Kyiv Diary 3/28/2022: ‘We Fled Our Homes Not Knowing if We Would Ever Return’

Kyiv Diary, Latest

Moment is publishing regular updates from Helen, a Soviet American Jew living in Kyiv. In this installment, we are featuring the story of one of Helen’s students, Anya. Read all the diary entries here.

My name is Anya. I am 27 years old. I used to live and work in Kyiv. And I am a refugee. 

Many people in my situation—the United Nations says there are already more than four million of us—call it something different, something that sounds softer: forced migration,  forced tourism, resettlement, evacuation.

But we fled our homes and our beloved cities not knowing if we would ever return. And this makes us refugees.

I’ll tell you my story.

On February 24, 2022, the sound of explosions woke me up. My phone was already screaming with text messages: “Anya, get ready! Take the car and leave Kyiv immediately!” 

I was numb at first, in a sort of stupor. I wanted to fall back asleep and wake up to learn it was just a bad dream.  

I got more messages. Many from close friends. They all said the same thing: “We are leaving for Western Ukraine. Get in your car and follow us.” But I refused. And not because I believed the Russians would only target military infrastructure, sparing residential buildings. I stayed because I was scared; it was an instinctual, animal-like fear of the unknown. 

Then messages started coming from those who had left. They reported wild traffic jams, gasoline shortages, or lines at gas stations four to five hours long. These messages further convinced me that I was right to stay. 

When evening came, I was all alone. Everywhere I looked, people were searching for bomb shelters. But by 8 p.m., the shelters were overcrowded, full beyond their capacity. On the streets, people whispered, “Kyiv will be attacked tonight, we need to hide.” 

I spent the night in a cold sweat on the bathroom floor so that if the building was bombed, I wouldn’t be hurt by broken window glass.  

Finally, at 4 a.m. I decided that I couldn’t take this nightmare any longer. I needed to go to my family’s home in Dnipro, a city 240 miles southeast of Kyiv. 

I put my dog in the car and started driving with an almost empty gas tank and no cash. A former colleague asked if she could join me because her family lives in the same region. Of course, I agreed; it felt less scary not to be alone. 

Because she was also short on cash, and because we had little information about the state of the roads and whether the Russians were advancing, we decided to take the train. But when we arrived at the train station, the situation was truly horrific. We saw huge panicking crowds; it looked like a living hell. Moreover, all of the trains had been canceled for the day. 

With no information and only an inner voice saying, “Leave, don’t hesitate, flee right now,” we went back to the car. Running on the remains in the gas tank and adrenaline, we left Kyiv and headed to find any operating gas station. We found one and waited in line for 3 hours, encouraging each other. It felt like a blessing from God when we finally filled our tank. 

I eventually got to my native city of Dnipro and the home where I grew up. My mother hugged me, tears running down her face. Of all the times my mother has hugged me in my life, this one will stand out forever! 

For the next couple of days, I felt calmer and tried to cherish every moment with my family. But people had started fleeing Dnipro because the news said the city would be attacked soon. 

I urged my family to leave as soon as possible, but they were stubborn. After a couple of tear-filled days, my mother agreed to go with me. But my father and 17-year-old brother decided to stay to take care of the grandmothers and help others who stayed.

Two weeks after the war started, and with half of my family behind, I was on the road again. We left on March 8, International Women’s Day. We thought it might be a good omen. But it wasn’t.

On the first day, I spent 17 hours in the car. For six of them, we sat in traffic on an icy road while the snow fell incessantly. The visibility was almost zero, but somehow we weren’t scared. We were in the same position as thousands of other exhausted people in their cars on the same highway near Khmelnitsky. 

That night, the temperature dropped to -10 degrees Celsius. With little gas in the tank, a constant problem, we had nowhere to go that night. And without sleeping bags, spending the night in the car was not feasible. Instagram—or rather, the kind people who reposted my Instagram story with pleas for help—saved us. A woman from a Christian organization agreed to give us shelter in her apartment. We slept on the floor with 11 other people, everyone huddled to stay warm. 

The next day, after many more hours on the road, we got to the Romanian border. 

While my trunk was being inspected, I talked with the owners of a minibus that was behind our car. They turned out to be a British pastor and a journalist from the Daily Mail. When they opened the back door of the bus, I gasped. There, right before me, was a full-sized bear in a cage, who had been rescued from a zoo the Russians were shelling. 

Now we are in Romania—indefinitely. We hope my father and brother will join us.

Yesterday, I heard an airplane. My first thought was that I need to run to a bomb shelter; when something flies over in the Ukrainian sky, it usually means that a bomb will fall nearby.

There are millions of stories like mine, and I know that I am in the one percent—the luckiest ones. 

Most of my friends faced greater hardships trying to leave Kyiv and trying to survive—days stuck on a train, days stuck in a field without water and food, shelled cars, road mines, you name it. 

But we are all part of one big family now. A family of people who have no home today.

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