It has already been seven weeks since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee the frontline to safer parts of Ukraine or abroad. These people left their homes and their past, seeking refuge from air and artillery strikes, from invaders who destroyed everything in their path, from the sounds and smells of war.
Young European Ambassadors from Ukraine have put together the Life at War trilogy to highlight the plight of ordinary civilians, each part telling the story of Ukrainians who became victims of war. In the first part of the trilogy, we shared the stories of young people who decided to stay at home despite the strikes and military action. In this article, we talk about the challenge of evacuation from the war to safer regions of Ukraine. The third part will cover the stories of those who became refugees, fleeing the war to find safety abroad.
Marianna, Rostyslav, Yevheniya, and Ihor are Young European Ambassadors in Ukraine. All of them are civilians from cities that have suffered from enemy air and artillery strikes. Between 6 and 12 April, the young people talked to their colleague and fellow Young European Ambassador in Ukraine Sofiya Korol, sharing their experience of evacuation and adapting to a new place.
Ihor from Kharkiv is 19 years old. He studies international relations at the V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University. The university inspired him to develop and engage in active public activity. Currently, he is the deputy head of a student science society at his university and a project manager of the Go-Razom NGO. He describes himself as “a student who strives to make a difference”.
Like all Ukrainians, his life changed drastically in the early morning of 24 February. The war caught him in Kharkiv, his hometown.
“I remember the silent shock in people’s eyes as if I see them right now. I remember the food and bread queue as if I were standing in it. It still appears as a nightmare that came true for every Ukrainian,” he recalled with dread.
As soon as the war broke out, Ihor says volunteers started operating in the city, and lots of people joined the territorial defence to protect their city. There were explosions and aircraft flying overhead every day.Ihorwas gluedto his TV screen and his cell phone, watching news from all the news channels. The invaders repeatedly tried to break through into the city, but they failed.
But the tension grew in Kharkiv, and Ihor’s family started to think about leaving. This decision turned out to be one of the hardest in their life. Kharkiv was where Ihor and his parents were born and raised, went to kindergarten, school, and university.
“Our parents and I had one question from the first day of military actions: should we leave or stay? Nobody wanted to go. Everyone was scared, yet nobody wanted to leave their home. My grandparents even refused to think about it for a long time. Finally, a week went by, and after another night spent on the floor with the sound of explosions, we realised one thing: unfortunately, it won’t be over soon. Staying in Kharkiv becomes more dangerous,” he said.
The road was not easy. To get fuel, Ihor’s parents spent a whole day in a queue at a gas station, as supply had already become an issue all over the country, and the shortage caused a crazy price rise. The next day, they hit the road. Five people, a four-day journey through the whole of Ukraine, over 12 hours on the road every day. They started early in the morning, took detours to avoid dangerous sections and to make it to the intermediate points before the start of curfew, spending hours in jams and looking for places to stay at night. It took them four days to get to their final stop, Zakarpattia, where acquaintances helped the family find a temporary lodging.
With massive traffic jams, they were not even able to reach Poltava on the first day and had to stay in Chutove, a town in the Poltava region, where volunteers they knew gave shelter. The next day, Ihor and his family went through Kremenchuk, but the road into Kropyvnytskyi was blocked, forcing them to detour through the Cherkasy district, where they made a night stop in a roadside rest home. The third day brought Vinnytsia and 16 hours of driving. According to Ihor, this was the most challenging day, and they spent a night in a refugee centre in a school building. Finally, on the fourth day, the road took them through Khmelnytskyi and Kamyanets-Podilskyi and eventually brought them to the final destination.
“Four days kind of merged into an incredibly long and challenging day. I am grateful to everyone who helped us and sheltered us in this dark hour: volunteers and institutions. Although we live in one room where the space is tight, this temporary discomfort doesn’t matter because when all your family are close together and relatively safe, it is much more comforting,” said Ihor.
Initially, he didn’t feel at home. Many of his close friends had stayed in Kharkiv, so the first days were tough. But then time and returning to work did their job, and life became a little easier.
“For now, my main personal objective is to stay sane. Actually, it is the same for many Ukrainians. I try to read books rather than news, listen to audiobooks, spend time with my relatives, and volunteer,” Ihor said.
To support others, he volunteers at the Kharkiv Relief Headquarters remotely, where he can also put his project management skills into practice. “It’s the best I can do from the distance to help my home city and its residents that need it,” he said.
“As soon as Kharkiv becomes a quieter place, I am definitely going back because all those who are close to me are there, and a part of myself stayed in the city. As for now, we all fight for our freedom and future – everyone on the front where they can be of the most use. I believe in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and our victory. Glory to Ukraine!” Ihor summed up.
Yevheniya is 19 years old. She was born in Kropyvnytskyi but now studies in Kyiv at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and graduated from the Ukrainian Leadership Academy. Before the war broke out, Yevheniya had done her practical training at the office of a city council member and was interested in gender equity.
“The war caught me in Kyiv. I rent an apartment with three friends, and each of them has already suffered from Russian aggression one way or another. One of them is from Donetsk, the second from Crimea, and the third one is from Kramatorsk. I always joke that my flat mates had experience. So, when we woke up to the sound of explosions in Kyiv at 5am on 24 February, there was less panic in our company than you could have expected,” Yevheniya remembers.
She decided to go back to her family in Kropyvnytskyi in the very first hours of the war. She set out for the railway station in advance. First, she wanted to take the subway, but several stations were already out of action, and there was a risk of being stuck. A taxi was a way out, but this wasn’t easy either. She needed to wait for a long time, and prices went sky high. The train Yevheniya had bought tickets for had a three-hour delay. There was a mass of people at the train station, but only those with tickets were allowed onto the train. Here, Yevheniya met a family whose father had stayed behind to defend the city. After a while, her own father also chose to protect the capital and became a volunteer.
In Kropyvnytskyi, she spent her whole time at a humanitarian headquarters. Meanwhile, the war could be felt in the city: offices and shops were closing, streets were deserted, and many internally displaced persons were coming.
“I spent three weeks in Kropyvnytskyi. Then the tension grew: four to five air raid alerts daily, then more, the threat of destruction of the nearby Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Russian forces approaching from Mykolayiv. I felt I could be more useful elsewhere, and I had to take care of my family, so we decided to move to the West into safer regions,” Yevheniya explained.
Along with her mother and younger brother, she started a journey from Kropyvnytskyi to the Ukrainian border with Poland, leaving her parents’ home behind. They packed their things quickly, because there was no time to waste. They decided to go to Lviv because they had acquaintances there who could give them refuge, and this was where the evacuation train from Kropyvnytskyi went. The thing about evacuation trains was that it was virtually impossible to find information about them online. The railway station administration was informed about the arrival of such a train two to three hours in advance. The travel time should have been 8 hours, but the actual ride took much longer — 16 hours. The train took detours and went through different districts to avoid dangerous sections and reach the point before the curfew.
“In Lviv, I decided to stay at my friend’s home, and my mum and brother chose to go abroad to Bulgaria because they knew the place and had found a place to stay. I also feel they are not so far from home,” Yevheniya said.
Her family is now scattered in different places: her mum and brother are in Bulgaria, her dad is defending Kyiv, and she is in Lviv, helping other displaced people find temporary homes in Ukraine or abroad. Due to the particularities of her work, Yevheniya often travels to Poland. Still, she feels it is easier and safer for her to be in Ukraine than abroad, where everything is foreign and unknown.
“You can really feel the flow of displaced people in Lviv. For the first several weeks, it was hard to realise that you are in a kind of home city, but with only a backpack of things and your plans for the future destroyed,” she said.
According to Yevheniya, what hit her most during the whole period from February 24, was the death of her 18-year-old friend at war. He was in Armed Forces of Ukraine and was killed in action. “This is when I felt how much pain war brings along, what it can take away, and its real face. This was the moment when I re-evaluated human life…”
Yevheniya’s greatest dream is the salvation of as many Ukrainian lives as possible, happy Ukrainians in their homes, and a collapse of Russia as a country that only brings death and desolation.
Rostyslav comes from Oleshky; he is 21 years old. He was born in the Kherson region, but now he is a master’s student at the Kyiv National University of Trade and Economics, and an activist: in 2021, he became a member of a National Youth Council of Ukraine.
On 24 February, when it all started, Rostyslav was in Kyiv. Once he realised what was happening after a few minutes, he started calling his parents and friends to find out if they were safe.
“Before 24 February, I heard many people saying that war was at the door, but I didn’t take them seriously; I didn’t believe something like that could happen. I studied, worked, and planned my weekend, but everything changed after I awoke at 5 o’clock because of explosions in the capital. I was paralysed for the first 10 minutes, and then I heard another explosion. I couldn’t imagine that in my country, in Kyiv, in its heart, a fully-fledged war had started,” the young man recalled.
Nobody knew what to do or to expect. His parents advised him to stock up on groceries and first aid, but there were long lines in the shops from early morning, where people waited for two to four hours. Some people were running in the streets with suitcases as helicopters flew overhead.
On the second day, 25 February, it became quiet, Rostyslav said: there were no long lines anymore but air raid sirens. On the third day, 26 February, he had to quickly grab his bags and spend the night underground. There were many strange sounds and explosions, and news about missiles targeting residential buildings in the city made him scared.
“I took a blanket. In the metro, there were many people but enough space for everyone. I think it was more comfortable for me to sleep underground than at home, despite the cool air and floor. It felt safe because, during the previous nights in a soft bed, I couldn’t sleep due to a constant feeling of disturbance,” Rostyslav said.
Leaving Kyiv was a hard decision for him, like many other people forced to flee from their homes to nowhere.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know what to do and how to live further. But after I spoke with my parents, I decided to leave Kyiv on 27 February, the fourth day of the war. I managed to call a taxi to go to the railway station. The price was insane, but it was the only way. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people, helping each other at the railway station. At that time, I didn’t even know where I wanted to go. My decision was made at the station. I couldn’t even find out if it was possible to leave because trains were delayed for 2-3 hours, and nobody could say if they would arrive,” the young European Youth Ambassador explained.
Finally, a friend offered him to stay with her family in Rivne. So, Rostyslav bought a ticket from Kyiv to Rivne and waited for the train that never came. Eventually, he was able to board an evacuation train to Truskavets for those people whose trains hadn’t come that day. That’s how he arrived in Lviv, without family, friends, and contacts in the city. Finally, he found people going to Rivne, so they decided to travel together.
“The whole of the first day in Rivne, I slept. There was only one alarm signal. So, compared to Kyiv, it was a quiet and safe place. After the journey, I wanted to be helpful and help people suffering because of the war. So, I was invited to a school to cut fabrics and net. It was my adaptation period. Alone, I always felt disturbed. And here, in a room with people, it felt calmer. It feels better, especially if you know that your work will help someone,” Rostyslav explained.
Now the young man is a volunteer on the Ukraine Shelter platform that helps Ukrainians with searches for accommodation abroad. He started with project coordination. Nowadays, he collects stories of the people he could assist and helps to organise call-centre workflows, processing incoming shelter requests. In addition, his university has resumed its courses online. So now the student can return to his “normal life”, but in a new reality.
Rostyslav admits that the most memorable was his night in the metro. He says he will never feel the same in the underground. And his biggest dreams are to see his relatives and parents again, return to his native town of Oleshky, and see a Ukrainian flag over the town administration building as soon as possible. The war came to the young man in Kyiv, but all his family was in Oleshky in the Kherson region. Russian troops occupied it. So Rostyslav’s family and friends are still in danger.
Marianna from Zhytomyr is 24 years old. She has degrees in international politics and translation. Before the war, she worked as an analyst for New Europe in Kyiv, an independent analytical centre on the global and security policy of Ukraine. In particular, she worked on issues concerning the NATO integration of Ukraine and cooperation with the EU in the security area.
“The war caught me in Kyiv. The threat of war was in the air for a month or two before, but we didn’t want to believe it could happen to us. A phone call woke me up at 5am on 24 February. It was my boyfriend who said: ‘Wake up, my love, the war has begun’,” Marianna said.
On the first day of the war, in a panic, she and her mum packed emergency bags with essentials (food, water, money, a knife, a lighter, a power bank, underwear, etc.). Then, having recovered from the first hours of shock, they went shopping. It was 9am, and life was already whirling: endless queues in grocery stores, pharmacies, and in front of ATMs. The news came from everywhere that large amounts of people were leaving Kyiv. There were huge traffic jams, which made it almost impossible to leave. Several friends of hers were unsuccessful in trying to evacuate and came back home.
On 25 February, Marianna’s mum told her that they had to leave the city. Marianna resisted the thought for the first few hours, but after reading more news about explosions in Kyiv and shells hitting buildings, she realised they had to act quickly. First, the family decided to go to relatives in the Kyiv district, in the village of Malyn.
“Our emergency bags were packed. We packed a suitcase within an hour and went to the subway. There was an apocalypse on the streets — nobody there, everything closed. When we came to the Obolon subway station, a military vehicle passed us quickly. Later on, I heard on the news that a group of Russians had made it into the city, captured Ukrainian vehicles, and moved toward the city centre. We must have seen them but had no time to realise it. Something dreadful was going on in the underground, which was used as a bomb shelter. Crowds of people, they were standing, sitting, lying. It looked like a disaster movie. Some of the subway stations were inoperative, so you couldn’t use the subway to get to the city’s exit,” she said.
Getting out of the subway, Marianna saw crowds of people on the street; they tried to leave the city in any way, but almost nobody stopped. There were no buses or trolleybuses; it was virtually impossible to get a taxi. Marianna and her mum were lucky; they managed to catch a ride — a man who worked as a private taxi driver and drove them as far as the city exit.
“There, there was a continuous stream of cars, 4 or 5 lines wide, with no visible end… People like us who had no car, only a desire to leave, stretched out for kilometers along the road trying to catch any ride. Nobody stopped; all the cars were full — people went with their families, relatives, neighbours. Some just walked on the side of the road,” Marianna explained.
The two were lucky again — a car stopped for them, the family of two was going to to friends in Mukachevo and they helped Marianna and her mother to reach their destination in Malyn free of charge, eight hours later. Unfortunately, they only stayed there for a few days. It became dangerous very quickly. The sirens sounded every day, and they had to go down to a basement constantly. In addition, grocery store shelves were getting empty, ATMs were out of order, and it was impossible to withdraw cash. Finally, her mum, her grandpa, and she decided to go to Chernivtsi, where they had acquaintances.
The family spent a whole day on the way from Malyn and passed dozens, if not hundreds, of checkpoints, in every town and village, on the way in and out. They were checked everywhere; people examined their documents and asked them to open their trunks. This made the road long, and they had to spend a night in Khmelnytskyi. The following day, Marianna finally made it to Chernivtsi.
“Our friends in Chernivtsi gave us refuge, so we have been living in other people’s apartments in another city for over a month now. The good news is that now we have a cat that came with the apartment. It was like a sign of fate, as if the war goes its way, and life goes its own,” she noted.
On arrival at her new residence, Marianna found a local volunteer centre. She started weaving nets along with her mother thanks to the help of colleagues from the Young European Ambassadors initiative in Ukraine. It helped them to adapt to the new location faster. They gradually started to get back to remote working. Now the girl is active on the analytical front, helping Ukraine towards victory in her own way.
Marianna says the most difficult things she faced were adapting to normal life and the contrast between what was going on in Chernivtsi and what was broadcast about other Ukrainian cities: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and others. In the first days, it seemed completely extravagant that coffee shops were open and people strolled on the streets in Chernivtsi, especially after she had seen empty shelves in stores and heard sirens and aircraft in the air.
“As time passed, we returned to normal life (although sirens do wake us up here quite often at night as well); nevertheless, wherever you are in terms of territory, it is impossible to flee from the war. For example, in Malyn, where we stayed for the first days of the war, a bridge and the centre of the town were bombed out. In my native city of Zhytomyr, a house next to ours was destroyed. The windows in our apartment were shattered,” Marianna said.
She does not plan to return to Kyiv yet because it is still quite dangerous. From the first day of the war, she received messages from many friends from different countries who offered her the hospitality of their homes. Still, Marianna declined their offers because she wanted to be with her close and dear ones to support each other. Her current plans are to stay in Chernivtsi, work, balance her time to be an active volunteer again, and do a premedical training and emergency actions course. “When we moved here, the war didn’t stop; it just got a bit further from us.”
“Do not forget about Ukraine!” Marianna calls on the international community. “Provide Ukraine with financial and humanitarian aid, organise rallies, and demand that your governments send us weapons and implement more severe sanctions against Russia, including an oil and gas embargo. Fight for Ukraine as we do for our and your freedom, our common European values, and our common bright future. And God forbid that you ever experience a war,” she concludes.
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