ZAHONY, Hungary (AP) — It’s a global day to celebrate women, but many people fleeing Ukraine only feel the stress of finding a new life for their children while husbands, brothers and fathers remain. to defend their country against the invasion of Russia.
The number of refugees reached 2 million on Tuesday, according to the United Nations, the fastest exodus from Europe since World War II. A million of them are children, UNICEF spokesman James Elder tweeted, calling it a “dark historic first”.
READ MORE: How serious is the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine?
Polina Shulga tried to facilitate her 3-year-old daughter’s journey by hiding the truth.
“Of course it’s difficult to travel with a child, but I explained to him that we were going on vacation and that we would definitely come back one day when the war was over,” Shulga said.
She didn’t know what would happen after arriving in Hungary from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, but she thought the experience would make her stronger. “I feel responsible for my child, so it was easier for me to take that step and go,” she said, as her baby girl tugged at the hem of her coat.
Nataliya Grigoriyovna Levchinka, from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, felt much the same.
“I’m usually in some sort of terrible dream that goes on,” the retired teacher said. “I would be in a kind of abstraction if it wasn’t for my daughter. I wouldn’t be able to come to my senses.
A Ukrainian government decree that bars men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country means most of those fleeing are women and children, although the UN does not have exact gender figures. Ukraine’s policy is to encourage men to enlist to fight the Russian invasion or to keep them available for military conscription.
This has led to heartbreaking scenes of separation, as well as growing concern as some beleaguered and battered parts of Ukraine spiral out of reach.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke about International Women’s Day in a video address: “Ukrainians, we usually celebrate this holiday, the Spring Festival. We congratulate our women, our daughters, our wives, our mothers. Usually. But not today. Today, I can’t say the traditional words. I just can’t congratulate you. I can’t, when there are so many dead. When there is so much sorrow, when there is so much suffering. When the war continues.
Women normally receive flowers and chocolates and kisses and speeches. But this time, the sugary messages were tinged with grief or pleas for peace.
In a refugee camp in Moldova, Elena Shapoval apologized for her tears. She does not hide them from her two children, one 4 years old and the other 8 years old, while evoking their trip from Odessa. The youngest doesn’t understand what’s going on, Shapoval said. The elder tries to calm her down, saying, ‘Mom, everything will be fine.’ »
She can’t break down thinking about the life they left behind. “I realize that it will take a lot of work now,” she said. “I need to pull myself together because I have two kids and I need to clench my will like a fist.”
In Romania, Alina Rudakova started crying when she realized she had forgotten the holidays. Last year, the 19-year-old from Melitopol received a bouquet of flowers from her father and gifts from other relatives.
“This year, I didn’t even think about that day,” she said. “That day was really awful.”
READ MORE: How to help Ukrainians and refugees fleeing the conflict with Russia
But some arriving refugees received flowers right after crossing the border. “I was so stressed, I was so tired, it kind of brightened up my day,” said Mariia Kotelnytska, 15, from Poltava.
“The best gift for every woman will be to stop the war,” said Anastasia Kvirikashvili, 19, from Vinnytsia.
As refugees continued to arrive, new fragilities emerged. “The people who are coming now have less means than the people who came initially, and they have also experienced more conflict directly, so they are probably more traumatized,” said a spokesperson for the United Nations agency. Refugees, Matthew Saltmarsh.
In a theater at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in the Polish town of Przemysl, near the border, women and children filled makeshift beds. Some again checked their phones for news.
“It was difficult to prepare for the trip,” said a refugee near Kiev who gave only her first name, Natalia. “My sister said I was very brave, but in my opinion, I’m a coward. I want to go home.”
And at the Medyka border crossing in Poland, Yelena Makarova said her rushed flight from Kremenchuk with her mother and teenage daughter marked the end of her life as she knew it. Her father, her husband and her brother all stayed.
“I want (the war) to end as soon as possible, because do you know, for every mother, what can be worse?” she says. “I don’t understand why our children are dying. I do not know.”
Associated Press reporters from across Europe contributed.