Fight or flight: Ukrainians forced to make hard choices as war unfolds

UN estimates 100,000 already displaced by the fighting after Russia continues incursion

Live updates: follow the latest news on Russia-Ukraine

The first blast from a Russian ballistic missile shook Katya Niporka awake in her Kiev apartment a little after 5am on Thursday morning. The second sent her rushing for her phone.

“I heard another explosion and I grabbed my phone, opened messenger and saw people saying [that] in Kharkiv and Nikolaiev it was the same — they had explosions,” she said.

Despite weeks of diplomacy, threats of sanctions and political brinkmanship, Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared war on Ukraine, launching a series of co-ordinated attacks on cities and towns across the country.

As Russian troops advance on major cities, including the capital Kiev, Ukrainians are facing the excruciating question of whether to stay in their homes or flee elsewhere in the country — or even abroad.

In Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city which sits about 30 kilometres from the Russian border, Mila, 29, packed a small suitcase and made a mad dash to the train station on Thursday morning, trying to board a train west after the city was hit with Russian artillery fire.

The platforms were crowded with people trying desperately to board the few trains leaving the station.

“I have family in the centre of the country,” she said speaking from an overflowing train. “I'm planning to stay with them until things calm down, but we don't know how long that will be.”

Many Ukrainians thought that if an incursion happened at all, it would come in the south-east of the country, which has for the past eight years been embroiled in conflict. Earlier in the week, Mr Putin and the Russian State Duma formally recognised two breakaway regions as independent republics.

“We had been expecting them to invade further into Donetsk or Luhansk, not in Kharkiv. No one was ready for this,” she said.

For many in those regions, however, shelling is nothing new.

Ludmila Ivanovna, 56, of Donetsk, went to work on Thursday morning as usual, though she was one of only a handful who did. She had already been displaced from her home by fighting in 2015 and said she was not keen to move again.

“I'm nearing retirement, my kids live abroad — where would I go?” she asked.

Abroad is precisely where Natasha and her husband, Andrey, intended to go when they packed their suitcases and piled into their small car with their two young children early on Friday morning.

The drive to the Polish border from Kiev normally takes seven or eight hours with light traffic, but after six hours on the road, they'd barely made it a third of the way.

“The roads are awful, traffic is at a standstill and there are accidents everywhere,” Natasha said.

Cars that had run out of gas were abandoned in the roadway; some people were walking along the motorway in the direction of the border.

They hoped to make it to her husband's home town in the far west of the country by nightfall, then assess their chances at the border in the morning.

Rumours that all men of fighting age were being pulled from cars and buses at crossings have them worried.

Ms Niporka, who is still in her apartment in Kiev, said she did not plan to leave.

“Why would I leave? My friends and family are here and it's safer than being outside in a traffic jam.”

But aside from it being safer, she believes in Ukraine's fighting spirit and that somehow, against all odds, they will prevail in this crisis.

“Life is unjust, but maybe this is our mission. I love my country and when something happens, we can unite and we can work together. We can overcome any problem.”

Updated: February 25, 2022, 8:56 PM
EDITOR'S PICKS