“I did not take a return ticket”

The driver turns up the volume on the car radio when it’s time for the news flash. We understand that there was still “fighting in districts of Kiev” like “extremely violent strikes in Kharkiv”and that the Ukrainians continue “on the run from hell”. Oleg, seated in the front seat, 6D, shakes his head as he watches the landscapes of the plains pass by at 100 km/h on his right: ‘Since the Russians attacked us, I’ve only thought about that, about this war. I can’t concentrate on anything anymore. I am no longer efficient at the office. So it’s good that I have to go home, to Kiev.”

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It has been two hours since the 42-year-old Ukrainian has boarded this fluorescent green bus from the company Flixbus, Wednesday, March 2. he went on board in Krakow, a large city in southern Poland, where he has lived for seven years with his wife and daughters. Officially, he assures us, it is to see his parents, stranded in the Ukrainian capital, that he travels these 900 endless kilometers. The proof: he found space in his suitcase to bring medicines. The financial analyst also took his laptop, “just in case”, “to be able to consult work emails and answer them if necessary”. But of course it’s not just that: “I also go there to help.” “I’ve never really touched a weapon, he clarifies, rubbing his sweatpants with his hands. But it’s not something that worries me, believe me.” The plan of his trip: crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine, stopping in Lviv, before going to the capital Kiev, “by train, car or bus”.

Oleg aboard the Flixbus company bus connecting Krakow (Poland) to the Ukrainian border, March 2, 2022. (RAPHAEL GODET / FRANCEINFO)

Poland has 1.25 million Ukrainian citizens, according to the Selectivv DMP database (link in polish). USAHow many, like Oleg, have already crossed the border into their native land to lend a hand in battle? No official figures have been released. But the number of buses, minibuses, shuttles, the number of carpool ads offering to drop everyone off at the border is a good indicator. So from Krakow, but also from the capital, Warsaw, from Wroclaw, Poznan, Lublin, Katowice…

These buses, which many normally take for cheap holidays or weekends, are now being used for the war effort. Our Polish driver, Wojtek Szczygiel, recognizes them by force, “all those who are not there as tourists”. “When I see a man alone, with an army suit, I tell myself ‘OK, he will fight,’ he says at the Rzeszów station, pulling on a cigarette. On Tuesday I took another group of five or six young Ukrainians with me. Same, they came in to lend a hand.”

“The boys are there, at -5°C, in the dark, in a bus station, before they go to war. It’s a lot of emotion every time. I have my family here, my life is quiet.”

Wojtek Szczygiel, bus driver

at franceinfo

The day before, to Warsaw West Bus Station, a short man, barely 5 feet tall, was waiting to board a West Travel bus. Vasyl, 36, was about to… “back to the land to defend it”† his ticket “go to war” cost him 110 zloty (23 euros). “I’ll come home when everyone’s on the run, he summarizes with a grin, hands in his pockets. I checked the timetables and routes and made a reservation.” In his huge bag, things for several weeks. But especially a jar of grease paste “for the parents”† On a couch, with a khaki jacket on his back, Victor seems to have promised someone pastries to celebrate his return to Ukraine. To his right, another passenger in his thirties holds his plastic ticket and his 40-pound bag firmly. But it is his vegetable bag, which he has to return to the family, that worries him: “Will there be room?”

Inside the Flixbus company bus connecting Krakow (Poland) to the Ukrainian border, March 2, 2022. (RAPHAEL GODET / FRANCEINFO)

Maria and Aleksandra, Oleg’s two daughters, aged 15 and 18, had mainly wanted to keep their father at the quay. “Neither she nor my wife understood what I was doing”he admits, fiddling with his smartphone. They were against. It wasn’t easy to leave them.” And his boss? Not much more… “When I explained my plan to him, he said to me, ‘Huh? But you’re crazy! Why are you doing this? Stay in Poland!’ But I feel this is what I have to do, it’s inexplicable.”

To his colleagues, who expressed their support for him at the beginning of the week, Oleg promised that he would see them again soon, “maybe in a month”† The truth ? “I haven’t taken a return ticket yet.” Vasyl also promised his Polish friend who accompanies him for the big departure that they will meet again “quick”. “See you soon”, he told her, climbing the four small steps of the bus, before taking his place, at the side of the window, making the ‘V’ for victory with his hand, and then turning around for a few to dry tears.

Vasyl greets a friend at the bus station in Warsaw-West (Poland) before his departure for Ukraine, March 1, 2022. (RAPHAEL GODET / FRANCEINFO)

4:25 PM Our Flixbus stops again. bus station Rzeszow, ca.capital of the Subcarpathian Voivodeship, 200,000 inhabitants. The last stop before the border. A white bus is packed on the platform opposite ours. “Normally there are people, our driver pointed it out to us. Logical for him between the border and the center of Poland.” In ours, sOnly two passengers come to us. “You can sit wherever you want, there is space”he proposes sympathetically. Dimitro, seat 11C, has already started collecting his things. He won’t go much further. “I live in Wroclaw in Poland, but I’m also Ukrainian, so I could go back… but I don’t want to, I can’t, he lets go, startled. I have absolute respect for my compatriots who are going to fight. But it’s not that simple. My father died last May and I am now the man of the house. I can’t do this to my mother and my sister.” Leave, perhaps never to return. Impossible.

“My mother and my sister tell me about the bombings every day. That is not possible. I have to protect them. Do you understand me?’

The landscapes keep moving. A pub for a local beer, a blue sign indicating the direction of Lviv straight ahead, cattle, factories, a forest and more cattle. In the front seat, 10B, Ivan will also be pleased to wait at the border on the Polish side for his few relatives who started their flight from the region of Drohobych. “I have friends who are currently in the ranks of the Territorial defense. They tell me: ‘Stay in Poland. If we need you, we’ll call you!'”

Polish bus driver Wojtek Szczygiel, March 2, 2022, not far from the border with Ukraine.  (RAPHAEL GODET / FRANCE INFO)

By 6 p.m., the sun has already set on Przemysl and the Medyka border post, one of the busiest since the beginning of the Ukrainian exile. Our bus doesn’t go any further. End point for peace. Then it’s Ukraine and the war. Oleg was about to “grab” his suitcase and his next bus when… Wojtek Szczygiel, our driver, who had not known him three hours earlier, rushed over to give him a tight hug for a few seconds: “Good luck”“good luck”, he whispered to her. A long handshake followed. After that, Oleg left for good. He contacted us via messenger a few hours later. It was to tell us that he had arrived safely. His last words: “Let’s shut up now.”