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Part VI: The first 15 days at war
Written by: Val Stutz. Edited by: Wilmer Rojas
After a few days focusing on other stories, we are publishing the final chapters of Andy’s story and his escape from Ukraine.
“I spent a total of 15 days from the time that the war started until the time that I crossed the Polish border,” Andy told us.
“Shortly before the war, the embassy was saying all Americans should leave. Message received,” he conceded, “I don't blame anybody other than myself. I chose to stay. I didn't want to leave because there are people who can't leave. This is their home and I didn't want to abandon them. I didn't want to completely abandon my friends and colleagues. So, I went to work every day and went about my daily activities. People got more and more worried, but honestly, up until maybe the last couple of days, people didn't believe that anything was going to happen.”
For many, the seriousness of the Russian invasion came in early February as the US embassy in Kyiv started evacuating its staff. As one State Department official said, “Now these developments mean for private American citizens that it isn’t just time to leave Ukraine. It is past time for private citizens to leave Ukraine,” the official said. “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of our fellow citizens, including our fellow U.S. government employees. And we do a great deal to provide support for our fellow citizens, but as you know, there are real limits to what we are able to do in a war zone.”
This has had the added effect that in nearby countries like Moldova and Georgia, local citizens are watching the US embassy to get an indication of when and if to evacuate as the American state department has been a consistent early-warning system for the region.
Yet, for many, Andy included, the idea of a Russian invasion was just too bizarre to imagine. While the invasion of a country on European soil is far from unprecedented historically, many felt (or perhaps better stated, hoped) that World-War-meets-Cold-War-Esque aggressions on this scale were a thing of the past.
“We wondered how anyone could be this… this stupid, for lack of a better word. Nobody thought Putin would do this,” mused Andy. “I thought, ‘Putin wants a seat at the table; he wants to make some noise; this has nothing to do with Ukraine and has everything to do with the United States and NATO.’ That was the consensus.”
Yet, when looking back into the recent histories of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia alone (though they are far from the only ones staving off Russian annexation and provocation of dissidence) it is clear that Putin has been overtaking more and more of the proverbial armrest of his neighbors for some time. Ukraine just seemed to be the first country he hoped to kick out of its seat altogether.
Kharkiv today is staring down its own “point zero” as it teeters between Russian and Ukrainian control. It has been under constant bombardment for nearly two months now, yet Russia has yet to overwhelm it. Ukrainian military leaders stated, "The enemy is entrenching, making a frontline, trying to gain a foothold." As Andy can attest, the situation was difficult from day one.
“Immediately when the war started the transportation network shuts down. No buses. No Metro. No trolleybuses. Nothing was working. The only way to get around was to walk. From where I lived to downtown takes about two hours and 20 minutes by foot. This isn't unreasonable to walk, but it is unreasonable to walk when people are shooting at you. You just don't know what you're gonna run into on the streets. That contributed to why I didn't leave later. I didn't know anybody with a car. There were people that were offering rides, but they were asking for a lot of money. The train station quickly became overloaded as well. To leave via train was pretty much impossible. Plus, their priority was women and children, of course, as well. I just figured it didn’t really make sense for me to go down to the train station. Not to mention that getting to the train station from downtown would have been another 30 minutes.”
But Andy had more reasons to stick around.
“I was also worried about the older lady I was staying with. My main priority, especially those first couple of days, was getting her taken care of. I wanted to make sure she got water and food. I was asking myself, ‘Can we ride this out? How much food do we have?’ I would have liked to have stayed, but our food would have run out much faster.
“I still keep in touch with her. She won't say much, but I know she's getting low on food. She's still doing okay, but for how much longer?” Andy asked when we talked to him in early April. “I'm guessing there's gonna be a lot of food shortage there.” We do not know the fate of Andy’s landlady, but his prediction of food shortages have become true.
A month into the invasion, a major food shortage in Ukraine was a serious and imminent threat, according to a warning by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. As civilians have been targeted and trapped in their homes, this has become a familiar reality. The problem extends to the rural regions as well. For the elderly populations of Ukraine, they are left with very few options for leaving, especially as the invasion drags on and pipelines out of cities are severed.
“There are so many old people there that can't leave. They can’t leave their apartments, war or not. We’re seeing it play out in Mariupol’. The city's completely surrounded and they're starving everyone inside to death. I hope that's not going to be the fate of Kharkiv, but it very well could be.”
As of April 21st, Andy’s worst fears seem to be coming to fruition. The city of Mariupol’ has been wiped from the map with. The Ukrainian military and civilians sheltering in the Azovstal plant are under bombardment and have no access to outside supplies. Reuters recently reported that, “President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered the Russian military to cancel plans to storm the Azovstal plant in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol and said he wanted it to continue to be hermetically blockaded instead.”
"Block off this industrial area so that a fly can not pass through," ordered Putin.
As for Kharkiv, the remaining residents “have adapted to living under the constant threat of attack, as Russian forces continue their weekslong offensive against Ukraine's second-largest city. Many take shelters in the basements of schools and sports halls. Deprived of water, gas, and electricity, they survive by collecting rainwater and cooking outside using debris from destroyed buildings,” according to AP.
The war of attrition continues.
Coming next - Part VII: Exodus