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Solidarity, new friends, and old memories on the long road from Kyiv to (relative) safety.
More dispatches from Ukraine: Fleeing for Her Life, Again
Fleeing the War
A voice in the dark – “wake up, we need to go.” You cannot think where you’re supposed to go at 5 a.m., you’ve worked in war zones but you were never there when the bombing started. This is how it feels you think, while finding it hard to believe that around you there’s a war.
And if this is just a false alarm? If you’re just being too prudent? Maybe there’s no need to go anywhere. After all, working until 3 a.m. the previous night turned out not to be such a good idea. You need time to connect your brains.
You stop for a moment to remember the fake explosions during the Yugoslav war. You hope it’s the same but do you really want to take a chance? Putin has announced a massive “special operation” to demilitarize Ukraine. It will be hell, it’s just a matter of time.
Your ex-wife has already left the city when you have your family council with (ex) parents in law, babushka, and dog. For you it’s easier since you just need to go home but for them? They need to decide in 10 minutes whether to abandon everything they’ve constructed in the course of their life. You can’t blame babushka’s naivety when she says Putin will never dare to kill Ukrainians, a brother nation.
Too much time is spent in discussions. When you hit the road cars are already everywhere. People are queuing outside supermarkets, ATMs, and gas stations in a solemn and apparently silent atmosphere. But you know it’s just a matter of time. It will get loud soon.
Surprised that electricity and the internet have not been cut so far, you still consider the possibility. How are you going to meet the other car if you have no means of communication? You agree with your ex-wife on a meeting point that is easy to find even with no internet. First-comers will just wait for the other car there.
You contemplate staying in Kyiv, after all you’ve got your massage session and a few other appointments. Maybe it will not get that bad until next week and you could always catch a train to Lviv and then cross on foot, as you used to do in your student years, carrying small items for petty smugglers and fighting elbow-to-elbow to pass. But it’s not the time to take chances, you understand that if you miss your chance to flee you might get stuck in the country for a long, long time and Ukraine is not the place to be for civilians now.
Change direction, roads, move to secondary ones, avoid major cities, get stuck in traffic jams because people are queuing at gas stations. You bless your ex-father-in-law’s intuition, he’s kept his car fully tanked for the past week.
An Unlikely Family Reunion
You manage to share locations and meet the other car on a desolate road between a sick-looking patch of trees and an abandoned gas station. Your younger kid, the teenager who believes the best way to deal with his teenage crisis is not to talk to you (even as bombs fall), your ex-wife, her husband, parents, grandmother, two cats and a dog. The situation is so surreal that it calls for a selfie, the most unlikely one. Never before have you managed (or simply wanted) to meet all together in one place. But it’s wartime, not the time to handpick your travel companions. You’re bonded by danger.
You divide the crew. In one car your kids, ex-wife, husband, cats, and you, driving to the west of the country. Everyone else sets out for Kyiv where grandma, she keeps on repeating, wants to go. You cancel all your meetings for the day and prepare for several hours on the road with poor connections and little comfort.
Even with poor internet, you can’t stop checking your phone hoping for some positive news. Maybe the attack will cease and it’ll be safe to return to Kyiv. During breaks you try to enjoy the surroundings, the mountains, the trees, the beautiful sunset. Your ex-wife is silent but you know how much she loves this land, you feel her heart bleeding.
Everything around is so silent that you wonder whether the war will ever reach this side of the country. But according to the news Russians seem to be striking everywhere so there’s no time for calculations. You arrive at a bridge with a sign, “Hydroelectric Power Station.” The military is checking every truck, every car. You think with two children in the car you will pass smoothly but they still manage to ask you if you have any explosives in the trunk. Explosives? With kids on board? Ah yeah, it’s war, there are no rules.
A friend discovers you’re on the way to her relatives’ house and offers to call and ask them to give you shelter for the night and this comes as a blessing. Strangers receive you as family, give you a meal, beds, a shower, and the next morning stuff your car with food for the road. All from their garden, all home made. For the first time in two days you feel cared for, so you indulge and leave later than expected, not really a good idea in this situation.
The road to the border is slower and worse than you expected. To make things worse, you learn that Romania has closed all the minor border points and you must cross at a major one, where crowds of people are already piling up. You consider for a second passing through Moldova but it’s too far and could become crowded by the time you arrive.
The car is stopped 6 kilometers from the border by a huge line of cars. The spectacle is bleak. All the cars are stuffed with luggage, people, most have children inside, from toddlers to teenagers. People gather outside and silently stare at the queue perhaps wondering when it will move next. The traffic is just too slow, sometimes in an hour you advance 2 or 3 meters. Time to check the situation up there at the border.
You start walking to see where the line leads and it seems to have no end. People, cars, trucks, and more cars chaotically straggling in a single line, then two, then three, then again two until the road becomes two-way and you know you’re getting close.
You start asking people how long they’ve been waiting. Many arrived the evening before, the first in line got here 24 hours ago. How long will it take you and those who arrived on the second day?
You reach the border, crossing on foot is still an option. There’s a line but it’s definitely shorter than the line of cars and you might only have to wait a couple of hours, so you suggest to your ex-wife to abandon the car and go. But her parents are on the way to the border and it’s better to wait for them, she says. You are in a hurry to leave. What if the Russians take power and then shut all the borders? What if shops run out of water? What if panic begins and people, now numbering in their thousands, start pushing from behind? But the parents will need help and it’s a matter of a few hours. You walk back and set out to wait.
Back in the car you feel hunger for the first time. You have reached your 10,000-step target, your phone says. Well, at least that, you think, while crunching a biscuit and drinking an odd-tasting juice.
Night brings the news that the grandparents are stuck at a police check and won’t be here until the next day. This is the longest you’ve waited in your life in a traffic jam and you cannot even sleep. Someone needs to be ready to move the car a few meters when the car in front moves or you’ll be passed by other people, in addition to the sly ones in expensive cars that are just jumping the queue in hope of crossing the border faster. It’s war out there. It’s jungle law down here. There’s no chance for the meek (or the honest).
You eventually convince your ex-wife’s husband to pass a few cars when the driver ahead falls asleep. It’s him or you so you move up a few hundred meters in a couple of minutes. But now there’s a problem: how to get back in line? Who will let you pass? You notice a crowd of people and, even if it’s cold, you force yourself to go and socialize.
This turns out to be a good strategy. In a few minutes you negotiate your way back into the line and make new friends. A software engineer from the south fleeing to Bulgaria and a young man from Kharkhiv taking his wife and kids to the border. He will not be allowed to pass (no adult male younger than 60 is allowed to cross the border) but at least he’s escorting them to ensure they cross safely.
You stay in the cold chatting nicely and sharing life stories, just like you’ve done a thousand times on night trains, when strangers gather, drink together, and share the most intimate stories. Just the setting is gloomier now and you’re getting cold so go to the car and try to get some sleep.
You wake up not too far from where you fell asleep. Things are getting worse and the waiting time will probably be longer now so it’s time to check the foot crossing once again. This time you do not go alone. Your youngest (and extremely energetic) son joins you and your new friend in this long walk. The line is getting longer and is no longer a line, just an agglomerate of people crowding around the border gate. Women and children might have priority but they are not let through, it’s a war within the war. Only the stronger, or more cynical, will survive?
When you came in January the lady at the airport shop convinced you to buy a panettone (Italian Christmas cake), price cut by half post-Christmas. You’ve been waiting for a special occasion to open it but it never came. You think this could be the special occasion. You invite your new friend and his daughters, gather your son and go to the playground for a mini-party with panettone, Pepsi, and sparkling water. You share with the rest of the company and live a short serene moment in this anxious situation.
The grandparents arrive and it’s time to move. Many more are walking to the border now, including families with very small children, older people, and students, many foreign students arriving all at once. You split the team into three. You will go on foot with the younger one, grandpa, and the older one will follow (if possible by car). Your ex-wife, her husband, and two cats will stay in the last car.
Parting is dramatic. You feel a sense of emptiness and ask if that’s a premonition or you’re just scared but you struggle to retain your tears while walking to the border. The situation is worse than you thought and there is no line, no law, no first and last. Even women with children have to fight their way through the line. You wonder how on earth you’ll be able to pass.
Call it luck, call it border wisdom accumulated in years of research on smuggling. Within 10 minutes you’ve found people who are gathering parents with children so they can drive over the border. They are in pole position to be let in and there’s hope you will cross the border before night.
At first you are suspicious. Something for free in an area where many are trying to bribe their way out sounds odd. What do they have to gain? But the more time that passes, the more your driver, a powerful lady capable of swearing in three languages at the same time at anyone trying to pass her, wins your admiration. You feel in good hands now. The problem is just that students are trying to force their way through the border and the guards decide to close it completely. In the wait, you’re downgraded to the last row in the car and a lady with a 6-week-old baby takes your seat. You are now five adults and three children, the border is a mess and there’s no way of telling how long this will last. There is only one thing to do: fall asleep and rest.
After an indefinite amount of time the car starts moving. More pushing, more fights, but your guardian angel (Angelica is her name) knows her way around. The time spent on both sides of the border is ridiculously short, compared to what you’ve experienced so far. On the Romanian side tension dwindles and she even begins to tease you and your son. The nightmare is over.
Romania is another world. It’s calm, empty, and dozens of volunteers wait, offering food, accommodation, SIM cards, rides all across Romania. You learn that COVID restrictions do not apply to Ukrainians, that you can get a free ticket to Bucharest or other parts of Romania, free accommodation, food and water points are everywhere. All this is for you, your son, and anyone who has fled Ukraine as a refugee – a word you hear with mixed feelings.
You understand that they use it out of goodwill, as a way to highlight your urgent need for help. It’s thanks to this informal refugee status that your ex-wife is seen immediately when she goes to the vet to get an EU pet passport for the cats. But you can’t stop thinking that, in some respects, you and your children are in fact refugees. Luckier than many others but still among those who had to flee a war zone with whatever they could stuff into a suitcase.
Then your thoughts go to those who fled Ukraine and now have no place to go, who will just stay indefinitely in refugee camps and, with even more sadness, to those who did not flee in time and are now stuck in the country.
Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager, and fundraiser. He has worked on questions of development, (informal) governance, identity, the shadow economy, corruption, and reciprocity in the former USSR, Asia, and Latin America. He is the author of The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia.