‘I don’t want my kids to play war’: Life on the road for Ukraine’s displaced and homeless citizens

‘I don’t want my kids to play war’: Life on the road for Ukraine’s displaced and homeless citizens

As the bombs began to fall on the edge of the Ukrainian capital, targeting the Vasylkiv air base to the south of Kyiv, Tetyana Filevska’s children turned to their mother for answers. The sky was black outside, the sounds distant and thunderous. But there was no fear, just curiosity.

“They asked: ‘Mum, what is that? What’s that noise?’” says Tetyana. But she could not communicate the gravity of what was unfolding just two miles away from her home. The language of war is not one spoken by children, so, instead, she told her two-year-old and six-year-old “something had happened” and that they were leaving immediately for their grandparents in the north-west of Ukraine.

“I was in shock,” Tetyana says. “I had this feeling of… I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like you don’t feel anything. You’re paralysed inside. You can’t really think or feel anything. You just have to escape. It’s something very instinctive.”

Five days later, with her homeland caught in the grasp of a violent and ruinous invasion launched by Russia, Tetyana and her family remain displaced. They are safe, for now, but there is little certainty as to what lies ahead, their lives thrown into disarray.

Across the country, millions of others like Tetyana have fled the conflict, seeking refuge in the homes of relatives and strangers. Those with nowhere to turn in Ukraine itself have looked outward, to Poland, Moldova, Hungary and elsewhere.

In the fog of war, it is not clear if and when any of these people will be able to return to their homes, and whether they have the desire to do so.

Nonetheless, the migratory repercussions of the conflict are already manifesting. According to the UN, more than 500,000 people have crossed Ukraine’s borders since last Thursday. Estimates suggest this figure could reach as high as 4 million.

As the war rages in the streets and fields of Ukraine, the mass displacement of its people is a responsibility that the whole of Europe now shares. Governments and politicians cannot look away from the mounting humanitarian crisis, one that will undoubtedly reshape the continent.

Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian MP who has left her home in Kyiv and taken refuge in the outskirts of the city, is clear in her message to Europe’s leaders. “You must be prepared to support those who are fleeing,” she says.

For those gathering on the borders, waiting to gain entry to other countries, “the humanitarian assistance that needs to be coming in must include medical kits, must include petrol, must include food supplies,” Vasylenko adds.

Nations must also be willing to welcome those seeking refuge, she says, while countries “like the UK need to give visa waivers to people on the move, especially if they’re trying to reunite with relatives abroad”.

Support The Independent’s Refugees Welcome campaign, which is calling on the British government to set up a properly-funded resettlement programme for Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Ukraine’s immediate neighbours, renowned for their hardline stance on refugees and migration, have all flung open their borders. Moldovan president Maia Sandu said her country was ready to welcome Ukrainian citizens and would help those arriving in their “humanitarian needs”.

Poland announced its willingness to take “as many as there will be at our borders”, while even Hungary prime minister Viktor Orban, who once described migrants arriving in Europe as “poison”, said his country was “prepared to take care of them, and we’ll be able to rise to the challenge quickly and efficiently”.

Ukraine crisisShow all 46But not all those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine are intending to abandon their homeland and start new lives elsewhere, as was seen with the mass exodus of people who sought to escape Afghanistan and Taliban rule last year.

Instead, many are seeking safety and a temporary shelter above their heads, with the hope of eventually returning to their homes – in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and beyond – once the war has ended.

Andrey, from Kyiv, fled with his wife and eight-month-old daughter to a small town to the south of the capital. If the fighting escalates beyond the city, engulfing the wider region, he knows he will have to relocate once again. But he has no desire to start over in Europe. His home is in Ukraine.

“I have an apartment business in Kyiv for many years now,” he says. “I want to extend it once everything is finished. I don’t have plans to emigrate somewhere, to move to Europe.”

He says this despite being practically bankrupt as a result of the war. In the days before Russia’s invasion, Andrey had made a series of investments into new properties, “but all of these deals have now been crushed,” he says.

Even so, he is staying optimistic. “People should keep a clear mind in this situation and think about future. I know a lot of people who have left for Poland or somewhere else. But it would be better to fight for our future here, rather than be a refuge and clean toilets in another country.”

Tetyana agrees, insisting that she will not give up on her life in Ukraine. “I want to be with my people and with my country,” she says.

But others are less certain. Maria Lanko, an artist from Kyiv, is slowly travelling through the west of Ukraine, caught up in the long queues that are snaking for miles along motorways and narrow roads. She found temporary shelter over the weekend in Yaremche, close to the Romanian border, and later drove to the nearby town of Mukachevo.

“It’s almost impossible to find accommodation,” she says from her car, packed with her possessions and precious artwork that, if all goes to plan, will be showcased at an art gallery in Venice later this year.

“If the war is still on in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be moving towards Venice, probably through Hungary or Romania.”

Forced out by Vladimir Putin’s tanks and troops, people like Maria are limited in their options. Securing safety is the main priority but they cannot roam forever, waiting for the conclusion to a war that may drag on for many weeks and months.

Ultimately, there is no escaping the fallout from this invasion. Maria, Andrey and Tetyana’s lives have been changed irrevocably, along with millions of other Ukrainians. The legacy of this dark war will run dark and deep.

“My children have realised that they are also living through this war in the small world of theirs,” says Tetyana. “They have started picking up words and are repeating them in their games. It’s awful. I don’t want my kids to play war. They deserve a normal life.”

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