WARSAW, Poland — On a freezing Sunday afternoon in the quiet Moldovan village of Palanca, a line of two dozen cars is at a standstill. Inside the vehicles are sights seen at any border crossing. Children sit engrossed in their smartphones, drivers tap the steering wheel impatiently, while others tuck into their homemade snacks. But what is unusual about this scene is that the people are not leaving Ukraine — they're entering it.
It’s been one year since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he called a “special military operation” in Ukraine. In his speech on Feb. 24, 2022, he argued that NATO’s expansion eastward was “a very real threat” to Russia’s “very existence … and to its sovereignty.” His plan was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine’s population. As a result of the invasion, millions of people fled Ukraine to safety across its borders.
But why would anyone choose to go back to Ukraine and not stay in the safety of a neighboring country? In Poland, Anastasiia Kravtsova, a project manager of the global nonprofit organization International Medical Corps, talked to Yahoo News about leaving Mariupol on the day the invasion began.
“I'm the only person in the world who overslept at the start of the war,” Kravtsova joked. She had been unable to get to sleep on the night of Feb. 23, 2022, due to the sound of missiles in the distance growing louder. “The thing is that to understand what was going on in Mariupol, you should live in Mariupol or in other cities close to the contact line,” she said.
Ukraine’s revolution in 2014 kicked off a war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine. The "contact line" refers to the border that separates the government-controlled areas from the separatist regions. Despite peace agreements in place, fighting never truly ended in the region.
“We've been listening to the shelling for eight years,” Kravtsova added. “It never stopped. That’s why 300,000 people got stuck in Mariupol. But when they realized that it was comparatively worse than before, the city was already closed. They had no chance to flee.”
The story of the city and its heroic citizens would dominate the news cycle during what became known as the siege of Mariupol — a brutal three-month-long battle over the control of the strategically important city. Weeks before the battle began, Kravtsova had bought her parents an apartment close to hers so they could spend time with their grandson.
But it didn't work out. After the war began, Kravtsova saw videos of what remained of her properties, both of which lay in ruin in an area now occupied by separatists.
As more cars joined the lineup at the Moldovan border, there was a sense of how normal it all felt. People travel back and forth across the border to go food shopping, visit family or go to funerals, local human rights defender Vitalie Popov explained. Those who live close to the border will travel across for medical supplies or even to work.
Months ago, just a few hundred feet away from the border, was a field full of blue United Nations refugee agency tents — once bustling with thousands of refugees — which now lay vacant. The number of people crossing Ukraine’s borders has dwindled in the past few months, but there was still a slow drip of people crossing in January. After waiting at the border for just 30 minutes, one family pushed a shopping cart packed with what looked like their life’s belongings — no car and no protection from the 23°F weather. They pushed their bags past cars waiting to enter Ukraine and bundled their suitcases into a small van operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that waits at the border for those seeking refuge. They appeared exhausted, with the youngest of the family looking no older than 5 years old.
Since last February, more than 8 million people have fled Ukraine for European countries, according to local government data published by the UNHCR. Nearly 5 million of those have applied for temporary or national protection in their host countries. But Ukrainians who have found safety outside their beloved country are still searching for peace.
“The month of February is the shortest month of the year, but February 2022 was the longest month of our lives,” Oxana, a Ukrainian activist and journalist who did not provide her last name, told Yahoo News at the UNHCR’s Blue Dot protection center in Warsaw. Since the invasion began, the U.N.’s refugee body has been providing those fleeing Ukraine with vital services. In more recent months, the center has been providing day care for children and cash handouts, as well as psychological support.
“It is still not over, and it is not clear at all when will February 2022 end," Oxana said. "My children often ask me about this. Sometimes it seems that time has been delayed forever.” She left her home in the northeastern city of Novhorod-Siverskyi in September, seven months after the invasion began. “I did not dare to leave my city for a long time because I realized that people’s lives depended on the hope that I gave them,” she explained.
However, in September, a psychologist urged her to leave for her son’s mental well-being. “He had very severe psychological trauma due to what he saw, what he heard,” Oxana said about her 11-year-old son. Now Oxana and her son, along with her 17-year-old daughter, live in an accommodation shelter with 200 other refugees. “Here I realized that my status as a refugee means that I am homeless because I have no place to live."
Oxana wasn’t alone in feeling like this. In Moldova, 74-year-old retired factory worker Vera, who did not want to be identified by her last name, has been living in a government-run accommodation shelter in the village of Popeasca since March 17, 2022. Life has since stood still. “We hope it will be resolved soon,” she said, sitting in her bedroom, which she shares with around six others, including children.
“Maybe we will go home, but we can't do anything yet.” Vera fled Ukraine with only a small bag of personal items. Looking around her room, it was noticeable how little everyone appeared to own. Any type of personal belonging would seem like a luxury good. “I left with one bag,” Vera explained. “I've been working for 55 years, I've raised good children, I've taught them all, and I took a bag and left.
“The horror of this life!” she said.
Just 30 minutes outside Warsaw is Europe’s largest refugee accommodation center, which has housed 120,000 people throughout the war. Currently, 2,000 people reside there. The center is large and open, with each person given a deck chair to use as a bed. There is a space for people with animals, a day care facility and a medical center. Walking through the rows of makeshift beds, it appeared as though there had been a loss of hope.
According to the U.N., 90% of all refugees who left Ukraine were women, children and the elderly. This was because all men of draft age were banned from leaving the country, leaving it to the mothers and other family members to take care of the children.
This was no more apparent than in the story of 12-year-old Daniel at University Children’s Hospital in Krakow. Dr. Szymon Skoczen, a doctor of pediatric oncology, said Daniel had been admitted in January for a spine condition. He was accompanied by his 19-year-old sister, Ana, who had traveled to Poland with him last March. “Our parents are still in Ukraine,” Ana said. “They told us to come here because they didn’t want us near the war.”
Stories of separated families were common. Husbands and parents stayed in Ukraine for a number of different reasons. One story that differed was of the retired factory worker Vera. Originally from Russia, she left for Ukraine 56 years ago. She built a life there, settling down with her husband and children and working in a knitwear factory.
“I had a wonderful life in Ukraine,” she said. “No one has ever offended me in my life. My mom, dad and all my relatives came to visit me. Everything was fine.” But when the war started, her family in Russia stopped calling. “My sister's son is also an adult; he's doing great. And I have an adult son. It turns out that her son came to kill my son.”
Although each refugee had a different backstory, all had one thing in common: a desire to return home someday. All were grateful for their host country and the international organizations that helped them settle, but the feelings were generally the same. “Well, if the city is under the control of Ukraine, I will be the first person to come. I will come to rebuild my city,” the nonprofit project manager Kravtsova said.
Each refugee seemed to be stuck in a state of limbo — unable to move on, physically or emotionally. Nearly all have stayed in the same mindset since the war began one year ago. And they will likely continue to wait, frozen in time, for as long as the war rages on.
Cover thumbnail photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images