My diary of war. Escape from Kyiv

24 April, 12:23 PM
Ukrainian National Guard soldiers hold positions in the center of Kyiv after the start of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo:REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Ukrainian National Guard soldiers hold positions in the center of Kyiv after the start of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo:REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

This is the first installment of NV's chief editor Vitaly Sych's diary of how Russia's war against Ukraine looks from within – from the first days until now.

When my wife woke me up early morning of Feb. 24 I looked out of the window and couldn’t believe my eyes.

The panoramic view overlooking the Dnipro River from the 20th story of my apartment in Kyiv’s Obolon district was dotted with huge columns of black smoke.

My building was shaking from explosions. These were missile attacks on the outskirts of Kyiv.

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Even though we knew the Russians had amassed a huge army on the Ukrainian border, I thought it was a geopolitical bluff and never believed they could launch a full-scale invasion in the center of Europe in 2022.

We checked the news and saw that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a long speech full of historical distortions and officially announced the start of a “special military operation” against Ukraine.

“It is the war," my wife Viktoriya said bluntly.

For weeks I was downplaying my wife’s concerns about a possible full-scale invasion and even making sarcastic remarks.

For a month she kept her tank in the car full and even purchased a spare gas canister and filled that too. She packed all the clothes and documents and bought lots of dry food. Sadly, this turned out to have been the right thing to do.

It was time to pack our 8-year-old twins Petro and Hanna and get out of the city.

We'd read numerous reports from UK and US intelligence describing in detail how Russian security forces had compiled a list of Ukrainian journalists, activists, and politicians hostile to Moscow to be executed after the occupation.

My wife and I knew I must be somewhere on that list. Just checking my Facebook profile and seeing the last sarcastic cover of the magazine that I head should be enough to get me into trouble with the Russians.

NV’s last magazine cover (we had to suspend magazine production due to the inability to distribute and sell it in retail) showed Putin together with senile Russian dictators Lenin and Stalin.

All three are portrayed in wheelchairs styled to invoke a well-known Soviet photo of Lenin’s last days. The headline reads "Kremlin’s Madhouse". And that’s just one episode of my biography. So it was unwise for us to stay in Kyiv.

We picked up my wife’s mother and tried to get out of the city, but failed.

By 0900 all the ways out of the city were clogged with 10-kilometer-long traffic jams. Terrified Kyivans were looking for an escape. Our car was moving 10 meters an hour.

We got back home only to find out that the Russians were already trying to land their troops with helicopters the airport in Hostomel, a northwestern suburb of Kyiv.

It was clear we had to make a second attempt to get out of the city. This time we chose the southern highway instead of the jammed western one. Jet fighters were roaring low above our heads – we still don’t know whether they were Russian or Ukrainian – when we managed to break out of the city.

We headed to Vinnytsya where my mother lives. A 250-kilometer trip that usually takes three hours took us 10. We drove slowly in god-forsaken field roads we’d never been to, and even those roads were jammed with caravans of cars – from simple Renaults to luxurious Volvos and Porsches.

My wife cried all the way, she thought – and quite justly – that we may never be going back. Our apartment, our house near Kyiv that we were long saving money for, our investment projects, our jobs – all our lives were left behind.

And our cat. We had no time and no chance to get our huge Maine Coon named Baloo on board of our car. He barely survives one-hour long trips to our summer house and was not fit for a long stressful escape in a crowded car.

We saved the cat by mailing apartment keys to our neighbors two days afterward (he is now well-fed and fine). But on that day leaving our cat behind was the most difficult decision we had to make. And it was the right one – our escape turned into an exhausting three-day marathon with six people in the car.

By midnight, we got to my mother’s apartment in Vinnytsya and for the first time, that day felt in relative safety.

After a stopover, we decided to pick up my mother and head further west. A road to Lviv from Vinnytsya that normally takes five hours took me 16.

At some point, late at night, we lost our navigation signal somewhere in the forest in complete darkness (the main highways westward were completely jammed).

An airport in neighboring Starokonstantyniv was hit by a Russian missile. That was like a scene from a horror movie that will stay in front of my eyes. We were lucky to find our way out and by 0300 the next day we reached Lviv.

By then I was already exhausted, as I couldn’t eat because of stress and slept just for a few hours a day after a long period of driving.

However, I had to make the last part of our trip and get my children, my wife, my mother, and my mother-in-law to the border.

Martial law was imposed that day, which meant I couldn’t leave Ukraine – men aged 18 to 60 were not allowed to cross the border.

And I wouldn’t even try – all of my male colleagues and lots of female colleagues stayed behind, some of them even in Kyiv. I would never forgive myself if I left.

After a short sleep in Lviv, a city 80 kilometers from Poland, we started exploring our chances of getting to the border.

That was quite an endeavor. All ways to the Polish border were completely clogged – you could wait a week in a line of cars. We checked the train station and it looked like Kabul before the arrival of the Taliban – women with children were screaming, trying to squeeze into the train.

Many were leaving suitcases behind on the platform. We decided we would not fight for room on the train and started our trip south to the Slovak border where, according to reports, the queues were shorter.

That last stretch took me another 16 hours, almost with no sleep and with non-stop document checks by the military.

The plan was to get my family over to Slovakia where friends of friends would pick them up and drive to Bratislava.

From there, they would fly Ryanair to Dublin. My sister is married to an Irishman and works at Google headquarters in the Irish capital. She was waiting for them.

In the afternoon of Feb. 27, after more than three days of driving, we finally got to the border. A short farewell hug and kiss, and goodbye. I wasn’t even sure when, and if, I would see them again.

They crossed the border and finally got to safety. A week afterward the Irish Times ran an article about my family’s escape story headlined “Now we have a chance to cry”.

I remained on the Ukrainian side of the border alone facing uncertainty. I returned to Lviv, and my wartime life began.

This story was first published by Zeit Online. NV is republishing it with permission from the author. 

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