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As millions of Ukrainians flee war, hundreds are heading back home in spite of violence

“It’s not working out,” a mother in Hungary said. “How do I bring up two children without any help? I want to go back right now.”
Hungary Opens Its Borders To Refugees Fleeing Ukraine Invasion
More than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries since the start of Russia's military offensive.Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hundreds of people who had fled the war in neighboring Ukraine gathered on Platform 10 at Budapest Nyugati railway station in Hungary’s capital on the first Sunday of April.

But the more than 200 passengers waiting for the 7:23 a.m. train weren't on their way farther from Ukraine — instead they were heading back home.

Yulia Kalinina, who was traveling with her sister so that they could be reunited with their husbands, admitted it hadn't been an easy decision.

“I am afraid,” said Kalinina, 39, who is from Kyiv. “But I very much want to go home. I want to see my husband. I’d rather be afraid with him than be afraid alone here.” 

Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 are banned from leaving the country in case they are needed to fight.

As the war in Ukraine rages into its sixth week, Kalinina and her sister are part of a trickle of refugees who are worn out from being separated from family and unable to find opportunity in Europe, and are beginning to return to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian State Border Guard Service said that on Sunday alone, more than 22,000 Ukrainians crossed the border back into the country, compared to 33,000 that left. More than 4 million people have left Ukraine since the war broke out on Feb. 24.

While it's not just Hungary that is seeing refugees leave — the Polish Border Guard reported more than 421,000 border crossings into Ukraine since the start of the war — aid workers say the problems facing Ukrainians are particularly acute in Hungary, where the language is difficult to learn, inflation is skyrocketing and job opportunities are scarce.

"For women and children, no one can guarantee their safety."

Natalia Csuri, volunteer translator

And some humanitarian workers say that while Hungary's hard-line Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has softened his anti-immigration rhetoric, he has provided little government assistance to the roughly 400,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in the country, leaving volunteers and nongovernmental organizations to piece together a support system for the refugees.

Aid workers and volunteers say that they began to see hundreds of refugees, mostly women and children, trying to re-enter Ukraine toward the end of March. Ukrainian-speaking volunteers at the Budapest Nyugati railway station say more and more people are arriving at the station each day looking for help to buy a ticket back to Ukraine, aware that they may not have anything to return to.

While some Ukrainians said they would rather reunite with family and live in an underground bunker than continue to search day by day for food and shelter, others had run out of money and felt they had nowhere else to go. And some, still traumatized by near-death escapes, were returning home to retrieve elderly relatives who had been unable to leave in the initial rush to evacuate.

Tatiana Samsonova, 38, waved goodbye to her older sister who was boarding the train to go back to Lviv to get their 70-year-old mother, who could not travel on her own.

A sign displays information for Ukrainians along the platform at Nyugati train station in Budapest.
A sign displays information for Ukrainians along the platform at Nyugati train station in Budapest. Vladimir Zivojinovic for NBC News

Samsonova said she knew the risks facing her sister. When Samsonova left Ukraine in March with her children, ages 4 and 10, she said Russian snipers shot at their car. Their neighbors, who were driving ahead of them, were hit with a rocket, setting their car on fire. The shelling was constant, and Samsonova, ducking under her steering wheel for protection, could not stop to help them. 

“My sister is brave to go back,” said Samsonova, who planned to wait in Budapest with her kids. “I just want her to come back here OK.”

Refugee and migration experts say that it is not uncommon for refugees to return home during a time of conflict, but that it is often a sign of weak humanitarian and official government responses.

“It’s very concerning because Ukraine is still a country in conflict,” said Emily Venturi, who specializes in refugees and migration at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “It’s also a red flag for European governments to make sure that the humanitarian response is meeting the needs of Ukrainians.”

Experts also say that refugees could be encouraged by Ukraine’s recent battlefield victories, which have seen it drive out Russian troops in parts of the country, leading to a perceived sense of stability. It is unclear what proportion of refugees who are returning to Ukraine plan to stay temporarily to collect belongings or loved ones, or plan to remain more permanently in the country.

Alexander Betts, a professor of forced migration and international affairs at Oxford University, said that even though the trajectory of the war is uncertain, refugees could be interpreting news reports of the conflict in a way that hardens their determination to go home.

“People have left rapidly, women and children left so many family members, including men. They’ve left property, they’ve left homes, and many will continue to perceive their lives and their futures as being in Ukraine,” Betts said.

Natalia Csuri, who began volunteering as a translator at the Budapest railway station when the war broke out, said huge questions hang over returning refugees.

“For women and children, no one can guarantee their safety. And nobody can really guarantee that they actually will still have their loved ones and their houses to go back to,” she said. “It’s a risky situation, and so far it’s a new tendency that people are going back in so many numbers.”

In response to what has become Europe's biggest refugee crisis since World War II, the European Union in March granted Ukrainians the right to live and work within the bloc for up to three years. But even for those able to find jobs, many women who left Ukraine with their children are unable to find child care.

Marina, 30, who asked not to use her last name because she was worried about her security, left Kyiv with her 7-year-old and 18-month-old sons at the beginning of March with enough cash to rent a small apartment in Budapest for a month.

She was able to find a job as a waitress, but did not have anyone to watch her kids while she was at work. She turned the job down and came to the rail station looking for information on how to cross the border to Ukraine.

People line up to purchase tickets at Nyugati station on Friday.
People line up to purchase tickets at Nyugati station on Friday. Vladimir Zivojinovic for NBC News

“It’s not working out,” she said. “How do I bring up two children without any help? I want to go back right now.”

Many refugees simply seek the comfort and familiarity of home, even as they journey into the unknown. 

On Sunday, Anna Lutsenko, 32, waited at the Budapest station to start what could be a weekslong journey back to the city of Odesa in the southeast of Ukraine. Lutsenko said she had seen videos on social media showing the Black Sea port city at peace.

“It's quiet there now,” she said, as she boarded the train with the roller suitcase she left home with just a few weeks earlier. “We want to live in our city.”

As the train pulled out, Russia announced that it had launched a missile strike against an Odesa oil facility, its first major attack against the city since the war started.