This is the first of a three-part series by Abel Polese about his escape from Kyiv to Romania with his children, two cats, his ex-wife and her husband after Russia invaded Ukraine. Polese is a researcher, trainer and development worker and is currently leading several research projects on shadow economies in Ukraine. He flew to Kyiv on the night of February 23, only to have to leave the city at dawn the day after.
It’s 5.48 a.m. when you watch the clock wondering why you woke up so early. Takes a moment to realize that your (ex) father-in-law (FIL) is saying something. “Demilitarizatsiya i denatsizatsiya” (demitarisation and denazification) are the words that pop into your ears before your brain finally starts up and you understand the whole sentence. After all, working until 3 a.m. the previous night turned out not to be such a good idea.
But the games have started. You learn that your kids are already leaving Kyiv in another car and your FIL goes to pick up one babushka (grandmother). The other one, however, said it clearly, “I won’t go anywhere.”
You go out to the garden and hear explosions not too far away. You’re not in danger yet but it’s clear that something is going on. You remember the fake bombing attacks at the time of the Yugoslav Wars but are not sure how much these resemble them.
You do not understand why it takes so long to come to a decision. They are shelling the country and you are in the capital. They will be coming for you all so there is not much to be discussed. But Babushka is still repeating “I cannot imagine Putin shooting on their brother nation, everything is going to be fine.” Definitely, he’s able to do that, you think, but for a moment hope he’ll be happy to take just the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk and just do a showcase of its military power.
But your position is different from theirs so a quick decision is easier for you. Fleeing for you means to go home, for them it means to abandon, perhaps forever, all that they have: house, friends, objects and carry whatever memories of their life into a small suitcase.
When you hit the road you regret so much time was spent in negotiation. The car with your kids, their mother, her husband and two cats is already out of Kyiv. You are being held by the traffic. You wonder if this is the usual 7 a.m. Kyiv traffic or people are fleeing the capital, and where are they heading?
You agree on a meeting point for the cars, then change it after you discover that on the road there’s a military object nearby and it’s not that safe. Then another road is not safe, then another one. In the end, you agree on an anonymous village that can be found easily even if the mobile and internet networks are cut off completely.
War or not war
Life seems to be going on as usual in the capital. For a moment you consider staying. After all, you’ve got your appointment at 11 and your favourite massage after lunch. But with the kids not in town, you’ve got little reason to remain there. Then you notice queues at supermarkets and gas stations and praise how your FIL has been smart keeping his car tanked up since the beginning of the tensions. You cancel all today’s and next week's appointments. You cannot see any ATMs but will discover later that people have been queuing up there also.
The city is immense. You knew it but now you also sense it. Passing through traffic jams and gasoline queues you see the town of Irpin, where you used to be invited to the police academy to talk to the students. It was a long time ago but feels like a sort of age of innocence now.
At least planes are flying, you think. If anything, we could get out of the country by plane since many will stay hoping it does not get worse. But your hope is short-lived. A few minutes later, you learn that the Ukrainian aerospace has been closed. You’re now officially trapped in the country and the only way out is by road.
Your memory goes back to your student years when, to save money, you’d crossed almost all the Ukrainian borders on foot or local trains carrying goods for other people who were trying to make a living out of petty smuggling. You can romanticise these times as much as you want, getting drunk with petty smugglers, learning about other worlds and lives, but remember clearly that on foot border crossing is hell in normal times, and you do not want to imagine how it will look now.
Change road again, more bombs dropped. Even the west of the country, that you deemed safer, has been shelled. Only military objects so far but is there a place where you could hide out for a while?
An unusual family reunion
Time for a family reunion. The other car is parked between a dried wood and an abandoned gas station. Four generations reunite in a place at the end of the world: your kids, their mother, her husband and her two parents, her grandmother, two cats and one dog. It’s an unusual situation but it’s not the time to dust off old and present tensions. Now you are a family that is fleeing the war. Forget about anything else and take a family selfie in the most unlikely place in the world
It’s decided now. You will continue in the car with the kids. Grandparents with their mother and dog will head back to Kyiv. She has said already too many times that she does not want to leave, your FIL’s ears are already too tired to hear that so at least they’re taking her there. After all, they say, if the internet is working and there’s electricity perhaps the situation is not as bad as it seems.
Your car heads southwest through small roads. Your ex-wife has reserved a room in an area deemed safe. The owner promised to put up as many people as arrived. For now, the plan is to get there in one piece, sleep a bit and then decide what to do next.
You leave the main road and start taking small ones. The navigator shows you’ll be there in six hours or more. You are two hours into the road trip when you learn that the car driven by FIL made a U-turn and will come after you. They’ve started shelling the Kyiv region already. Going back is too dangerous.
Your phone starts to explode. Family and friends from the outside world ask insistently where you are, what you’re doing, where you’re heading, what’s going on. Since the situation may deteriorate at any time, and they are worried, they ask the same question again and again. You are flattered by all this attention but you’re a bit busy surviving and need your phone to look at maps, learn where the battle is moving.
And the internet is not working well, so you give up your hopes to have your two business meetings from the car and go on cancelling everything. Also, you have no idea how long the internet will hold, so call it a day and switch to survival mode.