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'I Don't Want To Be A Refugee, I Want To Go Home': The Stories Of The Ukrainian Women Who Had To Flee

A woman from Ukraine listens to a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on a phone at a refugee shelter in Hungary on February 28.

PRAGUE -- "This is where I live. This is what my town looks like now," Olha Drahan says, as she points to her phone screen.

Visibly shaken, she flips through photos of Bila Tserkva, a town some 80 kilometers south of the capital, Kyiv, where many houses and streets have been reduced to rubble by the Russian bombardment.

As youth players from the Slavia Prague soccer team laugh and joke around as they practice on a sunny, crisp early spring day in the Czech capital, Prague, Drahan is one of the tens of thousands who have fled Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a massive, unprovoked attack on the Eastern European country of some 44 million on February 24. More than 1 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia's invasion, triggering what many fear will become the greatest wave of refugees in Europe since World War II.

Drahan, 43, is now one of dozens of Ukrainian women and children being housed in a dormitory normally used for youth players of Slavia Prague, which along with Prague natural-gas concern, Prazska Plynarenska, is footing the bill.

With her 13-year-old daughter and sister, Drahan says she left her apartment in Bila Tserkva on February 27 on a three-day odyssey, trudging across muddy terrain, traveling on trains, and in private cars.

The world has watched in horror as Russian forces increase the brutality of their attacks, targeting with more frequency civilian sites, including hospitals and schools, which has so far cost the lives of at least 2,000 civilians, Ukrainian emergency services said on March 2.

"The trip from Korczowa, on the Polish border, to Prague, took 14 hours. And it was expensive. My sister and I paid $300," Drahan says, adding that all she took was a small suitcase with documents and the bare necessities.

Her husband and elderly mother remain in Bila Tservkva. "I talked with them earlier today," she says. "And they are both safe."

Ukrainian refugees apply for residence permits at Prague's foreigner's police headquarters on March 2
Ukrainian refugees apply for residence permits at Prague's foreigner's police headquarters on March 2

Drahan's 24-year-old son, a stockbroker in a life that now seems a distant memory, remains in Kyiv, volunteering like thousands of others to defend the city from a possible Russian attack, amid reports of a convoy of troops and hardware, stretching for tens of kilometers, descending on the capital.

Like many others in Ukraine, Drahan has ties to Russia, including a sister in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, and a brother in Chita, Siberia.

"They couldn't believe what was happening [in Bila Tservkva]. I had to send them photos to convince them," Drahan explains, underscoring the information vacuum many face in Russia, where state-run media have portrayed Ukraine as the aggressor and whitewash or ignore Moscow's brutal assault.

Her teenaged daughter remains calm, says Drahan, explaining that she talks little with her of the horror Russia has unleased back home. "I told her we had come here just to visit, and that we would be returning home soon," she says. Unlike her daughter, Drahan says that most of the day she spends crying, although the Czech hospitality showered on her and others has lifted their spirits.

"They've been great," she says. "We couldn't ask for more from the Czechs."

"We did this because the people of Ukraine need help," says Jiri Vrba, a spokesman for Slavia Prague, adding that some 100 women and children are being accommodated at the facility that stands in the shadows of Sinobo Stadium, where two Ukrainians play for the premier Czech side.

'I Don't Know What To Do'

The Czech Republic, where Russia's military aggression against Ukraine has rekindled nightmare memories of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, has been quick to respond to the war, demanding tough sanctions against Moscow, while extending help to Kyiv, including military aid, and refuge to those whose lives have been shattered.

Since last week's attacks began, thousands of Ukrainians are thought to have entered the Czech Republic, already home to a sizeable Ukrainian community of some 200,000.

Oksana Malyuta (left), a refugee from Ukraine, with a helper from the dormitory where she is staying that is connected to the Slavia soccer club in Prague.
Oksana Malyuta (left), a refugee from Ukraine, with a helper from the dormitory where she is staying that is connected to the Slavia soccer club in Prague.

Oksana Malyuta and her husband and two boys were just settling into their new apartment in Zdolbuniv, south of Rivne, in western Ukraine, when Putin's assault shattered their lives.

"We spent $21,000 for the apartment and everything inside. There are 16 apartments and five families have stayed behind. They are checking the apartment to see that everything is alright," Malyuta says, explaining that many boarded up their doorways to fend off potential looters.

While her husband stayed behind to defend their homeland, Malyuta, 35, arrived in the Czech capital via Poland a few days ago with her two boys, one aged 10, the other 15.

"They are in contact with their friends back home who tell them how lucky they were to get out in time," Malyuta says, wondering when they will return to school.

"Where will they study? What kind of future will they have," she asks, adding that despite the hardship, she is thankful to be in Prague.

"It's great. We are sleeping in beds! During the first three days of the invasion, we slept in the basement of our building, worrying if it would be bombed," she says, noting that Zdolbuniv is just 160 kilometers south of Belarus, whose authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has allowed the country to be used as a launching pad for the Russian assault.

Lyubov Padskai, a refugee from Ukraine, is also housed at the dormitory connected to Prague's Slavia soccer club.
Lyubov Padskai, a refugee from Ukraine, is also housed at the dormitory connected to Prague's Slavia soccer club.

Another woman staying at the dormitory, Lyubov Padskai, a pensioner from Mukachevo in western Ukraine, says she fled alone on February 25, one day after the Russian attack began.

"They were saying that Ukraine was going to fall in two days. There were drones and planes already buzzing in the air just before we got out," Padskai says, adding that it took her five days to travel, partly on foot, to finally reach the Czech capital.

Like all those interviewed by RFE/RL, Padskai, 68, bears no ill will toward the people of Russia, laying the blame for the tragedy at the feet of Putin.

"They are just simple people. They can't be blamed for what is happening, and if they do protest, they are put in jail," Padskai says.

Over 7,600 people have been arrested in 121 cities in Russia since the start of the Russian attack on February 24, according to data collected by the human rights organization OVD-Info.

Fifty-year-old Vitaliya Sichova fled Mukachevo with her two daughters soon after the invasion began. The two girls, aged six and eight, Sichova says, have been traumatized. "They are scared. They don't even want to go outside. I don't know what to do," Sichova says, her voice trembling.

Like the other women, Sichova is struggling to come to terms with all that has happened and what may come.

"I don't want to be a refugee," says Sichova, an auto insurance agent just a few weeks ago.

"I want to work. I want to go home."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.