PRZEMYŚL, Poland—“If you love this child, you must let me take him away.”
It’s a chilling sentence. One no parent should even have to imagine uttering to their own child. But it’s the one that Natalia Korobkova used on her son Tuesday night. And it’s ultimately those words that secured her seven-year-old grandson’s fate, landing him safely tucked in her embrace at the Ukraine-Poland border Wednesday afternoon.
Natalia, the 55-year-old nonna, came to collect him all the way from Naples, a place she’s called home since leaving Ukraine more than two decades ago. She travelled all weekend, equipped with just a black puffer coat and a jade pashmina she wraps tightly around her neck. But there was still one barrier standing in her way: her son.
Every night for the better part of a week, she would call her son, Roman, in Lviv and try to convince him that she needed to take his child back with her to Italy.
“I am scared about him because he needs to go to school, not to war,” she said in the backseat of an SUV that offers rides for journalists, refugees and NGO workers needing to get from one border crossing to another.
Like so many of their fellow Ukrainians, the Korobkova family was forced to make heartbreaking calculations this week. The UN estimated that at least one million refugees have now fled to neighbouring countries in eastern Europe, splintering countless families.
“We cannot describe in words what we are feeling now,” writes Roman in a message on Viber, an encrypted messaging app.
“But the safety of our child has become more important to us than our feelings.”
This was by no means an easy call to make. In fact, in an attempt to warm his young son to the idea of leaving, Roman shares that he and his wife weren’t entirely truthful about Matvii’s adventure.
“We told him he was going on vacation to grandma’s for two weeks,” he said. “He’s counting down the days till he can come back.” Roman admits he doesn’t know when that will actually be.
It’s hard to think about.
“We never left our son for more than two days, and we never let him go anywhere without us.”
Roman is a 35-year-old civilian joining the defence forces, and his wife continues to work every day as a judge. They believed the war wouldn’t reach their doorstep in western Ukraine, despite the air-raid sirens frequently sending them down into their cellar to cosy up next to potato sacks. They remained firm in that belief until this past week, when reports began emerging that Russian forces had begun to change their tactics, and civilians were becoming targets for missiles in several cities.
By Tuesday night, they finally heeded Natalia’s warnings. “They let him go … they got scared,” Natalia says with a firm look.
Natalia explains how when Matvii was being passed from his dad’s arms into hers, she brushed her son’s face and a sombre feeling crossed her mind. Here she was saving her son’s only child, while she was also saying goodbye to her own son for what could be the last time.
“That is why I’m crying now,” she says, pausing to wipe the tears that have begun soaking her white mask.
Before crossing back into Poland (she was only briefly in Ukraine for the handover), she made one last attempt to get her son to join her and Matvii and escape the country that has in just one week become a torrent of human suffering.
Roman squeezed his mom’s hand and hugged her tight, but met her pleas with the same words he’d been delivering to her every night since the war broke out: I must stay and defend my country.
“Now I have at least my grandson,” she says, reaching across her seatbelt to squeeze her own grandson’s hand, a clutch she wouldn’t break till we arrived at the station half an hour later.
The camouflage-capped Matvii struggled throughout the drive to keep his eyes open. His day began at 4 a.m. and the tearful goodbye with his parents left him drained.
“He wanted to take his dog, Dora, with him,” his grandma says after showering his cheeks with kisses and chanting “bambino” between smooches. There was also an attempt to smuggle out a hamster, but that too was shut down.
“My sister, she has a daughter his age,” Natalia says. She’s already got him enrolled in classes in Italy, an update that forces the yawning boy to pause and express a vocal disapproval.
“I want to stay and kill Russians with my dad,” he said, cracking his first grin since meeting us hours ago.
Before parking at the train station, Natalia recalls that the words she spoke to her son on Tuesday night weren’t the first time they’d been spoken by a member of the Korobkova family to guarantee their survival.
As she tells it, it was 1939 and Soviet forces had begun to annex large sections of what is now western Ukraine. Natalia’s grandmother, much like herself in 2022, foresaw what her children did not. For the family to survive, they needed to get out of Ukraine.
“She said, you must take the children out. Germany, Poland, anywhere. They need to leave,” she said. Had her immediate family stayed and not listened to the grandmother’s warnings, Natalia wouldn’t be sitting in the back seat with Matvii nestled under her cheek. The entire family who stayed back was later killed by Soviet forces.
For now, the Korobkovas are all safe, albeit dispersed across the continent. Natalia and Matvii are back in Italy, where she sends a picture of him enjoying strawberries at the dinner table. His parents speak on the phone with him every night from their neighbourhood in Lviv.
But it’s hard. Matvii cries every time he picks up the receiver and hears his mother’s voice, and when they hold up pictures of his collie, only two years his junior, the tears just keep rolling.
“This constant tension, anxiety and danger is not for children,” Roman texts. His own mother is there watching over his son and “he’s surrounded by love.” In this, he can take a small comfort.
“The child is safe and now we can work calmly and help our people,” he says. “Light will overcome darkness. And we, our whole big family, will celebrate our victory here in Ukraine.”
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