This is the third 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.
The situation is getting tenser. You see an increasing number of people walking to the border. Many are Indians. You saw several evacuation buses carrying Indian students so you wonder why those now coming had not been invited. But there is no answer. Many foreign students start arriving and they walk to the border. Entire families with small babies, large suitcases are heading towards the unknown. You nervously ask what time the parents are coming but there’s just one thing to do: wait.
You were never a fan of panettone (Italian Christmas cake; some profane people would call it huge muffin) but the lady at the airport had convinced you to buy one. After Christmas, the price dropped by 50 percent and this was a luxury one with pistachio cream inside and pistachio grains on the top. This delicacy has traveled with you all the way from Italy last month and is faithfully following you in your odyssey. You decide it’s time to end that, find a knife and invite your Bulgarian neighbour and his daughter to a panettone party. Your younger son follows and you go to the playground to cut the cake and drink water and Pepsi with your new friends.
The parents are finally near the border so you start discussing, like in a strategy game, how to shuffle people into three teams that will get everyone out of the country while minimizing the risk for the cats, the kids, the dog, the cash, your grandpa (59 years old with his invalidity certificate forgotten home) who might get arrested at the border and drift directly to a war zone, since all men under 60 might be called to fight.
It’s decided. You take the youngest one and try the walk crossing. Grandpa takes the older one and claims to be the only relative capable of bringing him out of the country, hoping to move the border officers and pass in spite of his “young” age. Grandma will cross alone on foot and ex-wife — with husband and two cats — will come last by car whenever they are allowed.
You start walking to the border and tears drop down your face. You will pass in any case, you are confident and your situation is perhaps the easiest one. But what about the others?
You part a few meters before the soldiers and head for the gates, but the situation is disheartening. What was a line has become a shapeless agglomerate of people with hundreds of foreign students mixing with Ukrainian women and children. With little hope, you go asking where is the line for parents with children, and you’re told that No, there is no special line. You have to elbow-fight to get through.
After a few minutes of asking around, you join some Ukrainian women in their negotiation with some unusual people. They speak Romanian and they promise to bring women (or men, in your case) with children through the border. There is no negotiation. In the span of 10 minutes, you load your luggage into an Audi SUV at the front of the waiting line. You can stop worrying about crossing but you can start worrying about something else. You know the practice of carrying people through a border but that usually comes through a payment. These people want nothing from you, so you wonder what’s their gain? That’s not how most trafficking routes are organized. From a gratuitous offer to help desperate people like you? You send a picture of the car’s plate to all your Romanian friends and wonder if you made a wise choice, after all.
The more you wait, the more you get to talk with people from cars around you. The night train atmosphere returns, albeit a bit more tense. Perhaps angels exist, after all. Foreign students try to break through the gates because they are not being let out, and the guards shut the border. And if you fail to cross now? Where will you go? What will you do?
You are surprised when the driver hides your luggage under the spare wheel. Another lady with a one-month-old child is boarding the car and you’re asked to move to the rear seat with other luggage. There’s barely space for your legs. Now you are five adults and three children and the border is still closed.
The only thing you can do is to sleep. Odd to say in such tense circumstances, but you feel so tired after a sleepless night that it takes only a minute from the moment you close your eyes. You wake up a few times and finally, the car starts moving and your feelings towards the driver move from suspect to total admiration.
Angelica, this is her name, is a fighter. She yells in three languages at the same time, duly addressing each interlocutor in their own language. She yells at border guards, at sly people trying overtaking and to walking ones, “I have three children in the car and it’s my turn now.” For the first time in three days, you feel blessed and protected. She drives in, collects all passports, hands them to the guards who do not even ask you to come out and let you pass. You’re out.
On the Romanian side, the tension melts off. She even starts teasing you, calls the guards to announce she has an “Italiano vero” in the car (referring to Toto Cutugno's 1983 song, still popular in some parts of the world). The whole company starts joking loudly and you’re finally in Romania. It’s late at night and all dark but you can see dozens of volunteers handing food and drinks to everyone. They will be waiting all night just to help. You see a sign on your right “kharchuvaniya i zhitlo bezplatno” (free food and accommodation) and your eyes fill with tears. After days of being treated like mincemeat and then almost like beasts, someone finally takes care of you.
You were lucky that your ex-flatmate's mother lives just there so she gives you her brother’s empty apartment and you can stay for a few days. She comes to visit every day, brings food, SIM cards for you to stay in touch with the rest of the family. She takes your son to the mall to buy him a cake.
Wherever she takes you, she mentions that you are refugees from Ukraine. When you hear that, you ponder your own feelings. These days it’s the key to everything: you can skip a queue, you do not need a green pass to enter a mall, you can take free food at stations and grocery points. But you wonder if you like being referred to like this. Even more, you try to imagine how you would feel if you really had nowhere to go and you left most of your things in Kyiv like many around you, including your children, had.
The rest of the company arrives, now you’re all settled in the apartment, five people and two scared cats, and you can start discussing plans for the future. Where to go, schooling for children, and other logistic arrangements. You can also concentrate on your kids. How are they living through all this? The elder one is silent, as always, the younger one is as playful as always when you travel together, he will later tell you that your spell you spent in Romania feels like a usual travel with dad rather than an escape — a further positive side of having taken them with you across Asia, Africa, and Europe all these years.
Then you open his suitcase to do an inventory of what you have with you and find his elastic trampoline socks. He had his class last Thursday and you were supposed to go with him, he liked it so much. You can’t stop wondering when (and where) the next class will be.
For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.