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As Millions Flee Russian Invasion, Hundreds Return Home

BUDAPEST, Hungary – Hundreds of people who had fled war in neighboring Ukraine gathered on platform 10 of Budapest Nyugati railway station in the Hungarian capital on the first Sunday in April.

But the more than 200 passengers waiting for the 7:23 a.m. train were on their way no further from Ukraine – they were heading home instead.

Yulia Kalinina, who was traveling with her sister so they could reunite with their husbands, admitted it was not an easy decision.

“I’m scared,” said Kalinina, 39, from Kyiv. “But I really want to go home. I want to see my husband. I’d rather be scared with him than be scared here alone.

Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country in case they are needed to fight.

As the war in Ukraine rages into its sixth week, Kalinina and her sister become part of a group of refugees exhausted from being separated from their families and unable to find an opportunity in Europe, and begin to return to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service said on Sunday alone more than 22,000 Ukrainians crossed the border into the country, compared to 33,000 who left. More than 4 million people have left Ukraine since the war broke out on February 24.

Although it is not just Hungary that is seeing refugees leave – Polish border guards have reported more than 421,000 border crossings into Ukraine since the start of the war – aid workers say the problems Ukrainians face are particularly acute in Hungary, where the language is difficult to learn, inflation is soaring and job opportunities are scarce.

“For women and children, no one can guarantee their safety. »

Natalia Csuri, volunteer translator

And some aid workers say that while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has eased his anti-immigration rhetoric, he has provided little government assistance to the estimated 400,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in the country, leaving volunteers and non-governmental organizations to rebuild a support system for refugees.

Aid workers and volunteers say they began seeing hundreds of refugees, mostly women and children, trying to return to Ukraine towards the end of March. Ukrainian-speaking volunteers at Budapest Nyugati station say more and more people are arriving at the station every day looking for help buying a ticket back to Ukraine, aware that they may not have nothing to go back to.

While some Ukrainians said they would rather be reunited with their families and live in an underground bunker than continue to search day after day for food and shelter, others had run out of money and felt they had nowhere to go. And some, still traumatized by near-death escapes, were returning home to collect elderly relatives who had been unable to leave in the initial rush to evacuate.

Tatiana Samsonova, 38, said goodbye to her older sister who was boarding the train back to Lviv to pick up their 70-year-old mother, who could not travel alone.

As Millions Flee Russian Invasion, Hundreds Return Home
A sign displays information for Ukrainians along the platform of Nyugati station in Budapest. Vladimir Zivojinovic for NBC News

Samsonova said she knew the risks her sister faced. When Samsonova left Ukraine in March with her children, aged 4 and 10, she said Russian snipers fired at their car. Their neighbors, who were driving ahead, were hit by a rocket, setting their car on fire. The shelling was constant and Samsonova, hiding under her steering wheel for protection, could not stop to help them.

“My sister is brave to go back,” said Samsonova, who planned to wait in Budapest with her children. “I just want her back here OK.”

Refugee and migration experts say it is not uncommon for refugees to return home during a time of conflict, but it is often a sign of weak humanitarian and official government responses.

“It’s very concerning because Ukraine is still a country in conflict,” said Emily Venturi, refugee and migration specialist at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “It is also a red flag for European governments to ensure that the humanitarian response meets the needs of Ukrainians.”

Experts also say the refugees could be encouraged by Ukraine’s recent battlefield victories, which have seen it drive out Russian troops in parts of the country, leading to a sense of stability. It is unclear what proportion of refugees returning to Ukraine plan to stay temporarily to recover property or loved ones, or plan to stay more permanently in the country.

Alexander Betts, professor of forced migration and international affairs at the University of Oxford, said that even if the trajectory of war is uncertain, refugees could interpret reporting on the conflict in a way that strengthens their resolve. to return home.

“People left quickly, women and children left so many family members, including men. They left the property, they left the homes, and many will continue to perceive their lives and their future as being in Ukraine,” Betts said.

As Millions Flee Russian Invasion, Hundreds Return Home

Natalia Csuri, who started working as a volunteer translator at the Budapest train station when the war broke out, said there were huge questions hanging over returning refugees.

“For women and children, no one can guarantee their safety. And no one can really guarantee that they will always have their loved ones and their homes to return to,” she said. “It’s a risky situation, and so far it’s a new trend that people are coming back in such large numbers.”

In response to what has become Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II, the European Union in March granted Ukrainians the right to live and work in the bloc for up to three years. But even for those who are able to find a job, many women who left Ukraine with their children are unable to find daycare.

Marina, 30, who asked not to use her surname because she feared for her safety, left Kyiv with her 7-year-old and 18-month-old sons in early March with enough money to rent a small apartment in Budapest for a month.

She was able to find a job as a waitress, but had no one to watch her children while she worked. She refused the job and came to the station looking for information on how to cross the border to Ukraine.

As Millions Flee Russian Invasion, Hundreds Return Home
People line up to buy tickets at Nyugati station on Friday. Vladimir Zivojinovic for NBC News

“It doesn’t work,” she said. “How do you raise two children without any help? I want to go back now.

Many refugees simply seek the comfort and familiarity of home, even when traveling into the unknown.

Anna Lutsenko, 32, waited at the Budapest train station on Sunday to begin what could be a week-long return journey to the city of Odessa in southeastern Ukraine. Lutsenko said he saw videos on social media showing the Black Sea port city at peace.

“It’s quiet there now,” she said as she boarded the train with the rolling suitcase she had left home with a few weeks earlier. “We want to live in our city.

As the train pulled back, Russia announced it had launched a missile strike on an oil facility in Odessa, its first major attack on the city since the start of the war.


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