'I'm not afraid': the Ukrainian men going back to fight

As the UN says 500,000 refugees have left Ukraine on the fifth day of the conflict, fighters are heading to the homeland

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Standing on platform two of Lviv railway station, freezing and surrounded by hundreds of people trying to flee the Russian invasion, Victoria begins to cry.

“I’m a little bit scared. We have no friends in Poland. We are just going and we hope to find somewhere to stay.”

The journey from Vinnytsia in the centre of Ukraine to Lviv has taken Victoria, her husband and her three children 15 hours so far. The children, aged 17, 15 and 11, have ventured into the ticket hall to warm up as the snow begins to fall on Lviv.

Another resident of Vinnytsia is 31-year-old Ivan Glushko. Wrapped in a fur coat and seeking warmth in the ticket hall, Mr Glushko is more focused on the east of the country. Rather than join the exodus, he is returning, now volunteering to sign up to fight.

“I’m not afraid. I’m completely sure we are going to win,” he said.

Mr Glushko is travelling in the opposite direction to Victoria and her family. He has crossed the border to Lviv from Poland, where he works in a factory. He plans to visit his family on the outskirts of Vinnytsia to make sure they are safe before saying goodbye and heading to the nearest military point to sign up.

“I came back to fight,” he says. “That’s exactly why I came back. Why else?”

Like many Ukrainian men being drafted into the war, Mr Glushko has no military experience. His eyes glance coolly around the station as he speaks of his desire to be given a gun by the state and then sent to the fight.

“I have no fighting experience but I’m going to get it pretty quick.”

At the Medyka-Shehyni border between Poland and Ukraine, the only people entering the country are young Ukrainian men returning home from Poland ready to fight.

A group of Indian students wait to cross the border into Poland from Ukraine. Oliver Marsden for The National

Not only is the battle for Kiev raging on, but fierce fighting continues in the south near Kherson and Odessa, the eastern city of Kharkiv and across many of the northern border areas. Given this great danger, families are naturally looking to get out of harms way.

Trains and roads have been overwhelmed by the exodus, and many have resorted to walking for miles in the cold. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the numbers leaving crossed the threshold of 500,000 refugees have fled their homes since the war began on Thursday.

“We are cold but not hungry,” Victoria tells The National, pointing to plastic bags full of sandwiches and crisps. “We have been standing on the platform for three hours.”

As Russia pushes its troops further into Ukraine and the bombing of Kiev intensifies, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and foreign nationals have been forced to flee their homes.

A 40km traffic jam

Getting to the border is only half the battle. Cars waiting to cross by road have caused a 40km traffic jam. Those without cars have been forced to walk at least 20km after being dropped off as close to the border as possible.

There are thousands of women, children and foreign nationals desperate to leave. Huddling together for warmth as the sun sets on the checkpoint and temperatures drop below freezing, people wait for hours for the chance to escape the country. Most people have already travelled for days and are now expecting to spend the night out in the open while they wait to cross.

Volunteers offer food and hot drinks, while local Stels petrol stations help charge phones and provide a warm place to rest.

A volunteer hands out sandwiches as hundreds of people cram into the ticket hall at the main railway station in Lviv hoping to get onto a train out of Ukraine. Oliver Marsden for The National

The cold air is biting and families reach the border hungry and tired, only to be told to wait longer in the sub-zero temperatures before they can cross to safety. Both the Ukrainian and Polish border guards are overwhelmed by the sudden influx of refugees at their station.

Border chaos

Standing in the dark and corralled together are hundreds of foreign nationals unable to cross. Priority is being given to Ukrainian passport holders or those with visas for Poland.

The sudden invasion of Ukraine means most foreigners have been unable to obtain a visa before heading to the border.

Article 31 of the 1951 Geneva Convention stipulates that “contracting states shall not impose penalties, on account on their illegal entry or presence, on refugees … coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened”.

However, The National spoke to medical students from India, migrant workers from the Ivory Coast and Syrian nationals who had been denied entry to Poland. They were told that priority was being given to Ukrainians and that they were not allowed to leave Poland, although this could not be verified.

Men and women from south Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries were pushed together into groups and made to wait in the cold as Ukrainians walked past towards the border.

The National witnessed one Ukrainian guard hitting the ground with a golf club next to the feet of the crowd as he shouted at the shivering group to stay back.

Dr Nevis Gurani, 28, and his wife Dr Aathira from India have been living in the eastern city of Kharkiv for 10 years but decided to flee as the fighting intensified. With their two dogs in tow, they hope to cross into Poland before flying home to India. They are not confident this will happen.

“There are 2,000 Indian citizens and students at the borders unable to cross. They are not getting any help. Poland is unable to take them in and I think there is some issue. People have been camping for 48 hours.”

Ojama Akpoga glances up at the departure board in the ticket hall of Lviv railway station. Oliver Marsden for The National

Back at Lviv railway station Ojama Akpoga from Nigeria tells a similar story. He and three friends paid $1,000 to drive 18 hours from Kiev to Lviv but are now unsure they will be able to cross the border. They are hoping to cross into Slovakia, Hungry or Poland and then continue the journey home to Nigeria.

“We might get a visa at the border but it’s not certain. We are just hoping for the best,” he says.

Kiev was Mr Akpoga's home for more than six years before the Russians decided to strike the city with shells and missiles.

“I was scared in Kiev. We were running up and down to the bomb shelter. It was a horrific experience, just trying to stay alive.”

Far-reaching consequences of war

Talks between Russia and Ukraine are set to begin on Monday on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border as Russia’s President Putin placed the county’s deterrence forces, including nuclear arms, on high alert. This raised the spectre of a protracted and devastating campaign if agreements cannot be reached.

Twenty-five kilometres from the Polish border, Ludmilla sits in her car towards the end of a traffic jam with her husband and 11-year-old son. They attempt to keep warm by blasting the old car’s heating system and singing along to Ukrainian pop songs.

The family have travelled for three days from the eastern city of Poltava near to the fighting at Dnipro. After the airport near to their home was bombed and four drones shot down the family decided to get in the car and make the almost 1,000km drive to the Polish border.

Ludmilla waits in her car with her family in a traffic jam backed up towards the border crossing into Poland. Oliver Marsden for The National

Ludmilla was in the Polish town of Zakopane at the hotel she works in watching the news nervously as the air strikes started. The owners came to her and told her to return to Ukraine to collect her son before making the journey back to Zakopane.

She intends to return to Poland and wait there until Ukraine is peaceful again. “The situation here is very scary. I’m scared for the life of my child.”

For Ludmilla, and many Ukrainians like her, this war has far-reaching consequences. Many people have family living in Russia, and this war is tearing them apart both physically and ideologically. She sees no reason for the invasion and decries the futility of neighbours at war.

Her message to President Putin is clear. “Russia and Ukraine have close ties in the eastern region and the whole of Ukraine. This war is like brother on brother. It is too sad to believe.”

Updated: February 28, 2022, 1:57 PM
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