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Ukraine conflict: Children on their own, parents stay behind

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are pouring towards neighbouring countries to flee the Russian invasion.

In the three days since the invasion began, more than 115,000 have crossed into Poland alone – some travelling for more than two days, others joining queues 15km (10 miles) long at border points.

Those fleeing are mostly women and children, as all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are being told to stay and fight – in some cases separated from their families. BBC correspondents met them at the borders.

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Ana at Palanka-Maiaky-Udobne border crossing between Moldova and Ukraine

24-hour queue

By Lucy Williamson, Palanca, Moldova

Seen from the Moldovan border, Ukraine is a nation of women. Mothers and grandmothers, wheeling suitcases to safety, leading their children into the unknown.

Ana arrived at the Palanca crossing point after more than 24 hours waiting in a queue on the Ukrainian side of the border – her little yellow car stuffed with bags, her six-year-old granddaughter singing to herself in the backseat.

Ana and her stepdaughter had driven straight from the southern city of Odesa – some 50km away and now a key target for Russia in the war.

But Ana’s calm smiling manner crumbled as soon as she began to speak. Breaking down in tears, she described how she’d had to leave her husband behind to defend their country.

“I hope the West will help us get out of this terrible situation, because right now we’re facing the Russian aggressor alone.”

Around her, local volunteers from Moldova’s towns and villages waited to offer lifts to Ukrainians arriving here on foot.

But, like Ana, many who turn up here have thought only of escaping Ukraine, and have little idea of what happens now – for their country or themselves.

Tea, coffee and guidance at makeshift stalls at the Ukraine-Moldova border

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No men allowed

By Mark Lowen, Przemysl, Poland

The overnight train from Kyiv, via Lviv, pulled in carrying Europe’s new refugees. They arrived at the 19th Century train station at Przemysl, which is now a modern-day reception centre.

Kateryna Leontieva

“It took us 52 hours to get here,” said Kateryna Leontieva, who had travelled from Kharkiv with her teenage daughter. Clutching their Ukrainian passports, and carrying a rucksack of belongings, they stepped out into eastern Poland – and safety.

When I asked how it felt to be here, Kateryna welled up with emotion. “I don’t know yet – the tears are just coming,” she said. “I didn’t feel anything – but now I’m starting to realise. I hope it’s just a short trip and we’ll be back soon.”

In the waiting room, we found Irene and her two young children. Her husband had remained in Lviv to defend their homeland.

“Only women and children are allowed to go,” she said. “The men want to stay, fight, and give blood. They are heroes.”

How did she feel about her husband staying behind, I asked?

“I’m afraid,” she replied, her voice beginning to break. “We believe everything will be alright. And we’re praying for them.”

Woman in waiting room at station

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Dropping off the kids

By Nick Thorpe, Beregsurany, Hungary

Victoria came from Irshava, in western Ukraine.

“I came to Hungary with my two daughters. I’m leaving them with relatives who are waiting here at the border and returning to my husband,” she says amidst nervous laughter.

Are you afraid to go back?

“Honestly, I’m not afraid. I only worry about my daughters, that’s all. I see that things are not good for Ukraine, but I cannot leave my country. We have to be patriotic.”

And her defiance continues.

“My husband is ready if necessary to protect Ukraine for the future, for our children. I don’t want it but we must save our country.

“He will go to the military office because he has received a letter.”

Graphic showing key crossing points for Ukrainians

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Parents stayed behind

By Rob Cameron, Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia

In the tiny village of Velke Slamence, the latest gaggle of refugees walked briskly down the road, eyes searching anxiously for a familiar face, followed by a shout of recognition, a hug, a kiss.

For a fleeting moment the scene felt joyful – light-hearted almost. But then it was punctured by a sharp, piercing cry. A woman’s face crumpled in anguish before she was led swiftly away.

“Uzhhorod,” said a teenage girl, when I asked where she was from, a city of 100,000 just across the border. Before World War Two that city was part of Czechoslovakia. There are bonds of kinship and solidarity in these plains beneath the Carpathian Mountains that go back a century.

That was almost all she would tell me. She clutched the hand of her little brother, a shy boy. Their parents had stayed behind. It was unclear who they were waiting for.

Men are on the other side of the border

Tanya left Kyiv 20 years ago, and now lives with her partner in Stuttgart. But here she was, standing by the roadside, waiting to rescue an old friend as their home city was engulfed by chaos.

Surveying the scene was villager Jan Toth.

“They’re not letting men leave, Putin or Zelensky,” he told me. “It’s a catastrophe.”

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Russia attacks Ukraine: More coverage

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