Ukrainians return home to take up arms against Russian invaders

MEDYKA, POLAND —
As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flee their country, Ukrainian men and women are returning from all over Europe to help defend their homeland against Russian invasion.

Polish border guards said on Sunday that some 22,000 people had entered Ukraine since Thursday, when Russia invaded the country.

At the Medyka checkpoint in southeastern Poland, many lined up on Sunday morning to enter Ukraine.

“We must defend our homeland. Who else but us? said a man with a mustache in front of a group of about 20 Ukrainian truckers walking towards the checkpoint to enter Ukraine.

They came from all over Europe to return to Ukraine.

Another man in the group said: “Russians should be scared. We are not afraid.”

Members of the group refused to give their names, or gave only their first names, citing their safety and that of their families.

Denis, 28, who spent six months working on construction sites in Poland, said he was returning to Ukraine where his “everything” is.

“I am alone here in Poland. Why should I be here? So I’m leaving, for the homeland,” said Denis, with a small blue and yellow Ukrainian national flag on his winter jacket.

“I want to go back to join the army, to fight. We will see, we hope we will win,” he said.

In the nearby town of Przemysl, Janiel, 27, was also preparing to return. An engineer by training, he worked in construction in Wroclaw, Poland, but could not stay knowing his homeland was under attack.

“I spoke to my parents and I cried. And I just decided that I couldn’t watch this and that I couldn’t stay in Poland while the Russians were destroying our independence, destroying our cities, killing our citizens, killing our children, killing our old people,” a- he told the AP. In English.

Before the recent exodus, there were at least 1 million Ukrainians in Poland, working or studying.

Women often work as nannies and carers for the elderly across the European Union and in many cases leave their children in Ukraine with grandparents or other relatives.

Lesa, 36, from Lviv, spoke to the AP just before entering the checkpoint building, following her brother to Ukraine.

“I’m scared, but I’m a mother and I want to be with my children. What can you do? It’s scary but I have to do it,” she said.

Another young woman, Alina, said she was returning to pick up her children and bring them out of Ukraine.

“We have to, we Ukrainians have to take our children…to allow our boys to fight,” she said.

On the Ukrainian side of the border, a man was directing the arrivals to a place where cars and buses were waiting to take them.

The Czech Republic, which borders Poland to the southwest, plans to support Ukrainian families living in the country whose men decide to return home to fight.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is preparing bonuses for families who would lose income if “men were to join the (Ukrainian) army”, Minister Marian Jurecka said.

There are about 200,000 Ukrainian workers in the Czech Republic, mostly men.

Czech Railways said Ukrainians returning to Ukraine could take any train for free. They have to go through Poland or Slovakia to reach Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stayed in the capital, Kyiv, to boost the morale of Ukrainian fighters as Russian troops closed in on the city and huge explosions lit up the sky early on Sunday.

Zelenskyy banned men of military age, 18 to 60, from leaving the country. The Ukrainian authorities have also called for foreign volunteers to come and fight in defense of Ukraine.

In Israel, the media reported that the Ukrainian Embassy issued an appeal for anyone willing to join the fight against Russia to come to Ukraine. The invitation, marked “Urgent” on the embassy’s Facebook page, was later deleted, according to reports.

Israeli leaders are cautious in how they talk about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The country is home to hundreds of thousands of people with roots in Ukraine or Russia, or both countries, and has sought good relations with Moscow and Kyiv.

At least 368,000 people have fled Ukraine to Poland and other neighboring countries following the Russian invasion, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Sunday.

Polish border guards said some 156,000 people have entered from Ukraine since Thursday, when the invasion began, while some 22,000 have left in the opposite direction.

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Adam Pemble in Przemysl, Poland, Karel Janicek in Prague and Laurie Kellman in Jerusalem contributed. Scislowska reported from Warsaw, Poland.

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Martin E. Berry