They embrace tenderly in the middle of the street. Inna Dorokhina pauses briefly on this hectic morning of farewells in Reutlingen, Germany, and holds her frail neighbor to her chest. Leaning on a cane, the elderly woman dropped by that morning in early July to bring a bag of snacks for the trip. "Everything is so expensive at the gas station," she says.
The two had become friends, the 42-year-old Ukrainian woman and the 90-year-old German, who herself had to flee from what was then Königsberg (in today's Kaliningrad in Russia), as a teenager. "Thank you, Ilse," Dorokhina says, promising to call when she arrives in Ukraine. She hears a soft "God protect you," climbs into the packed Toyota SUV, her 12-year-old daughter in the back seat, and hits the gas.
Dorokhina and her daughter have a 1,760-kilometer (1,094-mile) drive ahead of them – one that will take them from the neat residential area in Reutlingen, not far from Stuttgart, to Winnyzja, a city of 390,000 in central Ukraine, where missiles can strike at any time. From peace to war. And back to her husband, who had stayed behind in Ukraine.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops has triggered the largest movement of refugees seen in Europe since World War II. Around 7 million people have been internally displaced in the country. And just under 6 million people, predominantly women and children, are currently seeking protection abroad. The men had to stay behind to defend their country.
Almost half a year after the start of the Ukraine war, though, it is becoming apparent that the pull of home is powerful. The United Nations Refugee Agency has already counted 3.8 million border crossings into Ukraine, most of them from Poland.
Some Ukrainians, mostly women, just want to go home for days or weeks, and to pick up forgotten documents and supplies of clothes. Or visit their parents – or their husbands who weren't allowed to leave the country. But many also want to return permanently.
Andriy Melnyk, the deposed Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, who is as contentious as he is controversial, claimed in mid-June that many war refugees hadn't felt welcome in Germany. He said that people in Germany ought to be giving thought to why Ukrainians were returning home.
Inna Dorokhina and her son Sasha in Reutlingen, GermanyFoto: Verena Müller
Is there truth to the claim?
There has probably never before been a time when Germany stepped up so quickly and naturally to help refugees. Private citizens here took in many tens of thousands of Ukrainians. The European Union also activated its Temporary Protection Directive, which is designed to deal with mass influxes of people and allows member states to help unbureaucratically, without lengthy asylum procedures. Germany's national railway transported Ukrainian passengers free of charge, they were allowed to visit theaters without having to pay for tickets and even to help themselves to clothing in charity stores.
Why, then, do many of the 880,000 Ukrainian refugees registered in Germany want to go home so soon after coming here? DER SPIEGEL accompanied three refugees: dentist Inna Dorokhina, mother of three. Anastasiia Radykhovska of Kyiv, 27, who sells online courses by phone and ended up in Stuttgart with her best friend, and Tatiana Tehypko, a 39-year-old jeweler who had gained a foothold in Brandenburg until one of her sons made a decision that would force her to rethink everything.
For three and a half months, Inna Dorokhina lived with her 16-year-old son Alexander, called Sasha, and 12-year-old Olga in a furnished attic apartment in Reutlingen, paid partly for by the social welfare office and partly with her own money. Dorokhina left everything spotlessly clean when she left. But what drove her to leave? Dorokhina says she weighed the risk of getting killed with the desire to be with her husband and decided she would rather go home.
She had never been away from Ukraine for this long before. It was also the first time she had driven this far, and she first had to figure out how to fill up the tank on her natural gas-powered SUV. "In Ukraine, the gas station attendant takes care of that," she says.
Now, she has a trip across Germany ahead of her, one that will take her through Nuremberg, Bayreuth and Dresden. In Wroclaw, Poland, she plans to stop for a day at the home of a dentist friend before continuing eastward following her mobile phone's navigation system.
Dorokhina belongs to the upper middle class in Ukraine – she even had domestic help with the laundry and the garden. Together with her husband, she runs a private dental clinic in Vinnytsia, where they have 80 employees. Her eldest, a 21-year-old daughter, had already moved in with her boyfriend.
But the carefree life they had enjoyed there came to an abrupt halt on Feb. 24, when the sirens sounded for the first time. Olga fled under the covers and cried every time the air alarm sounded, and Sasha crouched behind the front door with his father's loaded pistol to defend the family against Russian invaders. Dorokhina says it was almost unbearable for her to see her children like that.
She says her husband Evgeny encouraged her to leave. "If only for the sake of the children," he had argued. He said his sister in Reutlingen would help them. Dorokhina's parents were against her fleeing. Her closest friend accused her of being cowardly by leaving Ukraine at the moment of its greatest crisis.
Looking back, Dorokhina believes it was the right thing to do. She had taken three small suitcases with her at the time, enough for two weeks; she definitely didn't want to stay away for any longer than that.
According to a July study by the United Nations Refugee Agency, many educated women have fled, professionals with solid jobs and good salaries. Almost 80 percent of the refugees have a high school or university diploma. They had been employed in education or health care or had jobs in commerce and trade. The study also found that two-thirds of those who sought protection abroad said they wanted to stay there for the time being – primarily so that their children would be safe.
On a sweltering day in mid-June, Anastasiia Radykhovska is sitting in a café on Stuttgart's Marienplatz square, with an Aperol Spritz set in front of her. She recounts the Russian advance on Kyiv. Nights spent in subway stations to protect herself from the missile attacks. Of the hasty departure. She only had about a half an hour to pack and then join her friend and roommate on the train heading west.
She grew up in Kherson, a city now occupied by the Russians in southern Ukraine. Radykhovska had moved to Kyiv to pursue a Chinese degree.
Anastasiia Radykhovska on the day she left StuttgartFoto: Verena Müller
Radykhovska, a bundle of energy, wears her heart on her sleeve. The words just bubble out of her. That helps her on the job, too. The 27-year-old is part of the team of a Ukrainian psychologist whose services as a counselor are currently in high demand due to his reality TV shows and courses. During the day, she lends an ear to Ukrainian callers who are distressed not only by the events of the war, but also by everyday problems. They ask things like: "What should I do if my child is struggling in online school?" Or: "How do I save my relationship?"
She is able to continue working on her laptop from Germany, in an apartment in Stuttgart's Killesberg district, where she shares a room with her roommate from Kyiv. They've hung the blue-yellow flag of their homeland as a curtain. There is barely any privacy.
Radykhovska says she longs for Kyiv, that she misses the conversations with her close friends the most. Life in the Ukrainian capital is almost as it used to be: The movie theaters are open again, there are concerts everywhere and restaurants have reopened their doors. "At first, I wanted to get into a language course quickly and stay here in Stuttgart for at least a year," she says. She adds that she registered, submitted all the documents and then waited.
One of the first words Radykhovska learned in German was "Fiktionsbescheinigung," or temporary residence permit. She can pronounce it perfectly. The document opens doors: It provides Ukrainian refugees with access to Germany's statutory health care system, to language and integration services and to employment placement through local labor offices. Radykhovska says her friend could work in a hotel immediately, noting that she had previously been employed at a reception desk in Kyiv, "but nothing is possible without" the residence permit.
Nothing happened for weeks. She says her emails to the immigration authority in Stuttgart went unanswered. The office is chronically understaffed, with one-third of its 151 positions unfilled.
Radykhovska had hoped to finally be able to move into her own room. Two women in one room for a long time with no privacy had become too exhausting. She then took the initiative and applied for housing offers. She says she wrote close to 50 emails but only received three replies.
Radykhovska knew that apartment hunting was difficult even for Germans, but with a foreign name, the situation was almost hopeless. When she eventually did receive an offer, Radykhovska says she then sent it on to the social welfare office, which is supposed to pick up the rent costs. She's entitled to that. But she says she waited in vain for an answer, and by then the room was gone.
Anastasiia Radykhovska waits on the bus in Stuttgart that will take her to Kyiv.Foto: Verena Müller
Barely two months after her arrival in Germany, a document landed in her mailbox. She had finally received her residence permit for Ukrainian refugees, with the official stamp of the state capital of Stuttgart. "By that point, I already knew that I was going to leave," she says. She had also fallen out with her friend.
On Saturday, June 25, she boarded a bus at the Stuttgart Airport at 7 a.m. She sat down in the very back, where she could stretch her legs. She had purchased the ticket online for 130 euros. The trip to Kyiv would normally take just under 33 hours, but it ultimately took six more than usual. This was due to the crush at the border, Radykhovska says, with so many buses filled with returning refugees.
Two weeks later, Radykhovska beams at the camera during a video call from Kyiv. She looks much more relaxed than she did a fortnight earlier in Stuttgart. "I'm so happy to be back in Kyiv," she says. She has just returned from a walk.
Radykhovska says she found an apartment for 200 euros, one-third of what she earns each month. The nicest part, she says, is the floor-to-ceiling windows. She has a piece of her old life back, and there hasn't been an air raid alert in three days.
Anyone who decides to travel home to Ukraine from Germany is on their own. Return counseling centers – offices that usually provide support to asylum-seekers whose applications have been rejected – are not assisting Ukrainians who want to go back. There is no funding for when they get started again in their home country and nor are their travel costs picked up. At the centers, women are told, "Don't go back, it's too risky." The normal, publicly funded-repatriation programs have been suspended because of the war, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) warns on its homepage.
Tatiana Tehypko shows little of the euphoria exuded by Anastasiia Radykhovska. Tehypko also returned to Ukraine a few days ago. It's the end of June, and the 39-year-old is sitting on the sofa in her stuffy two-room apartment.
The dreary high-rise block is located in Vinnytsia in the same neighborhood as Inna Dorokhina's dental clinic, but the women have never met. Tehypko, a jeweler with fingernails painted deep red, has two sons.
Tatiana Tehypko in VinnytsiaFoto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
Tehypko's five-year-old son Timofey in VinnytsiaFoto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
She had fled to Berlin with her boys in March on a bus with little luggage. Germany is the country of her dreams. But why? She immediately ticks off the reasons: good health insurance, beautiful cities, no air raids.
On her mobile phone, Tehypko shows a video from Rathenow, a city located about an hour from Berlin by train. It shows them together with their host family in the backyard, all with happy faces. She says everything was really nice in the state of Brandenburg, back in the days without missile attacks. She says her littlest son, five-year-old Timofey, got along very well with the host family's son of the same age. Tehypko says they had plenty of space, even a backyard with a pool.
There was just one problem: Her older son, 17, wanted to go back to his girlfriend and his school, where he was in the 11th grade and had been receiving military training. "He drove there without my permission," says Tehypko, and now he's back in Ukraine alone. She hoped in vain for three weeks that Danil would return. But then she packed everything up. "I had to follow him," she says. "I can't leave him on his own."
She shows another video taken just a few days after she returned. It's from Danil's graduation ceremony at the school in Kamianets-Podilskyi, a city located around 200 kilometers southwest of Vinnytsia. It shows him marching in step together with other young boys under Ukrainian flags. He wears a uniform and she wears a two-piece outfit. Both carry serious expressions.
There's a goldsmith's table in the bedroom, which also doubles as Tehypko's living and working room. But she'll have to give it back soon, the jeweler says, pulling tools out of the drawers, pliers and small beads. She says her employer has laid her off and is now demanding all the materials back. No one is buying jewelry these days. When a gush of wind pushes the door open behind her back, the 39-year-old flinches. She's nervous, afraid of missile attacks.
Tatiana Tehypko and her son Timofey want to return to the state of Brandenburg in Germany because it is safe there.Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
She says she prays every day that Danil will come to reason and that they can all go back to Germany together soon. Tehypko pulls the insurance cards from the German health insurance company, her correspondence with the government agencies, everything she did while she was in Germany, out of a red folder.
The worst thing, she says, is the idea that Danil will have to go to the front when he turns 18 in January. Every day, she hears about dead soldiers. She says she wants to go to Rathenow, where no one can force her boy into the army.
At least 5,110 civilians have died so far in the Ukraine war, including 346 children. But the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says those statistics don't include all of the dead, and that the real figures are likely much higher. All the returnees are aware of the perils – and yet they are prepared to accept them.
Asked about their reasons for going home, 40 percent say the situation in their country has improved significantly, the study by the UN Refugee Agency found. The survey also showed that around one in 10 people return because they want to go back to family members, while others want to return to work because money is tight.
On the evening of the third day after her departure from Reutlingen, Inna Dorokhina stops, annoyed, at the end of a gigantic traffic jam on the side of the road. There are still 13 kilometers to go until the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing at Budomierz-Hrushiv. "This is the line for everyone who wants to bring a used car to Ukraine," she learns through the rolled-down window as she drives past parked cars.
Once all the papers have been checked twice at 9:29 p.m. and the Toyota is allowed to pass the Ukrainian barrier gate, all the tension disappears from Dorokhina's face. She seems totally relieved. "I really just want to let out a scream," she says. She then takes a deep breath, calls her father and utters a single sentence: "I'm in Ukraine."
She writes at the same time to her son Sasha on WhatsApp. "I'm in Ukraine."
The 16-year-old stayed behind in Reutlingen. "He'll have a better future there," she says, "a safe life." She describes how Sasha became more determined and independent after arriving in Germany. "It used to be hard to motivate him," she says, adding that the fresh start has done him good.
She says that staying in Germany had been his idea. And that his aunt is supporting him. Sasha also fell in love, an additional factor. He moved in with a teacher couple and goes to high school. In the afternoons, he goes to the community pool. Dorokhina says everything has been arranged with the youth welfare office in Germany. At first, Dorokhina had been skeptical. When she heard about the arrangement initially, she first had to be persuaded.
"It's about him, not me," she says. "I have to let him do it."
Dorokhina still has 451 kilometers to go before she reaches Vinnytsia. The white SUV rolls past tank traps and abandoned checkpoints. Some sandbags are already bursting open. Dorokhina accelerates. She opens up a bit more, also about the depression she had in Germany at the beginning. She says she had to force herself to go jogging. After a while, she says she was able to sleep better. She sat in on German classes four afternoons a week, adding structure to her days.
Daughter Olga had been looking forward to being able to swim in the pool in the backyard in Ukraine again.Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
An outdoor BBQ for dinner: Inna Dorokhina and her husband EvgenyFoto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
She reaches Vinnytsia city limits on Saturday evening after a four-and-a-half-day journey. She passes the blue and white tram, parks and angular apartment blocks. The streets are full, the stores too. Fuel is still in short supply at gas stations.
The last meters of the drive are bumpy. Dorokhina applies the brakes to the SUV in front of a driveway, her fingers scanning the front compartment for the electric door opener. She presses it once, and the wings of the wooden gate swing open.
Her daughter Olga, who had been sitting quietly in the back seat the whole time playing with her mobile phone, yanks open the car door and runs up the driveway and into her father's arms.
She pets the German shepherd that jumps about around her. Inna Dorokhina kisses her husband and says hello to their cat Amur. She has sushi for dinner before finally sleeping in her own bed again. Her husband, who snores, makes do sleeping on the sofa out of consideration.
Nineteen days later, Russian missiles strike the center of Vinnytsia. The Ukrainian government says a submarine in the Black Sea fired them. At least 24 people die in the air strike, including three children.
When the rockets detonate, Inna Dorokhina is in her kitchen making pancakes. She will later say that she had ear plugs in and couldn't hear a thing, that the music had drowned it all out.
Tatiana Tehypko reports that she heard the explosions and ran into the hallway with Timofey, where they laid down on the floor. It was in those moments on the ground, Tehypko says, that she decided to leave her country once again for Germany. But this time only with her younger son.