PRZEMYSL, Poland — As the Russian military escalates its attacks on humanitarian corridors and targets civilians, the exodus out of Ukraine continues. Already, more than 3 million displaced people have fled their homes for neighbouring countries.
But not everyone is crossing the border in the same direction. Many Ukrainian nationals are going back to fight.
Such is the scene at Przemysl Station, a transportation hub that serves as a home to the faded blue and yellow train coming in and out of Lviv to Poland as well as countless buses and cars streaming out across the continent.
As hundreds of people – mostly women, children, and the elderly – disembark from a train, a line forms directly adjacent to those fleeing war and entering the European Union. This line is made up of those going back into Ukraine. In comparison to the other, it appears more orderly, more solemn. There are no children here. People stand quietly next to their large bags, shuffling back and forth to bear with the cold.
“You see, I have a problem,” a man named Sergey told VICE World News, as he waited for the train schedule. “The war that we are all caught up in has caught my son, and I can’t just do nothing.”
Sergey is one of tens of thousands of Ukrainians returning home this month to fight.
He last saw his 23-year-old son in December, when he left Ukraine for Poland with his wife and children. His son enlisted to defend Ukraine on February 23rd, a day before Vladimir Putin’s speech officially declaring war on Ukraine.
“He texted me saying, ‘Papa, everything is bad. Everything is really bad. But we’re holding on. It's OK,” Sergey said.
Less than two weeks later, Sergey’s son was killed in Kharkiv.
“I am overwhelmed with feelings,” Sergey said, his eyes focused on somewhere in the distance, his voice reserved. And then, after a brief pause, through gritted teeth and a furrowed brow, he told me: “I will gnaw at this scumbag. I will eat him.” He was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sergey was accompanied by his friend Pasha, who like Sergey chose not to give his last name, a Ukrainian national from Israel, whose mother lives in Russia.
“I served in the Ukrainian army, I served in the Israeli army,” Pasha said. “I will stand for my motherland. Ukraine is above all.”
Pasha then addressed the Russian military directly. “Don't come here,” he said. “You will come here and only die. I don’t want you to die. Please don’t come.”
Then he looked over at Sergey and placed his hand upon his shoulder. “He wants to take his son’s place,” Pasha said. “Tell them how you plan to take your son’s place.”
Sergey, deep in thought, nodded in agreement. “I used to be in ATO,” Sergey said, referring to the Anti-Terrorist Operation run by Ukraine’s security forces which fought against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine for four years. “I am a man who understands what it means to love and not love, and I know where limits are meant to be set.”
“Boys, our children, you are our children. You are my children. Don't come here. You will die,” he said, directly addressing Russians this time. “You killed my son, and I will kill your son. And this bullshit won't stop, you see?”