Roman Chernozemskyi paces up and down the train platform, his face unreadable, lips pursed.
His right hand is stuffed into his jean pocket, his left clutching a bunch of daffodils, sold to him moments before by an elderly woman at a small stall outside. He doesn’t know why he chose daffodils.
Around him, on platform number eight at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi train station, a small crowd of men just like him stand expectantly. Many are holding flowers — tulips, daffodils or roses.
Once prevented by presidential decree from leaving Ukraine, Kyiv’s men wait to collect their wives, girlfriends, sisters and children who have returned. Despite the fighting still raging in the south of the country, families have begun pouring back into Kyiv and its surrounding areas, following the retreat of Russian troops more than one month ago.
It’s a vastly different picture than mid-March, when 75,000 people left and just 18,000 were coming the other way.
Several times a day now, when trains from Poland are due to arrive, the train platforms here crowd with men. Children jump off trains into expectant arms. Women sob as they embrace significant others. Men in military uniforms, flowers in one hand, sprint down the platform to find their partner at the other end.
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Global News spent a week at the station, documenting dozens of reunions under bittersweet circumstances.
Two months after this station became a symbol of desperation and sadness — a site where families were torn apart — Kyiv’s train station is now where people are being brought back together.
This place has taken on a new symbolic meaning: a place of comfort.
‘All of us are walking under God’
In late March, following the Russian army’s announcement of its withdrawal from northern Ukraine after weeks of stalled advances around Kyiv, the number of Ukrainians returning to the country began to steadily increase.
On March 31, as the Russians were in retreat, 24,000 people returned to Ukraine across the country’s western borders with Slovakia, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Hungary, according to data from the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine. By mid-April, that number rose to 29,000 — 26,000 of them Ukrainian.
These days, the number of returning Ukrainians has almost surpassed those leaving.
On May 9, according to national data, 27,000 people left Ukraine through its western borders, but 25,000 returned — 23,000 of them Ukrainian.
The train station in Przemysl, Poland, where many returnees begin the last stretch of their journey home, is no longer a scene of chaos as volunteers clamour to help thousands of fleeing Ukrainian refugees find transport and accommodation. It is busy but calm.
The immigration line for trains headed for Ukraine begins forming several hours before departure and snakes along the roadside. The line is almost exclusively made up of women and children.
It is here that Chernozemskyi’s family boarded their journey home on April 30, along with 40,000 other people who crossed into Ukraine that day.
Chernozemskyi wears blue jeans and freshly shined black Oxford shoes as he awaits his wife and two daughters. His hair and beard appear freshly trimmed. He is visibly emotional as he paces platform number eight up and down, up and down. Their train from Przemysl had been delayed by two hours.
At the sound of rumbling down the track in the distance, Chernozemskyi and the dozen other men around him move instinctively closer to the edge of the platform, following it as the train chugs to a stop.
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Chernozemskyi weaves in and out of the rest of the crowd of men, craning his neck to see into the carriages for any sight of his family. He stops by one carriage, patiently waiting for the passengers to disembark, but can’t see any familiar faces.
He walks up to the next carriage and paces around the front for a bit before he sees them — the faces of two confused little girls having just stepped off the train, looking around the busy platform for their father.
Spotting him, the girls ran into Chernozemskyi’s outstretched arms, soon joined by his wife, where all four of them stand as other passengers rush past. Chernozemskyi and his wife are crying.
“It is the most amazing thing, seeing them,” Chernozemskyi says afterwards, tears still glistening in his eyes.
Nearby, elderly men hold onto elderly wives. Men clasp their children. Women hug friends.
A tall, well-dressed man named Andriy clutches a bunch of tulips, waiting for his wife. She’s returning for a couple of weeks because she misses him, Andriy says, while their six-year-old son remains with his grandmother in Poland. He is excited, but a little worried.
“For me, it’s OK. I feel safe. But I know my wife will not be comfortable and will still be scared.”
The couple had opened a small café together just three weeks before the war broke out. He says he opened it for his wife, so she could work there, and now he’s working there instead, to try and keep it in business.
“I don’t truly believe in God, but I’m thinking of a choir right now and all of us are walking under God,” he says.
‘More difficult to say goodbye the second time’
Two months ago, these same platforms formed the backdrop of videos of people clamouring to board packed trains, parents handing over their children to friends or strangers in order to get them safe passage and Ukrainian guards firing shots into the air to disperse heaving crowds.
Chernozemskyi’s wife and two daughters, aged seven and 10, formed part of these crowds on Feb. 24, when they fled to Warsaw, where they live in a house with 20 other refugees, provided by a volunteer organization. Chernozemskyi, being a man aged between 18 and 60, was not allowed to leave the country under martial law.
But Chernozemskyi’s family did not stay. They returned to Warsaw 48 hours later, because the threat of the war was just too great.
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Just a day earlier,a missile strike had struck Kyiv, killing one, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting the city. It wasn’t enough to cancel the family’s temporarily reunion, but it was enough to shake their confidence about a permanent return.
“I think it was more difficult to say goodbye the second time compared with the first time,” Chernozemskyi says over the phone, a week after his family had left.
“When it was two months, I started to get used to it. Because we were communicating on the internet on video, then we saw each other and it was difficult to say goodbye again.”
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Chernozemskyi is at home, speaking in a low voice over the phone as his cat mews in the background.
He doesn’t know how to describe his feeling at being home alone again, other than to say he feels “bad.”
He doesn’t know how long they will live this way, but is hoping for a Ukrainian victory in the war soon, so his family can be together again.
“It’s not me who can decide when they come back. We are believing and hoping that everything will be good, as it was before.”
‘Who will defend the country?’
These days, when an air raid siren rings out through the train station — much like in the rest of Kyiv — people rarely lift their heads in the direction of the sound. The bomb shelters sit empty.
Bars and restaurants nearby have returned to capacity. People stroll about in the sun eating ice cream and reclining on park benches. Cherry blossoms and daffodils herald the arrival of spring.
Life goes on.
It is this new world that Serhii Mishchenko and Tamara Demianenko have spent the past 24 hours soaking up, before they returned to Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi to head home.
The couple stroll into the station’s small downstairs cafe on April 28. Demianenko is carrying daffodils.
They are waiting for their train back to Sumy, in northeastern Ukraine. They’d reunited in Kyiv the previous day after seven weeks apart.
Sixty-three-year-old Mishchenko, who is ex-military and fought during the 2014 invasion of the Donbas, stayed in Sumy to protect the city. Demianenko fled to Kyiv to collect her daughter and two-month-old grandson, all three of them then evacuating to Uzhgorod.
Mishchenko spent two months in Sumy holed up in what he calls an “elderly volunteer battalion.” The group was made up of men older than 60 and 70, he explains, scrolling through photos of men with grey beards or bald, reclining on a patch of grass around a Ukrainian flag, splayed across the ground.
“I am not a boy anymore,” he laughs.
“In the city there were a lot of people who are like me, who are elderly, who were prepared to die to protect the city.”
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The couple are newlyweds, married on April 20 over a video call. Since early March, soldiers have been allowed to marry without being physically present at their wedding, according to a ruling by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine.
“On the phone, they just say, ‘Do you agree?’ And we say, ‘agreed’. And it was done,” Mishchenko says, Demianenko beaming at his side.
When asked why he didn’t leave the country, as the presidential decree banning men from leaving only included those aged 18 to 60, Mishchenko scoffs.
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“And who will defend the country?” he says.
“In our history, the Ukrainian Cossacks were very old people like me and they’re the first ones who started the battle. Ukraine is a unique nation and you won’t see people like us anywhere else in the world. So that’s why the young people should tend to their kids, we will protect the country.”
Fortunately, Mishchenko was spared from any live combat during the war. While the Sumy region was targeted by Russian shelling, soldiers did not enter the city of Sumy itself, other than a small group of partisan fighters, Mishchenko says.
“They entered, but we beat them,” he says, without elaborating.
“We were telling them, ‘Please enter the city, we have a lot of weapons.’ But for the time being, I am not so lucky, I have not killed any Russians.”
Demianenko slyly rolls her eyes at this admission. She admits she wasn’t too worried about her now-husband.
When asked what it was like to reunite in person for the first time since they became husband and wife, she can’t find the words. Instead, she simply grabs him with both hands and kisses him on the cheek.
Mishchenko says he does not necessarily feel safe now, but they’re returning home “under God.”
“This is my honeymoon now,” he says.
‘The smell of Kyiv! The smell of Ukraine’
For the women and children returning to Kyiv for good, it is the end of an exhausting journey in exile abroad, and one they’re not prepared to withstand any longer.
The returnees we spoke to, all of whom were female, all recounted similar reasons for returning to Kyiv: that they had waited weeks after the region’s liberation but they were desperate to return to their husbands and homes.
None of them said they felt safe returning to the country, but all were unanimous in their views that nowhere in Ukraine was safe and it was better to be in the country with their families reunited, than outside divided.
On May 5, Anastasiia Balashova stepped warily off a train shortly after 4 p.m. from Przemysl, her two young children in tow. The three looked around, bleary-eyed, before dragging their suitcases towards the stairs. Their train had been delayed five hours.
Balashova is from Irpin, just outside Kyiv, which was heavily bombarded by Russian shelling during the advance on the capital. After eight days in a basement, she and her 10-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter evacuated in a car to Uzgorod, 800 km to the east, near the Slovakian border. Her husband moved to Kyiv.
“My children know what war is now, what is artillery, what are planes with bombs, because the day when they bombed Irpin with this plane we were so scared. They were flying just above us.”
With Poland overflowing with refugees, Balashova crossed the entire country of Slovakia, first by bus to Kosice in the west and then to Bratislava in the east, where volunteers set them up in an apartment. She says they paid for everything — from their Wi-Fi to the meals they cooked.
“We were shocked because we thought we would live in a camp,” Balashova says.
But after two months away, Balashova says she needed to come home.
“We are very tired and we want to go home, eat grain again and work. Because in Irpin there’s a lot of damage and we want to help,” Balashova says.
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Her husband was running late on the metro to collect them because of their train delay. She shows a photo on her phone of her two children sleeping on the pavement overnight in the line for immigration to re-enter Ukraine in Poland.
When asked how she felt returning to Kyiv now, despite the war still raging in the south of the country, Balashova looked around the train station and took a deep sniff of air through her nose.
“The smell of Kyiv! The smell of Ukraine!” she exclaimed.
“It’s beautiful. I was in Slovakia and I was looking around in the towns and I just want to say Ukraine is very beautiful.”
Outside the train station, a group made up of two women and four children stand around a number of suitcases and full plastic bags, stuffed with belongings.
The group is made up of two families — neighbours from Brovary, on the eastern outskirts of Kyiv.
“We were friends and neighbours, but now it’s like we are relatives,” Anna Skorativska, a mother of three, says.
The two families fled to Brzeziny in central Poland about one week into the war, when the Russians began shelling Brovary. But Skorativska says they’ve stayed away long enough. She says she doesn’t feel safe, but it is better than living in exile.
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“We monitored the news every day. It was very difficult [to watch],” she says, before taking a breath and saying, “Let Putin die.”
Skorativska is visibly anxious as her eyes sweep the pick-up area. She says she’s nervous to see her husband because so much time has passed.
“We are very tired but we are very happy that we are finally home,” she says.
“In Poland it was very good, but at home is better.”
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Skorativska’s sentence trails off as she spots a car pulling up. She apologizes quickly, bending to pick up her belongings, saying their husbands have just arrived.
She follows her friend to her husband’s car, helping the children with their bags, and squeezing the man’s hand tightly, after he has embraced his family.
Her own two children have already run off to the car pulled up behind, leaping into their father’s arms.
Skorativska follows along shyly, waiting for her older daughter to pull back from her father, before she steps forward for her own. The pair stay that way for several minutes until a truck obscures them from view.
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