BERLIN — Every morning at 10:39, the EC57 train pulls out of Berlin’s train station for a 10-hour trip to the Polish border, on the fringes of the war in Ukraine.
On board are Ukrainians who have been wrestling with the agonizing decision of whether to return home six months into the war.
Some, missing their loved ones, have decided to go back for good. Others sit nervously after taking the plunge to visit relatives for the first time since fleeing. A few who never really left make their way back from temporary breaks away from the sirens and bombings.
Every carriage has its stories: separation, trauma, romance.
‘You never know what will happen; it’s a lottery’
Daniela Nich and her 18-year-old daughter, Uliana Mikheeva, are returning from Berlin to Kremenchuk to visit their husband and father, who has not been allowed to leave Ukraine. They are on a train that runs from Berlin to the Polish border town of Przemysl, carrying many Ukrainians back home.
Daniela Nich is in car 264. She is returning to visit Kremenchuk with her 18-year-old daughter, Uliana Mikheeva, for the first time since they fled Ukraine 10 days after the Russian invasion. They left then with just three small bags. Packing them once more to leave Berlin on a recent morning, Uliana said it felt like they were refugees again.
“I’m a little bit worried,” Nich, 45, a teacher, says of their decision to return to their hometown straddling the Dnieper River in eastern Ukraine. A previous short visit in the relatively safe western city of Lviv played on her nerves.
Air raid sirens regularly sounded. “It was like fear on my skin,” she says. And Kremenchuk brings more risk. In late June, a Russian cruise missile slammed into a shopping mall in their hometown, killing at least 21 people.
“You never know what will happen; it’s a lottery,” she says. But her mother is elderly and sick and can’t leave the city. They want to spend some time with her.
Uliana shrugs off the danger. “I just want to see my family, my friends,” she says.
“A good team,” Nich says. “One can be nervous, and one needs to be stable.”
It’s unclear when they’ll be able to go back for good. It’s a struggle to find housing in Germany, but they have managed.
Still, the future is a fog, says Nich.
The train from Berlin will take them as far as Przemysl, a small town on the Polish border that has become a hub for aid, supplies and crossings.
From Przemysl, there are direct trains to the farthest reaches of Ukraine on railway lines that have continued to function. For Nich and her daughter, it’s a more than 20-hour journey on to the country’s far east. Other passengers change trains for a 16-hour ride to Odessa, or 11 hours to Kyiv.
‘We just want to go home’
Gennady and his wife Valentina are returning to Kyiv to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
In car 268 are Valentina and Gennady. They were high school sweethearts. Now they are 75 and will get back to Ukraine just in time for their 50th wedding anniversary. “We are really happy to go home, but we are nervous,” says Valentina, who like some others preferred not to give her last name as she returned to the uncertainty of home. “We don’t know what is waiting for us.”
Their Kyiv apartment was damaged in an explosion, but they’ve been told it can be repaired. They’ll stay with two older grandchildren, whose pictures they proudly share. They were comfortable in holiday apartments that housed Ukrainians in rural Poland. Most were young families; Gennady played with the children, and it felt like a community.
In Poland, the government has stopped providing financial support of about $9 a day to those hosting refugees, but the couple say that’s not why they are coming back. They missed Ukraine.
“We just want to go home,” Valentina says, tears welling up.
“Don’t cry; we are already not so young anymore,” says Gennady. They are soon laughing again, recalling their school days.
“We are actually Russian,” says Valentina, who was raised in the Kuban region during Soviet times. “But our motherland is Ukraine. Our children and grandchildren were born here.”
“I’m more nervous than she is,” Gennady adds. But his concerns are more for the other family members who are also returning.
His daughter will arrive with his four young grandchildren from Montenegro a few days after them, in time for the new school year. She doesn’t want to be separated from her husband in Kyiv anymore, with men banned from leaving the country.
“When we read about war, we didn’t understand it,” Valentina says. “Now we understand it and it’s the most awful thing in the world.”
‘If there was a house I could rent in my parents’ region, I would do it’
Kateryna Dobrovolska and her daughter Liliia are going to Odessa to visit Dobrovolska's parents.
Further down the carriage is Kateryna Dobrovolska. She is heading toward Odessa with her 5-year old daughter, Liliia. They had been living in the eastern city of Kharkiv at the beginning of the war, but going back there would be too dangerous, she says.
She’ll be staying with her parents, even though her husband, who still lives in the east and works in IT, isn’t keen for her to go. He won’t be joining them because it’s too much of a squeeze in the house, she says.
“He’s worried,” she adds. “Statistically, everything will be fine, but emotionally he’s struggling.”
Her parents live in a village outside the city and wouldn’t know there was a war on if it wasn’t for the television, she says.
She’s thought about moving back “a million times.”
In Essen, Germany, she lives in a dormitory for refugees in the room next to her mother-in-law. When she goes back, she wants to ask to change her room.
“If there was a house I could rent in my parents’ region, I would do it,” she says as her daughter hangs from her neck in the aisle outside their small, sweltering train compartment.
‘I realized I missed Ukraine’
Anya is returning home to Kyiv from Wroclaw, Poland, after taking a break from the war. Other Ukrainians on the train are refugees returning home either for a visit or to rebuild their lives.
Anya, 24, sits in the dining car. She lost her ticket that morning and doesn’t have a seat reservation.
As she boards the train in the Polish city of Wroclaw, she exchanges a lingering goodbye kiss with a young man in the aisle before he hops off, waving from the platform.
“New boyfriend,” she explains, laughing. She wasn’t expecting much from the trip when she left Ukraine for the first time since the beginning of the war. But she visited a friend near Wroclaw and met the love interest on Tinder. A planned week-long break turned into three.
“It was really beautiful,” she said. “I didn’t feel so good for a long time.”
She thinks she’s put on some pounds, making the most of the access to McDonald’s, which closed down in Ukraine at the beginning of the war. She guesses she ate there six times, including for breakfast before she got on the train.
She kept on her app that warns of the sirens in Ukraine the whole time. Her parents live in Vinnytsia, and a rare strike on a civilian area there killed 23 people while she was away. “It was considered a safe place,” she says.
Now it’s home to Kyiv, where life is creeping back to normal but sirens are still present. And always the chance of worse. She worries that losing her ticket was an omen.
But leaving, as much of a relief as it was, has made her more certain about staying. “I realized I missed Ukraine,” she says.