Kilometer by kilometer, a personal account of one woman’s exodus from Ukraine to Poland.
Maryia Hryts was forced to leave Belarus in 2021 because of the crackdown on independent journalists there. She settled in Ukraine but now has been uprooted a second time. The following is her account of her trek from Brovary, a Kyiv suburb, to the Polish border.
The explosion woke me up at 5 a.m. At first I thought it was a thunderstorm but then realized it was something else. I saw the second explosion – a shell hit a military unit not far from our house. I stood at the window and couldn’t believe my eyes.
During the day, my family and I hid in a bomb shelter. Nothing happened for several hours, and people relaxed and went home. When the Russian troops began bombing again, we decided to run. Packing things in a hurry was very difficult, as if every movement was made through thick syrup. We put everything that fit into the car, leaving room for a colleague. She was hiding in Irpin, a beautiful, prosperous city, now under attack.
The roads were filled with fleeing cars. On the first day we traveled 200 kilometers, and on the second only 50. As much as we could we drove at night, while other refugees were stopped on the side of the road. They slept like that because there were no more places left in hotels, motels, anywhere.
When we approached the border crossing near the village of Krakovets, the line of cars stretched for more than 20 kilometers. After a few hours, I realized that with a child who had been sitting in the car for two days, I couldn’t stand such a long wait.
It was difficult and frightening to dare to do so, but there was information that women with children were finding it easier to cross the border than were men. So we repacked things and I said goodbye to my husband, who stayed in line. I took the essentials, and my 3-year-old daughter, and we started walking.
We started out in the morning and walked along the cars all day. Cars carrying people of different ages, with children, dogs, and cats. People with the same story about how they abandoned their property and left with just the essentials.
After a few hours of walking, despair disappeared, because there was a fairly simple goal: to move one’s feet forward. Sometimes my daughter walked on her own, but some of the time I carried her in my arms.
It was gratifying to see how the local people organized themselves to help the refugees. In a shop along the way, the saleswoman immediately recognized by my accent that I was from Belarus. I was afraid she would start swearing and blaming me for the Russian tanks coming to Ukraine from the Belarusian border. Instead she poured me free tea, allowed me to recharge my phone, and showed me where to wash the milk bottle. Dear madam: Thank you sincerely for your understanding.
When we were at the store, a man approached us and offered a ride. He apologized that he could drive us only 2 kilometers, but even such a small piece of road by car for us was a real gift. People from England got into his minibus with us. A woman named Hannah said she came to Ukraine a year ago. She said it was a big shock for her that war was possible in Europe in the 21st century. She advised us to fly to Ireland, which had opened its borders to refugees from Ukraine, and highly recommended Irish pubs.
Talking about pubs seemed unreal in a situation where you don’t even know what you’ll do when you run out of your modest supply of water.
During our trek, we came across several volunteers just moving along the column and handing out food. Most often people asked for water.
Close to noon we stopped to rest at a bus stop. I talked to people sitting next to their cars and learned that we were passing cars that had been waiting in line for more than 24 hours.
It’s difficult to occupy the children when stuck in such a traffic jam. On the side of the road we saw drawings made with twigs and improvised games of tic-tac-toe.
We came to a food and tea distribution point, where people stood by a makeshift campfire. It was run by a local priest, who not only brought food but talked to people, comforted them. The very handsome priest did not want to be photographed. But his borscht brought passers-by back to life. I have never eaten such delicious borscht in Ukraine.
The closer we got to the border, the more trash lay on the side of the road. It was especially painful to see children’s toys.
The convoy of cars moved very slowly. As evening approached, we passed cars waiting in line for a second day.
We were told that ahead, a 30-minute walk, there was a bus giving rides to the border for people with children. It took us two hours to get to it. My strength was no longer enough to carry the little girl at the speed of a normal adult.
During this time we met several people, from different countries, who tried to give my daughter toys. But I realized I would have to carry them and told my daughter to give them back. The hardest thing for her was parting with a teddy bear, which she had immediately began to hug.
Someone had lost their keys. They were left hanging on a branch. For some reason, this image seemed especially poignant. People lost everything they had gained, in trying to save their lives and their loved ones.
A yellow bus with the word “children” on it appeared suddenly from behind the bushes. There already were a lot of people inside, but the driver, seeing my daughter and me, started waving for us to hurry and get in. We rode with our children on our laps, through some obscure forest trails to go around the traffic jam. In total, we cut our journey by 3 to 4 kilometers.
We were dropped off about a kilometer from the crossing. Trucks, cars, and buses already were standing and waiting in several rows. Understanding that our goal was close gave us strength.
There were so many people near the crossing that it was difficult to figure out whether there was any organization. So we just sat down on the grass and waited. People lit fires as the evening grew colder. An elderly woman sat near us, eating bread. I offered her a boiled sausage. Tears came to her eyes. She said she had been sitting there a long time. She said she didn’t want anything.
We were very lucky, because an hour after we arrived, volunteers started to gather people with children, organize them into groups, and take them to the checkpoint. Volunteers and border guards had already lost their voices. They looked very tired, but they continued to coordinate the movement of people. They couldn’t keep up; many more people arrived than either the Ukrainian or Polish side of the checkpoint could handle.
The Ukrainians checked our documents quickly. The Polish side was more attentive to the papers; the line there was slower. To speed up the process, several checkpoints were opened. Border guards brought cookies, water, juice, and chocolates.
While we were standing in line, a woman asked if we all would be met by someone on the Polish side. When someone said no, she called the volunteers and found a free car. People were meeting refugees on the Polish side and offering to take them to any Polish city.
At the exit from the border checkpoint, Polish volunteers set up a marketplace of free necessities: there was food, water, juices, cookies, hygiene products, and even dog food.
I was especially glad that among all that there was food and other things for children. An experienced Polish woman helped me collect my items. I am very grateful to her.
My husband arrived four days after us. We are in the Polish town of Sanok, and soon we will go to Warsaw. My passport remained at the Polish embassy in Kyiv, but they let me through the border without it. Now we will work on our documents. In the current situation it is difficult. But most importantly, we are safe.
Journalist Maryia Hryts works for Belsat TV. Edited for clarity and concision from the original, which was published on belsat.eu. Photos by MGM/Belsat.