PALANCA, Moldova — Valentina Garbetz and her family piled out of the car at the Ukraine-Moldova border, shouldered their bags and headed east.
Not west, away from Russia's deadly assault on their homeland. Not west, away from the terror and destruction and death on the frontlines of Mariupol and Kyiv.
But east, toward Odesa.
“We don’t scare," Garbetz said, the wheels of her purple suitcase skittering across the potholed pavement of the Ukraine-Moldova border crossing at Palanca. A handbag slung over her shoulder, Garbetz hustled to keep up with the two other women traveling with her, passing a small crowd of westbound Ukrainian refugees waiting for a shuttle bus to a nearby emergency shelter established by Moldovan authorities.
Garbetz and her family are among a small but steadily growing number of Ukrainian refugees who evacuated to neighboring Moldova at the start of the Russian invasion but are now returning home. Many are planning to stay only briefly, to check on their homes or to collect clothing more suited to the warm spring weather arriving in the two former Soviet republics.
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Others say they're tired of living in fear and are confident the Ukrainian military will ultimately prevail, thanks in part to the weapons, supplies and intelligence being supplied by the United States and other allies.
More than 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the invasion, with about 3.5 million refugees fleeing the country for the western neighbors of Poland, Romania or Moldova, according to UN officials. According to the Moldovan Border Police, 368,000 Ukrainians have fled into Moldova, and 101,000 of those have remained in the country, one on of Europe's poorest.
But as war nears its one-month mark, some refugees are ready to risk going home.
Garbetz and her family stayed with extended family near Moldova's capital, Chisinau, but after more than two weeks away, they decided it was time to head home. Border officials in Palanca said for security reasons they could not discuss the number of Ukrainians crossing back from Moldova, but international aid workers confirmed the number of eastbound crossers is rising daily. Most of the refugees from Ukraine are women and children, since most men of fighting age have been banned from leaving to bolster the national defense.
'Everything we have is there'
Tuesday, evacuee Kristina Logvinova waited to cross back into Ukraine, idling in her BMW SUV while waiting for Moldovan border officials to check her paperwork. Logvinova evacuated to Chisinau with her husband and infant when the invasion began, but after talking with friends in Odesa, she decided it would be safe to risk a brief daytime visit, despite the shelling the day before. Odesa is about 35 miles from the Palanca border crossing.
"You never know where the explosions will be. I’m nervous about it but not too much," said Logvinova, a musician. "A lot of friends who are there say the situation is very normal right now."
Like many refugees, Logvinova feels guilty she didn't stay back to defend her home, but she decided the safety of her family came first: “I’m upset I can’t stay and help my friends and my country, but my baby is more important."
Karina Hoderan, an engineer, said she and her family planned to drive to Odesa to pick up clothes, but they weren't sure when they would actually return to Moldova. Maybe immediately. Maybe not.
“Everything we have is there," she said of their home. "And we are too tired to be nervous."
Fleeing west, refugee Liubov Skorobohatykh said she thought it was foolish for people to be returning to some areas of Ukraine, especially anywhere near her home of Mykolaiv, where Ukrainian soldiers patrol the streets and residents fear of further attacks. Mykolaiv, about 80 miles east of Odesa, was heavily damaged during the initial Russian attacks, but the Ukrainian military has been counterattacking.
Tuesday afternoon, Skorobohatykh and her son walked across the Moldovan border and climbed aboard a shuttle bus to a nearby refugee processing center. The UN says the Russian invasion has caused the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Also among their group was an elderly man with no legs, who was carried onto the shuttle bus by volunteers.
“It’s a scary place at the moment," Skorobohatykh said, worrying about her sister, who remained behind. “We were really scared.”
While many refugees walked across the border after long bus rides to safety, others are able to drive across, their heavily loaded cars with distinctive Ukrainian license plates flowing west into Moldova and then into Romania and the European Union, passing dilapidated Soviet-era collective farms and green shoots pushing out of the rich, brown soil.
But for some elderly Ukrainians, the thought of dying somewhere other than their homeland is more unsettling than the fear of Russian tanks. Masha Klinova on Tuesday afternoon waited to drive her 80-year-old mother back east to Odesa. Klinova, an international chess champion who now lives in Israel, said her father refused to evacuate, and her mother insisted on being returned home because the immediate danger had passed.
Nothing she could say would persuade them otherwise, she said.
“My father said he will not go anywhere, anytime," she said. "And my mother wants to live until she dies in the motherland.”