At the onset of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the world witnessed a massive exodus of refugees from the country. Photos of exhausted, fearful women queuing at the country's western borders, clutching children, waiting to cross to safety, have become iconic in international coverage of the war.
Since then, more than 8 million Ukrainians have registered as refugees in Europe and another 5.3 million have become internally displaced, according to the U.N. refugee agency. But these statistics reflect only a small part of the struggle civilians are going through. With the insufficient financial resources and policies in place that, according to scholars of international law, harm civilians and prevent families from reuniting, for most refugees, displacement has become not a single, lifesaving event but rather a chronic condition of uncertainty and precarity.
Elena Diachkova was one of those early refugees. Her town of Avdiivka, in the eastern region of Donbas, instantly turned into a battlefield. She was forced to flee with her daughter, Yulia, and her then 2-year-old grandson, Nikita. The men of the family — Elena's and Yulia's husbands — stayed behind because Ukraine restricts men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country.
Elena, Yulia and Nikita found a new home in Poland. But this proved to be only the beginning of a new struggle.
The family soon ran into financial hardship. Yulia, who, prior to the invasion, worked as an auditor, could only find a job planting trees in a local forestry. Elena tried her luck at a fish processing factory. The physically demanding jobs were not enough to make ends meet. Back in Ukraine, Elena's husband, Alexander, ended up unemployed as his workplace was destroyed in war. The only remaining salary of Yulia's husband was not enough to support the whole family abroad.
Soon Yulia returned to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, to her old job. This allowed her to send money to Poland for Elena and Nikita. She was separated from baby Nikita, while Elena's relationship with Alexander, grew increasingly strained with no prospect of reunification in sight. A year after moving to Poland, Elena and Nikita recently returned to Ukraine.
Theirs is a common trajectory over the past year. Even though European countries have offered an unusual degree of support and hospitality, for most Ukrainians, it was not enough to build a new life. Many Ukrainians abroad struggle financially, find it hard to integrate into host societies and, most importantly, suffer from being separated from their loved ones. Displaced women and children are mostly on their own, and families face the prospect of being split indefinitely.
Those Ukrainians who do not cross international borders but are displaced internally often find themselves in similarly dire straits. Olga Grinik, together with her two young children, evacuated from Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region to a safer place in central Ukraine, while her husband joined the armed forces. The family pooled all its savings to buy a rundown, abandoned house in a village, and now Olga struggles to make it habitable while operating, essentially, as a single mother.
In Ukraine, housing for people displaced by the war is scarce and inadequate. Most often, they are temporarily hosted in public facilities such as schools or kindergartens. Families like Olga's are often on their own to deal with their problems. As Ukraine struggles to fight a war of attrition against a stronger adversary, civilians displaced by the fighting feel they are low on the country's list of priorities. Internal refugees report to aid workers and journalists that when approaching authorities with their problems, they are often turned away and advised not to be selfish and to remember that soldiers on the front lines have it even worse.
Olga can't look to the past — she recently learned that her family house in Avdiivka was destroyed in fighting. Others who still have a place to return to face an uneasy choice between safety and home. Many choose the latter or vacillate, setting themselves up for repeated displacement.
Such is the story of Svitlana, who asked to not be identified by her last name for security reasons. She's a single mother whose husband was killed by shelling in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took control of parts of the Donbas region.
When in the summer of 2022 the shelling once again got dangerously close to her apartment building, she and her 11-year-old son, Danil, fled from the eastern Ukrainian town of Sloviansk. Upon arriving in Dnipro, the nearest big city, they faced the prospect of homelessness, as the shelter for displaced people could take them in only for a few nights. Eventually, they had to go back home. Soon, however, the fighting in Sloviansk intensified again, and they had to flee for their lives once more. They were caught up in a cycle of repeated displacement and return — a typical situation for many in Ukraine, aid agencies say.
In a recent report, the U.N. refugee agency describes the dynamics of border crossings in and out of Ukraine as "pendular," noting that people tend to travel back and forth, rather than exclusively out of the country. Mirroring this definition are the hesitations of those Ukrainians who try to navigate the precarious dynamics of displacement and family separation.
Some women describe the choice between leaving, staying or returning as a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" kind of situation. As Natalia, who asked to not to be identified by her last name for security reasons, is currently staying in Germany with her 7-year-old daughter, put it: "If you leave, you feel like a coward, abandoning the nation in times of hardship. If you stay, they say you are a bad mother who exposes her child to danger."
Indeed, in a society living through the trauma of war, the public debate often gets overheated, and it is easy to be labeled a "bad" citizen. Those who leave face moral scrutiny over their choice, and those who stay in towns on the front lines — and especially those who have lived under the Russian occupation — are stigmatized as possible collaborators and enemy sympathizers.
This is what happened to Nadezhda Dunayeva and her husband Vladimir. Their town of Lyman, in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, was under Russian control between May and September last year. Throughout this time, Vladimir, who's an electrical engineer, repaired electrical infrastructure repeatedly damaged by the fighting. After Lyman was liberated by Ukrainian troops, he was labeled a collaborator and fired from his job at the railroad. "But I wasn't doing it for the Russians," he said, "I was doing it for the people of my town."
Producer: Dmytro Pashchenko
Photos edited by: Grace Widyatmadja
Text edited by: Zach Thompson