‘Life is like Russian roulette’: The Ukrainian refugees going back to live in a warzone

·7 min read
Svitlana and her family outside their home which was destroyed by Russian missiles - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
Svitlana and her family outside their home which was destroyed by Russian missiles - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR

As Russian bombs crashed down on a small village outside Kyiv on March 1, Svitlana and her family sheltered in a cellar normally used to store vegetables and jam.

“The neighbours didn’t reach the shelter in time. The mother and son died, the fragment of shell cut off his head,” the 24-year-old said. “Our home was destroyed by two missiles, leaving just the staircase. My mother calls the road ‘The street of horrors’. Eight houses in a row were burned down.”

Nine days later, Svitlana’s mother insisted her daughter flee to Slovakia. Her brother was adamant about staying to look after their 73-year-old grandmother living in the capital, and her parents didn’t want to leave their homeland.

“My grandmother and my mother didn't want to leave. Why should they have to run for their lives? They were absolutely against the thought of it. They said they had already lived their lives and been happy, but that I was still young,” Svitlana said. “I didn’t want to go. I was scared, I had never been to Europe, I did not want to be without my parents.”

She boarded the bus, frightened after hearing stories of women being raped and shot when trying to cross the border. The journey went to plan, yet the knot in her stomach wouldn’t dissipate. Every morning in Bratislava she would pace around her hostel, waiting for confirmation her family had survived the night.

The family, who were hiding in their underground cold room when the house was hit by two missiles during the Russian invasion, are now living in a UNHCR shelter which was provided to them after the attack - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
The family, who were hiding in their underground cold room when the house was hit by two missiles during the Russian invasion, are now living in a UNHCR shelter which was provided to them after the attack - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
High Commissioner Filippo Grandi meets Oksana, Yurii and their daughter Svitlana at their destroyed home in Nalyvaikivka, in Kyiv Oblast - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
High Commissioner Filippo Grandi meets Oksana, Yurii and their daughter Svitlana at their destroyed home in Nalyvaikivka, in Kyiv Oblast - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR

“I felt so guilty I was in a peaceful place,” Svitlana told The Telegraph. “Every day I would pass a nice cafe with fairy lights and music. I would look at it and think: ‘My mother is back in the village and the house is destroyed’.” Svitlana’s guilt deepened and after two months, despite the risk of returning to a country at war, she boarded a bus back to Kyiv.

Svitlana isn’t an anomaly.

Between February 24 and August 2, there have been 10.3 million border crossings from Ukraine, and some 4.2 million border crossings back, according to data from the UNHCR. The agency noted that these figures are not a reflection of individuals, and includes people who have crossed multiple times, for example for commuting purposes.

However, the gap between those departing and those returning is narrowing.

Christophe Beau, a senior protection officer at the UNHCR, the refugee branch of the UN, said the number of people returning is “speeding up”, while fewer people are leaving.

‘They want to be autonomous again’

“People are very keen to get back to their parents and community, it is the primary motivation for returning,” he said. “There is also an economic factor – it costs to be displaced and be abroad. Many people cannot afford the expenses needed to rent a place anymore.”

Mr Beau added that some families have returned to frontline areas simply because they did not have the means to live elsewhere. “They want to be autonomous again, not to depend on others or social support. And finding jobs has not been easy for everybody in Europe,” he said.

Ukrainians have also travelled home after reassessing the level of danger – their town may now not be on the frontline, for example. But Mr Beau said that some returnees find their homes are still in shelling zones or surrounded by landmines.

Yuliia with her husband and daughter after they were reunited in Ukraine in July - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
Yuliia with her husband and daughter after they were reunited in Ukraine in July - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR

Seven days after Svitlana boarded her return bus, Yuliia made a similar journey from Poland – desperate to be reunited with her family and believing her home was safer than in the first days of war. The 25-year-old, who lives in Gatny, a Kyiv suburb, had fled the country to protect her three-month-old daughter, Lisa.

Yuliia believed Ukraine would win the war and she would be home in a matter of weeks. She left behind her husband Andrii and her parents. “I was very scared. I didn’t understand what was happening. I panicked,” she told The Telegraph. “My dad was ill, he was very nervous and panicked about the war. He couldn’t leave home.”

“If it wasn’t for my daughter, I wouldn’t have left either,” she said.

But similar to Svitlana, Yuliia struggled to accept her life in Europe as the war in her home country raged on. “It was hard to understand that back at home there was war. I felt lonely in Poland, and couldn’t relax,” she said. “Morally it was very difficult. I hurt a lot for my country.”

On May 25, Yuliia’s father died. “I was in Poland. It was very, very hard,” she said, pausing during the interview to wipe away her tears and cradle her daughter. Shortly afterwards, Yuliia began to plan her return. “My daughter was without her father, and I missed my husband too much,” she said.

Yuliia, Lisa and Andrii - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
Yuliia, Lisa and Andrii - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR

Watching the news, Yuliia sensed a “lull” in fighting and planned to return within a week, after a couple of months in Poland. “It was the calm before the storm, because on the way back, [Kyiv was hit by] four missile strikes and the Rivne region was shelled,” she said. “Thank god we made it home safe.”

For Svitlana, life before the war had been good and stable. She had worked at a training company, socialised in the evenings, and visited her parents most weekends.

“Everything was okay in Bratislava as well,” she said of her time in the Slovakian capital. “I could walk in the beautiful weather, and I tried to get used to living in a peaceful place. Though I couldn’t find work as I didn’t speak Slovakian or English.”

Instead Svitlana spent hours scrolling through news reports, and waiting for phone calls.

She had travelled with a friend, and they moved into a hostel in Bratislava for €249 a month. Two to three people would share one room and 10 rooms would share one kitchen, where donated food was distributed and cooked.

“It was beautiful in Bratislava, and I feel very grateful to the Slovak people, they are very kind and compassionate. But I worried too much and couldn’t see the sense in staying without my family,” Svitlana said.

Yuliia and her daughter - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
Yuliia and her daughter - Andrew McConnell/UNHCR

The normalcy of life also jarred with her: “I couldn’t understand how there was music on the streets and people working and having fun, and next door there was war.” Despite her mother’s resistance – which succeeded in preventing her return twice early on – Svitlana travelled back to her home country.

“The way we see the war from outside can seem simplistic,” said Angela Travis, who spent two months working in Ukraine for Unicef. “Our first reaction is: ‘Goodness, why would you go back to a country at war?’

“But when you talk to people coming back you see it’s important for them to be back in their communities, with their families, with their businesses. Life isn’t black and white,” she said. Ms Travis added that most people are reassessing their situations on a monthly basis. “There’s no long-term planning, it’s exhausting for them,” she said.

Svitlana said life in Ukraine is scary, but she is happy to be back and has found a new office job. “Life is very unpredictable – like Russian roulette. I don’t know if, in a moment, I will not be alive. When I go to work I do not know if I will come back. But what is the other choice? To stay home all the time? I need to continue living.”

“Now I spend my time with my family, I want to be sure that if anything happens we will be together,” Svitlana said.

“The war continues, it worries me almost every day,” Yuliia added. “But we continue to live, work and believe in our victory. My husband and daughter are my best comforters. My story is not heroic as other stories, but I did it for her, for my daughter.”

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