MEDYKA, Poland (AP) — While hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flee their country, some Ukrainian men and women are returning home from across Europe to help defend their homeland in the face of Russia’s invasion.
Poland’s Border Guard said Sunday that some 22,000 people have crossed into Ukraine since Thursday, when Russia invaded the country.
At the checkpoint in Medyka, in southeastern Poland, many stood in a line early Sunday to cross into Ukraine.
“We have to defend our homeland. Who else if not us?” said a mustachioed man in front of a group of some 20 Ukrainian truck drivers walking to the checkpoint to enter Ukraine. They came from across Europe to return to Ukraine.
Another man in the group said: “The Russians should be afraid. We are not afraid.”
Members of the group declined to give their names, or only gave only their first names, citing their security and that of their families.
Denis, 28, who has spent six months working at construction sites in Poland, said he was returning to Ukraine where his “everything” is.
“I’m on my own here in Poland. Why should I be here? So I go, for the homeland,” said Denis, with a small Ukrainian blue-and-yellow national flag on his winter jacket.
“I want to go back to join the army, to fight. We will see, we hope we will win,“ he said.
In the nearby city of Przemysl, Janiel, 27, was also preparing to return. An engineer by education, he has been working in construction in Wroclaw, Poland, but could not remain knowing his homeland was being attacked.
“I talked to my parents and I cried. And I just decided to myself that I can’t watch that and I can’t just stay in Poland as Russians destroy our independence, destroy our cities, kill our citizens, kill our children, kill our elderly people,” he told the AP in English.
Before the recent exodus, there were at least 1 million Ukrainians in Poland, working or studying. The women often work as nannies and caretakers for the elderly across the European Union, and in many cases leave their children back in Ukraine with grandparents or other relatives.
Lesa, 36, from Lviv, spoke to the AP just before entering the checkpoint building, following her brother into Ukraine.
“I am afraid, but I am a mother and want to be with my children. What can you do? It’s scary but I have to,” she said.
Another young woman, Alina, said she was returning to get her children and take them out of Ukraine.
“We have to, we Ukrainians have to take our children away… to allow our boys to fight,” she said.
On Ukraine’s side of the border, a man was directing those arriving to a place where cars and buses were waiting to take them onward.
The Czech Republic, which borders Poland to the southwest, is planning to support Ukrainian families living in the country whose men decide to return home to fight.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is preparing bonuses to families who would lose income if “the men need to join the [Ukrainian] army,” Czech Minister Marian Jurecka said.
There are about 200,000 Ukrainian workers in the Czech Republic, the majority of them men.
Czech railways said Ukrainian men traveling back to Ukraine can take any train free of charge. They need to travel through Poland or Slovakia to reach Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stayed in the capital, Kyiv, boosting the morale of Ukrainian fighters as Russian troops were closing in on the city and huge explosions lit up the sky early Sunday.
Zelensky has banned men of military age, 18 to 60, from leaving the country. Ukrainian authorities have also called on foreign volunteers to come and fight in Ukraine’s defense. He announced Sunday he was raising the pay of those fighting for Ukraine.
In Israel, the Ukrainian Embassy posted a call for anyone willing to join the fight against Russia to travel to Ukraine. The invitation, marked “Urgent” on the embassy Facebook page, was later removed.
On Friday, before the Facebook post was published, the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel told journalists that it was legal for Israelis to volunteer for the Ukrainian military.
Israeli law has a provision forbidding citizens from joining a foreign military — with a potential punishment of up to three years in prison. This is not applicable if the State of Israel has an agreement with the foreign country in question, though it was not immediately clear if this was the case with Ukraine. It is not illegal for a foreign country to recruit people in Israel.
Israeli leaders are cautious in how they speak of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The country is home to hundreds of thousands of people with roots in Ukraine or Russia, or in both countries, and has sought good ties with both Moscow and Kyiv.
At least 368,000 people have fled Ukraine into Poland and other neighboring countries in the wake of the Russian invasion, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said Sunday.
Poland’s border Guard said some 156,000 people have entered from Ukraine since Thursday, when the invasion started, while some 22,000 have gone in the opposite direction.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.