Ukrainians return home from abroad to fight Russian invasion

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are leaving Ukraine amid the Russian invasion, but some Ukrainian men and women are returning home from across Europe to help defend their homeland.

Czech Republic is offering bonuses to Ukrainian men going home to fight

After news of Russia's military attack against Ukraine, these Ukrainian doctors try to return home from Hungary by hitchhiking at the Zahony border crossing on Thursday. Some Ukrainian men and women are returning to the country from across Europe to help defend their homeland. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are leaving Ukraine amid the Russian invasion that began Thursday, but some Ukrainian men and women are returning home from across Europe to help defend their homeland.

Poland's Border Guard said Sunday that some 22,000 people have crossed into Ukraine since Thursday, when the invasion started.

At the checkpoint in Medyka, in southeastern Poland, many people were standing in a line early Sunday to cross into Ukraine.

"We have to defend our homeland. Who else if not us," said a man in front of a group of some 20 Ukrainian truck drivers walking to the checkpoint to enter Ukraine. They spoke to The Associated Press in Ukrainian and in Russian.

Another man in the group said: "The Russians should be afraid. We are not afraid."

Members of the group declined to give their names, or only gave their first names, citing their security and that of their families.

'It's scary but I have to'

Denis, 28, who has spent six months working at construction sites in Poland, said he was returning to Ukraine where his "everything" is.

"I'm on my own here in Poland. Why should I be here? So I go, for the homeland," said Denis, with a small Ukrainian blue-and-yellow national flag on his winter jacket.

"I want to go back to join the army, to fight. We will see. We hope we will win. I want to go back, that's all."

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Before the recent exodus, an estimated one million Ukrainians were in Poland, working or studying.

Lesa, 36, from Lviv, spoke to The Associated Press just before entering the checkpoint building, following her brother into Ukraine.

"I am afraid, but I am a mother and want to be with my children. What can you do? It's scary but I have to," she said.

Another young woman, Alina, said she was returning to take her children out of Ukraine.

"We have to, we Ukrainians have to take our children away ... to allow our boys to fight."

On Ukraine's side of the border, a man was directing those arriving to a place where cars and buses were waiting to take them onward.

Bonuses for men joining the army

The Czech Republic, which borders Poland to the southwest, plans to support Ukrainian families living in the country whose men decide to return home to fight.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is preparing bonuses to families who would lose income if "the men need to join the [Ukrainian] army," Minister Marian Jurecka said.

Smoke rises after shelling in Kyiv on Sunday. The Russian invasion of Ukraine began Thursday. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

There are about 200,000 Ukrainian workers in the Czech Republic, the majority of them men.

Czech railways say Ukrainian men traveling back to Ukraine can take any train free of charge. They need to travel through Poland or Slovakia to reach Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has stayed in the capital of Kyiv, boosting the morale of Ukrainian fighters as Russian troops were closing in on the city and huge explosions lit up the sky early Sunday.

Zelenskyy has banned men of military age, 18 to 60, from leaving the country. Ukrainian authorities have also called on foreign volunteers to come and fight in Ukraine's defence.

At least 368,000 people have fled Ukraine into Poland and other neighbouring countries in the wake of the Russian invasion, the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said Sunday.

Poland's Border Guard said some 156,000 people have entered from Ukraine since Thursday.