‘I’m looking forward to everything!’ Ukrainians return home for Easter

Lviv Letter: Thousands go back as Kyiv holds out and painful, costly burden of exile grows

Olena Holub returned to Ukraine as lightly as she had left, with just one small suitcase and a rucksack.

"I always planned to come back as soon as possible," she says, disembarking from a bus that brought from her from Krakow in Poland to Lviv in western Ukraine.

“I was in Poland for six weeks. People there were very kind, they’re really doing a lot to help Ukrainians, and I have friends there too. But my parents stayed in Kyiv, and now the Russians have been pushed away from the city it’s time to get back to them,” she explains.

“And it’s Easter, of course – a good time to be at home,” she says of the holiday that the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches celebrated at the weekend.

Two months into an all-out Russian invasion that has displaced more than 10 million people, Holub is far from alone in returning to Ukraine. Some people feel confident going back to the Kyiv region and parts of northern Ukraine that are now free of Russian troops, while for others life in exile was simply unsustainable, financially or emotionally.

The Polish border service said that, over the weekend of April 16th-17th, more people left Poland for Ukraine than went the other way, for the first time since the invasion began.

Solomiya Moroz, who is taking a bus home to Ivano-Frankivsk from Warsaw, is looking forward to seeing her boyfriend after a month apart – Ukrainian men of fighting age are barred from leaving the country.

“When I heard stories of earlier wars, I always wondered what it would be like, and now it’s happening in my country,” she says. “I know people my age who are fighting and lots who have volunteered for the territorial defence force, and my father is a military chaplain.”

Moroz has already found a job in Bydgoszcz, northern Poland, and intends to honour her commitment and go back there to work after getting a new passport in Ukraine.

“I’m looking forward to everything!” she says of her return home. “The earth, the air, the sky, the clouds – everything is different at home. And Easter is a big holiday, so my family will be together.”

Buses from Poland arrive outside Lviv’s train station, a transit point for many of the five million Ukrainians who have fled the country since the invasion began on February 24th.

A further seven million displaced people have remained in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of whom are now in Lviv. Volunteers at the station are still offering food, drinks, first aid and help with accommodation to new arrivals, but it is no longer a desperate place teeming with people seeking safe haven here or in the European Union.

Nightmare of war

The people of Lviv have made their compatriots welcome, and countless community initiatives have sprung up to help new arrivals settle in. Flyers stuck on walls in Lviv this week encouraged locals to invite displaced people into their homes for breakfast on Easter Sunday.

But even here the sense of safety is precarious. Last Monday, seven people were killed and a dozen injured when Russian missiles struck Lviv, one of which damaged a hotel where displaced people were staying.

"The nightmare of war has caught up with us even in Lviv," Lyudmila Turchak, who fled the heavily bombarded eastern city of Kharkiv with her with two children, told reporters. "There is no longer anywhere in Ukraine where we can feel safe."

An Easter memorial to the thousands of civilians killed during the war appeared at the weekend in central Lviv, where people surrounded photos of the dead with flowers from a local street market; a picture of Irish cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski is there, close to one of Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra Kuvshinova, who was killed in the same Russian artillery attack outside Kyiv in March.

Vitaliy Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, says that most people who left the capital when Russian troops were in its outskirts have now returned, despite his warnings of the continued danger posed by long-range missile strikes, landmines and unexploded ordnance.

One recent returnee is Stepan Sus, bishop of Kyiv for the Greek Catholic Church, who spent several weeks of the war in Lviv.

“Despite all these challenges and losing so many of our loved ones in this war, we are trying to live with hope. And we hope the war will be over as soon as possible,” he says.

“Easter is one more day of victory for us - it means the resurrection of Christ, victory over evil and death and all the challenges that we may face.”