‘Half my heart I left behind’: Ukraine’s refugees share their harrowing stories

By Eve Conant, Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Published 17 Mar 2022, 12:01 GMT, Updated 17 Mar 2022, 19:08 GMT

Seemingly overnight, they lost their homes and had their families broken apart. Seeking safety in Poland, thousands of refugees now confront what comes next.

Photographs By Anastasia Taylor-Lind | Davide Monteleone
Video by Alice Aedy | Davide Monteleone | Manuel Montesano
Text by Eve Conant

UKRAINE’S REFUGEES SHARE THEIR HARROWING STORIES

Waking to explosions. The scramble to find a passport. A harrowing train ride sheathed in darkness to evade Russian forces. Hope for a “warm corner” to shelter in. Each refugee’s story is filled with grief and a striking communality—a shared distress perhaps inescapable when more than a million people are forced to flee their homes and face harsh realities at eastern European borders over the span of a few days.

One refugee, snarled for two of those days in a quiet panic of cars inching toward the Polish border city of Przemyśl, was Irina Lopuga. She and her husband had ample time to talk, no longer about dreams to buy their own home or tour Egypt but about survival. “We talked about the whole world turning upside down.”

Once they reached the border, it was time to part. Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 have been ordered to stay home and aid the resistance, flanked by women picking up weapons for the first time and small armies of civilians cooking up dumplings—and Molotov cocktails. Her husband would help his church prepare for evacuees from Kyiv. Just before he left, she says, “he turned around and burst into tears.”

Then she, the children, their dog—all ran.

They’re now a small part of one of the largest waves of refugees in decades trying to find their own warm corner in a Europe outraged and on edge. Fearful for their own security, Europeans have been welcoming of the individuals making up this exhausted exodus, some of them international visitors to Ukraine, some of them survivors of years-long conflicts with Russian-backed separatists in the east, and most of them broken families with, so far, unbroken spirits.

THE DECISION

Voices from the border: Irina Lopuga, Ludmyla Tkachenko, Nelya Tkachenko, Blessing Oyeleke, and Iryna Novikova
This is the second time Lidiya Ivanenko, holding her son, Myron, has fled. The first was in 2014 when conflict with Russian-backed separatists broke out near her home city of Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine. “After we moved to the Kyiv region, I did not think this war would catch up with me.”
Anna Bianova, 34, poses with her son Maksym and nephew Myhaylo Bianov (both 11) while mother-in-law Lyudmyla Shevchuk, 71, holds their dog, Archie. Bianova, from Vinnytsia, thought war was an unimaginable part of earlier generations—not theirs. “Is it possible to have a war like this in the 21st century?”

“ It’s very hard to have your husband stay home. You have to choose. Save the kids or stay with him.” ”

NELYA TKACHENKO

Refugees from Ukraine try to find some normality in their tent at the reception point for refugees in Medyka, Poland, as they wait to continue their passage to other destinations in Europe.

Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Davide Monteleone

THE ESCAPE

Voices from the border: Anna Bianova and Irina Lopuga

“ There were a million people, the station was so crowded we couldn’t move. It was a great horror. Tears like hail.” ”

ANNA BIANOVA
Left: Top:

Valentyna Turchyn stands for a portrait with her mother (also named Valentyna Turchyn) and her three daughters: Maya, five, in a pink coat, Tanya, seven, and Galyna, 16. All are bundled against the cold at a shelter in Poland after fleeing from their home city of Cherkasy, Ukraine.

Right: Bottom:

Ludmyla Kuchebko, 72, from Zhytomyr has left the air-raid sirens behind but worries for her son in Kyiv. Looking to God to “save not only my son, but Ukraine,” she prays for every passenger on every train. “Today we pray not only for Ukraine—we pray for Russia, for our brothers and sisters there.”

A makeshift bed lies outdoors at a refugee reception center near the Medyka crossing between the Ukrainian and Polish borders, on the outskirts of Przemyśl, Poland.

THE WAR

Voices from the border: Lidiya Ivanenko, Ludmyla Tkachenko, Nelya Tkachenko, and Anna Bianova
One of thousands of African students in the country, Blessing Oyeleke, a 25-year-old medical student from Nigeria, fled the city of Ternopil. She experienced chaos and racism in the crush to escape, but of her five years in the country, she says, “Coming to Ukraine was like a dream for me.”
Sisters Ludmyla and Nelya Tkachenko, 35 and 41, from Kyiv worry for their children who've crossed into Poland with them but fight back tears thinking of their menfolk and families still in Ukraine. Nelya says she's neither here nor there. “Half my heart I left behind, half I brought with me.”

“ It was so scary when the first bombs exploded.” ”

LUDMYLA TKACHENKO

A pile of footwear collected by volunteers is ready for distribution to refugees from Ukraine entering Poland near Przemyśl.

THE LOSS

Voices from the border: Ludmyla Kuchebko, Iryna Novikova, Ludmyla Tkachenko, and Nelya Tkachenko

“ We were born in Ukraine and we love our motherland. It’s a beautiful country. God gave it everything: forests, fields … my precious fields.” ”

LUDMYLA KUCHEBKO
Left: Top:

Iryna Butenko, 33, and daughter 
Kateryna Falchenko, eight, fled Kharkiv in a panic. When a train finally appeared, says Iryna, “we ran while they were shooting from behind.” She does not want to go back, ever. Katya feels safe now: “No one is shooting or threatening us. My mom is always near me.”

Right: Bottom:

Iryna Kuzmenko, 41, and her daughter, Arianda Shchepina, 11, from the city of Zaporizhzhia, have a quiet moment together outside the Juliusza Slowackiego High School in Przemyśl, Poland, where refugees have sought shelter and support.

An exhausted refugee steals a moment of rest in Medyka, Poland, near the border with Ukraine where some 100,000 refugees have already crossed.

THE FUTURE

Voices from the border: Iryna Butenko, Ludmyla Tkachenko, Nelya Tkachenko, Blessing Oyeleke, Lidiya Ivanenko, and Irina Lopuga

“ We don’t need much. A warm corner is enough.” ”

LIDIYA IVANENKO
Left: Top:

Iryna Novikova, 42, left Kyiv with her daughter on a moment’s notice—without changing clothes, brushing her teeth, or showering. “In such a moment you need none of that. I don’t know how I ran; my legs just carried me.” Her daughter had told her the attack was coming, but “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Right: Bottom:

Amoakohene Ababio Williams, 26, originally from Ghana, says he was separated from his Ukrainian wife, Sattennik Airapetryan, 27, and their one-year-old son, Kyle Richard, along with other Black men, just before reaching the Polish border after fleeing Odesa. “I was thinking, that’s all. Maybe I will not see her again.” He made it.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind is a National Geographic photographer, a TED fellow, and a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow. She covers issues relating to women, population, and war.

Alice Aedy is a documentary photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on social justice issues including forced migration, climate justice, and women’s stories.

Davide Monteleone is a photographer, visual artist, and National Geographic Explorer with a particular interest in post-Soviet countries. The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Monteleone’s work. See more on his website.

Petro Halaburda, a Ukrainian film production student based in Warsaw, Poland, provided field assistance and translation.

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