How To Get In And Out Of A War Zone: A Ukrainian Refugee Explains

“I just want to go home. It’s my town, it’s my flat, it’s my friends.” Hanna Semenenko, who now lives in Oxford, has just returned from a trip to Kyiv.
How To Get In And Out Of A War Zone: A Ukrainian Refugee Explains
How To Get In And Out Of A War Zone: A Ukrainian Refugee Explains
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

What do you do if your family is split across Europe, divided not just by countries but by a war led Vladimir Putin?

If you’re a Ukrainian refugee, you just might go back home – fully aware of the danger you’re putting yourself in.

The UN claims there are more than eight million refugees from Ukraine spread across Europe, around 20% of the country’s population. Around a million are thought to have returned, although it’s hard to pin down an exact number and know how many were just making fleeting visits.

Hanna and her son
Hanna and her son
Hanna Semenenko

Hanna Semenenko, 40, now lives in Oxford with her 16-year-old son Alex after fleeing Ukraine in July last year – and the pair have just returned from a two-week trip back home.

In fact, despite the constant threat of danger that lingers on in Ukraine, Hanna has ventured back to her home country three times over the last eight months after keenly missing her husband, relatives and friends who stayed on.

As she told HuffPost UK: “It doesn’t matter what’s happening in Kyiv, I just want to go home. It’s my town, it’s my flat, it’s my friends.”

The return to Kyiv

The UK government advises against any travel to Ukraine right now
The UK government advises against any travel to Ukraine right now
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

But just how does someone go about returning to Ukraine? Well, it turns out it’s not as hard as you might think. As Hanna describes it, the journey is “slow but possible”.

Prior to the war, you could take a medium-haul flight from the UK to the capital of Kyiv. This is no longer an option.

For Hanna’s most recent trip, she decided the best route was to get a plane from the UK to eastern Poland and then use the carpool app BlaBla to give you a lift to the border between the two countries – and beyond, if your driver is happy to do so.

Luckily, the pair had a Ukrainian driver with a job in Poland this time, which made crossing the border significantly easier.

She said you just pay petrol, and it’s like a “private taxi”, adding: “We don’t know each other but we can move like this.”

Those brave enough to cross the border need only a visa from the country they’re residing in and their passport – nothing else.

This was technically the easiest return journey so far, for Hanna and her son. The whole travelling time came to just 12 hours from Oxford to Lviv in the west of Ukraine, with just one hour to cross the border.

After a short time there to meet up with Hanna’s husband, the three chose to move on to Kyiv, the capital.

But it is possible to get a train, too. Not only is the railway system still helping with evacuations and food supply for the whole country, it was US president Joe Biden’s preferred mode of transport for moving from Poland to Ukraine for a top-secret 10-hour journey in February.

Not everything is as easy for the general public as it is for Biden, though.

Hanna and Alex said that one of their previous journeys took 30 hours to get into Ukraine.

Even that isn’t among the worst examples of the delays at the border. She told HuffPost UK that the first time some of her friends tried to go back, it took four days to get into the country.

“There were so many cars, so many people, just walking through the border, without stuff, just walking,” Hanna explained.

And that’s before you get to the restrictions imposed by daylight hours, too.

“We cannot move at night,” Hanna explained, meaning that if you arrive in Ukraine between 11pm and 5am, you’re stuck and will have to rely on loose acquaintances who just might be able to put you up for the night.

Only those linked to the military are permitted to move, otherwise you’ll be pulled over by the local police.

According to Hanna, the return journey is usually much the same – a combination of trains or carpools, a brief check with border control that you have the right visa and passport, followed by a flight out of Poland.

Living in a war zone

Destroyed military trucks in the city centre
Destroyed military trucks in the city centre
Hanna Semenenko

But once you’re back within the border, how different is it?

Returning to your home when it’s under constant threat of assault is always going to be daunting even though, as Hanna said, those who have stayed are now accustomed to the danger.

She claimed: “The citizens of Kyiv, they’re used to it. They live their own lives, they go to work.”

The city itself is now made up of many citizens who used to live in the more dangerous territories in the east which Russia is trying to claim. The UN thinks more than five million people are thought to be displaced within Ukraine.

Hanna’s son even spent two days back at school in Ukraine, picking up from where he left off.

“This time in Ukraine it was very nice, it was very calm,” she explained, although she recalled that her first trip back last year was pretty different.

“The first time, I was very upset. When I came back, about two or three months [into the war], there were so many destroyed buildings.”

Then, there was the occasion when she was in Kyiv and an alarm started sounding. It wasn’t until the evening when she saw the news that a bomb had very nearly hit the place where Hanna had been standing.

She said: “It was very near me. It destroyed this building in the centre of city.

“That time, I was very scared.”

Markers of war are scattered around the city, including a damaged car and a rocket
Markers of war are scattered around the city, including a damaged car and a rocket
Hanna Semenenko

Reality outside of the capital

Kyiv is still very much a target of Russia’s long-range missiles, but it is still far from the frontline to the east and south.

And Hanna is very aware that she is one of the more fortunate ones, able to still visit her family in Kyiv. She told HuffPost UK how her own friend with family in Mariupol – an occupied city which has been destroyed by Russian attacks – was sent on a desperate journey to find her mother.

“It was horrible what she needed to do,” Hanna said. “The first of the days of the wars, she could not speak with her mother. She lost her phone connection with her mother for three weeks, she didn’t know if she was alive or not.”

The friend took it upon herself to go to the city which has been occupied since May last year and carrying out an in-person hunt for her mum.

Hanna said: “She told me she was very scared because she met the Russian soldiers and they say: ‘What are you doing here?’”

One set of Russian soldiers told her friend: “We can just shoot you now. Go away.”

“They can just shoot,” Hanna explained. “It was lucky for her that she found some way to go from this block-post, show their Ukrainian passports, and she just met her mum in the street.

“I’m telling you, it’s horrible.”

Amazingly, the friend’s mother just happened to be getting water in the street and they bumped into each other.

So many stories are like this – and many are significantly less lucky, finding out their friends and relatives have been murdered much later and potentially tortured or already buried in mass graves.

“I don’t know how to explain what they all have on their minds,” Hanna said.

She added that the worst tragedies occurred far from the capital like Bucha, Borodyanka and Gostomel.

A municipal dump in Bucha is seen in front of residential buildings at cemetery of civilian vehicles which were destroyed by Russian troops.
A municipal dump in Bucha is seen in front of residential buildings at cemetery of civilian vehicles which were destroyed by Russian troops.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A permanent return?

Hanna’s friends and family seem divided over her decision to move across Europe, with some of them still asking her to move back.

Equally, her own family are not that keen on leaving Ukraine, many with their own ties which mean they feel it’s impossible to evacuate the country.

Her sister, for instance, is not keen on leaving. “I’m scared – she’s fine with this. My friends, they’re used to it.”

Men also can’t move out of the country either because they are all conscripted to fight in the war. Hanna fears for the day her 16-year-old son might be called up.

But she doesn’t regret her decision, explaining: “I very much miss my family. But I know here I am safe, and my son is safe, he can live his normal life, he can go outside – not just sitting in a shelter somewhere.”

She also emphasised if you have a job in Kyiv, “it’s very good”, but as a former dancer, she believes her career there is over.

When asked what the future might hold, Hanna said uncertainly: “I don’t know what’s happening next year, maybe I’ll stay here, maybe not – but so many women like me already have their jobs in Poland, in Germany. And maybe some of them don’t want to go back.”

After all, some people have nothing left.

The UK currently allows Ukrainian refugees to live here for up to three years – but as with all war, it’s impossible to know how long it might last.

Being so far away though does mean you are forever fretting about the safety of your loved ones, as Hanna explained. If she doesn’t hear from someone in a day or two, she naturally fears the worst.

The one thing she does know is that she’s already keen to get back.

Hanna explained: “I’m already planning my next trip, in summer, when my son’s school is finished. It’s because I miss my family very much, I miss my husband very much.”

Hanna and Alex plan to stay in the UK – for now
Hanna and Alex plan to stay in the UK – for now
Hanna Semenenko
Close

What's Hot