Ukraine refugees’ hopes of return waning weeks into war

The Detroit News

Medyka, Poland – As Russia launched its war in Ukraine last month, exhausted and frightened refugees arrived in neighboring countries. They carried whatever they could grab in a hurry. Many cried. They still do.

The United Nations says that more than 3.6 million people have fled Ukraine since the war started exactly one month ago Thursday in what is the biggest movement of people in Europe since World War II. Unprepared, most refugees believed they would soon be back home. That hope is waning now.

Ukrainian refugees wait for a transport at the railway station in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

More: Events in the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, March 24, 2022

“At the beginning, we thought that this would end pretty soon,” Olha Homienko, a 50-year-old woman from Kharkiv said. “First of all, nobody could believe Russia would attack us, and we thought that it would end quickly.”

Now, Homienko said, “as we can see, there is nothing to look forward to.”

Homienko’s hometown of Kharkiv is among several Ukrainian cities and towns that have been encircled and shelled heavily by the Russians. Refugees coming from besieged towns have told of destruction, death and hunger.

Natalia Lutsenko, from the bombed-out northern town of Chernihiv, said she still thought the Russian invasion must be some kind of “misunderstanding.”

Lutsenko said she couldn’t comprehend why Russian President Vladimir Putin makes Ukrainians suffer so much.

A refugee from the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, Anastasia Marunich, kisses her daughter Maria after fleeing the war from neighbouring Ukraine at a railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

“Why is he bombing peaceful homes? Why there are so many victims, blood, and killed children, body parts everywhere?” Lutsenko pleaded. “It is horrible. Sleepless nights. Parents are crying, there are no children any more.”

After fleeing her home, Lutsenko came to Medyka, a small town on the border between Ukraine and Poland where refugees have been coming since the start of the invasion.

Medyka Mayor Marek Iwasieczko clearly remembers Feb. 24, the first day of the war.

“That day was a big surprise for me. Suddenly the huge number of people appeared in Medyka,” Iwasieczko recalled. “They had been traveling for four days. They came terribly exhausted, it was still cold, they were freezing.”

Though the Medyka authorities had prepared some facilities in advance for the arrival of refugees, the town was still overwhelmed with the thousands of people arriving at the same time and needing shelter, food, medicines and most of all, warmth and comfort.

Iwasieczko also said everyone believed to the last moment that the war would be avoided.

“Everything was prepared, even though we were not sure whether all this would be necessary, we did not to know that the war would start, that this would be Putin’s way of doing things,” he said. A month later, “we are dreaming about the stabilization and the end of this situation … We are tired but we are going to help until the end.”

In Przemysl, another Polish town where refugees from Ukraine arrive by train, 66-year-old Nelya Kot from Chernihiv said she remembers waking up to the sound of air raid and explosions when the war started on Feb. 24.

“I thought maybe it was a drill, but then realized that if it were only a drill you wouldn’t hear explosions,” she said. “At that moment my daughter called and said ‘Mom, Russia has attacked us.’”

One month later, Kot added, people in Chernihiv drink river water to survive. Kot’s nephew was killed while waiting for bread, and devastation is everywhere, she said.

“Today, (in Chernihiv) there is no water, no gas, no electricity in the city, Kot gasped. “People are in total isolation, they drink water from the Desna river.”

To ease the strain on the countries accepting refugees, the European Union announced moves Wednesday to help its member states assist the millions of refugees in accessing schools for their children, health care, accommodation and work.

The measures also aim to help facilitate the movement of refugees between countries that can house them in the EU and other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, which already have large Ukrainian communities.

Mostly women and children - Ukrainian men from age 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country and stay to fight – the refugees have sought to rebuild their lives in neighboring countries, seek jobs and start schools. Some have moved on other nations where they have relatives.

Maria Tykha, a 29-year-old refugee also from Kharkiv, still doesn’t know what he will do next. After arriving Thursday to Przemysl by train, she said “I just can’t believe that it is possible in the 21st century.”

In Medyka, the refugees are still arriving, though in smaller numbers and in warmer weather. On Wednesday, children could be seen clutching their favorite toys, women carrying babies and people arriving with their dogs, whom they refused to leave behind.

Lutsenko was sitting on her bed in a sports hall that has been turned into a refugee center, with dozens of beds lined up in one central area. She too had thought the war would be over in just a few days.

“Nobody thought it would last this long, for a month.,” she said. ” I believe that Ukraine will win and I believe in our army. I still believe.”

––––

David Keyton reported from Przemysl.