Ukraine

Return to Ukraine and back in the warzone

In the crowd of people gathered in the high ceiling waiting room at the first floor of Lviv Railway Station is a small elderly lady trying to find her way to the queue in front of the Ukraposhta (national post service) counter. Her name is Maria*, an 81-year-old Ukrainian woman from east Ukraine, looking for help.

Just as the waiting room itself has been transformed into an emergency shelter facility, the postal office counter is now functioning as a service point that offers government subsidies in the form of emergency cash assistance to internally displaced persons. 

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Alexandra Strand Holm

Legal aid to people on the move 

Lviv Railway station, being a main infrastructure hub for people leaving or returning to Ukraine from Poland, is also one of the locations where DRC is present with legal advisors and protection expertise to help people who may need guidance.  

Maria is here with four family members, among them her daughter and grandchild, as they have just arrived back from Poland to where they fled in the first instance. That was on 8 March, two weeks after the recent conflict erupted on 24 February, and when air alarms and intense shelling made them fear for the lives and decide that it was no longer possible to stay on. 

Leaving home last minute 

‘We tried to stay home at first. But there were air raid alarms nearly constantly and shelling rained on us, even in the residential areas. In no time, everything around us was destroyed. We didn’t dare waiting and had to leave with a short notice,’ she tells.  

All they brought were a few bags with ID papers and documents, a few thin blankets, pieces of clothes and some toys for the child. Their village was already by then heavily destroyed. It has seen further waves of attacks ever since with heavy bombardments of the district from where also Ukraine’s President Zelensky originally comes. 

Maria has been a day labourer there for most of her life working with paint repair of houses. She liked it in the beginning, but it was hard work and badly paid, she recalls, and explains how she made 80-90 Rubles a month, a small amount and not enough to get by. In 1995, she eventually retired and has lived from her government pension since then, hoping for a peaceful life with her family in the village. Her husband died seven years ago, but she was able to remain in their third-floor flat. 

Conflict since 2014 

Conflict has affected Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions since decades, including since 2014 when the Russo-Ukrainian war between the Russian Federation - supported by pro-Russian separatists – and Ukraine. It was focused initially on the status of the Crimean Peninsula and the eastern Donbas-region that are internationally recognised as parts of Ukraine.    

As most of the residents of eastern and southern Ukraine, people there have lived for years with effects of the conflict and had become used to maneuvering in an environment heavily affected not only by political tensions, but also actual fighting. They have had no other option than to live with the insecurity and witnessed frequent shelling of residential areas, leaving vast areas of land used for farming to be heavily contaminated by mines and unexploded remnants of war that make every step and movement there too dangerous to the local population. But like Maria and her family, they stayed on, got used to the dangers and managed to continue daily lives - until 24 February this year, when the full-fledged Russian Federation-led offensive was launched in Ukraine. 

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Photo: Olha Sydorova

Five months abroad 

‘We have stayed nearly five months in Poland, and they hosted us there for free, but it was no longer an option, and we could not afford to stay on when we had to pay. So, we took the train back to Ukraine. We have decided that it is time to go back home to where we belong and where I and the new generations belong. So, we want to travel back to our village. My daughter’s husband is still there. We also have a family member who as passed away and should be at the funeral. And it’s my birthday next week where I will turn 82,’ Maria tells, as the family prepares to take the train back to Dnipro. 

‘I look forward to going back,’ says Maria with a smile, ‘and to see my flat. I’m old and don’t walk so well, but there is a lift in our block. I like that place - and I miss being home.’  

 

* Name changed 

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