Exodus from Ukraine

I see them through the fence. The line doesn’t look like a line; there’s a thick crowd inside the holding area, more than a thousand people. Without exception, these are women and children. The crowd spills out into the back. Beneath these people’s feet is the bare earth, or dry old grass ground nearly to dust. Many have blankets around their shoulders. Even the smallest children stand beside the grownups, who hold the babies in their arms. I see a woman place a swaddled baby on top of a duffel bag. Another is crouched a little off to the side of the crowd, sheltering her infant between her knees and her belly.

Along the refugee route

Photo of the Polish-Ukrainian border
Photo by Elena Kostyuchenko

The following dispatch from Poland and Ukraine was originally published in Novaya Gazeta on February 27. It has been translated from Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse.

Warsaw, Poland
February 24, 10:40 PM

Bewildered people mill about Zachodnia bus station with their bags. A local bus comes and goes. The rest of the buses are bound for Ukraine.

Zhenya is seeing off a friend and trying not to cry. His brother went back to Ukraine several days earlier, to be with their parents. The war began. A general mobilization decree means that men between 18 and 60 cannot leave the country. Zhenya’s voice is hoarse:

“I lost my voice at the protest, I was shrieking like a lunatic. I’ll never forgive them. My mom! I’ll never forgive them if anything happens to her! . . . My dad, he’s got heart problems. They don’t want to leave, they’re straight-up refusing. Dad says: I’ll defend the vegetable plot, just let them give me a rifle. The dog is 13 years old. The dog you had since you were a little kid has to be put down, or your parents won’t go. What the hell? They said, ‘Let the Russians kill us right here, if that’s what they want.’ My brother called them, they said they were going. To Poland? Nope, just away from the bombing.”

People are waiting for the bus to Lviv, but there’s no sign of it.

Ivan is 19 and studying in Brussels. He’s majoring in public history and counter-propaganda. When he heard about the war he sat down at his computer and plotted a route home. He has traversed four countries by train and bus. “My mom tried to talk me out of coming, but how could I not?” Does he understand that he won’t be able to return to Europe until the war ends? “I don’t care.” He calls his mom.

“Look, mom, I’m on my way home.”

“I’ve got your keys, I packed them in my bag,” his mom says.

The bus to Lviv is mostly men. One chuckles into his handset: “Running? Not at all, I’m riding!”

Everyone constantly scrolls through Instagram, taps the like button. Protest in Moscow—like. Photo of a shot-down military contraption—like. The video of the neonatal ICU moved into the hospital basement.

“There’s a Russian flag over Kakhovka already,” says one of the men.

They talk about Snake Island. There was an announcement from Vladimir Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, that thirteen Ukrainian border guards perished there, under missile fire, after refusing to surrender to “a Russian warship.”

Przemysl, Poland
February 25, 8:00 PM

The refugees are all taken to the train station, one of the nine reception centers operating close to the border. Bright orange cots are lined up under the station’s vaults. There are heaps of water bottles and jam-filled buns. Ukrainian-speaking volunteers. Free transfers to other Polish destinations.

Poland opened its borders with Ukraine when the war began. Right now you can cross into Poland without a visa or a passport; Ukrainian ID for adults, birth certificate for children.

Maria is 65 years old. She waited at the border, on her feet, from 9 in the evening to 3 in the afternoon the following day. “No food, no water, no toilet.”

“I was lucky I wasn’t standing there for very long. As soon as I crossed, they gave me tea to drink and 300 złoty. I’ll give it back, I’m not a beggar. How they received us, the Polish! I love Ukraine, but I love Poland, too. I can’t tell you how they look after us, how kind and welcoming they are.

“It pains me to say this, but we should have started preparing for war a long time ago. Putin’s been saying it for years, how Ukraine is not a country, how we’re not a separate people. It’s just that no one could have imagined this. I couldn’t either.

“When the first siren went off, I still couldn’t believe it. We mustn’t let evil be reborn, but what are we supposed to do if it’s already here, if it’s on the wing?”

Szymon, a Polish volunteer from a neighboring village, came because he has a car. He wants to drive people into the local towns. He tells me: “It’s outrageous to our young people that Poland hasn’t sent troops to help Ukraine. Ukraine is in exactly the same position right now as occupied Poland in 1939. We see so many similarities and it’s unbearable to just do nothing.”

Shehyni–Medyka Border Post, Ukraine–Poland
February 25, 11:00 PM

On the Polish side of the border there’s food and water. On the Ukrainian side there’s nothing.

I see them through the fence. The line doesn’t look like a line; there’s a thick crowd inside the holding area, more than a thousand people. Without exception, these are women and children. The crowd spills out into the back. Beneath these people’s feet is the bare earth, or dry old grass ground nearly to dust. Many have blankets around their shoulders. Even the smallest children stand beside the grownups, who hold the babies in their arms. I see a woman place a swaddled baby on top of a duffel bag. Another is crouched a little off to the side of the crowd, sheltering her infant between her knees and her belly.

Their suitcases and their animal cages rest by their feet, the markers of normal life.

These are the people crossing the border on foot. There’s also a line for cars—two lanes packed bumper to bumper, stretching thirty kilometers back. The buses come through a different lane and seem to move more quickly. It’s impossible to get on a bus.

A Ukrainian border guard is helping a woman get on a bus that has just come through. She is a Russian citizen and was not allowed to enter Ukraine. People with Belarusian and Russian passports are denied entry.

“There’s no room,” says the driver.

“Maybe I should conduct a thorough search,” the guard tells him. “Don’t act like that. I’m asking you, one human being to another, give this lady a ride to Warsaw.”

“Is that an order?”

“Yes, it is. You’re human, and she is too.”

I walk across the border beside a woman carrying a crate of oranges. The Polish gave them to her, “for Ukrainian children.” A young female border guard wielding a rifle shows us a path through the maze of buses.

It turns out that this thousand-strong group of women and children isn’t the main crowd of the assembled refugees. Most of them are a kilometer and a half away, behind the Ukrainian checkpoint, to avoid creating chaos. Back there is where the men say goodbye, before heading back to Ukraine.

Misha and Slava and I set off towards Lviv. Misha is from Zakarpattia, in western Ukraine, Slava is from Ternopil. Misha is 38 and Slava is 39. They’ve only just met, having got their wives and sons over the border. Now they both feel “totally calm.” They’d come on foot from Mostyska, the nearest town. That’s about eighteen kilometers away and now they have to do another eighteen back. From there, you can try to make it to Lviv, and then home, to await the draft.

The guys take turns carrying my bag, which has my bulletproof vest inside.

They don’t want to talk about the war. Misha is telling me about Teplyye Vody, the resort where he works. Hot thermal springs gush from the ground, it’s a good place to unwind, there’s a café that serves shish-kebabs. Slava talks about his job transporting fairground rides across Northern Europe and operating the rides for kids—his dream job.

“We had a good life,” Slava says. “I mean it, better than anything you can think of.”

“At least everybody’s forgotten about the coronavirus now,” Misha says. “No one cares about that thing.”

We walk and walk along the unmoving line of cars.

People come at us from the darkness, endless people. Their roller suitcases clatter along the asphalt road. They have dogs on leashes—silky, long-eared cocker spaniels, little fox-like Japanese breeds, decorative dogs from a past life, a peaceful life. The dogs play together, seemingly pleased with the walk they’re getting to take.

We pass three gas stations. Each has a crew of two women and they’re all worried that they won’t be able to cope with the crowd. So everyone waits outside, where it’s -6 degrees. Only children are allowed in, to get warm. You have to wait in line for over two hours to buy some water or a cup of coffee.

People wait in silence, nobody has the strength to speak. A woman is recording a voice message: “They won’t kill us, they’re going to torture and rape us. Take us prisoner.”

There’s a glass kiosk with a Universalna Insurance logo giving children tea. A woman keeps popping out to gather up children and take them inside.

We walk all night. There is no end to the cars, no end to the people walking the other way.

We meet some young women from Bangladesh, students at the Kyiv Medical University. They are dragging along a suitcase tied together with a scarf because the handle broke. Walking behind them is a young man named Batu, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He’s an engineer and also attended university here, but he’s already graduated. He had brought his friend over, to show him around Ukraine. “The embassy says we should wait for a plane from Kyiv. But we decided it’s more of a sure thing to walk.”

There’s a black Jeep trying to get ahead of the line by driving on the opposite side of the road. A man jumps out of his car and leaps in front of the Jeep with his flashlight. It’s a man and a young woman, squinting at the bright light. Another woman rushes up: “What are you doing? Don’t you have any shame? There are women here, children, we’ve been waiting all day and night.” “Turn around, asshole!” shouts the man with the flashlight. But there’s no police here; the Jeep growls, lurches forward, and drives on.

Mostyska, Ukraine
February 26, 7:00 AM

Mostyska greets us with the wail of the Civilian Defense siren. The town smells of freshly baked bread.

“Ole, ole, ole, ole! Ukraine is the champion!” A young guy dances on the center line, drunk. A group of volunteers in high-vis vests direct traffic and ignore him.

The gas station is closed. A large group of women with children and babies has gathered in front, waiting for a bus that might or might not come to take them toward the border.

Suddenly the woman sweeping the sidewalk nearby begins to scream:

“Let those Muscovites come and get us, then! What kind of government is that, when they can’t even get a few buses together! When women and children can’t get a ride!”

The siren continues to blare. No one pays it any attention.

Lviv, Ukraine
February 26, 12:00 PM

A group of teenagers watch a video on one of their phones: Ukraine calling on the Red Cross to take away Russian corpses. “There’s no need,” says a 15-year-old girl. “Honestly. Let them fertilize our soil, they’d be good for that.”

Lviv’s cafes, nail salons, and clothing stores are closed. Grocery stores are open. The authorities have begun organizing checkpoints. A curfew from 10 PM to 6 AM is announced. No one is panicking.

An orphanage has been refashioned into a staging point for refugees, and there’s a second one operating out of school No. 50. Schools are collecting humanitarian aid packages. Lviv residents have opened their homes to the refugees, some are housing thirty people at a time. The hotels are allotting beds instead of rooms. Three trains from Kyiv are expected today. They say anyone can get on these trains, no ticket needed.

Lviv’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, tweets: “At 9 AM, 3 helicopters landed around 60 Russian troops near Brody. Our forces repelled them. Now they are retreating towards the forest by Lev’yatin village.” SBU, Ukraine’s law enforcement authority, denied this, but the people of Lviv trust their mayor.

Brody is ninety kilometers from Lviv.

The townspeople are saying:

“They were doomed, when they set down in Brody. I don’t understand the Russians. Throwing their soldiers into an unconquered country, just for all of them to die there. What is it even for? They sacrifice their soldiers just to scare us? They’re criminals, these commanders.”

“I was born here in Lviv, grew up here. I always spoke Russian and I keep on speaking it. No one’s ever been unpleasant to me. My son went to a Russian school, there are six of them here. I really wanted him to read Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. But I pulled him out of there when the school started to celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Spring.1 He can read Dostoyevsky on his own if he ever wants to.”

“When they sent our boys from Lviv over to Donbass, in 2014, I kept thinking, those young bodies. The horror. And now I’m thinking about our boys, and the Russian ones—those young bodies about to be cut to pieces. That’s all I can think about.”

From today, all cellars are required to be unlocked. Anatoliy, a tenants’ rep in an apartment building here, has set up some benches with water and some cups.

“These are no good, they’re just crates. I had nice benches on my balcony, but I threw them away like a fool. I was renovating my apartment, six months it took me, to the day. Maybe I should have been digging trenches instead? What use are trenches though, when they hit you from the sky? We should have been shoring up our air defenses.”

At the market, the exchange rate is thirty hryvna to the dollar to sell, and thirty-seven to buy.

The air raid siren goes off five times that day in Lviv. People rush to the cellars. No explosions to be heard.

—Translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse

  1. The 2014 pro-Russian protests in the southeast of Ukraine. 

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