Ukrainian Dispatches 2: The border

Cats in a car. Photo by Abel Polese, used with permission.

This is the second 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 on February 24. 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.

Country roads and more country roads. Everyone is feverishly on their phone to get updates from the fronts. The belief, by many, that western Ukraine will remain a safe space crumbles. They are attacking almost everywhere. All around is silence. Few cars, beautiful landscapes, winter trees, mountains, frozen rivers. F can’t help praising how beautiful all this is. She does not say anything, but you know that your ex-wife’s heart is bleeding, having to abandon all this beauty.

It’s so quiet that you wonder if Russians will ever be able to come here. But then you start meeting concrete blocks to slow down circulation, checking points and soldiers even on minor roads. You wonder how on earth the Russians would be able to get from there to here but you prefer your question to remain unanswered. After all, even Ivano-Frankivsk, one of the farthest provinces, was hit, so the only place is out of the country.

A bridge, a hydroelectric power station. Traffic stops. They are checking every car. You’re so naive to think, “Why are they doing that so far from the conflict?”Long wait, your turn finally comes and you go out to translate for F, who is opening the trunk upon their request.

- Do you have any explosives?

- We are fleeing Kyiv, we took some clothes, the cats and hit the road, of course not.

- Well, just asking; you could have your personal supplies, just asking (maybe he hoped we have and could share with them?)

- No, we have nothing; can we go now?

The road is still long but a friend finds out you’re passing near the village of some relatives. A bit hesitant you cancel your reservation and re-route the car warning the passengers: get ready to eat borshch!

The place is peaceful. You would not say there’s a conflict going on a few kilometres away.  Against all odds, you have an excellent night's sleep. The house is huge and your clan is even allocated two rooms so you can separate the cats that sometimes cry at one another in the car. A glass of local wine, some warm words and you’re off to bed. The next morning, fresh and warm syrniki wait for you in the kitchen. It’s your first meal in 24 hours. 

The temporality of the situation scares you. You wonder if it isn’t safer to stay put for a while? They have fields that produce fruits, vegetables. They have their own chicken, pigs and a large cellar with all their produce, from jam to tushenka to kompot. Your car gets filled with apples, konservy (tinned food) and hope. The morning is warm and gives you hope, so nobody is in a hurry. You’ve chosen a small crossing point so there can’t be so many people. Everybody indulges in the last warm embraces of family protection, perhaps too long. When you start off, it’s already late morning.

Faraway from Kyiv felt like a different world. Photo by Abel Polese, used with permission.

The road to the border is not what you expected. Actually, there is no straight way to get there so you have to take detours through non-asphalted roads. Yet, even on these small roads, you see trucks dropping soil to slow down cars. You ask yourself where will all this stop, is there really nowhere safe in the country? What is worse is that the crossing point you’ve chosen is closed. You were keen to avoid the main one because this is where most people will go but it turns out all minor borders with Romania have been closed. Your friends call but nobody picks up the phone. This is not the time when you’d take a chance. You need to go to the main border.

You start calling your Romanian friends and settle everything hoping you can make it by the night or early morning, but when you arrive at the border you understand that things might not turn out how you hoped. There is a line of cars that makes you stop even before the illumination poles that introduce the border post. You wonder how long the line is and there’s only one way to find out. You start walking to the border. 

Border crossing … maybe

After 30 minutes you have not yet reached the post. It’s hot, excessively hot for February, but you are glad that it’s not classic February weather. How many people would collapse if waiting under a snowstorm? The line of cars becomes two, then three, then two again. The police are trying to bring order but for the number of people (usually in SUV or expensive cars) overtaking everyone in the hope to get faster through the border. It’s war out there and it’s war down here to find a way out of the country. You shiver thinking what could happen if more and more people start pushing from behind in the hope to leave the country in case of rumours that Russians are arriving. It would simply be manslaughter. 

Walking to the post you ask people how long they’ve been waiting. The longest is 24 hours. You regret your late departure or even not having reached the border the day before, no matter at what time. But you are also glad that you got a good night's sleep, could take a shower and you ate some warm food, something that, you reckon, you won’t be able to do for a few days. 

Cars at the border. Photo by Abel Polese, used with permission.

You ask the guards and they say yes, they will let you past, you just need to wait, so you devise a strategy to leave the car in Ukraine and walk through the border but you still need to convince the rest of the company. But you learn that the other car, with grandpa and grandma, her mother and the dog is on its way and will reach you by the evening. Evening becomes night because of a roadblock and that they will only arrive next day in the afternoon. But it makes sense to wait and help them cross.

By the time you are back to the car your phone reads, “Congratulations, you’ve reached your 10.000 step target for today.” Sure, you walked almost 14 km to and from the border, now have blisters on both feet and no other shoes than those you’re wearing. For the first time, you feel hunger. The Portuguese biscuits you carried all the way become the best meal ever, with a sip of fruit juice. 

But you can’t stop worrying. The shelves are getting emptier and the point-of-sale terminal stopped working. With little cash in your pocket, you wonder how long you and everyone else will be able to hold out since the number of people camping is increasing and water and supplies go the opposite way. 

Night falls, warmth becomes cold and you curl up in your clothes to keep warm. The line is slowly advancing but at irregular times. Sometimes the car remains still for an hour, sometimes you can advance a few meters. You start fearing you will run out of petrol by advancing like this and know you have to take turns at the wheel since, if you fall asleep, you will be overtaken by other cars. 

Border traffic jams by night. Photo by Abel Polese.

The car before you does not move, the driver might be asleep or have gone somewhere. F does something he promised not to do and overtakes. One, two, many cars, but when he tries to get back into the line people stop you and urge you to go away. What to do? You cannot go back now, your place is no longer there. The only way is forward. You tell him to drive on since you’ve seen that lines make no sense here. There will be two, then three and people will get angry, anyway. So the car stops a few meters from a truck, from what seems to be the truck line from which you have to move since you won’t be allowed to cross as a truck. 

New friends

Some people are grouping just nearby between cars. You want to sleep, it’s cold outside but feel it’s your chance to negotiate your entry back into the right lane. That was the right thing to do. Within seconds you achieve two things: a legitimate and acceptable way to move away from the truck’s lane into the right one and a group of new friends. Conversations remind you of long hours spent on Ukrainian trains talking to strangers about anything and everything, like in that Mashina Vremeni song, razgovor v poezde. You go back to the car shivering but you are now in a team that includes Dmitry, an ethnic Bulgarian IT expert from Mykolaev, providing services to the Ukrainian and Bulgarian governments who tells you everything about money laundering in the country, and Andrey, a young man who drove 48 from Kharkhiv only to accompany his wife and kids to the border knowing he will not be allowed to leave the country. Ukraine has declared martial law and no man 18-60 is allowed to go out. 

In the first 16 hours you’ve advanced some 800 metres. You’ve seen some evacuation buses with Indian students and are amazed at how fast this was organised. More people are coming and the situation is getting tense. Some young men try to organise a group of people stopping the cars that do not respect the line. A middle-aged man starts yelling and swearing at a woman who complains he’s trying to pass. You agree with your new friends to go and check the crossing point again. This time, your youngest son also comes. He has too much energy and needs to do something to spend it so a walk is a good option. 

The situation looks much worse than the day before. You see some cars turning around and leaving, their occupants maybe in despair, the insurance company has exhausted the forms (Ukrainian-number cars need international insurance to enter the EU and all online services have been blocked so only hard copies of the insurance policy are acceptable). Even the line to walk through the border is thicker and no longer a line, just a crowd of people spread around the entry gate with guards admitting them at snail's speed. 

On the way back, your friend tries to grab a coffee somewhere. The first place is too crowded, the second also. Then the third one says, “We have coffee but we have no cups. If you have your own cup we can make you one.” Increasingly worried, you notice that the shelves are getting even emptier. Sparkling-water bottles are the last ones, regular water has all been sold out.

This is the second part of the series. The first part was published yesterday, and the third part is here.

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

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