Oleksander Telizhenko, a mountaineer, has spent the last month and a half climbing mountains in East Africa. First Kilimanjaro, then Mount Kenya. Then he went to Uganda to see the gorillas “because it’s cheaper than in the Congo.” When he arrived at the hotel, this ruddy, blond-bearded, youthful-looking 31-year-old was met with a message from his mother: Russia had invaded Ukraine.
What is happening now in the Ukraine war
“I spent a day crying,” he says. Later, Telizhenko, who has never touched a gun, is not interested in politics and has no desire to go to war, decided that he should go to war. He collected his things and flew to Poland, from where this Wednesday morning he crosses the border on foot at the Medyka border crossing in the southeast. While hundreds of thousands are fleeing from Ukraine, there are others, not just combatants, more or less ardent, who are returning.
To the call to defend the homeland of the Ukrainian president, Vladimir Zelensky, Telizhenko has responded even sensing that what awaits him is not necessarily glory. He is originally from the province of Sumy, in the west of the country, so much so that his house is 40 kilometers from the Russian border. In his land, a militia of “old men with kalashnikovs” awaits him, with hardly any ammunition, bulletproof vests or helmets.
There are those, however, who see victory as close, such as Artem Yarosevich, also 31 years old. Stocky-looking, Atem poses with his biceps flexing, insisting on taking photos with reporters, and exclaiming that “Putin is crazy but the Ukrainians are strong.” He then shows the tattoo that he has on his chest, meaning nothing metaphorical: a skull with the beret of the Soviet paratroopers next to a crosshairs.
Perhaps there is a spirit component to his enthusiasm, which his companions, Vlodimir Logoyev, 45, and Stepan Danylko, 38, do not share. gesticulating companion.
“Politics is shit, but I respect my president,” says Vladimir Yakovlec, who has come with his friend Karas Maksym in a van from Gdansk, in northern Poland. “Zelensky is strong, he is with the people. I am not afraid; it is about my home,” he says. He is 27 years old, Artem 26. His group, with a majority of older men, in which Vladimir stands out with his round, peaceful face , got in touch through Facebook to get to the border.
This feeling that fighting again is an inescapable obligation, that asking if it would not be better to stay in another country to weather the storm is almost disrespectful, is shared by many people on this cloudy morning, in which it snows at times, and in which almost seem to be more those who return than those who flee, when there are already 450,000 of the 874,000 refugees recognized by UNHCR in Poland.
Who come back for their families
But among those who return to Ukraine there are not only militiamen. Also families whose personal circumstances force them. Like Irena, 54, and her son Piotr, 25, who is autistic. Oksana, 45, explains that she has to go to her for her children, ages 10 and 12, and she bursts into tears. The type Irina and Albina, both 36, who left Wroclaw to go look for their respective offspring in Krivoy Rog, in the center of the country, hold up better.
Yana Nedoluzheko was surprised by the invasion in none other than Sagunto, where she was attending a yoga retreat. “The situation is very difficult,” she says, but she has also left behind two little ones and does not contemplate not going back with them. Maybe then the three of them will try to leave, maybe they will choose to stay. Doubt.
The pending accounts of the Kurdish refugee
Wearing a ribbon in the colors of the Ukrainian flag on the lapel of his military clothes, student glasses, and a boyish face that he tries to hide behind a sparse beard – he insists on not revealing his age, but if he’s in his twenties he’s barely there – Arya Weysi explains that she is Kurdish, from Mahabad (in western Iran), but that she feels “the same” as the Ukrainians.
He thinks that if the Russians win in Ukraine, they will later take over other countries, in effect dominoes, and he bears a special grudge against the Chechens. A head of the Islamic State who passed through his land, he says, was Chechen, precisely, and Arya does not forget, even though he has been a refugee in Austria for five years. “They sold our women into slavery. They have to pay,” he says. Neither his girlfriend nor his family know that he is here, and one wonders if it would be appropriate to wish him good luck. “I need her,” he admits, before continuing on his way.
Those who return and those who go cross paths in Przemysl
If at the Medyka pass to Ukraine the arrival of people is staggered, although constant, at the Przemysl station a queue forms to wait for the train to Lviv, the first stop after the border, and the city that operates these days as the first center of militia recruitment. Shortly before 11:00 a.m., the train arrived from there with the refugees, who are processed slowly.
Two hours later not all of them have left, and the queue of those who want to board comfortably exceeds a hundred. Again, there are warriors, like a man who carries what looks like a rifle in a holster, although he refuses to give details. Serhii, who wears a hat that says “fuck”, brags: “I live in Prague, when we kill Putin, we come back.”
A different mentality brings Solomiya, 24, who has insisted on returning, to the annoyance of his family. “I will donate blood, I will lend the floor so that people can sleep,” she plans. She calculates that the war “will not be long” because “the Russians do not have enough money” for a prolonged campaign.
Oleksander Sakharov, who has a daughter living in Santander (“she’s a painter,” he says), was on business in Chicago when news of the Russian invasion reached him. He has not been able to return until this Wednesday and although he is no longer of war age, at 64, he aspires to lead troops, perhaps because he has experience with transport. The man offers to translate the words of two women, friends, who no longer have much to prove in life.
Alla Korotkova is 83 years old; Larysa Bogoljubova, who has the patience to spell her last name up to three times, 82. The war surprised them on vacation in the Seychelles. Remembering it makes them smile, but they get serious when asked if they didn’t consider waiting before coming back. “No, no,” they repeat. They have children and grandchildren in Kiev. Zanjan: “It’s our home.”