The teenager is among thousands of women and children now returning to the Ukrainian capital after fleeing abroad at the start of the war, despite the uncertainties. “I am grateful to people abroad but I missed my home. My mother is here with my dog,” she said.
Maria had left her home in a hurry at the end of February, at the start of the Russian invasion. The area of Gostomel (north-west of kyiv) where she resides was then the scene of intense fighting. She returns with the only suitcase she had taken.
“We get used to war, to the threat. The fears we had two months ago are different from those of today, ”underlines his cousin Dana Pervalska, 27, at his side.
Since May 9, when Ukraine feared a major Russian military action that marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, returns have accelerated, with 34,000 returns in Ukraine against 29,000 departures abroad on Tuesday, according to figures from the Ukrainian border guards.
The overall balance, however, still remains largely negative – with 5.9 million departures for 1.56 million returns, still according to border guards. But in kyiv, nearly two-thirds of the capital’s 3.5 million residents have already returned, according to Mayor Vitali Klitschko.
As men under the age of 60, of military age, are prohibited from leaving the country, the vast majority of returning refugees are women and children.
At the kyiv train station, Roman, 22, a member of the civil defense who is not allowed to give his surname, waits impatiently for the convoy bringing back his wife with a bouquet of flowers. “We’re a little scared, but we decided it was better to come back,” he said.
A little further on, another man is pacing, also with flowers in his hand.
The train stops and there are cries of joy. Couples kissing and hugging. Children throw themselves into their father’s arms. The reunions are sometimes noisy, sometimes discreet, with tears.
In town, life seems to resume its course. Most roadblocks have disappeared, shops have reopened, with well-stocked supermarkets. But it remains precarious, with still a daily curfew, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and whole sections of the economy at a standstill.
– “Terrible reality” –
“You have to get used to living with war,” says a woman in her thirties, who does not want to give her name.
After two months in Poland, she decided to come back and join her fiancé. “Life in Europe is good, but my life is in Ukraine. I don’t know what will happen in a month, but I want to build Ukraine’s future. I want to have Ukrainian children,” she says, after shedding a tear of joy as she crosses the border.
“When (Russian President Vladimir) Putin dies, peace will return,” she asserts.
Natalia, who fled to Lithuania with her six-year-old son and 14-month-old baby, also made her way home.
” It’s calmer. There are no more airstrikes or artillery fire. The situation is better than in March (…) We are Ukrainians. Home is home,” she explains, in front of her stroller, which she has decorated with a yellow and blue ribbon, the colors of Ukraine.
Olena Chalimova did not leave the country but took refuge for two months with relatives in Lviv, the big western city, after an explosion near her home. She now claims to “accept the terrible reality” of war, and “be ready to live with it”.
“I worked in a travel agency and in a cinema. So I lost all possibility of earning money. My main mission is to find a job,” she says. “Patriotism is not staying at home, but being where you can be of most use”.
But kyiv station also remains a starting point for exile for many, who fear that the conflict will continue and that fighting around the capital will resume.
Among them, Katerina Okhrymenko, 37, has just decided to go to Germany, via Poland, with her 11-year-old son Lukas.
She leaves for the unknown, having neither relatives nor resources there. “If I didn’t have my son, I would stay. I hope to come back soon, I believe our country will win “the war”, she said.
On the departures platform too, we kiss, we hug and we cry – even if here, they are tears of sadness.