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‘This is my country’: As Ukrainians flee Russian invasion, some return home to fight

Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: Refugees flood one of Poland’s busiest border crossings'
Russia-Ukraine conflict: Refugees flood one of Poland’s busiest border crossings
Russia-Ukraine conflict: Refugees flood one of Poland’s busiest border crossings – Mar 1, 2022

As cars and buses packed with refugees crossed the Ukrainian border into southeast Poland, Vasil Maksumovich was going the other way.

Lugging a travel bag, he made his way on foot toward the Medyka border post.

After depositing his wife and two kids with an aunt in Germany, he was returning to Ukraine to fight.

“This is my country,” said the 24-year-old, who works in the transport business. “War is difficult, but this is my country. I must come back.”

The Russian invasion has already driven more than a half-million refugees into neighbouring countries like Poland, but a steady stream of Ukrainians are also heading home.

While the line of vehicles waiting to enter Poland through the Medyka crossing was backed up for several kilometres, the numbers entering Ukraine on Tuesday appeared at times to outpace those fleeing.

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Pulling rolling suitcases behind them, many arrived in groups of three or four. They seemed in a rush, and sobered by the uncertainty that awaited them in a country suddenly under attack.

“I’m angry,” said Lubomyr, a Ukrainian who was living in Italy when President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to topple Ukraine’s government.

He said he had previously served in the Ukrainian reserves and was on his way to a military recruiting centre to pick up a firearm and join the fight.

“We have to strike the Russians, f— them up,” he said.

A four-hour drive southeast of Warsaw, the Medyka border is a maze of metal awnings, fences and vehicle barriers set in brown winter fields.

Amid what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, called the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Balkan wars, more than 280,000 have crossed into Poland in recent days.

Polish authorities are registering and housing the refugees, according to the UNHCR, which was providing assistance and supplies, while locals were handing out essentials.

At the Przemysl train station, tables outside the main door offered food and toothbrushes for refugees. Boxes of donated clothing were left out for those arriving with nothing.

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Some crossing into Poland were not Ukrainian citizens but said they had been working or studying in the country, and were returning to their home countries because of the war.

Canada’s Foreign Minister, Melanie Joly, was scheduled to arrive in Poland on Tuesday night to meet with local officials and visit the border area near Medyka, her office said.

Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: Poland greets refugees with food, shelter'
Russia-Ukraine conflict: Poland greets refugees with food, shelter

Not all those entering Ukraine intended to fight. Olga Bilous said she lived in the United Kingdom and was returning home to take her parents and daughter to safety.

Towing a suitcase on wheels along the walkway leading to the border, Ludmilla stopped to show a reporter a cell phone photo of her 26-year-old son.

She wept as she explained that he was fighting the Russians and she had left her kitchen job in Poland so she could be there for him.

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“This is my home and I want to protect it,” said Irena, 52, who like the others feared having her surname published.

She said she was meeting her children and grandchildren across the border and would be taking them to safety in Poland. After that, she intended to return to Ukraine.

“I must be there,” she said.

A sign on the window of the Przemysl train station reads Solidarity with Ukraine. Stewart Bell/Global News

Several of those going back struggled to put into words their outrage at recent Russian attacks.

“It’s inappropriate in the 21st century,” said Yevgen, who said he was from the city of Dnipro and was returning home to fight.

Taras, 32, said he worked at Poland’s post office but following the Russian shelling of his country, he had decided to take up arms.

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A veteran of the Ukrainian forces, he said the Russians were killing civilians, including children, without any provocation.

“It’s difficult even to find the words for them,” he said. “They are like rubbish in our country who started to shell people who are sleeping.”

Wearing a grey toque and jeans, Sergiy stopped before reaching the border and explained what he would be doing once he was back in Ukraine.

“What all men are doing,” he said.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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