YouAlisa Kosheleva, a woman from western Ukraine walks along cobbled streets waiting for her turn. She wears a zip-up hoodie, T-shirt, and cropped gray sweatpants emblazoned with an image of Mickey Mouse, despite the fact that it’s 40°F (4°C) outside. On her hair, light snow is falling.
The casual appearance of her face belies the turmoil she is experiencing. She was separated from her son during wartime and has a new wound. The 32-year-old can’t decide what is worse—waiting for news when there is none, or trying to gather information from the photos and videos that make it out of her hometown of Mariupol, now besieged and slowly starving without supplies. “Being with my son is my one and only wish,” she says.
Alisa Kosheleva was photographed in Lviv on March 8, 2003. She was in Barcelona at the start of World War II. Mariupol was where her son was.
Natalie Keyssar is a TIME journalist
Kosheleva (a crypto project manager), left Mariupol mid-February to go to Barcelona. She was on her third vacation and she had never been outside Ukraine before. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave behind Kirill, her 9-year-old son, but he was with his father and grandmother. With a smile that flickers briefly across her face, she shows me pictures of Kirill from her smartphone. They chatted almost daily via video calls while she was in Barcelona. She also showed him the sun setting and the waves. The boy proudly displayed a medal from the first taekwondo contest.
On February 24, Russia launched an attack on Ukraine. Kosheleva was unable to make it back to Mariupol. Nearly three weeks later, she only made it to Lviv. This large, bordering city with Poland has been a refuge for fleeing Ukrainians. “Everyone has talked me out of going farther,” she says, days after I first met her on board a train from Poland to Ukraine.
Alisa Khosheleva takes a picture of her son from her mobile phone, in Lviv, on March 8.
Natalie Keyssar is a TIME journalist
Some 3 million Ukrainians, almost all women and children, have fled their country since the Russian invasion began, according to the U.N. It’s the largest exodus in Europe since World War II, and the number is expected to sharply rise. Additional 2 million are expected to be internally displaced.
This war exposed traditional Ukrainian gender stereotypes. In Ukraine, men who do not choose to fight are often shamed. While conscription is not enforced, the majority of men between 18 and 60 years old are prohibited from leaving the country. The state encourages women to give their family priority.
Continue reading: They called Ukraine home. They were confronted with violence and racism as they tried to flee the country.
A smaller number of people are making their way home from the West, as they flee the fighting on trains and buses. According to Ukrainian border guards, at least 260,000 Ukrainians returned home since the invasion. Most of them are fighting against Russia. But around 1 in 5 are women—some of whom are also fighting or joining the war effort. However, the vast majority of them are returning home to their families. They are the grandmothers looking after the children of sons in the Ukrainian army; the daughters who will wait out the war with elderly parents; the sisters lending a hand to their brothers’ partners; and mothers, like Kosheleva, returning home in the hope of reuniting with their children.
Kosheleva was on her return to Ukraine when she spoke with her son March 2. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I am coming to you,’” she says. The next day, there was no signal, and six days later, she still hadn’t heard from him. “I can’t sleep. My body knows it must rest for a few hours, but I’m also thinking, ‘What if the message goes through this time? What if a connection appears?’”
Three days priorA stream of children and mothers who had been through war were seen disembarking from their morning train in Przemysl near the Ukraine border. They made their way along the ramps. The line they passed was smaller and headed into Ukraine. The latter group included Ukrainian men returning to defend their country; foreign fighters responding to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for an international legion; humanitarians hauling bundles of aid; and dozens of mothers, faces framed by fur, stamping their feet in the cold. Over several days, I spoke with more than 10 of them, women who were desperate to retrieve their children—or simply be closer to them.
Continue reading: Find out why foreign fighters are risking their lives in Ukraine
“What mother wouldn’t do this?” asks Natali Khmel, 33, who traveled for three days from Jerusalem, where she has resided for the past four years since her divorce. Artyom, aged 14, and Anastasia (age 10, respectively) lived together in Kyiv. Russian airstrikes recently hit small cities around Kiev, killing many civilians and driving families from their homes.
Khmel’s children were sleeping in their school’s bomb shelter. As she scanned social media, she analyzed the information on her route to Kyiv. There was a road that had been blown up and another train which was targeted. “I don’t even care how I reach them, I’ll go on foot if I have to,” she tells me as we shiver in line for the train. Her physio-therapy course is still six months away in Israel. But she gave up on it to save her life. “My kids told me, ‘Mom, don’t even think about coming.’ But I have no other choice. I simply must be with them.”
Anna Abramosova enjoys hot tea in a tiny cup. The 35-year old former vet left eastern Donbas to go to Poland, to set up shop in Amazon’s warehouse. She was there to package boxes for Germany. One of hundreds of thousands that leave Ukraine each year in support of their families is her.
Abramosova (35), at Przemysl train station, Poland. Her job is to send money home from an Amazon warehouse in Poland.
Natalie Keyssar is a TIME journalist
Abramosova, who left Ukraine in search of her sons aged 14 and 15, is now back. “They need their mother,” she says. This wasn’t their first experience with conflict; their small town of Druzhkivka borders the region of Donetsk, where Ukrainian forces have been locked in a nearly eight-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists. However, this was a different experience. “If we get bombed, so be it. I will have done my best for them,” Abramosova says.
Polish border guards unlock the gates and people rush to the platforms. A frisson of excitement sweeps through the mothers as they board the train. “Let’s do this!” cries Abramosova. The train accelerates and starts its slow crawl by Polish industrial and agricultural parks.
The train is about half-full and filthy. There are empty food boxes, old toilet paper and occasional mounds of cat litter scattered throughout the train. Its one toilet, which is the only available to it, has been covered with human waste. The carriage’s floors are littered with plastic bottles of urine.
Kosheleva looks out from the window alone, her hands clutching her mobile phone. As two trains with children and women pass her, she watches in horror. Mothers jostle to find space, while children blow hot air on the windows and make patterns using their tiny fingers. Others giggle, while others make peace sign with their hands.
Kosheleva cannot think other than Kirill about the things he is seeing. She takes comfort in knowing there is a shelter next door to the home of her ex-husband Mikhail that he and Kirill can use, rather than an ordinary basement, “where there’s no air and you can’t breathe.”
A few hours into the journey, Abramosova gets word from a friend that a Russian artillery strike destroyed her neighbor’s house overnight. Abramosova walks over to me in the area between the carriages and lights a cigarette. She also holds up her smartphone to show me photos of rubble. “All will be OK, all will be OK,” she repeats like a mantra, her green eyes wide.
Anna Abramosova shows a photo of herself with one of her teenage sons, on March 1, ahead of returning to eastern Ukraine
Natalie Keyssar is a TIME journalist
The train soon passes the Ukrainian wheat fields, which are visible as it slows down before reaching the border. Ukrainian security guards inspect the train’s passengers and cargo. They also inform foreign fighters about where they can enlist. The train then stops for several hours after it has entered Ukraine. A commuter train pulled up to the station just two platforms ahead of passengers. Mothers carry their baggage and walk to the train station. The laughter is mostly accompanied by happy tears. “Welcome to Ukraine!” Khmel cries in English. “Where’s the duty free?”
As the train winds its way through the towns and villages, the atmosphere onboard darkens. As the train weaves through towns, the lines of sight between men who return home from fighting grow more long. Local passengers are constantly talking about war, and they gather around their phones to keep up with the most recent news and videos from the front.
Abramosova starts to question her decision to not tell her boys—Nikita, 16, and Vanya, 14—that she was coming home. They were surprised when she told them that a Polish care package was coming to their home. “I suppose that’s what I am,” she says, suddenly sounding vulnerable.
It’s past midnightWhen the train arrives in Lviv station, it ends a 10 hour journey that would take only over 2 hours in peacetime. Many mothers run to the dark, hoping to catch night trains that go east.
Khmel finally managed to rescue her children from Kyiv twenty-four hours later. “I took them out as quickly as possible,” she says from Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine, before sending me a smiling selfie with Anastasia, curled up together in bed, their black hair in matching ponytails. The three of them are set to travel together soon, with Anastasia applying for her residency in Romania.
Abramosova reached her Donbas town by taking train and car across Ukraine. She passed Russian tanks along the way with air-raid sirens in their ears. “I’m never leaving home again,” Abramosova says from her apartment, where she and a girlfriend are celebrating their reunion over vodka. “My boys, my boys!” she gushes to me on a video call, pinching her son Vanya’s gangly arms. “Look at this one!” she says. “Soon he’ll be ready for the Ukrainian army!”
Kosheleva, who was stranded in Lviv in a hostel, waited for the news. She was in Dnipro, central Ukraine with her mother. She tells me that the Mariupol information is too much when we talk on March 10. You can see bodies of civilians on the streets. Russian forces also bombed an emergency room the previous day.
At least 2,500 civilians are believed to have died there, according to Ukrainian officials. Half a million people live in the city, which is constantly under Russian bombing. There are no communications, power or heat. The Russians have made it a point to start mass burials of their loved ones, while residents are turning to snowmelting to make it possible to live. In what seemed to be the first attempt at evacuation of civilians in Zaporizhzhia which is about 140 mi to its west, more than 160 cars left Mariupol. Although the road to safety can be dangerous and is often mined, a small number of people have managed to make it. Kosheleva is certain that Kirill is among the convoy.
After two weeks of total silence, Kosheleva finally got through to her ex-husband’s phone on March 16. Through a crackly line, she also heard Kirill’s voice. “You can’t even imagine how happy I am,” she says, moments after boarding a train heading east. “It’s too early to talk about them being in the clear, but they’re getting closer.”
—By reporting Simmone Shah/New York
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