No Man’s Land, Dzvinkove Border Crossing, Ukraine
February 25, 2022, 6:00 pm
The sun went down on us as we waited to cross the Hungarian border. The sky slowly faded to black, and still the single-file line of cars stretched far in front of us. Eventually we reached a place where we could see the Hungarian checkpoint. It looked so close, but we knew that it could still take hours to reach it. Even though it was now in sight, I was reluctant to leave the cozy atmosphere of the van to go stand in line with the other people crossing on foot. But eventually I could put it off no longer. We knew that our ride was in position on the other side, and by calling and watching to see who answered a phone and began talking, we were even able to identify our driver and his van. I gathered my kids and grabbed a blanket or two to ward off the cold, and we walked to the end of the pedestrian line. Like the line of cars, it was much longer and moving much slower than its counterpart on the Ukrainian side of the border.
By this time, it was fully dark, and the comfort of the sunny afternoon had given way to the darkness of a night with a bitingly cold wind. My 3-year-old son Isaac started to cough—an awful, wrenching sound that made me wince each time it wracked his tiny frame. I unzipped my coat and tried to pick him up and wrap him in a blanket next to my body, but wanting to be free and independent, he struggled and protested until I was forced to put him down. I draped the blanket around his shoulders and tried to hold it closed in front, but his coughing continued. Anticipating a long wait in the wind and desperate to protect him, I rallied his five older brothers to stand side-by-side with me until we formed a ring around little Isaac, shielding him from the wind with our bodies. He accepted this compromise, and our human fortress slowly moved forward in the line with the other refugees.
A few of the people in line near us started to make conversation. We shared where we had come from and tidbits about how we had experienced the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. One man told me where I could go to find a place to sleep for the night with the kids. I thanked him and explained that someone was waiting for us with a van to take us farther.
I was so thankful for our connections in Hungary who had found us a place to stay and a way to get there. During the day as we drove, our Hungarian friends had not only organized transportation from the border for us, they had also arranged accommodations at a Christian retreat center, since our friend’s apartment in Budapest was hardly equipped to sleep fifteen extra people. Looking around at the other people in line with me, I wondered where they were going. I couldn’t imagine what I would do if I were in this position with no one to call and nowhere to go! At least not many of my fellow evacuees had kids.
After a while, the people around me told me that I should cut to the front of the line because I had kids. Maybe they had heard Isaac’s coughing and were as concerned for him as I was. Even though it’s common practice in Ukraine to let parents with small children go to the front of the line, I almost never take advantage of it, and when others suggest that I do, I always feel really uncomfortable doing so. But they were insistent, and I did want to get Isaac out of the cold wind as soon as possible. So I thanked them and apologetically started to make my way forward in line. I didn’t get very far, however, before another mother loudly protested.
“I have kids too!” she snapped at me.
It was true. She had two kids, maybe ages 8 and 10. They looked like they were dressed to go on a skiing expedition, compared to my kids, who had been dressed for spending a day inside a van. But I had neither the confidence nor the forcefulness to argue that my 3-year-old needed to get out of the cold sooner than her kids did, and so I meekly fell into line behind her. My boys and I reformed our protective circle around little Isaac and prepared to wait as long as it took.
However, soon the people around us started to murmur and grumble at the mother in front of us. Then several of them became more insistent, taking up our case and advocating for us in a way that I could not. Before long, they shamed this woman into letting us go ahead of her. I felt a little sorry for her as we moved past, but I also felt the need to get Isaac into the waiting van as soon as possible. So after about 40 minutes in the pedestrian line, we found ourselves handing our passports to a Hungarian border guard. I don’t remember what language he spoke (it could have been English, Russian, or even Ukrainian), but I remember gentleness, compassion, and concern as he told me there was transportation and a place where we could spend the night, if we needed. I assured him that we were okay, and soon he handed me back our stack of passports. We were through! It was just after 11:00 pm, Ukrainian time. It had taken us 7 hours to cross the border. It was the longest we had ever waited at a border, but considering that refugees were spending over 48 hours at the Polish border, we were thankful for our relatively short crossing time.
Because I had delayed so long getting into the pedestrian line, Jon and Stephanie and their kids had made it across the border shortly before we did. Now they were parked beside the van that was waiting to pick us up. We walked quickly over to them and were welcomed by two Hungarian men whom I had never met before, the driver of the van and another man. They were from a church near the border. The second man had dinners neatly packed in gallon-sized zip-top bags that he passed out to all of us. In broken English, he told us that his daughter had made them. Each contained a sandwich, a banana, a drink box, some snack foods, and a square of yellow paper with either a happy face or a heart drawn on it, his daughter’s way to extend comfort to us across the language barrier. As I held that bag in my hands and looked at a simple happy face smiling at me, I felt the love and compassion, the human kindness behind it, and I nearly broke down crying.
We had made it. We were safe. And we were not alone.
The kids and I climbed into the waiting van, grateful to get out of the cold. The kids exclaimed excitedly over the various goodies in their meal bags as the two vans pulled out and headed into Hungary together. At this point, I hadn’t slept for 42 hours. Despite the fact that I usually can’t stay awake on road trips, during all the hours on the road that day, I had never even felt drowsy. But now, my mission accomplished, I could barely keep my eyes open. I didn’t know the men I was with, but I trusted them instinctively. The burden of being responsible for getting my children to safety lifted, and I relaxed.
The remainder of that trip is a blur. I remember being half asleep with my forehead leaning against the back of the seat in front of me, feeling the gentle swaying motions of the van as it traversed the darkened Hungarian countryside. At some point, I was aware that the van was stopping, and then the sliding door beside me opened. Disoriented, I blinked hard several times and looked around to get my bearings. We were at a rest stop. Jon’s van was there too, along with a third van. Someone made me understand that we were supposed to continue on in this new van. The new driver would take us the rest of the way.
I roused myself enough to transfer all my drowsy kids to the second vehicle and make sure they were all buckled in. I thanked the two men who had picked us up at the border, and they said goodbye and headed home. Overwhelmed by the events of the last two days, I didn’t even think to ask their names or find out what city they were from—and then they were gone. I have forgotten what they looked like, but I will carry the memory of their extraordinary kindness with me for the rest of my life.
We didn’t stop again after transferring to the second vehicle. It was dark and silent, and I think everyone but the driver was either asleep or dozing. I was vaguely aware of the trip, a long and monotonous affair experienced through a fog of exhaustion. In lucid moments, I texted my family to update them on our progress. But then the moment finally came when the van slowed almost to a stop and made a right-hand turn, followed immediately by another right. I briefly heard the crunch of gravel under the tires, and then we were standing still.
I knew exactly where we were, and I couldn’t believe it! The Christian retreat center that had agreed to house us had served as the campus of a Bible college for many years, and my mother-in-law had been on staff there for over a decade. Instead of taking us to the dormitories in the main building, as I had expected, our driver had instead taken us to a very special parking space that our family had used many times—the spot right outside my mother-in-law’s old apartment! Jon and Stephanie’s van pulled in right beside us, and we started to emerge from the vehicles, all except for the youngest children, who were fast asleep. It still felt like the middle of the night, but we had arrived in the early hours of a new day.
The retreat center staff had prepared two apartments for us in a building with three units that had once served as staff housing for the Bible college. One of them was the apartment that had housed my mother-in-law for all those years. I was thrilled by the prospect of staying in her old place, but I didn’t want to take the privilege away from Jon and Stephanie and their family. As we awkwardly started to discuss who would stay where, I hesitantly said that we’d love to have “Mom’s” old apartment, but that if they would prefer to stay there, I totally understood and would be fine taking the other apartment. They were visibly relieved and immediately told me they didn’t think they could handle staying in her old home with her gone. So it was settled.
My kids and I climbed the exterior flight of stairs to reach the entrance to the beloved upstairs unit. This had been one of our favorite destinations for many years. How many times had we arrived here late at night after a long day of travel, made our way up these very stairs, and climbed into our waiting beds? The kids were so excited to be back in “Grandma’s house”! Of course, it would have been infinitely better if Grandma had been there to welcome us, but these walls held so many wonderful memories that her presence still seemed to linger on. It felt like a homecoming of sorts, something we all desperately needed.
We got our meager belongings transferred upstairs from the vans. I located all the toothbrushes and got everyone ready for bed, then we figured out where each person would sleep in the cozy two-bedroom unit. It was hard for everyone to settle after everything we’d just gone through, but eventually all six of the boys were quiet in bed. Calm descended on the apartment as I set about getting myself ready for sleep.
As I located my toiletries and arranged them in the bathroom, I thought about how wonderful a hot shower would feel. I needed to relax a little. I started getting out my shower supplies, but I couldn’t find my shower cap or my shower mitt. And then it hit me. I had used both on the night before the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion and left them hanging in the bathroom to dry. In that frantic half hour of packing on the morning that we fled, I had forgotten to go retrieve them from the communal bathroom on the floor below us.
The shower cap I could easily replace, but I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach as I realized that the treasured Moroccan exfoliating mitt that a dear friend had given me was gone. I felt stunned and tearful. It was just the first of many such realizations that would hit me unexpectedly over the coming months. Random experiences would trigger memories of special things that we had left behind, and I would be yanked out of the present moment, forced to relive the pain and trauma of fleeing our home with little warning.
Once I was finally ready for bed, I had an even harder time settling down to sleep than the kids had. It was daytime in California where my family and some close friends were waiting for news from me, and I knew I needed to update them on how the kids and I were and on George’s progress. So it was around 6:30 am when I finally lay down in the queen-sized bed in the bedroom that had once belonged to my mother-in-law. The furniture in this room had been rearranged since she had moved out, and it felt strange compared to the rest of the apartment. I lay down on my side on the large bed with my back to the empty half where George should have been. A forlorn feeling was lurking at the edges of my consciousness. I tried to banish it by focusing on the positive. It was 7:30 am in Ukraine, and George was on his way out of Ternopil to come to us. If all went according to plan, we would be reunited in about 24 hours.
Read part 9.
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