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Millions of Ukrainians rushed to leave — the line to return home stretches for miles

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Since the war in Ukraine began, we've heard about refugees waiting hours or days to cross into Poland. Now the flow has reversed. People in Poland wait in long lines to return to Ukraine. All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro is in Poland and found something like a mirror image of the scene from two months ago.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Anna Kobernyk and her friends are sitting in a line of vehicles almost 10 miles long.

ANNA KOBERNYK: We stay here for 6 hours. And we come to the border, and they say that we should turn around and come all the line again because we are not bus. But when we come from Ukraine, they say that we are bus - very bad.

SHAPIRO: Now, I'm not looking to take sides in a border dispute, but she is waiting to cross the border in a van. The official vehicle documents from Ukraine may say her van is a bus, but when they reach the front of the bus line, Polish border guards said, that's a van. Return to the end of the line.

KOBERNYK: It is crazy.

SHAPIRO: Which is why they're now waiting for hours more with all the passenger vehicles.

KOBERNYK: We've actually - we really waited for all night here, and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KOBERNYK: Yes. And all of us really tired - really tired.

SHAPIRO: She's a graduate student from Kyiv getting a master's in international relations. And over the last few months, this war has given her a crash course.

KOBERNYK: It's my practical lesson, actually, directly. To me, even - it's sad, of course. But as professional, I just - I understand many, many things.

SHAPIRO: What is the practical lesson that you take away from the experience?

KOBERNYK: That, actually, 21st century - it's not so fantastic, that U.N. and many, many others - all of them can do nothing.

SHAPIRO: When I first visited the Medyka border crossing, the war was just beginning, and leaving Ukraine seemed like a permanent act. People wept, afraid that they were departing their country forever, not knowing if they would even have a country to return to. Now even though there is still death and fighting in Ukraine's south and east, the scene here at the Polish border has lost the panic and fear it once had. Some Ukrainians are going back and forth often.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS ENGINE)

SHAPIRO: Double-decker buses idle bumper to bumper. The signs on their dashboard say they've begun their journeys in Poland, Germany, Italy and places even farther west. The destination cities are all in Ukraine - Kyiv, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk.

ANASTASIA BORYKO: It's very - a strange feeling because when we left, we were very scared, and we were escaping.

SHAPIRO: Anastasia Boryko is one of these bus passengers. She first evacuated from Ukraine to Poland in early March. Now she's crossed a few times. In the Ukrainian city of Rivne, her life working as a marketing manager feels almost normal.

BORYKO: I'm going to office every day. Yes.

SHAPIRO: In Rivne?

BORYKO: Yes.

SHAPIRO: How does that feel?

BORYKO: That's amazing. That's amazing.

SHAPIRO: Did you ever think you would say going to work every day feels amazing?

BORYKO: No.

(LAUGHTER)

BORYKO: No.

SHAPIRO: When you started to talk about that, your whole face lit up. You completely changed.

BORYKO: (Laughter) Yes, because it's really true. I like it. Yes.

SHAPIRO: So tell me about the moment you crossed the border and you're no longer in Poland; you're in your home country, Ukraine. What does that feel like?

BORYKO: At the morning, when the sun started rising and we were at Lutsk and I saw the people, I saw streets that I know - and that was very good. That was like, yea, I'm home.

SHAPIRO: It's not just passenger vehicles and buses waiting here. The line of commercial trucks is also way longer than it used to be because this is one of the few ways anything can get into Ukraine these days.

ROMAN MAKAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SHAPIRO: "Sometimes we're here 48 hours," says a trucker named Roman Makar, "because all the transport into Ukraine is now made by land, not air." The airport in Kyiv is closed. So is the seaport in Mariupol. He's been a truck driver since 2000, and he's never seen the crossing this packed. So he's made the cab of his truck into a cozy space where he can spend days.

MAKAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SHAPIRO: "My talisman," he says, holding up two stuffed animals that sit on the dashboard - a fuzzy turtle and a teddy bear with an I love Ukraine flag.

MAKAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SHAPIRO: He says, "this is my home," referring both to the cab of the truck and to Ukraine. This thin, weathered man with silver eyes sits in the cab with his shoes off, knee tucked up into his chest. Even for someone like him who goes back and forth all the time, driving into Ukraine carries an emotional weight. He puts his hand over his heart.

MAKAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SHAPIRO: "My wife and my kids still live there," he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DOOR CLOSING)

SHAPIRO: Any border can be a place of sudden transformation, yet everything here creeps slowly, inching towards the line that divides a country at peace from one that's under attack. Victoria Olanych hasn't set foot in Ukraine since before the war, and the idea of returning overwhelms her.

VICTORIA OLANYCH: I go now to my mother - visit my mother because she's very ill. She laying in hospital, and I don't have hope.

SHAPIRO: She moved to Brussels in 1989. Going home is very painful, she says. To pass the time on this long journey, she's been chatting with others on her bus.

OLANYCH: I ask them. They say, I don't find myself in Germany. I don't find myself in Belgium. But the - mostly people won't go back. They love Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Are you proud to be going back to Ukraine at this moment?

OLANYCH: I'm proud about - that we have such soldiers. But Ukraine never was so much together.

Oh, so...

SHAPIRO: She runs away, waving and also crying, climbing back onto the bus as it slowly rolls closer to her homeland.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, at the Medyka border crossing in Poland.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS' "SPIRAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.