Flight from Ukraine was inevitable after Russia triggered war

A call came from the Black Sea coast: An aunt’s frantic voice, rife with fear and on the verge of tears

Families flee Ukraine for Slovakia after a Russian military operation began in the east of Ukraine. Reuters

As dawn broke on the second day of the war in Ukraine, seven Ukrainians and I had been sitting in the vehicle queue to cross the border into Poland for about eight hours. After consulting with my documentary-maker host, I grabbed my bags, made my goodbyes and started walking west.

After an hour and maybe five miles, I reached the border crossing in Ustyluh, but there was no customs office, just a gate with a crossing bar and people jostling to get on to an idling bus.

The women and children took their seats before the men clambered on and stood in the aisle.

Dozens of tired, nervous-looking Ukrainian women held their children close as the bus travelled westward. The mood brightened slightly, and I struck up a conversation with some Algerian students who had arrived in Kiev in December to study information technology.

As our bus parked for what would become an eight-hour wait for processing, the Algerians told how they had fled Kiev on Thursday morning when bombs began falling.

They had taken a bus, hitchhiked, hopped on another bus, walked a dozen miles and finally taken a third bus to the border.

They had spent the past few months learning Russian, which was to be the language of their university coursework.

Now all that appeared to be in the past, and I expressed remorse about their lost opportunity.

“No, no, not at all,” Azeddine said. “Now we will get into the EU, which was impossible before. We can build a new life. In Algeria there is nothing.”

And that was when it hit me, as I heard reports from the new arrivals that the border crossing car queue now stretched to 20 miles: in the days ahead, Russia’s attack on Ukraine could result in the largest displacement of humanity in Europe since the Second World War.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched this conflict because he views Ukrainians as essentially Russian, as explained in his historical treatise last year, and sees Nato inching towards roping in “his people” as a security threat.

Now this war, based on an irrational fear, threatens to topple a sovereign democratic state of nearly 45 million people and unleash chaos on the region.

We might have known in our heart of hearts this could happen, but few actually thought it would.

Even before the war three million Ukrainians had built lives in Poland. How many will now flee into and decide to stay in the EU, in Poland as well as Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania?

It could be well into the millions, dwarfing the 2015-2016 tide of a million-plus Syrians that nearly upended European politics.

On Thursday, Slovakia announced it would welcome all Ukrainians, even those without passports.

Some 36 hours into the conflict, the United Nations said more than 100,000 Ukrainians had been displaced. But as of Saturday morning Poland said 100,000 civilians had entered the country in the last few days, while the BBC News reported on a steady stream arriving in nearby Hungary.

As my busload of refugees crossed into the EU late on Friday afternoon, a question Azeddine had posed rang in my head: “What will Europe do about all these Ukrainians?”

Children fleeing from Ukraine embrace arrive in Hungary, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, at a border crossing in Beregsurany, Hungary, February 26, 2022.  REUTERS / Bernadett Szabo

When the fighting starts

After the first bomb blast in Lutsk woke me just before 7am on Thursday, I couldn't imagine Russia would attack this small city this far west, just 50 kilometres from Poland.

Could somebody be getting rid of leftover New Year’s fireworks? By the fifth explosion, which seemed closer, the truth could not be denied. The day we’d been dreading for months had arrived.

Nato and US officials began warning of a possible Russian attack from the east as far back as November, as Mr Putin massed 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border.

Kievans took the early whispers of war in stride. “There’s already a war,” one Ukrainian friend said at a dinner party in December, referring to the eight-year-old conflict in Donbas.

“Don’t read the news,” another said, “you’ll be happier.”

As the new year dawned, the troop numbers along the border had risen to 130,000 and Ukrainians started cleaning their guns, organising volunteer militias, and taking self-defence classes while also doing their best to hold fast to their normal lives.

“Putin’s not going to do it,” a Ukrainian musician told me on a January evening. “The US is just creating panic with this talk of invasion.”

By early February, the warnings from the West were more dire and explicit, the situation in the east started heating up and, days after Moscow claimed to be pulling back troops, the numbers on the border rose to a reported 190,000.

Finally, US President Joe Biden announced that a major Russian assault on Kiev was likely “in the coming days”.

Two days later, Moscow recognised the independence of the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, the easternmost parts of which have been controlled by Russia-backed separatists for years.

The writing was on the wall, so my Ukrainian documentary maker friend Artem and I packed up our things, drove west out of Kiev on Wednesday and arrived at the home of his wife’s parents in Lutsk about eight hours before Russian bombs began to fall.

Eight of us took shelter in the gated home to the north of the city centre. The married hosts, their two children and their spouses, 2-year-old Denis, and his favourite visiting American “uncle”.

We spent the morning scrolling the news on our phones as the voice of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on a television in the background, urged Ukrainians to defend their country.

A fateful call

During a lunch of beef and mushroom soup, the hostess answered a call from an aunt in the Black Sea port of Kherson.

We all fell silent and we could hear the fear in the aunt’s frantic voice. She was terrified by the Russian tanks outside her window.

Before then we’d been distracting ourselves with humour. The running joke was that when the Russians came knocking at the door my Ukrainian hosts would hand over their American visitor to save themselves.

When the Wi-Fi would go down, which happened often, somebody would call out: “Please turn the internet back on, Putin.” Denis playing Baby Shark Dance on repeat and running around screaming nonsense made the day seem almost normal.

The aunt’s call and reports that Russian troops had overrun a military airfield on the outskirts of Kiev made the decision for us.

In a few hours, the idea of Russia toppling the Ukrainian government and taking control of the country had gone from slightly silly to all but inevitable, prompting talk of getting all non-combatants out of the country as quickly as possible.

Updated: February 26, 2022, 3:56 PM