Discover more from Ukraine Stories
Part VII: Exodus
Written by: Val Stutz. Edited by: Wilmer Rojas
“I got a strange phone call on my Ukrainian phone. I almost didn’t answer it.” Andy told us as he recounted his exodus from Ukraine, “It was this woman from the British Red Cross. She said, ‘Hey, I think we have a bus available tomorrow at the central train station. Can you be on it?’ I told her, ‘You know… probably not. It's too far. I would have had to leave before dark and try to walk.’ She responded that they might be able to arrange a pickup at our location. She gave me a strange address that was a 20-minute walk away, but in a much more dangerous area. This area had seen a lot of heavy bombing in the last few days, though, in the last three days, things had slowed a bit. Instead of hearing a shell every two to three minutes, it reduced to one every 20 to 30 minutes.”
Andy didn’t know his contact information had been shared through our network at Ukraine Stories with the grassroots organization, Safebow, “a team of global volunteers assisting anyone in need to evacuate Ukraine, with a priority on those in the most at-risk war zones and members of marginalized groups.” One of our writers had volunteered with the organization and thought it might be helpful. Indeed, it was.
Started by a London-based nonbinary model and activist, Rain Dove, the grassroots organization has attracted hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds to help get people out of Ukraine. "I'm working with some of the most incredible queer people on the ground," Dove told Yahoo! Life. "I'm humbled by them because they had been living this [fighting discrimination] their entire lives. It's just a little bit different because there are bombs now."
The organization’s mission has expanded to help a variety of people both in and outside of the LGBTQ+ community and it is one of many examples of how grassroots activism and social media/messaging are saving lives in a way that is unique to this generation.
In the meantime, while Andy had a contact, he still needed a way to get to his bus. As he recalled”, “Another thing to remember was that there was no gas in the region at all, so even if you had a car, you might not be able to drive it. Luckily, I was able to get a ride to our pick-up point along with some other old ladies who were trying to leave. Our driver was very nervous. They were bombing at a distance that we could hear. So it was fairly close. He was trying to hurry as fast as possible.
“We headed towards the Annunciation Cathedral. It's the most prominent cathedral in Kharkiv and definitely the most beautiful. I have heard it has gotten hit since I left and is slightly damaged. I couldn't see any damage when we went by it, but the bridges going towards it were blown out. We had to back up, turn around, and go a different way to get to the pickup location.”
The Annunciation Cathedral has been damaged by the Russian onslaught since our interview with Andy. It was the main Orthodox church of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
“There were roadblocks everywhere.” Andy goes on to explain. “Seeing the downtown area was pretty hard. I don't recall seeing a building that didn't have its windows knocked out. Most of them were still standing but there was a lot of damage.”
Finally, Andy and his group reached the drop-off point. And before he knew it, he found himself performing the role of the group’s leader.
“We got to the train station and picked up the rest of our people. There was a lot of confusion once we arrived. They wanted to give me the list of the people that were supposed to be on the bus, perhaps because the list was written in English. I have a hard enough time with Russian names. I have an even harder time with them when they are written in English. The volunteer, I'm sorry to say, was absolutely worthless. When I handed her the list, she just handed it back to me as if saying, I don't want this. So, whoever showed up and said they were supposed to be on the bus, got on the bus.
“Toward the end, we were still missing a couple, so I ended up on the phone with the lady from Great Britain to figure out what was going on. Eventually, we found out that they weren't coming. That entire process delayed us a bit. But eventually, we did get going. As the bus left the city, you could see some places that were on fire.”
Andy soon found that the rural landscape of Ukraine had also changed somewhat in the early days of the war. While it was different from the bombed-out visages of Ukrainian city, there were still hints that war has descended.
“One thing I found interesting was that every little side road was blocked off. If there was even a driveway leading into a farm somewhere, it was blocked off. I don't know if the military or the farmer did this, but they cut down trees and toppled them over the entrance to their farm. I even saw some areas where they had brought a dump truck full of sand or something and dumped it in the middle of a road so you couldn't go down it. They've taken a lot of precautions inside of Ukraine. I'm not a military tactician, but it seems like these tactics would in fact slow the Russians down.”
Despite a nervous bus driver and anxious passengers, the caravan ran into delay after delay. Regardless, they moved west as fast as possible, helped by the kindness of strangers along the way.
“We had to go through checkpoints that were typically overseen by two or three men. They were not heavily defended, but it was enough to slow everything down because they put up concrete barricades, which would only allow one car at a time to pass.
“We eventually got to Dnipro and picked up a couple of families with small children. I was on the phone with one of the ladies trying to describe where we were. I think we went to the train station and they were at the bus station, which is walkable, but not any easy trip when you have little children. That was another delay we had, but we got them on the bus and we headed to Lviv.
“We didn't stop except to go to the bathroom. And when we stopped we got out of the bus and you had to go in front of everybody — no matter what you had to do — including women and children. There was no privacy.
“There was one time we got to stop, just before Lviv, at this gas station. They had free coffee down the street. We walked a couple of minutes to this little cafe. These Ukrainian guys had set it up. They handed out warm coffee and tea. They also had some snacks, all for free, just to help the travelers. For some people, it was the only food they had during the entire trip.
“We stopped in Lviv in a strange location near a cathedral called St. Nicholas to pick up some African students from Kenya. They had been trapped somewhere in Ukraine. I don't know how they got to Lviv, but they had no idea where to go once they arrived. I was on the phone with one of the students trying to figure out where he was. I compared what I was seeing with what they were seeing and tried to locate them that way. We waited an hour for them. We were able to get them the address and put them on the phone with a local Ukrainian who helped them find us. But we had to talk them through where to go three or four times. Nonetheless, we got them all and we arrived at the border.”
Andy was finally able to get out of Ukraine, but with the large influx of refugees into Poland, it still took a long time to get processed and through the border crossing. Andy had gotten through the hardest part of his journey, but there was still more to do.
“It was a small crossing into Poland and it had been bombed a few days back. We had to get off the bus and walk across the border. Buses were not allowed to cross. I don't know if the driver couldn't go through or if the bus couldn't go through. So our driver dropped us off.
“It was around 3:00 p.m. when we arrived, but it was well after dark before we got through the Ukrainian side. They let everybody through. They took everybody's passports and checked everything.
“Men could not cross unless they were over the age of 60, I believe. We did have some men with us. They knew they weren't going to be able to cross, but they wanted to see their families to the border at least.
“There was no indoor facility to wait in; we waited outside. It was very cold and you could hear children screaming from fatigue and cold. Eventually, we got our passports back and they let us all go through as a group. We walked to the Polish border, which was a kilometer or two away across the bridge.”
Andy had finally reached Poland.