EuropeEurope Letter

‘We are grateful, but we just don’t want to be here’: Ukrainians in Moldova on dilemma of returning home

In the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, small things can have an eerie similarity to home - it’s like a snapshot of life before the war

Oksana Khabolinskaya, a 37-year-old psychologist, had a weekly schedule of filling up her car on Thursdays. But on that particular Thursday, Russia invaded. She had no fuel to flee.

The soldiers gained control of her native region of Kherson within a week.

She set up a makeshift schoolroom in a basement for her two boys, giving them drawing exercises to do while she ventured out for supplies.

Whenever a shop was open she bought everything she could, not knowing how long she would need the food to last, and siphoned fuel from the tanks of cars.


After two months, she packed her children into the car together with the packages of coffee and food she had prepared to hand out to the soldiers, to ease their way through the 13 Russian checkpoints that stood between them and the nearest Ukrainian-held city, Mykolaiv.

“When we saw the first Ukrainian soldiers, we cried,” she recalled over lemonade in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, which she has now made her home.

For Liliana (41), from Mykolaiv, the decision to leave came when her daughter Anastasia developed a stutter from the sound of the explosions.

Irina, a 32-year-old social media marketer wearing a sunflower brooch, lasted one month under Russian occupation before her daughter Miroslava, a four-year-old with flyaway fair hair in twin plaits, developed a nervous habit of constant blinking from terror.

For Anna Sivolotka (31), it was when a Russian missile hit a nearby military base.

“I heard the sound and realised in that moment that I no longer wanted to live there with children,” Sivolotka recalled in an interview in the boarding house where she now lives.

Her journey to safety meant walking for five kilometres across the border with her toddler, her eight-year-old, and her 15-year-old niece, part of an exodus of hundreds of thousands who crossed to Moldova in the early weeks of the war.

In happier times, the Ukrainian coast was where many Moldovans spent their summer holidays. It was from friends from the next holiday villa over that some Ukrainians received calls offering places to stay if needed.

Small things can have an eerie similarity to home: the roads, the design of parks, the girls wheeling their bikes beside the fountain, the families buying ice-cream. Like a snapshot from before the war.

Russian language skills can help Ukrainian refugees find their feet and into jobs. A sizeable minority of the Moldovan population speak Russian as their mother tongue, rather than the majority Romanian.

But this commonality can also bring the refugees into the orbit of a community where Kremlin-funded media holds a powerful sway.

On her first day in her job as a dishwasher in a Chisinau restaurant, the news from home was particularly bad, and Sivolotka found herself in tears.

“A colleague said: why are you crying? Russia came to Ukraine to save you,” she recalled, her pale blue eyes fiery at the memory. “It’s not in my character to stay quiet. We got into a fight, and I was almost fired.”

Tatiana Chirova (54), a commanding Odessan with a black ponytail, said she sometimes speaks Ukrainian even if people don’t understand her, just because she feels like it. “We are grateful to the Moldovans,” she said, and then abruptly stopped, caught off guard by a rising sob.

Beside her on the sofa, her friend Ludmila stepped in to explain.

“We are grateful, but we just don’t want to be here. We don’t want any of this to be happening. We are happy not to have the gunfire, the sirens, the sound of war,” Ludmila said.

Fifteen months on, many now wrestle with the decision to return. Tatiana’s daughter left to be closer to her husband. Others waver back and forth, hesitant to make commitments, to make their children learn new languages, when Kyiv is just a drive away.

Oksana says she recently brought her two boys to do some volunteer work, planting trees in a Moldovan garden and painting a wall. Her 11-year-old plays with friends on the street just like a local, she says.

Her parents are still back in Kherson. But returning would be complicated. The eastern bank of the city is still under occupation. “The city is mined,” she says.

Not long after we spoke, the great Kakhovka Dam was destroyed, emptying its vast reservoir down the Dnipro river and flooding the Kherson region.

Oksana messaged to say her relatives were safe from the water. “But what is happening in the city is a disaster.”

Home slipped further from reach.