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MEDYKA, Poland — Iryna Dukhota has been married to her husband for 26 years. She met him when they were young, when he was cycling in his neighborhood in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.

But a few days ago, on a windswept gray morning, with thousands of people rushing around them, the couple stood on the Ukrainian-Polish border, their lips quivering. After all these years, it was time to say goodbye.

“I told him ‘I love you’ and ‘We will see each other again soon’,” Ms Dukhota said, her eyes misty.

Now, she says, she doesn’t know when or even if she will ever see him again.

As the Russian army descends on Ukraine from the north, south and east, a massive migration of millions of civilians gathers like a storm on the plains.

But international border gates are a painful filter, separating families. The Ukrainian government has ordered that men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country, so the crowds pouring into Poland, Hungary and other neighboring countries are oddly devoid of men. It is almost exclusively women and young children who cross the checkpoints after heartbreaking farewells. The Ukrainians, whether they like it or not, are turning back to fight.

Some Ukrainian women have called the separations a “little death”.

Credit…Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times

Medyka in Poland is one such sorting point. A small village on the Polish-Ukrainian border among endless wheat fields, dimly lit by a pale sun at this time of year, its roads are now lined with Ukrainian women and children walking west, bundled up against the wind.

While a surge of nationalism is celebrated in Ukraine and young men and their fathers flock to military recruiting centers, the mood is much different on the border. Refugees said they felt cut off not only from their country, but also from their families. They talk about being confused, lost and alone. Overnight, so many mothers have become heads of households in a foreign country, lifting suitcases, carrying young children, operating two cell phones at once or nervously tugging on cigarettes.

“I still can’t believe I’m here,” said Iryna Vasylevska, who had just left her husband in Berdychiv, a small town in beleaguered northern Ukraine. Now alone, with two children aged 9 and 10, she said she was so stressed she hadn’t slept in two days and couldn’t swallow much food.

“Everything is blocked,” she said, raising a shaking hand to her neck.

Her husband, Volodymyr, is sitting at home awaiting further instructions from the authorities. He sounded sad on the phone at being hundreds of miles away from his wife and children, but he insisted: “I feel lighter in my heart knowing that they no longer hear the sound of mermaids.”

Another man, Alexey Napylnikov, who urged his wife and daughter to flee for their safety, said: “This separation is like falling into a void. I don’t know if I will ever see them again.

Under martial law, introduced by the Ukrainian government on February 24, all men between the ages of 18 and 60 are barred from leaving the country unless they have at least three children or work in certain sectors strategic, such as the transport of weapons. A few men were able to sneak in when the war first broke out, but very soon after, Ukrainian border guards began searching the cars lined up at the border and ordered the men to stay.

Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

To some, this policy seems sexist. The women also stayed behind to fight. So why can’t families choose which parent will leave with the children? Asked about this, a Ukrainian official cited the country’s military policy, saying that while some women volunteer to serve, they are not legally obligated to do so.

But it’s not just husbands and wives who are separated. Multigenerational families have also broken up. There’s an expression in Ukrainian that goes something like this: “It’s good to have children so there’s someone to bring you a glass of water when you’re old.” The culture is to stay close to your parents and support them in old age.

But among the crowds passing through the gates of Medyka and other border points, there are almost no elderly people either. Most chose to stick with Ukraine.

“I’ve been through this before and the sound of sirens doesn’t scare me,” said Svetlana Momotuk, 83, speaking by phone from her apartment in Chornomorsk, near the port of Odessa.

When her grandson came to say goodbye to her, she said, she shouted at him, “You’re not taking my children with you!” What the hell are you thinking?

Now, she says, she is relieved that they are gone, although she misses them dearly.

Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

If they expected an immense sense of relief upon leaving a war-torn country and crossing an international border, many refugees said it had not yet arrived. Instead, there is guilt. Several women said they felt horrible leaving their husbands and parents in the way of a marching army.

Although she is now safe, taken in by a Polish friend, Ms Dukhota said: “There is a kind of sadness in me.

Her husband has never held a gun before – he owns a series of convenience stores. And now, like so many other Ukrainians, he has joined a local defense unit to face the Russians.

Mothers who have made it through also worry about resentment from friends and family back home. They fear being perceived as less patriotic in this time of great crisis. Still, some women said they ultimately decided to leave while they could, for their safety and mental health and that of their children.

“My baby couldn’t take the explosions anymore,” said a woman named Mariana, mother of a 4-year-old girl. She stood along Highway 28 in Medyka, making calls from two cell phones, desperate to connect with the ride she had planned and get out of the cold.

Almost all of their stories reveal that the decisions to separate were as agonizing as the separations themselves.

“For six days my husband told me to leave and I refused,” Ms Dukhota said.

She didn’t want to be alone and, like so many others, she continued to hope that the fighting would end in a day or two.

Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

But after the shelling got closer, she finally gave in and grabbed some warm clothes, including a green hoodie she wore the other day as she walked bent over in the sharp wind towards Medyka, her first not as a refugee.

Mrs. Dukhota and her husband stayed together until the last minute. Like others, they moved together out of immediate danger to cities like Lviv in western Ukraine, which so far have been spared the relentless shelling that has hit other places.

Some women were dropped off at Lviv station to catch a crowded train to Poland. Others said their husbands drove them to the border. At stations, some women said, there were barricades patrolled by guards to make sure no men could leave with them.

Each couple interviewed remembered their last words. Many made it simple. Often a young child would stare at them, confused, standing between two distraught parents, tears streaming down their faces.

“Please don’t worry, everything will be fine,” were Mrs. Vasylevska’s last words to her husband.

Then she started crying and couldn’t say more.

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