their babies board a bus bound for Ternopil in the west. On the nearby platform, others are loading their luggage into the trunk of the bus bound for Kiev, Vinnytsia, Ivano-Frankivsk … From morning to evening, departures take place dozens of times a day.

This kind of scene, at first, destabilized Aleksandra, 41. “But after a few weeks you get used to the fact that they are returning to Ukraine”, admits this volunteer who, in the last two months, has been helping Ukrainians passing through the Zachodnia station. “They never really wanted to leave Ukraine, it was the war that forced them to flee. “

The phenomenon is not surprising even Dominika Pszczółkowska, a political scientist affiliated with the Center for Migration Research of the University of Warsaw. “In the last weeks of April and early May, 16,000 to 21,000 people a day crossed the border from Poland to Ukraine. Some days even more people arrive in Ukraine than the other way around. After a large influx of refugees to Poland in February and March, the number [d’arrivées] it is more or less stable, ”he explains. A reversed wave that would mainly be explained by the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Kyiv region, as they are now confined to eastern and southern Ukraine. While Ukrainians are well aware that no one is safe from sneaky bombing, even in the west of the country, many run the calculated risk of returning home.

The general mobilization decreed at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine also prevented men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving Ukrainian territory. Many husbands, brothers, fathers separated from their families who fled the bombing in border countries. “After a few weeks or two months, many families want to get together. Many people also have elderly relatives left behind in Ukraine, most of whom did not want to embark on the long and sometimes dangerous journey. They may need help, ”continues M.myself Pszczółkowska.

Find your home

Even Kateryna Gavrylova, reluctant in exile, could not hold out for long. Originally from Mykolaiv in the south of the country, this 36-year-old woman fled to Poland two months ago. However, in early May, she chose to return to Ukraine, not to her homeland, but to Kovel in the west of the country. “We will live there with my husband and my children, we will go home as soon as everything is better. “

In Poland, adaptation was not easy for someone who had never set foot abroad before. “I was never able to find a job during my stay in Warsaw, and when the employers learned that I had two dependent children, they didn’t even want to talk to me. ” In March, The duty he had met her at the Centrum Wielokultururowe (Multicultural Center) in Warsaw, where he hoped to find a job. Eventually she Kateryna had to be a housekeeper for a few hours a week.

Anna Zadvorna was luckier. Having also arrived in Poland at the beginning of the war, this Ukrainian kindergarten teacher was able to be hired as an “assistant translator” in a public school on the outskirts of Warsaw and her children were able to continue their education in the Polish system. But the decision was made to return to Ternopil in western Ukraine. Not that it discredits the solidarity of Polish civil society, which since February 24 has welcomed the Ukrainian exodus with open arms.

“But my daughter wants to find her room and her toys and, to be honest, we just miss everything, our house, our friends, our loved ones …” enumerates the thirty-year-old mother, leather jacket on back and a pile of luggage at his feet. In the school where you worked in Poland during your stay, you noticed that in recent weeks several Ukrainian children have not come to the classroom: they too, one by one, have returned to Ukraine.

Exiles are also encountered at the Zachodnia station traveling to even more eastern and more dangerous destinations. Maryna Prokobenko, for example, prepares to return to Kharkiv, her hometown, which has been savagely bombed for more than 70 days. Her bus will arrive in about fifteen minutes: she will go first to Lviv, then, from there, Maryna will resume the road to Kharkiv. The 26-year-old woman with long black hair laughs nervously as she talks about the curfew she is about to find, or the “daily bombings that no one knows where they will land”. Between “the anxiety of returning to the war and the joy of finding her home”, Maryna is torn.

As for the niece and sister, with whom she arrived in Poland the day after the Russian invasion began, they will remain in Warsaw. “For my part, I feel it’s time to go back. Over there, in Kharkiv, I will be more useful, ”says this ENT doctor who works in a hospital in the region of him. “I miss my family and my mother is in the occupied territories, I haven’t heard from her for a month. Hope to see you again. I have a house in Kharkiv, but I have nothing here. It is not surprising to see all these people return to Ukraine. When you leave your landmarks unexpectedly and quickly, you quickly realize one thing: there is no better place than home. “

With Yuliia Kromido and Nadiia Khrustalova

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