‘We are going to defend ourselves’: Ukrainians join war front
Ukrainian volunteers say they must return home to fend off Russia’s invasion as they regret the war’s outbreak.
Vladimir Pavluk approaches the border crossing between Poland and Ukraine as if he was taking a Sunday walk.
The 26-year-old from Odesa, who worked in Poland as a taxi driver, carries a large rucksack and enjoys the last rays of Polish sun. His girlfriend tightly holds his hand.
“It’s a terrible feeling when they bomb your home,” he says with a calm voice. “The war started and we have to go back. I fought between 2015 and 2019 so I know what to do. My girlfriend will stay here.”
A short brunette in a black hoodie bursts into tears. They walk away.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of Ukrainians in the conscription age have been crossing the border to join the army back home.
Men from different angles of life, different ages and levels of military training have decided to leave the safety of the European Union and support Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
In the Russian official narrative, those who fight against the aggression are labelled as Nazis who hate Russia, the Russian culture and the Russian language.
“We don’t think about that, we know it’s a lie,” answers Vitaly, 27, from Zaporozhe in central Ukraine, in impeccable Russian.
“We know our country, we know our government, we know our people and ourselves. We speak both Russian and Ukrainian. We don’t have a problem with the language.”
Vitaly came to the Polish border all the way from Estonia. He has not been able to contact his family for the past 16 hours. He would like to go to his hometown first but he says he will go wherever the army needs him most. This will be his first war.
“I have never fought in my life. I went through a military training a long time ago, but this is not stopping me. There are no words to describe how I feel,” he says.
“We’ve never wanted to fight, we haven’t invaded anyone, we are going to defend ourselves. There are sanctions against Russia but we understand that there are many things that our and your leaders don’t say. All we can do is mobilise.”
Vitaly is not alone. Three of his Ukrainian friends from Estonia are standing next to him in a queue. They are not new to the fight and are ready to support their inexperienced friend.
Alexander, 38, fought alongside the Ukrainian army against Donbas separatists. He is calm. He knows he has no choice but to go back to fight.
“I expected this to happen. When the embassies got evacuated I understood that the war would begin. I was not surprised,” he tells Al Jazeera. “I’m going back to defend my country, my family, my land.”
They pass through the border amid encouraging chants: Slava Ukrainie! Geroyom Slava! [Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!]
Most of those crossing back to Ukraine are in their twenties and thirties. But not Yaroslav. His grey hair and long grey moustache make him look like the other soldiers’ grandfather.
His black beret with a pin bearing the Ukrainian flag give his look an aura of original eccentricity.
Yaroslav is 59, which means he is in his final year of mandatory conscription.
“I’m rushing back home because this is the last call to support the defence effort. I have worked in Poland as a driver for six years. Now I’ve decided to go back to help my army,” he says passionately.
“When I heard about the war expanding I felt that I have to go back home. I never fought in any war. I was in the army back in the Soviet times so I remember how to use the gun.”
Most of the people gathered at the border admire the courage and patriotism of the men and women crossing back into Ukraine. Except for Nikolai. The 59-year old, unlike Yaroslav, does not think he is suited for war. He watches the conscripts passing by and tears fill his eyes.
He holds a banner that says “Warsaw”. He offers a free ride to the Polish capital Warsaw to Ukrainians who, like him, decided to flee their homeland. He is also awaiting the arrival of his elderly mother who is the last one of his relatives to arrive into safety.
Nikolai was lucky. He decided to evacuate his family, including his son and nephews, from Poltava, not far from the Russian border, just before the government banned men in the conscription age from leaving the country.
“America has failed us. So I decided to take my kids from Ukraine and give them the opportunity to live here, so that they don’t have to fight against tanks and missiles,” he says.
“Young people go to Ukraine as cannon fodder. They go there to fight against planes and tanks. They’ll be killed by missiles. And if they hide in the cellars with guns, what’s the point of all that?”
He believes that Ukraine can win the war. But not in case its soldiers are confronted by planes and tanks. The former dentist does not know yet what he will do in Poland. But he is certain his will be a better fate than those who go back. On 23rd February, the day before the war began, his son’s wife gave birth in a Polish hospital.
“I tell to all the boys going back what they are signing up for,” Nikolai says. “Nobody will be able to defend them.”
But over the past days, the Ukrainian army has been successful in deterring Russian forces attacking its main cities. According to reports, applications from people who are interested in joining the fight are processed slowly. There are enough soldiers resisting the enemy.
“Since 2014 we’ve seen a rebirth of patriotism in Ukraine, people opened their eyes,” says Alexander, the 38-year-old who lived in Estonia. “We have realised that Russia is not white and fluffy. It can only bring destruction.”