February 25, 2022, 6:00 am
George had been having a very different experience from us. After we had said goodbye on the call early that morning, he left our apartment with Olya to find some way to rendezvous with Anastasia and her son and get out of Kyiv. Because of the curfew still in effect, he didn’t know how they were going to get to the pick-up point and whether or not stairs might be involved, so George ditched the small suitcase he had packed for his evacuation and emptied almost everything out of his backpack. He has a congenital spinal condition that acts up anytime he lifts anything over 15 pounds, so he couldn’t take a heavy backpack or risk having to carry his rolling suitcase up or down stairs. As a result, he left home with nothing but the clothes on his back, his phone and laptop, his wallet and documents, and a few changes of socks and underwear.
Most of the people in our apartment were still sleeping when George and Olya headed out the door. It was a very different scene from the tearful, agonizing parting the day before, but it was still hard to leave everyone behind, not knowing if they would be safe. With a heavy heart, George said goodbye to our dog Jack, wondering if we would ever see him again. He locked the apartment door, and he and Olya exited the building into the chilly air of an early morning in late February. They had no idea if they would ever return.
At first George tried to find a car to rent with the car-sharing app that he had used to get back home the previous day, but the app showed that none of the cars in the city were available. George realized that the company must have blocked access to the service in compliance with the curfew law. Next he tried to call a taxi, but they were also unavailable. Of course, public transport wasn’t running, and walking wasn’t a sensible option because of the distance. In the end, he and Olya headed to the closest subway station to wait for the first subway train, scheduled for 7:00 am.
The streets, usually starting to fill with traffic at this hour, were mostly deserted, and the air was still and quiet, a reprieve from the explosions they had heard during the night. Despite the curfew, there were a surprising number of people out, all headed to the subway station like George and Olya. Worried eyes peered out of grim faces painted with exhaustion from a sleepless night. Some people were talking on cell phones as they walked. George and Olya walked in silence.
When they got to the subway station, they were met with a sobering sight. Instead of the usual bustle of morning rush-hour commuters, there were groups of tired people seated here and there. Many had spread blankets on the floor to sit on, some even had pillows. They were concentrated along the walls on the landings of the stairs that led down to the platform and near the pillars on the platform itself—anywhere a vertical surface provided a support for weary backs to lean against. People had bags containing whatever they had thought most important to grab in those frantic moments before they had rushed out of their homes to seek shelter here when the air raid sirens had gone off the night before. Parents watched over sleeping children. Tension and anxiety hung like stale cigarette smoke in the somber atmosphere. It looked like about 50 people had spent the night here. In the coming months, Kyivans would become accustomed to using their subway stations as places of work, school, and sleep as they did their best to carry on with normal life in the face of horrifically abnormal circumstances. As I sit here writing over 17 months later, this new norm shows no signs of ending, and still the courageous people of Kyiv carry on.
There was a subway train waiting on one side of the platform. The doors were standing open, and some people were already seated inside. It was going the direction that George and Olya needed, so they quietly walked past our neighbors who didn’t have the good fortune of an apartment with a basement to sleep in and boarded the train.
They waited in silence for about 20 minutes. At 7:00 am sharp, the subway speakers crackled to life. “Be careful, the doors are closing. The next station is Poshtova Ploscha.” The familiar announcement was both comforting and jarring. The well-known words seemed out-of-place in a world that had changed so drastically. The train doors slid shut, and they were on their way.
They got off at the second stop to switch to a subway line that ran all the way to the place where they were to meet Anastasia. They would be a little late, but they were relieved to be on the final leg of the fastest route. But then, two stops before their destination, an announcement came over the sound system informing travelers that the train would be going no farther, and everyone needed to exit.
George and Olya rushed up to street level. The atmosphere was very different from the tense calm of their walk to the subway station near our apartment. Here panic prevailed. Everyone was frantically trying to leave the city. George and Olya still had about two and a half miles left to go to get to Anastasia. Traffic on the street was moving, but it was getting heavier, and Anastasia was telling them to hurry.
As they power walked, George and Olya tried to flag down passing cars to give them a lift. This is a common practice in Ukraine, and usually you can find a driver willing to help (generally for a small fee), but today no one was stopping to pick up extra passengers. Then suddenly George spotted a car pulling to the side of the road a short way ahead to pick up two people who were waiting. He took off sprinting to catch it. As soon as he reached the car, George opened the back door and leaned in to ask the driver if he and Olya could hitch a ride to the end of the subway line. The driver almost said no, because he had more passengers to pick up, but he agreed when he realized how soon George and Olya would be getting out. The spot where he let them off was about half a mile from the place where Anastasia was waiting for them. They quickly walked the remaining distance. It was around 7:40 am when they finally reached her.
By that point, traffic was merely crawling, but it was still better than it had been the day before, and they had the advantage of starting out near the edge of the city this time. As they inched along, George spotted a family by the side of the road. A young mother was half-sitting, half-leaning against a low wooden railing, her shoulders slumped and her head in her hands. The hood of her dark coat was thrown back, and her straight, brown hair hung down around her face, isolating her in her misery. Two young school-aged children wearing backpacks stood to the right of her. They looked like they were maybe 6 and 8 years old. Bags on the ground surrounded the small group, and the father stood a short distance away. It wasn’t clear if they were stranded or if they were waiting for someone to come pick them up. George’s eyes were drawn back to the mom, so obviously distraught. He imagined she was overwhelmed by being torn from her home and possibly having to say goodbye to her husband. Maybe she was wondering where they would go and if they would be safe. Would anybody help them? Traffic slowly moved on, until the family was lost to view.
They were traveling on a large divided highway, the main artery out of Kyiv in this direction. While there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on their side of the road, the opposite side of the highway was mostly clear except for armored vehicles and troop transport trucks driving in both directions. As they got closer to the city limits, the buildings gave way to trees, and they saw tanks and soldiers in position off to the right side of the road, all staring intently to the north—away from the road—waiting for the enemy. Every few minutes they heard the sound of distant explosions.
It took about an hour to get fully out of Kyiv. After that, traffic slowly thinned. By the time they were 40 miles outside of the capital, traffic was moving steadily. The sun was shining brightly, the explosions had faded into the distance, and except for there being more cars on the road than usual, the day had all the appearances of being a typical midmorning on the cusp of spring.
George began to relax, and as he did, the most traumatic moments of the morning came crowding back into his mind. He remembered the haunting look on our 14-year-old son’s face when he heard that George would have to leave our dog behind, and it released a well of pent-up emotion deep inside him. Then he remembered our friends who were sheltering at our apartment with their two young daughters. He thought of those little girls cowering in our basement, hearing explosions so close that they wondered if they were going to survive the next one, and he began to weep. It felt wrong that he was safely out in the sunshine while others were still trapped in that nightmare.
Their objective was to drive 260 miles to Ternopil and spend the night there before continuing on separately. Anastasia wanted to go to Slovakia, so George would hitch a ride to Hungary with friends who were also on their way to Ternopil. They were coming from Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city situated a mere 25 miles from the Russian border, and they had already been en route for over 24 hours.
Except for military checkpoints that slowed their progress, the rest of the drive that day was uneventful. During the hours on the road, George was busy on his phone. Like me, he was connecting those who needed help with those who could give it—and looking for some way to ensure that our dog would be cared for. But like me, he couldn’t find a good option for Jack. Then, when all hope seemed lost, the solution presented itself unexpectedly.
The family with the two young girls who had been sheltering in our apartment contacted George to say that they had decided they needed to leave Kyiv, but they were afraid to do so without a Ukrainian escort to get past the military checkpoints. They were from Ethiopia, so their skin color immediately gave them away as foreigners, plus they didn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian well, and their car had special license plates because the father was working for the U.N. They felt that all these factors made them too conspicuous to attempt to evacuate on their own. So George connected them with a Ukrainian friend of ours who lived in a town just south of Kyiv. This brave soul ran a one-man evacuation service during the early days of the war, even evacuating two families from Bucha during the hottest fighting, just minutes before Russian tanks came rolling down their street. He agreed to drive into Kyiv first thing in the morning to collect this family from our apartment. George asked if he could also take our dog with him and care for him until we were able to get him, and he said yes! In the midst of all the uncertainty and anxiety of that day, this one piece of good news filled George with relief and gratitude.
Over 14 hours after starting their journey, George, Olya, Anastasia, and her son finally reached Ternopil. Friends of ours took in Anastasia and her son and parrot. Though they were strangers, they gave Anastasia a warm welcome. In the coming months, over 30,000 displaced people would settle in Ternopil, which had a pre-war population of 225,000. The city also would serve as a way station for an even greater number of people fleeing further west. Anastasia, her son, George, and Olya were part of the first wave of these displaced people. Over the coming months, many of them would find welcome, places to sleep, and hot meals through local churches.
George and Olya met a friend who drove them to Jon and Stephanie’s apartment and gave them the key. It was about 11:00 pm by the time they arrived and walked up the stairs to the fifth floor. This apartment had been our family’s home for four years before we moved to Kyiv, and we had visited Jon and Stephanie here on a number of occasions. Entering it now felt both familiar and eerie. It was dark and devoid of life, but it looked as if the people who lived here could return at any moment. There were still shoes and coats in the walk-in closet by the apartment door, children’s toys were strewn about as if left in mid-play, and the rumpled, unmade beds looked like they were simply waiting till bedtime brought their usual occupants back. The kitchen showed obvious signs of a sudden departure. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and the uneaten remains of a hurried breakfast still littered the table.
George and Olya were exhausted, both physically and emotionally, but they couldn’t rest yet. Seven of the friends who had been sheltering at our apartment in Kyiv had also found ways out of the city that day and would be arriving in Ternopil within hours, some by train, some by bus. George and Olya set to work to get the place ready for more guests. They tidied up in the kitchen and then searched the apartment to find enough sheets, blankets, pillows, and pillowcases to make beds for nine people. When that was done, Olya sent George to bed because he was leaving at 7:00 am, as soon as the curfew ended. She would stay in Ternopil until she figured out what she wanted to do next.
George stretched out on a bed they had made on the floor in the open kitchen area. He could hear Olya working to prepare a meal for the other travelers who would soon arrive, tired and hungry. At first his mind was spinning from the events of the last two days, and he couldn’t unplug from his phone and the possibility that someone else might need his help. But eventually his exhaustion took over, and he set his phone aside and succumbed to a profound oblivion. When our friends arrived and had their late meal just feet from where he was lying, he slept on, heedless of everything until his alarm awoke him shortly before 7:00 am.
Read part 8.
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