A refugee story from Ukraine 

A
Lviv, 2016

The Ukraine war feels close here. Not as close as it must in bordering countries like Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary, but much closer than it would back home. 

Berlin is 800km from Ukraine. To put this distance into perspective for friends in Canada, it’d be a bit like living in Ottawa and seeing war break out in Windsor or Sault Ste. Marie.

Vladimir Putin’s massive invasion has already sparked the biggest movement of refugees since the Second World War. Some 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country, and people continue to come.

A processing centre has been set up at Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Berlin Central Station) for those arriving here by rail. But so many more were unable to get out. 

I’d like to share the story of my friend M. We’ve never met in person, but we’ve been working together for 14 years. 

M. designed and coded pages, ebook covers and so much more when I was involved in publishing workout programs online. He also designed the logo for my Personal Landscapes podcast.

M. got his driver’s license in 2020, bought a car and started doing road trips around his home region, exploring dirt tracks and posting photos of canals and fields, villages and abandoned industrial sites. It really brought the southern Ukraine to life for those like me who enjoyed following his journeys.

I don’t think he ever imagined this experience would help him save his elderly mother from an invasion.

Here’s the story he shared with me this morning:

Talk about war started 2-3 months before it began. Nobody thought it could be serious. Even 1-2 days before, we discussed and bet beer and money on “to be or not to be”. That’s how surrealistic war looked.

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The day it happened, I was talking in chat with one of my friends. We finished at 4:30 AM and I prepared for sleep.

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Before I shut out the light, I decided to look at a news column. There I saw the heading, “Putin allowed military to intervene in the Ukraine”. 

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A minute later, I heard a very far and loud thunder. Then, after 2-3 minutes, I heard it again. At that moment I understood REAL war had begun. 

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I will remember this moment for the rest of my life. At that moment I realized my life had changed forever, and in which direction it goes depends on the correctness of EVERY decision.

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I couldn’t move. Only fear and chaotic thoughts filled my head. Hands are trembling, legs are taken away by a surge of adrenaline, dry mouth, fear … animal fear. Then I took two Valerian pills and one Glycine pill. After 3-5 mins I could move and get a bit relaxed.

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I shoved my most important stuff in bags — money, documents, medicine, clothes, boots, keys, laptop — and waited for sunrise. 

Because I heard from TV that from the first attack we would have 2-3 hours to leave the city, I was psychologically ready to move fast, and I replayed what I must do in my mind many times. The only thing that stopped me was the initial panic. Once I took pills and relaxed, everything was just a question of tasks I must do one-by-one.

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I warm up the car, transform the interior for cargo, and take one last look around the garage, realizing that I may never see it again. So many things, so many memories, and all with a light stroke of Putin’s black brush goes to the past.

My mother is already dressed, thank God. I help to put things in bags and take them to the car. She is in shock and does not understand anything, only executes commands. She has to be controlled like a robot.

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In 20-30 minutes we are in the car. I see queues at ATMs. A man walks by, watches as I throw bags into the car, and I see a slight alarm in his eyes.

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And then mom remembers she forgot her hearing aid! I ask, you can’t do without them? She says, no. Ok, let’s do another circle around the area.

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She slowly enters the house. I’m waiting. The sound of an air raid siren pierces the air. I wait 5-7 minutes, but my mother does not come out. I run in and find her standing still. She can’t remember what she was looking for. We quickly find it and fly down the stairs and into the car.

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So, from the first rocket strikes to moving out, 3 hours passed.

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Going to Berislav is not an option, there is Kakhovka, a hydroelectric power station, the first goals of this war. It is dangerous to drive to Nikolaev through Chernobaevka. If I understood the situation, then others understood it, too. Most likely there is a traffic jam at the exit from the city. 

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At the entrance to the Nikolaev highway we see black smoke from the territory of the helicopter unit. Claps and fireworks of detonating ammunition. There is no more doubt, the war has begun. 

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As we drive, we’re listening to the radio (then it was still working). They report on pinpoint missile strikes on all cities of the country.

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The offensive has already begun near Kyiv. We do not know how fast it is, it is difficult to understand from the information the radio gives. So it’s better not to go north.

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We drive all night. Now we are part of an endlessly moving column of refugees. Somewhere halfway to Ternopil, two bridges meet and a terrible traffic jam 10 km long formed.

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Cars barely move. I realize I can barely distinguish reality from dream. A couple times I almost ended up in the bumper of the car in front. I pulled to the side of the road and set a timer for 1 hour. A little cheered up, we are again in the stream, trudging.

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The brake lights of cars stretch beyond the horizon. Gasoline burns away. We move at walking speed. Most of all, I was afraid for the technical condition of the car.

If the machine stops, our chances of survival drop to zero. The car is movement, heating, sleep and safety. If one important spare part fails, that’s all … you are left alone with the hostile world. 

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We slept 5 days in the car and ate bread and water we bought at gasoline stations. I started the engine every 40-60 mins for warmth, because it was -3 Celsius outside.

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The farther we go to the West, the stronger the understanding becomes that we most likely will not return, and now our only home is a car. All our things are in bags in the back.

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All the way while you are going, you think, Where am I running? What for? Maybe it was better to stay? 

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The goal is not only to escape, but to find a place where you can stay and live on. Throughout the entire journey (1500 km), our goal changed 10 times. Each time we reached it, we saw that it was not an option and moved on.

Everyone I know who tried to leave my city later was turned back because the roads were closed by our military to prevent road blocking and panic.

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Of my friends, we are the only ones who got out. Many people thought they would have a day or two for this. And now they sit in an occupied city and just pray for the best.

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My mother is 80, she’s a Second World War baby. She was shocked, but I literally forced her to leave home and sit in the car. And now she is very happy because we see all this madness outside.

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Everyone she knows was left in the city. And every day we watch the news and I’m happy we are not there now.

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Her life was completely in my hands for 7 days. And this applies not only to life, but also to belongings. With you in the car is all that is most valuable. If documents or money are lost, that’s it, the trip is over.

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My mom was born in 1941. She said that in the USSR they lived very stable lives, they had work and there were no problems. Now there is no stability, it all happened unexpectedly, so she is still shocked, even after two weeks.

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I think hers is not a representative answer because almost all old people here were sad about the USSR. Theirs was simple and understandable life. And now they don’t understand modern trends, markets, politics, etc.

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We tried to pass into Poland but they returned us because I have no military documents. We decided to move to the farthest corner of our country and stop there. So we drove 1400 km and stopped at Chernivtsi. 

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Good people gave us a room in their private house. Now we are living, watching TV, reading the news, speaking to our friends, and praying to return home one day. 

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I hope we will return after 1-2 months. Or if the Russians occupy Kherson, then we will never return and we must start life from zero somewhere else. 

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I have no plans for this and try not think about it. I still hope to return home.

It’s impossible to know what any of us would do in M’s situation. Especially those of us with dependents to care for.

People of my generation thought wars like this were over in Europe. But what’s happening in Ukraine is just the beginning. 

The stretch of peace we enjoyed since the fall of the Berlin Wall has ended, and we’re back to a more unstable world of competing nation states without one overarching global power — the kind of world I knew growing up in the 1980s.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a shocking wake up call for a complacent Europe and a self-satisfied North America, obsessed with its own narcism and luxury beliefs. 

If you’re looking for resources to help you understand this conflict, I recommend the historian Anne Applebaum. To understand the geopolitics of the region, read Prisoners of Geography and the follow up The Power of Geography by journalist Tim Marshall.

I can also share a couple stories from my own small pool of experience.

I visited Lviv in western Ukraine in 2016 and wrote about it in Outpost magazine. You can read the story on their website if you’re interested.

Over the past two weeks, I wrote about Malta’s connections to Russia and its sale of EU passports to Russian oligarchs. You can read those articles in The Shift.

We’ve been in a cold war with China and Russia for years — with Russia since at least 2014. But it’s in the open now, and I hope the West will get serious about existential concerns like energy self-sufficiency and military defence. We’re running out of time.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

2 Comments

  • Thanks for the article.
    Residents of Europe and America have long been accustomed to and ceased to pay attention to military attacks on a small island of democracy in the Middle East, on Israel. But now that the war has come to the threshold of the European home, when the Russians have shown their bestial grin, it is no longer possible to sit on the sidelines.
    Give Ukraine back and the next will be Poland, Romania, Slovakia .. there will be no end to this, Russian dictators have always looked to the West with their bloodthirsty eyes, and the Russian people have always supported their regimes.

  • Thank you for sharing M’s personal experience of the war in Ukraine. It’s often hard to imagine what Ukrainians may be experiencing right now.

Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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