By Joanna Plucinska and Kuba Stezycki
WARSAW – Maria Verbyana, 19, moved to Warsaw to escape Lviv, Ukraine, a month ago amid the threat of Russian bombings. But, as Orthodox Easter approaches on Sunday, she could not imagine being away from her priest and family.
Late on Thursday night, she boarded a bus back home, determined to spend her Easter volunteering to help Ukrainian soldiers, performing folk songs and praying and singing with Father Taras.
She is one of thousands who are set to return to Ukraine for Easter, despite the ongoing risk of bombings and attacks as Russian aggression in Ukraine, especially in the East and South.
“Ukraine is now in the culmination of its history and therefore it will be the most special and sacred Easter in the history of Ukraine,” Verbyana said.
“A monkey with a grenade lives next us, so it can’t be safe anywhere, even in Lviv. But we will hope that this Easter will be special for us. And that indeed the Lord will protect us.”
While over five million Ukrainians have left Ukraine since Feb. 24, data from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR show that over one million have also re-entered. It is unclear how many of the returns are permanent.
Migrants choosing to go back said they were driven by an inability to find work abroad or a desire to be reunited with their families, while their homes were not being bombed or occupied.
Mariia Litokh, 21, has lived and studied in Poland for years. In the past, she spent her Easters traveling. But this year, she felt it was particularly important to go back and see her family in Vyzghorod, near Kyiv.
“Now I want to go back simply to see them because you never know,” she said before boarding a Flixbus to Kyiv. “When we have such a moment then we start thinking differently about what we have and we appreciate it much more.”
In particular, she wanted to see her grandmother who lives in a village occupied by Russian forces. Litokh could not speak to her during the occupation and now wants to deliver a special gift.
“I wanted to draw her portrait,” Litokh said. “And when she saw a photo of it once they freed her village she begged to see it in real life.”
Upon disembarking in Kyiv, she said she got emotional seeing Ukraine’s villages, especially those around the city that were occupied.
“It was difficult to watch, but I am glad to come here for even a short time.”
DO WE STAY?
Many of the Ukrainians returning for Easter said they were unsure whether they would stay at home or return back to Poland as they grappled with the uncertainty of ongoing attacks.
Katerina Cherik, 32, said that more than anything she wants to return to Kyiv and her job at a hotel. But as she boarded a bus to Kovel in northwestern Ukraine, where her family lives, she said she was not sure what she would do after Easter.
“Life is unpredictable. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. I have a family in Poland and a family in Ukraine. So I will most likely return to my sister’s family and continue living in Poland.”
But Olena Lishchuk said that, despite attacks on her home in Dubno, she was hoping to stay in Ukraine and help the soldiers on the front while it was still safe to do so.
“I can’t phrase the amount of fear this brings me. I cry when I read the news, then again in the evening. My son-in-law is fighting in this war now,” she said.
“But if it’s calm, then I’ll stay. I need to bake pyrozhkis for the boys on the front.”