By Eliza Mackintosh and Oleksandra Ochman, CNN Photographs by Yurko Dyachyshyn for CNN
Lviv, Ukraine — At the train station in Lviv, on the westernmost edge of Ukraine, women are at a physical and psychological crossroads.
After arriving in the city, now a waypoint for displaced people, humanitarian aid and weapons, they’ve had to ask themselves a set of daunting questions. Where should we go next? Will my children be safe there? How long will we stay?
In the back of their minds is a gnawing fear: Will we even have a home to return to?
If there’s one thing to know about the dilemma they face, it’s that many are having to make snap decisions about their family’s future alone.
Military conscription rules in Ukraine mean that men between the ages of 18 and 60 are blocked from leaving the country. And, in any case, many have chosen to sign up and join the fight.
So while millions of Ukrainians have fled Russia’s invasion since it was launched by President Vladimir Putin more than two months ago, almost all of those who have crossed the border are women and children. They make up a staggering 90% of Ukraine’s refugees.
Mothers have largely borne the brunt of the migration crisis, picking up the pieces after their families were torn apart, caring for children and elderly parents. CNN spoke with several who had uprooted their lives in the wake of the war and were weighing whether it was time to take their families back to Ukraine. One woman, Liudmyla Sobchenko, a 28-year-old from the Zhytomyr region northwest of Kyiv, spent three weeks in Poland with her young son and mother before deciding it was time to come home. “I won’t say it’s bad there in Poland … But it’s not our land,” she said.
Since late March, when CNN visited the station in Lviv, the flow of Ukrainians back to the country has continued to increase and is now about 30,000 a day, according to Andrii Demchenko, a press officer for the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine. “We have no right to ask the purpose of the trip, but many women shared that they no longer want to stay abroad,” he told CNN on Tuesday.
Some of the most heart-wrenching, early images of the war were from railway stations across Ukraine. Crowds clambered into carriages, babies held aloft. Couples embraced in passionate, desperate goodbyes. Little hands and faces pressed against foggy windows as fathers stood alone, sobbing on platforms.
Many passed through Lviv station before traveling on to neighboring Poland, or further afield. Hour after hour, a wave of women and children would disembark. The names of the cities and towns they left — Sumy, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson — created a constellation of suffering that criss-crossed Ukraine, reflecting in real time where fighting had flared.
They carried with them few belongings, but burdensome stories. They said that after days or weeks hiding out in basements and bunkers, the relentless shelling, sirens and sleepless nights became too much. Their children echoed the sounds of the bombs that forced them to evacuate: “Ba-bah-ka, ba-bah-ka! Boom, boom!”
Weeks after the initial exodus, the grand Art Nouveau train station in Lviv, two miles from the city’s old town, was still busy with families on the move. But not all were heading west. Some, like Sobchenko, were beginning to return.
There are still more people fleeing violence in the country than returning. But, according to officials and those displaced by the war, the increasing number reflects a gradual acceptance that the fighting could drag on for some time. With that in mind, many Ukrainians have decided they would rather return and risk living in a conflict zone than be a refugee in another country, without any family or support network.
That shifting attitude also reflects the challenges for European governments attempting to cope with the largest refugee crisis on the continent since World War II.
In a room for women and children above the fray of the main terminal, families were regrouping. Some rested on thin mattresses, staring blankly at the painted, vaulted ceiling overhead. Others scrolled on smartphones, reading the latest news from the front lines.
Sobchenko fled the city of Korosten with her 3-year-old son Nazar and 57-year-old mother Tetiana in early March. Explosions edged closer and closer to their home. Then one night a blast blew out the windows in Nazar’s room and Sobchenko knew it was time to go. They left their dog and cat behind, fleeing with little besides the clothes on their backs and a bag of essentials — medicine, documents, a change of clothes. A bus ride to the Polish border, a journey that normally takes four hours, dragged on for 24.
They were hosted with other refugees in Nowy Targ, a town south of Krakow, near the Slovakian border, but they couldn’t settle in. Nazar would shake at night, screaming: “Mama, boom! Boom!” After her mother suffered a nervous breakdown, having to be taken by ambulance to the hospital, Sobchenko decided that despite the dangers, it was better to go back. “I haven’t slept for a day. I had some anxiety, and joy when thinking about home,” she said.
As the young mother flicked through train time tables and Telegram, Nazar, dressed in a blue and orange striped hoodie, sat in a nearby play space with other children, sifting through stuffed animals, blocks and books. Sobchenko called him over to give him a cookie and a hug. “I don’t speak with him about war. I just tell him that now it’s safe, there’s not going to be any ‘boom’ any more. What can a mother do?” she asked.
Julia Kovalska, a 27-year-old volunteer who organizes games and other activities for children passing through the station, said it’s been chilling to see how they speak about the horrors they’ve witnessed. “Children always remain children, both before and after the war. But their eyes are completely different. They talk about missiles, about bombs so calmly. I can even cry because of it. Mothers cry, grandmothers cry, and children just talk about this experience as it is,” she said.
The war has displaced nearly two-thirds of Ukraine’s 7.5 million children and killed more than 160, according to UNICEF. Addressing the UN Security Council earlier this month, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told members that “when men like President Putin start wars, women and children get displaced,” hurt, raped and abused — and they die. “What is happening to women and children in Ukraine is horrific beyond comprehension,” she said.
In a recent survey of Ukrainian refugees in Poland — the majority of them women — the International Rescue Committee found that many had suffered severe traumas since leaving their homes, from family separation, to human trafficking, and physical and sexual violence. Staff working at refugee centers said the toll of the war on children was devastating. Many reported incidents of traumatized minors crying or wetting themselves.
In early March, with her baby son in tow, Nadiia Taraatorina, 22, fled her home in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial city in Ukraine’s heartland and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown, leaving her husband, father and other male relatives behind.
Taraatorina and her mother Liubov, 38, set off for the relative safety of western Ukraine, traveling to Lviv station and then on to the Carpathian Mountains in the Zakarpattia region. Weeks later, she was back in Lviv — this time headed home.
“We are going home, father is waiting for us. It seems to have become calmer, but who knows what will happen next,” Taraatorina said. Her father, a volunteer with Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, told them that the fighting had eased and it was safe for the family to return, but it was unclear how long that peace would hold.
As Taraatorina bottle-fed Artem, wiping milk from his cheeks, her mother asked around about tickets and train times to Dnipro. “The child distracts me from the war. He is at such an age that he does something new every day. But it is difficult to be far away from my husband, it is difficult to be ‘na chuzhyni,'” she said, using an emotive phrase in Ukrainian to describe the dislocation of being far from home, in a strange and foreign land.
It’s a feeling expressed by many other women, who say they escaped the war to keep their children safe, but suffered from an unsettling and implacable sense of guilt for having left their “motherland” behind.
In the first days of the war, Yana Matiushenkova, 30, and her daughter Arina, 3, crammed into an overcrowded train bound for Lviv from the Dnipropetrovsk region in central Ukraine. After days of chaotic travel they finally wound up in Wroclaw, a city in western Poland known for its picturesque old town and market square. But she struggled to adjust to her new surroundings.
“Here I was walking with my daughter in Wroclaw … everything is beautiful around. And in Ukraine there’s shelling, people do not sleep at night. This started to stress me out a lot. It’s probably guilt. I was told that there is such a thing as ‘survivor syndrome,'” Matiushenkova said. Her stress and depression began to affect Arina, who she said became moody and started acting out. Matiushenkova felt they couldn’t wait any longer — they would travel back home to Kamyanske.
“I have no doubts about the correctness of my decision. I want to be close to my family, no matter what happens,” she added.
Nadiia Aleksina, a psychologist who volunteered in the Lviv train station, spoke with many displaced people about this internal turmoil. “The guilt of the survivor is something that is now common among the majority of Ukrainians. We all see what could happen to us. It will be with us for a while,” she said, explaining that she tried to remind mothers they should not feel guilty for surviving and saving their children.
Deciding to flee was something that Ksenia, 32, wrestled with for a while. The district of Kyiv where she lived with her husband and their two sons, 6-month-old Oleksandr and 3-year-old Andrii, was one of the first to be hit by Russian forces. Ksenia moved them to her mother-in-law’s home in a suburb of the capital. Her husband had joined the army, and she wanted to remain nearby.
But when Russian troops advanced and her children kept waking up to bombs, crying out in the night, “Ba-bah!” they packed up their things quickly and fled. “It’s very difficult. It’s hard to leave your home without really understanding why you have to do it. We went for the children,” Ksenia said, rocking Oleksandr in her arms.
Ksenia’s mother-in-law, Valentyna, 58, had been just as determined to stay. She thought that the war would be resolved through diplomacy. Now, she’s not so sure.
“As a mother, it is very difficult for me to leave my son and run away with my grandchildren,” she said, her dark eyes welling up as she held Andrii in her lap. “When I think of home, only tears come. Very difficult. We left everything there. We do not want to leave our country! Why should children suffer? Why should our sons suffer?”
The two women said they will travel from Lviv to the Netherlands. But as soon as it’s safe enough to return, they plan to do so. They have dreams of returning to a peaceful Ukraine, where they’ll have a say in their children’s future — and their own.
“Putin will never defeat women, especially Ukrainian women. We Ukrainian women are strong,” Valentyna said.
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Photo editing by Will Lanzoni.