Przemysl, Poland – Sasha and Nastia slowly inhale the smoke from their cigarettes. Their paths have never crossed before, but they exchange knowing glances in wordless understanding when they realise they are both from Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The women, who only gave their first names, are standing in front of the main train station in Przemysl, a Polish border city, where hundreds of refugees arrive daily on trains from the Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Both had fled Ukraine following the Russian invasion of February 24.
But there is more that they have in common.
Back in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took over territories in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Sasha and Nastia were among the 1.5 million people who left their homes seeking safety in territories controlled by Ukrainian forces.
The Russian invasion has forced them from their homes again, and this time they are having to look for safe haven outside their country.
“My experience has repeated again. It’s hard to leave everything behind, it’s hard to know that your friends and relatives are in danger,” Sasha says. “War is always the same.”
After fleeing the city of Donetsk in 2014, Sasha, who is now 32 years old, moved to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Shortly after, her family followed suit. They left behind their home and all their belongings.
Sasha says another family moved into their home shortly after they fled, but it’s unclear what is happening with the property now.
This time, too, Sasha took just the most necessary things. The rest stayed in her rented apartment in Kyiv. But she says her second escape has been more difficult.
“We did not expect that war would begin in all of Ukraine, we thought that this time it will end quickly,” says Sasha. “Back in 2014, they shot in the same way 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 home appliances, her job is secure. A Polish colleague will host her for a few weeks, and then the company will decide where to relocate her.
She does not have to worry about money and accommodation.
But once the conflict is over, she hopes she will be able to go back to Kyiv.
“I don’t know what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants. Maybe he wants Ukraine and maybe more than that. I wish it all ends soon,” she says.
‘A very weird state’
Nastia is 23 years old now, but she was only 15 when she fled her hometown of Ilovaisk. Forty kilometres east of the city of Donetsk, Ilovaisk was the site of the most deadly battle of 2014, during 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 that they would not find work in other parts of Ukraine. Nastia went on her own and settled in the town of Kramatorsk, more than 150km away.
Over the years, she trained as a tattoo artist and worked in a European tattoo chain.
When she heard 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 would happen next,” she says. “I took my passport, a towel, a toothbrush and underwear. I already know that this is all I need.”
Nastia says that the first months following the separatist conflict in 2014 were hard for her and her relatives who stayed in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Society became divided, with politics splitting families. Some wanted their home to stay under Ukrainian control, but others believed that the DPR was saving them from what they saw as a nationalistic regime in Kyiv.
Now, Nastia says, the divisions have lost their intensity.
“My parents are apolitical but many of our relatives used to support the new Donbas authorities. Now everyone understands what is happening. There is nothing to argue about.”
While Nastia is now in the safety of the European Union, she is far from feeling relief.
Her parents are still in Donbas, and no one knows how the war will unfold.
“The other day, my mother said that they [the separatists] are conscripting men of almost any age, including disabled ones in Ilovaisk. They say that these are exercises only but we think that Putin will send them to Ukraine to fight,” says Nastia, warning that she may start to cry.
“I’m here and my family’s cell phones don’t work, we only communicate via Internet. I’m in a very weird state.”
She still does not know where she will end up. Maybe she will go to the Polish capital, Warsaw, or maybe another European capital. In the end, she says, tattoo artists are needed everywhere. But it is not just for herself and those close to her that she worries.
“In the beginning, I thought that everything would be fine, that Donetsk and Luhansk would simply go fully under the Russian control and that’s it. Now I’m worried about the whole world. Not only Ukraine, I worry about Poland and the war that we may bring with us.”
When asked if they want to add anything, the two women look at each other with the same unspoken understanding and respond at once:
“F*** Putin, Russian warship – go f*** yourself.”