At the military enlistment office in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine in the far west of the country, a crowd of men and women of varying ages gather at the gates. Elderly men talk passionately, as younger men and women kiss and embrace, while other women cry alone.
One young couple could not stop embracing. He had received a summons and reported to the enlistment office for instructions on what to do next. While he was afraid to fight, and unsure of what would happen next, he knew there was no other option than to fight. His girlfriend, trying to strengthen courage for both of them said “It’s an honor for a man to defend his country.”
They are scenes that have played out thousands of times. Since the start of the war on February 24th, men aged 18-60 have been barred from leaving Ukraine. This leaves women and children to carry on alone, not knowing when or if their will see each other again. As they head for the safety of the borders and further into Europe their men are heading back to the east, and the front lines fighting the Russian onslaught.
Some of the women and children join the massive flow of refugees from the war, which the United Nations, as of this writing, calculates to be more than 4,7 million. They head towards Ukraine’s borders with Hungry, Slovakia and Romania, where wait time at the border crossings have sometimes stretched 10-12 hours. As traffic has snarled at the borders, some women have left their cars and walked up to 5 hours carrying their children in their arms trying to reach safety anyway their can.
Other families remain in Ukraine, unable or unwilling to leave the country they call home. But the goodbyes continue for them as well as other family members, friends, and those whom they have been sheltering decide that it is time to move.
Meanwhile the guards at the enlistment office continue to call out to the men one by one, letting them inside the gates, as armed military personal look on. They will be registered, then sent to training camps, and then possibly to the front, with no guarantee of their return. Those men who manage to flee the draft in Ukraine instead of registering face hatred, threats, and isolation from family and friends as the New York Times reports. Smuggling rings have been busy according to the report, with some men paying up to $15,000 to get out of Ukraine. But those are a large minority, as most are choosing to stay and fight, even without any training and not knowing what awaits them.
Photographer Ismail Ferdous, special correspondent for Blind, spent a week photographing those men heading off to war, women and children heading for safer places outside of Ukraine, and those who choose to stay.
Oksana and her husband Stepan live in Uzhhorod. When the war broke out, friends and relatives from all over the country began to reach out to them and show up at their door. Some would come simply for a few days before heading to Western Europe, while others would stay longer.
The family and their house guests were having a farewell dinner for her cousin Olga, and her daughter Dianna along with their friend Marina and her son Mikhailo. The group had been staying there for about a week but were planning on heading to Germany.
Olga and her daughter came from Kyiv. On the day of the invasion, they woke up to the sounds of explosions, and quickly packed their bags and fled the city. They stayed for a week in Bila Tserkva, taking shelter in a basement they’re hoping that they would be able to return home quickly. When they realize that was not the case, the went to leave, and and had been in the train station when a bomb exploded nearby, sending dust and debris flying. They went to Uzhhorod to get away from the fighting. But when the air raid sirens began to wail in the city, they decided it was time to go. Olga has a friend who lives in Munich, and so they are heading that way.
But Oksana and Stepan stay. They continue to watch over those who come to them seeking shelter, including Olga’s brother and Stepan’s childhood friend. They also volunteer to help others displaced by the war who are currently in the city. Stepan is a student of history, and is convinced that Ukraine will win the war, it just a matter of time.
At the enlistment office the men who had come to enlist had a few hours before they would be shipping off on busses in the evening to head to a training base before they could be called up to the front lines. All three seemed numbed, as if the full extent of what they were dealing with and what they had signed up for weighed heavily on their shoulders. They did not hint at what was going on in their minds as waited their turns to ship out.
Mikhailo, age 21, was also at the enlistment office. He grew up in the village of Krychevo in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine. Before the war he worked construction in the Czech Republic. But when the war broke out, he grew tired of simply watching the news on TV without doing anything. So he returned home to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine without any military experience.
Dmytri Kovalenko, age 30, had brought his girlfriend and sister to the relative safety of Mukachevo from Kyiv. Before the war he was the co-founder of the Ukrainian American company squareshot.com, a company that edits photographs for e-commerce use. But in the face of the Russian invasion, and without any kind of military experience, he chose to volunteer to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
With them at the office was also Vasyl, 22 years old, who is also from the village of Krychevo. Since he was 16, he worked in Prague. But with the support of his father, who said it was the right choice to make, he returned to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine. like the others, he also has no previous military experience.
Near the Uzhhorod bus station Ira, her mother Ruslana, husband Yura, and their children Viktoriia, Yevheniia, and Valeriia and gathered so that Ira and the children could say goodbye to their father and grandmother as they had decided that she should take the children abroad for their safety. They live in the suburbs of Uzhhorod, and when the war began, they did not think they would have to flee. But as the air raid sirens had gone off three times in the region in the previous days, they changed their minds. They thought the best measure was to get the children out to safety. While they were all worried about what awaited them, they had decided to travel with a neighbour to make it easier, and less scary, for all of them.
Scenes like these are playing out all over Ukraine, just like variations of these scenes have played out throughout history as long as there have been wars to fight. Those leaving to fight in the wars, those fleeing from them, and those staying in place around them all have had to say goodbye to family and friends no matter which choice they made. But as one phase of the war in Ukraine ends as the Russians retreat from Kyiv, another phase is starting as the Russians regroup in the East. How many of the goodbyes become final ones, no one can say, and few want to think about. But as history has shown, it is always more than expected.