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Inside the anguished flight from Ukraine as women, children search for safety

VYLOK, Ukraine – The women walk through the frozen night juggling infants in their arms, kids tugging at their jackets, backpacks stuffed with necessities — and a sense of sadness for the war-ravaged land that days ago was home.

“The air-raid sirens were ringing all night, so our men sent the women and children away and stayed to fight,” said a teary Nadia, 36, as she headed across the Hungarian border with her 6-year-old son Oleg and friend Tatiana and her 9-year-old-son, Makartha.

“Not a single fighting-age male decided to leave Ukraine. They all wanted to stand up and fight,” Nadia said.

“Our men picked up a weapon, and they are fighting against the Russians. They will fight the men who have been shooting rockets at us from Russia and Belarus.”

Nadia, who is from the fortress-style city of Ivano-Frankivsk, said men such as her husband Ruslan, a mechanic, and those in surrounding towns came together to form something of a “local defense guerilla.”

She intends to take her child to grandparents in Italy and return to Ukraine straight away to protect the family’s property.

Nadia planstake to her son to grandparents in Italy and return to Ukraine straight away to protect the family’s property.
Hollie McKay

It is clear that she and those around her are all prepared to sacrifice their lives. Battling for their land has become their most important duty.

“We want to live like free people, and if it comes down to it, will we die fighting for that,” Nadia said, stroking her son’s soft hair. “It is only the mothers of young children who have left from our area. Even our parents are left there. We will go back.”

Still, her bravery gives way to angst when she speaks of all she was forced to leave behind, flicking through photographs on her phone as if worried her memory is already fading.

Nadia said she lived in a beautiful wooden home with an oriental-style balcony and a large, lush, green lawn. She cannot believe she is talking about her things in the past tense.

A woman holds a dog after Ukrainians fleeing their country crossed the Ukrainian-Hungarian border.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

“We have worked our whole lives and built beautiful houses,” the distraught woman said. “We don’t want Putin. We want Russians to leave so we can live our lives.”

Her son Oleg said how proud he is of President Zelensky.

“Americans told him to bunker down, but he is staying out and fighting,” the child boasted.

Men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the war-torn nation so they can fight for their country. Some of their relatives are already on the Hungary side of the border, while others search aimlessly for a place to go.

Dozens of residents in and around the Hungarian border village of Tiszabecs have transformed a local school into a donations center.
Hollie McKay

Dozens of residents in and around the sleepy Hungarian border village of Tiszabecs have come together in the past two days to transform a local school into a donations center and a town hall close by into a warm place for families to shower and sleep for the night. There are no structured camps or pre-fabricated homes erected along the frost-glazed plains, despite the weeks of Western warning that a Russian invasion was imminent.

“Everyone is so frightened, hundreds of them, they have had to leave behind everything they have built,” said Poladi Laslo, a 59-year-old Hungarian physical-education teacher who set up a small tent to hand out water and packaged goods to those arriving.

“I am Hungarian, and we have many Hungarians living over the border in Ukraine, so I really feel for them. … I am human, and I feel for other humans.”

Yet Laslo worries the bloodshed will spill over Ukraine’s eastern flank.

“They have had to leave behind everything they have built,” said Hungarian Poladi Laslo.
Hollie McKay
Poladi Laslo set up a small tent to hand out water and packaged goods to arriving Ukrainians.
Hollie McKay

“What happens next is going to depend on the Europeans and the Americans and how involved they will become,” Laslo said. “If they do, this could blow up into the next world war.

“I can only hope with all these arms and weapons now out there, those leaders are smart enough not to get too involved.”

Meanwhile, Hungarians such as Laslo work around the clock trekking back and forth to the border to hand over loaves of bread and extra socks or offer their terrified and traumatized neighbors a place to stay. Tiny stands dot the crossing area, handing out hot sweet tea and sandwiches well past the witching hour for those psychologically wounded and weary.

“We have to go and ask the women and children to take the help; they are too scared to come to us,” explained Fanni Nagy, a 22-year-old performer, her arms filled with donated diaper packets and formula outside the school.

“I’m scared my son will be conscripted.” Angel said about her 17-year-old son.
Hollie McKay

“The kids are very quiet; you can just see them sitting there. It is even sadder to watch the bigger children – because they understand what is happening.”

Some of the fleeing masses talk to relatives they’ve been separated from, while others remain glued to smartphone footage of explosions lighting up their motherland’s night sky.

According to the United Nations, more than 150,000 Ukrainians have been displaced over the past few days alone, ever since Russia launched a full-scale, all-out ground invasion across large swaths of the country.

“We just jumped in different cars with people we did not know,” said an exhausted Angel, a former seamstress in the port city of Odessa now clinging to her son, Dusha, 17, and daughter, Oila, 15. “I’m scared my son will be conscripted.”

Men ages 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the war-torn nation so they can fight for their country.
Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

Meanwhile, others fled in defiance, vowing that this is “someone else’s war.”

“I have never held a gun. I have never had any training,” said a 41-year-old construction worker whose wife and child remain in Ukraine.

“I don’t think people should be given weapons at random,” he said. ” I do not think it is of any use. We had to get out; the conscription was happening very fast. [Authorities] come in plain cars, so you don’t know, they give you a uniform and take you to the front.”

The man, who didn’t give his name, said he was detained, questioned and then allowed to cross because he holds both Ukrainian and Hungarian passports. His younger brother – only a Ukrainian national – instead took to bribing Ukrainian border guards with the equivalent of just over $100 cash tucked into his passport as a bribe.

A woman offers a toy to a refugee girl.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

As it stands, it is unclear if the swell of those fleeing will be displaced in the short-term or if individuals are leaving their lives behind for good. As the fighting rages, countries in Eastern Europe – from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to Estonia, Romania, Moldova and Slovakia – are welcoming the desperate and dislodged with open arms. Yet their capacities are likely to be stretched to a snapping point as the weeks unfold.

International aid groups are already calling for a humanitarian corridor that will enable them to operate safely and evacuate civilians trying to leave.

“It is written in the Bible that a great surge will come from the East,” a Ukrainian refugee, a flame-haired Roma grandmother, said calmly from the border. “But this will not be the end.”