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'I owe it to my homeland': Ukrainians at the Polish border explain why they're going back home

Thousands of Ukrainians displaced by Russian attacks have been arriving in Lviv and waiting days to board trains and buses travelling to Przemyśl.

Przemyśl Station in Poland.
Przemyśl Station in Poland.
Image: Hannah McCarthy

HARROWING SCENES HAVE been playing out at stations across Ukraine over the last week, as thousands of people have attempted to board trains at Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital facing a Russian siege, and Lviv, one of the country’s most western cities.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians displaced by Russian attacks have been arriving in Lviv and waiting days to board trains and buses travelling across the border to Przemyśl.

The Polish town has welcomed 700,000 refugees from the conflict so far, yet people continue to board trains to Lviv and on to Kyiv at Przemyśl Station.

Kam, from Sandyford in Dublin, is waiting at the entrance to platform five at the station to send off fellow members of the Polish Legion who are travelling to Ukraine. The Polish man came back from Ireland to Poland to help organise assistance for Ukraine.

Passengers boarding the train are met with the smell of a carriage that has been packed with people for days. Adults travelling from Lviv – mostly women – must stand for the whole journey to Przemyśl, with only children and the elderly allowed to sit.

This evening the train westward is about a third of normal capacity, with people spread out in groups, many eating one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of free meals that are being distributed by NGOs at Przemyśl Station.

Returning to Lviv

Some women on board the train are returning to bring their children in Ukraine to safety in Poland. Others are returning to collect belongings that they left at home, or were forced to leave behind in Lviv to board buses and trains.

Gaia is returning to Lycichansk to bring her 12-year-old son to Poland. The city is in East Ukraine, just a few hours from the Russian border where there has been heavy fighting. I asked her if she was nervous about returning. “Of course,” she says.

Despite the danger, many Ukrainian citizens have chosen to return to stay and help with the war effort.

Gaiduk Oxana is a civil servant at the Department of Social Services in Odessa, a port city that lies on the coast of the Black Sea. Yesterday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Russian forces plan to bomb the strategic Ukrainian city imminently.

i-8qPStgj-X2 Gaiduk Oxana went to Poland with her daughter, but has decided to return to Odessa where her husband stayed to fight. Source: Hannah McCarthy

Gaiduk went to Poland with her daughter but has decided to return to Odessa where her husband stayed to fight.

“I am afraid, but I owe it to my homeland,” she says. “I have a husband there and we will defend our homeland together.”

Mikal is a volunteer with the Polish Legion from Warsaw. He took a week off work to volunteer in Ukraine.

“I haven’t told my mum that I’m going to Ukraine,” he says, sitting in one of the train carriages. “I’ll do a week and return.”

He’s focused on helping with logistics while he’s there, but if the conflict reaches Lviv, he says he won’t hesitate to pick up a rifle.

‘However long it takes’

Also onboard is Bro, another member of the Polish Legion. He’s a fan of Irish rebel songs, and he plays “Go Home You British Soldiers” for me on his phone.

He doesn’t know how long he’ll stay in Ukraine. “Two weeks, one month, three months – however long it takes,” he says.

Kyiv to Poland Kyiv to Lviv to Przemyśl Station in Poland. Source: Maps.Google.Com

I ask him if he has any family waiting for him while he’s away. “No, I’m single,” he says, “but always searching.”

While Polish men are free to cross the border back to Poland any time, any Ukrainian men returning to fight will be unable to leave.

At the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government imposed a ban on men aged 18-60 leaving the country, separating many families as wives and children travelled to safety in border countries.

i-z8SF4V9-X2 Lviv Station in Kviv. Source: Hannah McCarthy

Also on board the train to Lviv are journalists reporting on the Russian invasion. I chat with one from a German newspaper and two from the Chinese state broadcaster.

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Like me, they’re questioned by Ukrainian forces at the border about where they’re going, who they’ll be staying with and for how long.

hannah mccarthy A deserted Lviv after 10pm curfew. Source: Hannah McCarthy

In the end, the train arrives at Lviv Station four hours late and after the 10 pm curfew. People hurry out of the station to waiting cars or nearby accommodation, hoping night patrols won’t stop them on their way.

Lviv has not yet gone dark at night to defend itself against airstrikes that have bombarded Ukrainian cities in the East.

The streets are deserted, but the lights remain on for now.

Hannah McCarthy is a journalist reporting from the Ukraine border with Poland.

About the author:

Hannah McCarthy

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