‘We didn’t deserve this’: Ukrainian family separated by war flee to Hungary

Inna, whose sister lives in Dublin, fears for her husband who has signed up to fight in Kyiv

Inna's husband didn't tell her he had received a call to join the military until she had crossed the border from Ukraine into Hungary with their two children.

Shortly after arriving in the small Hungarian border town of Beregsurany she received a message: "I'm going to the office to register." Due to the full mobilisation of Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60, Inna's husband, who is a builder, couldn't have left his country even if he'd wanted to, but the pain of the departure was evident when the family arrived to safety on Thursday.

When Russia's invasion of Ukraine began on February 24th the family home in Kyiv was stunned into silence. "We were expecting the war, but we couldn't believe it had actually arrived," Inna told The Irish Times. She asked for only her first name to be published. "Within hours we were on the road to my parents' home in Zhytomyr [a city west of Kyiv]. The trip usually takes us two hours but that day it took nearly 12."

On Monday, the family of four, along with Inna’s 67-year-old parents, left the city for the Hungarian border after the Zhytomyr airport came under Russian attack. It was a long slow journey west edged with uncertainty. First, they made it to Lviv and stayed the night with friends. Then they travelled down to the Beregsurany crossing. “The reality of what is happening overwhelms you, you cannot put it into words. We didn’t deserve this,” Inna said.


Hungary has welcomed more than 120,000 people from Ukraine in little over a week. At the Beregsurany town hall volunteers from across the country have come to play their role in the impressive humanitarian response. Whatever people need is catered for, a bed for the night, transport to Hungary's capital Budapest, or a hot meal and clean clothes.

Prime minister Viktor Orban, who has imposed strict anti-migration policies since 2015, threw open the country's eastern frontier just hours after the first Russian missile touched Ukrainian soil. "We're prepared to take care of them, and we'll be able to rise to the challenge quickly and efficiently," he said.

Inna's 15-year-old daughter, Liza, is worried about her school friends who haven't left Ukraine because they either have no means of getting out of the country or no contacts in western Europe. Most people arriving in Hungary are met by friends or relatives, but humanitarian volunteers told The Irish Times that increasing numbers of people are arriving from eastern Ukraine with no plans beyond getting to safety.

“The building my best friend lives in was hit by the Russians and that made me realise I might never be able to return to Kyiv. She sleeps in a shelter every night, all we can do is hope for her and her family,” Liza said.

It’s not only physical safety that is of concern; desperate wartime conditions such as food shortages and lack of access to medical care are also issues making life harder. In the besieged city of Mariupol residents have been without electricity or water for days.

More than one million people have now fled Ukraine according to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, a number that is expected to rise as the Russian campaign continues. A further one million have been internally displaced.

While the majority of people have crossed into Poland due to its lengthy border with Ukraine and large Ukrainian diaspora, Hungary is becoming increasingly popular due to the significantly shorter waiting times on the Ukrainian side. People usually stay at the border for a few hours before moving on.

On Thursday, the European Union said it would offer Ukrainians temporary residency giving them access to employment, social welfare, and housing for up to three years.

“My cousins, my aunt and uncle, are in Moscow and they are absolutely against the war, but they are really scared to say it now. They text us almost every hour to ask for forgiveness, saying they should have stopped Putin,” said Inna. “Lots of Russian people my age support war and I don’t understand how it can be. I don’t understand because we grew up reading the same anti-war books, we watched the same anti-war films. This isn’t just about Putin, it’s about his supporters too.”

The family is flying to Dublin this weekend to meet Inna’s sister, who is married to an Irish man, but that won’t be the end of the journey. On Monday, Inna is returning to Kyiv. “When I married my husband, we made a promise: That we would be with each other in good times and bad. We’ve had 20 years of good times; I’m not leaving him in the bad,” she said.