Ukrainian refugees’ hopes of return dim after weeks of war

MEDYKA, Poland (AP) — As Russia launched its war in Ukraine last month, exhausted and frightened refugees arrived in neighboring countries. They took whatever they could grab quickly. Many cried. They still do.

The United Nations says more than 3.6 million people have fled Ukraine since the war began exactly a month ago on Thursday in what is the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II. Without preparation, most of the refugees thought they would soon be back home. That hope is now fading.

“At first we thought it would end very soon,” said Olha Homienko, a 50-year-old from Kharkiv. “At first, no one could believe that Russia would attack us, and we thought it would end quickly.”

Now, Homienko said, “as we can see, there’s nothing to wait for.”

Homienko’s hometown, Kharkiv, is among several Ukrainian towns that were surrounded and heavily shelled by the Russians. Refugees from besieged towns told of destruction, death and hunger.

Natalia Lutsenko, from the bombed northern city of Chernihiv, said she still believed the Russian invasion must have been some kind of “misunderstanding”.

Lutsenko said she doesn’t understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin is causing Ukrainians so much pain.

“Why is he bombing peaceful houses? Why are there so many victims, blood and children killed, body parts everywhere?” Lutsenko pleaded. “It’s horrible. Sleepless nights. The parents are crying, there are no more children.

After fleeing her home, Lutsenko came to Medyka, a small town on the Ukraine-Poland border where refugees have been arriving since the invasion began.

Medyka Mayor Marek Iwasieczko vividly remembers February 24, the first day of the war.

“That day was a big surprise for me. Suddenly a large number of people appeared in Medyka,” Iwasieczko recalls. “They had been traveling for four days. They arrived terribly exhausted, it was still cold, they were frozen.

Although the Medyka authorities had prepared some facilities in advance for the arrival of the refugees, the town was still overwhelmed by the thousands of people arriving at the same time and in need of shelter, food, medicine and above all warmth and comfort.

Iwasieczko also said that everyone believed until the last moment that war would be avoided.

“Everything was prepared, even though we weren’t sure that all of this would be necessary, we didn’t know that the war was going to start, that this would be Putin’s way,” he said. A month later, “we dream of stabilizing and ending this situation… We are tired but we will help until the end.”

To ease the pressure on countries accepting refugees, the European Union on Wednesday announced measures to help its member states help the millions of refugees access school for their children, healthcare, housing and work.

The measures also aim to facilitate the movement of refugees between countries that can host them in the EU and other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, which already have large Ukrainian communities.

For the most part women and children – Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 were banned from leaving the country and staying to fight – the refugees sought to rebuild their lives in neighboring countries, seek work and open schools. Some have moved to other countries where they have relatives.

In Medyka, refugees are still arriving, but in smaller numbers and in warmer weather. On Wednesday, children could be seen clutching their favorite toys, women carrying babies and people arriving with their dogs, which they refused to leave behind.

Lutsenko sat on her bed in a gym that has been turned into a refugee center, with dozens of beds lined up in a central area. She too had thought that the war would be over in a few days.

“No one thought it would last this long, for a month,” she said. “I believe Ukraine will win and I believe in our army. I still believe.”

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Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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