Ukrainian refugees board a train taking them back into Ukraine at the Zahony train station along the Ukrainian-Hungarian border, eastern Hungary, on April 9, 2022. Agence France-Presse
A heartbreaking human drama is playing out along Ukraine’s borders — fleeing refugees pass the homesick going back, while others who left and then returned flee for their lives for a second time. Women and children are still pouring out of a land being pummelled by what one called Russia’s “creatures from Hell”. But hundreds of thousands of refugees are returning home, determined to stay. Many others have had to flee for a second time, having thought it was safe to go back only to find it was not. An AFP team has been travelling along the country’s frontiers to report the aftermath of the biggest exodus in Europe since World War II — more than five million people according to the UN.
They met Iryna Ustyanska carrying her suitcases across a bridge into Sighetu Marmatiei in Romania. She and her two children were refugees for the second time in a month, having fled from Odessa to Bucharest after the invasion as Russia bombings drew close. They decided to return home at the beginning of this month but were only back a few hours before Russian air strikes shook the strategic Black Sea port. “We thought the fighting was not so intense but we were wrong,” she said, showing pictures on her phone of the black pall of smoke over the city. Her daughter Olena, eight, and 15-year-old son Danylo had to say goodbye to their father for a second time, not knowing when they would see him again. “It’s very difficult for them,” said Ustyanska.
“They hope we will be back very, very soon because they can’t imagine living abroad without their father.” Theirs is a story typical of the tides of despair and hope pushing and pulling the waves of refugees. Yet despite the dangers of a war entering what could be an even bloodier second phase, hundreds of thousands have decided to return to Ukraine and stick it out. To try to tell all these stories, the AFP team drove 2,500 kilometres along the length of Ukraine’s western frontier earlier this month, from the northernmost crossing in Dorohusk, Poland, hard by Belarus, to Isaccea in Romania in the south on the banks of the Danube.
In the drizzle at Vysne Nemecke, a drab Slovakian border crossroads now overrun by lorries and tents, Tetyana Dzymik talked to anyone who would listen. The 38-year-old art teacher fled her village near Bucha, a quiet commuter town near Kyiv now notorious after Russian troops were accused of massacring civilians there.
“Who does these kind of things? Not humans, only creatures from Hell,” she said through her tears. Distraught, the words tumbling from her lips, she told how Russian soldiers ransacked homes in her village, smashing windows and doors and defecating in bedrooms and sitting rooms. Even though the Russians left in early April, Dzymik decided to leave to protect her baby son Olexiy and her 11-year-old twins, Danylo and Ivan. “The quiet is scarier than the sound of explosions,” said, clearly traumatised. “When everything is exploding you understand something is going on. When everything is quiet, you don’t know where these abominable people are.”
Further south in Hungary, just beyond the Zahony railway crossing, Olesya Demechenko, 41, had finally reached safety and was having a bite to eat at the World Central Kitchen, a charity founded by Spanish-American celebrity chef Jose Andres. She had come from Molochansk in the south. There, she said, the Russians chased the inhabitants away and pillaged their homes to make way for feared Chechen pro-Russian fighters, who are also deployed in Mariupol, 200 kilometres to the east. With her young son and some friends, Demechenko aimed to meet up with her husband, who works in a factory in Budapest.
Hungary has not been a welcoming place for migrants in recent years. During the 2015 migrant crisis, barbed wire fences sprang up to stop Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans from entering the country.
Viktor Orban, the country’s recently re-elected nationalist leader, is considered Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union. “We may not be jumping with joy that Orban is leaning towards the Russians,” Demechenko said. “But for us what matters most is to be safe.” Apart from Poland, where many of the nearly three million refugees it welcomed have decided to stay for now, most just transit the countries bordering Ukraine. Their final destinations vary — from Italy in the south to Estonia in the north. Often they choose somewhere they have friends or family.
No two border crossings are the same. In the Polish town of Medyka, a long line of humanitarian aid tents looks like a flea market at first glance. But here everything is for free. Jehovah’s Witnesses — who are omnipresent along the border — have set up opposite a Sikh food truck, while Israeli organisations rub shoulders with Egyptian Red Crescent workers. A dozen kilometres to the west at the bustling Przemysl train station, a jovial French Catholic missionary from Calcutta, Brother Francois, is handing out meals and blankets and providing information to exhausted and disoriented refugees.
“They’ve been uprooted, they have no idea what their future holds but they still have their dignity and that’s extraordinary,” he said. In his spare moments, Brother Francois plays Bengali music on his flute, to “bring a little joy” to people weighed down with sadness. A little ways away, a volunteer Polish vet is waiting to vaccinate dogs and cats arriving on the next train. Many Ukrainians flee with their pets, a comfort when everything else in their lives is turned upside down. “More than ever they’re part of the family,” said Katarzyna Grochowska, who travelled 400 kilometres to help out at her own cost.
A town of 60,000 people that has seen up to 55,000 refugees arrive daily, Przemysl is “the world capital of volunteering”, its mayor Wojciech Bakun said proudly. “Police officers helping at the train station or in town stay on after their shift,” he said. Some have even taken families “home to their place for the night.” In Kroscienko, a bucolic valley in southern Poland, all was calm when AFP turned up. Police officers were warming themselves around a wood fire when a young Ukrainian woman arrived with a baby strapped to her chest and two other children in tow.
Having crossed the border, she looked up at the sky, closed her eyes, and a tear rolled silently down her cheek. Relief, fatigue, sadness — a storm of emotions were written on her face. The officers rushed to help with her bags.
“We have not had a single problem with the refugees,” the police chief said. “We love these people and they love us.” The contrast is striking with the situation in the north, along the Poland-Belarus border. Journalists and humanitarian organisations are not welcome there where Polish authorities have built a wall to stop migrants, most from the Middle East, whom Minsk encouraged to try to cross there in the summer of 2021 during a stand-off with Europe.