Many Ukrainians who have fled the war realise that, despite the conflict, it is only in their country that they are truly at home. Between feelings of guilt and devastation on their return, journalist Lyudmila Makei met those who have returned
Over 13 million Ukrainians left their homes at the start of the war. Of the 5 million who fled the country, 25 per cent have already returned, according to the United Nations.
Kateryna and her husband, and Diana and her sister, are among them. The former were caught up in the war during their holiday, while Diana couldn’t bear the guilt caused by her ideal welcome in Vienna.
“We hadn't even turned off the heating”
Rumours of an imminent Russian invasion were circulating in Ukraine, well before 24 February. Despite this, at the insistence of their children, Kateryna and her husband went on holiday.
“We were planning to travel in March, but ended up doing so on 12 February. We packed our documents and drove to Transcarpathia [in the west of the country], says Kateryna. We didn't take any objects or jewellery. We didn't even turn off the heating at home.”
There, in a sanatorium they had been going to for ten years, they learned about the beginning of the war. Their first desire was to go back home, despite shelling less than 10 km away from their home in Kyiv. But the pictures of millions of cars blocked at the exit of the capital changed their mind. Instead, they drove to Kosovo, where their eldest daughter lives with her in-laws.
“I was ashamed not to be in Ukraine with everyone else, recalls Kateryna. One morning in Priština, I went to the city centre, sat on a bench and cried for hours. My husband did the same and wandered in the streets for most of the day.”
Although they had fond memories of time spent with their grandchildren in Priština, Kateryna and her husband now felt uncomfortable in the city. That’s why they decided to travel to Malta, where their youngest daughter was living. But the uneasiness stuck with them, and they returned to Kosovo to collect their car and drive back home to Ukraine.
“When we realised that Kyiv was quiet again, we packed and went home, says Kateryna. We took the same route as in early February, but this time the feeling was completely different.”
Once there, the couple was in shock. “There was hardly any reminder of the war on the highway, up until 150 km from Kyiv. But when we arrived and saw the destroyed houses and burnt cars, I began to cry. It was frightening”, says Kateryna. Since their return, the couple has struggled with words and doesn’t speak much.
“I felt like crying all the time”
Diana, 20, and her 15-year-old sister are from Kropyvnytsky, a town 300 km south of Kyiv. In the morning of 24 February, they were meant to travel to Austria, where their mother lives. But on their way to the capital's airport, the bus driver told them that the city had been bombed and that Ukraine was at war. They returned home and tried to catch a train to Lviv the next day.
“We arrived at 7 a.m. and had to wait until 6 p.m. before we could squeeze into an evacuation train. Torn bags and documents were lying everywhere on the floors of the cars, says Diana. It was no longer a queue but one body, moving chaotically, shouting, arguing and fighting.”
The journey to the Polish border took a whole day instead of the usual two hours. After a stop in Kraków, the sisters finally arrived in Vienna. “In Austria, I was able to live and work normally. I could even get help, but I was uncomfortable there”, Diana admits.
Despite these advantages, two months after her arrival she felt exhausted and wanted to go back home. “I felt like crying all the time and I was very worried about my friends back in Ukraine”, recalls Diana. Many of the compatriots she met in Austria were in the same situation.
“One day I bought a ticket to go back to Ukraine. I travelled through Poland and from there, took a bus back to my city, says Diana. It was much quieter than the first trip and the wait at the checkpoints was gleeful.”
Diana's mother disagreed with her leaving a calm and safe environment such as Vienna’s, and the two women got in an argument. Today, her younger sister is still in Austria.
Since her return, Diana enjoys her home, her life and her friends. “When I got home, a weight was lifted off my heart. I walked into my flat and cried tears of joy.”
Liudmyla Makei is a Ukrainian journalist who lives in Priština since 17 April.