Przemysl, Poland – Sasha and Nastya slowly inhale the smoke from their cigarettes. Their paths have never crossed before, but they exchange knowing looks in mute understanding when they realize they are both from the Donbass region of Ukraine.
The women, who gave only their first names, stand outside the main railway station in Przemysl, a Polish border town, where hundreds of refugees arrive daily on trains from the Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Both had fled Ukraine following the February 24 Russian invasion.
But there is more they have in common.
In 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized territory in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Sasha and Nastya were among 1.5 million people who left their homes to seek safety in territories controlled by Ukrainian forces.
The Russian invasion has again driven them from their homes, and this time they must seek refuge outside their country.
“My experience repeated itself again. It’s hard to leave everything behind, it’s hard to know that friends and family are in danger,” Sasha says. “War is always the same.”
After fleeing the city of Donetsk in 2014, Sasha, now 32, moved to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Soon after, his family followed suit. They left behind their home and all their possessions.
Sasha says another family moved into their home shortly after they fled, but it’s unclear what’s going on with the property now.
This time, too, Sasha took only the most necessary things. The rest stayed in his rented apartment in Kyiv. But she says her second escape was more difficult.
“We didn’t expect war to break out all over Ukraine, we thought this time it would end quickly,” says Sasha. “In 2014 they shot the same but we had more opportunities to flee because there were many places in Ukraine that were safe.”
Since Sasha works as a sales manager for a German company selling household appliances, her job is secure. A Polish colleague will host her for a few weeks, then the company will decide where to relocate her.
She doesn’t have to worry about money and housing.
But once the conflict is over, she hopes to be able to return to Kiev.
” I do not know what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants. Maybe he wants Ukraine and maybe more than that. I wish it all ends soon,” she said.
“A very strange state”
Nastia is now 23, but she was only 15 when she fled her hometown of Ilovaisk. Forty kilometers east of the city of Donetsk, Ilovaisk was the scene of the deadliest battle of 2014, in which nearly 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers perished in an ambush by separatist and Russian forces.
Her parents did not want to join her. They stayed in Ilovaisk, fearing they would not find work in other parts of Ukraine. Nastya left on her own and settled in the city of Kramatorsk, more than 150 km away.
Over the years, she trained as a tattoo artist and worked at a European tattoo chain.
When she learned that Russian forces were invading Ukraine, she knew it was time to leave the country.
“I packed the most necessary things and left instantly. I knew what was going to happen next,” she says. “I took my passport, a towel, a toothbrush and some underwear. I already know that’s all I need.
Nastya says the first months after the 2014 separatist conflict were difficult for her and her relatives who remained in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Society is divided, politics dividing families. Some wanted their home to remain under Ukrainian control, but others believed the DPR was saving them from what they saw as a nationalist regime in Kyiv.
Now, says Nastya, the divisions have lost their intensity.
“My parents are apolitical but many of our relatives supported the new Donbass authorities. Now everyone understands what is going on. There is nothing to discuss.
While Nastya is now safe from the European Union, she is far from relieved.
His parents are still in Donbass and no one knows how the war will unfold.
“The other day my mother said they [the separatists] men of almost all ages are conscripted, including the disabled in Ilovaisk. They say these are just drills, but we think Putin will send them to Ukraine to fight,” Nastya says, warning she might start crying.
“I’m here and my family’s cell phones don’t work, we only communicate through the internet. I am in a very weird state.
She still doesn’t know where she will end up. Maybe she will go to the Polish capital, Warsaw, or maybe to another European capital. Ultimately, she says, tattoo artists are needed everywhere. But it is not only for her and her loved ones that she worries.
“At first I thought everything would be fine, that Donetsk and Luhansk would just come under full Russian control and that’s it. Now I worry about the whole world. Not just Ukraine, I worry about Poland and the war we might bring with us.
When asked if they want to add anything, the two women look at each other with the same tacit understanding and immediately answer:
“F*** Putin, Russian warship – fuck you.”