Part 1. Assembly at the railway station
It was spring and now winter again. Snow meets car as we drive west in Ukraine. War is merciless and so is the weather. The road is icy and bumpy. It at least helps me focus on something other than the news, as I quickly get car-sick from reading on the phone in the car. Only while we’re queuing at gas stations can I write down parts of this story.
I hesitated to travel until the last minute. It is exhausting to live under the constant threat of bombing. Day by day it is getting worse in recovery. The bag had been packed since the second day of the war. I was hoping to wait for the outcome of each round of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. Meanwhile, the Russian army became increasingly violent towards the cities of the East. They use illegal weapons to bombard civilian residential areas. People live in basements, without access to supplies for several days.
One morning I was suddenly at a train station in Dnipro. All train departures are now for evacuation. They don’t follow a schedule, they only take as many people as they can ride the buggies. I stand in a group that consists mostly of young families with children and pets. When the train arrives, the men try to push their wives and children into the wagons. Children cry, crowds become more violent
A ten-year-old girl runs crying and trembling from the platform. Her family disappeared into the crowd. I give it a sedative and squeeze it vigorously. Her family comes running towards her when they find each other. A family next to me is confused because they don’t want to go to the catwalk with their ten month old son. He squeezes his mother’s neck, yet hides his two little hands in her shawl. I’m losing control.
I can’t help but remember the farewell scenes and crowds from films about world wars. At school we read books about war, met veterans and learned to remember the bloody lessons of our history. Now the war is in my country. My neighbours, the people from the next street, the town next door, are the ones standing desperately on the sidewalk trying to evacuate. I miss three trains and go home again to get in before the curfew takes effect.
I am writing to my loved ones who are still in Dnipro and calling them to see if they intend to stay. Young families leave the country while their parents stay. By luck, I got a seat in a car heading west in Ukraine. We leave early tomorrow at six, when the curfew ends. One night at home looks like a gift.
Part 2. «Ukrainians are ordinary people»
I’m in a car with Gila and Anatoly. The couple lived in Kharkiv (the city in the east has been subjected to daily bombardment in recent days). They evacuated their parents from Kyiv, and are now on their way to the western border. They receive regular updates from the city and from their neighbours. For every hour that passes, a new area becomes the scene of airstrikes or bombing. Their house is still standing. “There were only a few broken windows,” Anatoly says. As now, she doesn’t have much to say.
On the first day we traveled 250 km in twelve hours, which is about a fifth of the distance. Thanks to Ukraine’s Airbnb response to IDPs, I got a room in a village where I could spend the night. We ended up 150 kilometers from the southern area under attack. I don’t know the danger, and I try to focus on the fact that we’re sleeping in a bed tonight.
We took the wrong exit, and two cars blocked the road ahead. It was the local army that saw our car and came to lead the way to the village. The guys are helpful and hospitable.
At first we got scared when we saw the cars. He exhaled when the man lit the lamp and I saw the Ukrainian uniform.
“Why? The Ukrainians are ordinary people, there is nothing to be afraid of, ”the men of the Defense Forces commented with a smile.
The time is about 21, the head of the village, Maria, greeted us and escorted us to the house where we will spend the night.
Aunt Lyuba, as the locals call her, opens the gate to her yard.
“I’ve been waiting and waiting for you,” she says.
“My son, I evacuated this dog from Donetsk in 2015”.
It refers to a case with reddish-fur barking at us and pretending to be angry.
“My son fought for Donetsk airport. Now he and two of my grandchildren are at war again, and the dog lives with me. “
The battle for the airport in Donetsk, the regional center in eastern Ukraine, lasted for several months in 2014-2015 and was among the toughest at the time.
Aunt Lyuba is 74 years old. She spends her days watching TV and crying.
“How can these Russian boys not understand that they have to stop shooting? People can’t die this way.”
Aunt Lyuba does not know exactly where her son serves. She says proudly that he doesn’t smoke or drink, and about how great his friends are in the army.
A night in a warm bed with clean linens is truly a luxury. The woman provides her living room for the Ukrainians who travel through the village. Help her neighbor spread it online. She is ready to share whatever she has: some bread, eggs, and canned eggplant.
We leave at sunrise. “I didn’t close my eyes,” says Aunt Lyuba. ‘I was so worried about you. I hope everything goes well on the trip, and then.” We say goodbye, and we hope she sees her son and grandchildren again.
Part 3. “We go wherever they want us to lead”
This is my third travel day. This is how we count the days now, the days of travel, the days of war. We have no control over the days of the week and dates. Spring comes when we win, you’ve decided.
I can’t see the Ukrainian men on the barricades in their eyes. Blue eyes like the sky. It burns in my chest, holding back my tears. I can’t help but think that all of these handsome young men could die.
One of the soldiers told us, “Take care of yourselves.”
“You should take care of yourself,” I replied.
“Everything will be fine. Long live Ukraine!”
We walk through fields and through villages, imagining how lush they will look when spring comes. Remember how much I like to run through fields of wheat that stretch to the horizon in golden color. To stand on top of a mountain and look at the rolling landscape of the Carpathians to the west. It gives me that feeling of indomitable freedom. Ukrainian nature. How precious it is.
A guard and a salesman at the gas station where we stop to refuel, discussing how to attack the Russian army.
“So they will come from the south and pass over our lands? We are ready to meet them. They cannot hide,” says the guard.
“We will bury both the soldiers and their equipment there,” the seller added.
“The Russians are attacking from the sky.” Showed a little of my understanding of the strategy of war.
“Let them try! And between the attacks, we broke into our homes and explained to them who owns this land.”
I look into the gentle men’s eyes. They probably have a garden where they grow potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers to provide food for the family. Maybe some apple and plum trees, too. As real Ukrainians, they should be generous and hospitable. And like real Ukrainians, they are ready to cut off the hand of anyone who wants to overthrow them. War strengthens them.
After three days of traveling, we arrived at the border point. The pedestrian queue looks promising. It will take about five to six hours to get to the other side. Not for long, by today’s standards. I talk to those close to me in the queue.
A family from Kharkiv, mother, father and grandmother, are here to accompany their 17-year-old son Nikita, who will study in Germany. Her mother, Elena, is looking forward to returning to Kharkiv (which is under constant air attack). She is a doctor and wanted there. We agree to meet in Kharkiv when Ukraine wins.
It’s freezing cold, two degrees below zero, snowing and windy. Aid organizations across the border serve hot tea to everyone on the waiting list. Their positive energy and smile also warm up.
People from relief organizations lit fires to keep people warm. Guys in the queue helping with the wood. “We help each other, and that’s why the Russians hate us,” says one aid worker. “They do not understand who they are dealing with. Together they are invincible.”
A young front-facing father in the waiting list reserves a space for his wife and children. His son, Igor, will be ten years old in a week. He worries about his grandmother, who refused to go with the family, and prefers to stay at home in Mykolachev (the city in the south surrounded by Russians on two sides). “I am ready to take a submachine gun for the children and go to fight for the cities in the south and east. Grandma is suffering ”, says Igor in a fiery voice.
Igor’s mother asked: “Where are you going after the border crossing?”
“Wherever the refugee bus will take us,” she replied, holding Igor’s little one-year-old sister in her arms.
It cuts me to the heart. It is so deep that I can no longer feel anything. You freeze when you can’t handle your feelings. It is a form of psychological protection. I’m still frozen.
I text my friend Katya in Germany, who is a volunteer, to see how it goes.
She answers, “Most of all, I just want to go home.”
I say, “It feels strange to be a refugee.”
I don’t feel like a refugee. We will live abroad temporarily. The war will soon be over, then we will go home and rebuild Ukraine.
Suddenly, amid all the exhaustion, insecurity and pain, Nikita says: “I hope the English border guards speak correctly.”
I ask him, “Do you speak English well?”
“I speak fluent English and German,” said Nikita, who is close to the student. And with that, I’m sure spring will come again.
March 9, 2022
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