UN cry of joy rang out as the two young women – one reeling from a 34-hour trek out of Ucraina and the other just off a late-night work shift – spotted each other on a pavement in Catalonia. The reunion had been decades in the making, the final details hastily hashed out as Russian tanks rolled on to the streets of Ukraine.
“The moment was both happy and sad,” said Angelika Batiai, 24. “Here I was seeing my sister again after 20 anni, but on the other hand I had just left my family and friends in a country at war.”
The half-sisters had spent the first years of their lives together in the southern Ukrainian village of Nikolaev, leaning on each other as they grew up with only an absentee mother to care for them.
Family problems left them separated soon after; five-year-old Angelika was sent to live with an aunt and Tatyana, sei, with a grandmother before ending up in state care.
They begged to be kept together, recalled Tatyana Kluge García, 25. “But economically it was impossible, Angelika’s aunt couldn’t afford to take us both in.”
At the age of eight, Tatyana was adopted by a family in the Spanish city of Girona, near Barcelona, trading her arduous beginning for a new family, country and slate of languages.
Even as her command of Ukrainian faded, her sister remained constantly in her thoughts. “I always said that I would go to Ukraine and find her,” said Tatyana. As a teenager she scoured social media for any trace of her sister, even downloading the Russian social network VK at one point.
Più di 2,000 miles away in Ukraine, Angelika was doing the same. When she stumbled across a Facebook profile in 2019 that showed a beaming young woman in Spagna, she was certain she had found Tatyana. “I just knew it was my sister.”
Within weeks the two were chatting constantly online, pushing past language and cultural barriers. “It was like a girlfriend that you’re getting to know but really it’s your sister and you want to share your life with her,” said Tatyana. Excitedly they made plans to meet up in Spain, only to have the possibility derailed by the pandemic.
A febbraio, come Russian troops amassed on the border of Ukraine, Tatyana made a frantic call to Angelika. “I told her that here they’re saying that there’s going to be a war," lei disse.
Angelika sought to temper her sister’s fears. “I was hoping all of this would blow over and everything would be fine," lei disse. “But it just got worse and worse.”
She and her fiance left their home in Nova Odesa, heading to a nearby village where her cousin had converted his basement into a makeshift shelter. As the sound of bombings cracked in the distance, they would dart into the basement. “Tatyana was texting me every day, saying pack up, we’re all waiting for you, we’re worried," lei disse.
Angelika canvassed those around her, but her loved ones were determined to stay. “It was a very difficult decision because I didn’t want to leave my family," lei disse. “I was also very worried about how I was going to get there on my own – it was a long way.”
In the end it was a message from Tatyana’s mother, reinforcing that she would be safe in Spain, that convinced Angelika. She set off for the Polish border in a vehicle with other Ukrainians looking to leave, steeling herself for the worst. “I was terrified we would be detained or that there would be an air alert,” said Angelika.
Her anxiety was laced with nervousness for what lay ahead: “The whole way I was thinking about what it would be like to see my sister and whether she would accept me," lei disse.
From her home in Girona, Tatyana tracked Angelika’s every step. She bought her a plane ticket from Warsaw, battling spotty mobile coverage and language barriers to make sure her sister made it on to the flight. “I was going crazy,” said Tatyana. “She had never been on a plane, she didn’t know how to check in or check her baggage.”
The days of anxiety melted away as soon as she spotted her sister. “I had always wondered what that moment would be like,” said Tatyana. “You think: ‘Maybe I’ll be in shock, maybe I won’t know what to say, maybe I’ll cry.’ But in the end I just couldn’t believe it was happening.”
In the month since Angelika’s arrival in Spain, the sisters have carved out a comfortable coexistence in Tatyana’s apartment, using hand gestures, a handful of shared vocabulary and a lot of Google Translate to communicate.
The ease of their interactions belies their decades apart; Angelika, who hates carrying a handbag, stuffs her phone and charger into her older sister’s purse whenever they leave the house, while the two trade quiet nods of affirmation as they delve into the details of their past. “There are days that go by and I’m looking at her and I still can’t believe it,” said Tatyana. “I just think: ‘You’re here.’”
Echoing the uncertainty facing many of the 135,000 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Spain in recent months, neither sister knows what comes next: whether Angelika will eventually return to her fiance, job and family in Ukraine, or seek to bring them to Spain and start over. “Since we were little we’ve been dreaming of seeing each other again, but we would never have imagined that it would be because of a war,” said Tatyana.
For Angelika, being back with her sister was a “wonderful, unbelievable feeling”. The joy, tuttavia, was rivalled by the angst of leaving her loved ones in a country at war.
“I just can’t stop thinking about it.”