At the Crossroads in Ukraine

Ukrainian refugees at a bus station in Romania. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky
Ukrainian refugees at a bus station in Romania. Photo by Zarina Zabrisky

At 10:30 p.m. Kyiv time, on April 14, by Odesa railway station, a short, middle-aged woman with a boyish salt-and-pepper haircut gets on the long-distance bus to Moldova and cries quietly, sunglasses on. Outside the bus, more women are crying, embracing men.

A soldier, standing in front of the open door, speaks softly to a girl, about 12, and her mother, both in sunglasses, both sniffling quietly. From the seat in the back, a child cries: “Bye, Daddy, I love you!”

There are only women and children on the bus. Fathers and husbands are staying. Men aged 18–60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine for they might be needed inside the country to fight the Russian invasion.

The bus starts, a cat meowing from the back seat. A girl is still sniffling. Outside, Odesa streets are bustling with honking and screeching, and as the bus is about to leave the city, an air raid starts. Russian ballistic missiles are on the way from the Black Sea.

A woman unpacks a paper bag with homemade pirozhkis, filling the bus with a hearty fried smell, and offers one to a tall woman in her 30s across the aisle. She is shushing her toddler, a large girl with a ponytail and a teddy bear in her arms, and gladly accepts the pastry, passing it to the child.

A conversation starts. The older woman is Vira, a retired salesperson from a small village near Uman. Tetiana, a hairdresser from Donbas, is taking her daughter Elina, two and a half years old, back to a temporary home in Chisinau, Moldova.

Elina was diagnosed with bone cancer at the start of the war, and they first moved from their hometown Kramatorsk, located too close to the front line, to Odesa for a treatment. During the cold winter of 2022, the city had no electricity due to the Russian shelling of power facilities.

The hospital still worked, using generators, and Elina went through a course of chemotherapy. When she went into remission, they moved to Moldova but came back for regular checkups—it is free in Ukraine.

Last month, during their stay at the hospital, Russia targeted Odesa with Iranian-made drones and various ballistic missiles every day. One night, as the air raid lasted for seven hours, Tetiana and Elina waited it out in a hospital basement along with other patients.

Elina is done with her pirozhkis, and Vira treats her to marmalade. The bus briefly stops at a block post, and a soldier with an automatic gun checks the rows of passengers for anything out of order, finds everything okay, and jumps off. The bus rolls on.

“Where are you heading?” asks Tetiana. Vira first hesitates, then whispers, “Moscow.”

A family behind them is asleep. The bus is moving forward, buzzing, so nobody, except for Tetiana hears the answer. There is a long silence.

It is dark in the bus, but Vira still has her sunglasses on, hiding tears. She tells her story in whisper.

Vira is Ukrainian but lived in Russia: Her husband of 20 years is still in Moscow. A Russian professor of mathematics, 74, he cannot leave as he is taking care of his paralyzed mother in her 90s.

He misses Vira badly and writes poems to her, pleading with her to come back. She shows a photo of a Christmas tree still on: He refuses to take it down without her. 

Vira’s son and brother are soldiers in the Ukrainian army. Both served from the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022 and were injured: her son near Avdiivka and her brother near Bakhmut. Both are back at the frontline in Donbas.

Her daughter fled to Ireland with two younger grandchildren after their house was shelled. In Vira’s native village near Uman, most men are in the army. There are two rows of new military graves at the cemetery.

Her cousins are prisoners of war in Russia. Her friends came back from the war, after losing their limbs. Vira returned during the war and stayed for six months.

She does not know if the Russian authorities will let her back to Moscow: All Ukrainian citizens entering Russia go through a 10-hour filtration procedure at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. The Russian security service, the FSB, searches phones and social media for suspicious contacts. Many are sent back.

With her family in the army, she might face arrest. Yet, from Moldova, she is flying to Kazakhstan, where her husband will meet her, and together, they will try to return to Moscow.

Outside the window, crosses, bus stops, anti-tank hedgehogs and blooming trees swish by.

“How can you go back there?” asks Tetiana. Her voice is harsh.

“What can I do?” says Vira. “How can I leave him? I was hoping that all of this would end sooner—that the world would not let this happen. The madman is destroying our lives and the land.

“And look what they did to the land! It is wounded and bleeding. It is a living organism; you can’t treat Earth like this, blowing things up. And all of it is just for power and money.”

Elina is asleep, hugging her teddy bear, and Tetiana pats her back, frowning.

“My husband, just like your son and brother, is at the front line,” says Tetiana. “The Russians are killing us every day. And you are going there…How do you speak to them?”

“I can only speak to my husband and my close friend at home, in the kitchen,” says Vira. “Everyone is afraid. Some people, especially the educated ones, know that this war is wrong but they are afraid for their lives, for their children.

“Others listen to TV and are completely brainwashed. There is no decent news; I tried to find good updates and couldn’t. I listen to opera instead. Aida and Tosca—they are like me, have to choose between love and country.”

“I don’t like opera. I can show you a good news program,” says Tetiana, reaching for her phone. “I can’t open it on my phone; the FSB will be checking the programs I watch.

“Moscow is filled with police: They are everywhere, on every corner. You cannot make a step without being watched. And in Siberia, they are building new concentration camps, I am told.”

Vira’s phone rings. She speaks Ukrainian to her son, softly, telling him not to worry. She is still wearing sunglasses.

The bus stops at the border. All passengers are required to disembark for a baggage check.

A blonde woman in a bright blue-and-yellow sports suit opens her suitcase. There are five big glass jars of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes. “This is for my son,” she explains. “He’s in Poland, in college, and misses home and my cooking. He’s only 16. I get to see him once every six months, and now I have to come through Moldova as the Poles are blocking the border.”

A young woman opens a carrier with a Siamese cat. She’s leaving Odesa after the latest attacks.

Since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, millions have fled their homes due to heavy shelling and combat operations. According to the UN Refugee Agency report, an estimated 14.6 million people in Ukraine require humanitarian assistance in 2024.

As of February 2024, nearly 3.7 million internally displaced people are registered in Ukraine and nearly 6.5 million refugees from Ukraine are recorded globally. While many moved to Western Ukraine, a great number of refugees have fled to neighboring countries, with Poland hosting approximately 60% of Ukrainian refugees.

Staggering statistics can hardly reflect the full scale of the tragedy of the exodus of Ukrainians from their homes, both within the country and beyond its borders. Missile and rocket attacks continue to cause widespread death and destruction. Homes, businesses and energy infrastructure are severely damaged.

The Russian military is targeting critical infrastructure leading to water and electricity supply, heating, healthcare, education and social services disruption. Many Ukrainians are forced to live in damaged homes, facing freezing temperatures in winter.

As the Russian invasion continues, families are torn apart, communities crumble, lives are ruined and the environment suffers. While offering refuge to fleeing women and children is imperative to alleviate immediate suffering, it merely addresses the symptoms rather than addressing and eliminating the root cause of the crisis: the Russian war of aggression.

The Russian invasion must be confronted head-on through concerted international efforts aimed at restoring Ukraine’s sovereign territories and leveraging repatriations from frozen Kremlin assets in the West.


  • Zarina Zabrisky

    Zarina Zabrisky is an American journalist and an award-winning novelist currently reporting on the Russian war in Ukraine. She is a war correspondent for Bywire News (UK), writes a Daily Review column for Euromaidan Press, an online Ukrainian English-language independent newspaper since 2014, and contributes articles and podcasts on information warfare, reports from the sites and interviews with military experts and eyewitnesses for these and other publications, including the Community Alliance newspaper.

4 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x