War Stories: Day 4, The Long Drive Out

From this point on, my journal entries became pretty sparse. I have some key dates and timeline events, but not much else. I was struggling with a sinus infection from the mold and damp of the basement plus early and unknown pregnancy symptoms. Not to mention the stress from the war, which compounded everything and left me feeling pretty terrible for about a solid week. Once we got to Ternopil, we also had better cell service, so I was more focused on making videos and interacting online vs hiding in a basement with no way to record or post for hours on end. So, since I didn’t write as much then, I’ll be writing down memories that have stuck with me even a year later and going into more detail than I did in the journal.

Photo cred: Lindsey Addario for the New York Times.
Hard to read but those paper signs on the car said the same thing. Photo cred: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ukrainian-crowds-send-russian-enemy-into-retreat-m05sfn0mp

These types of pictures were widespread last year. ДЕТИ (Russian) and ДЕТІ (Ukrainian) mean children. You may have forgotten about them. I haven’t. This wasn’t a unique experience. They. Were. Everywhere. On paper. Painted onto the windows. A plea for mercy, to preserve their innocence, to save them. It wouldn’t make a difference.

The handwritten form of дети. A car destroyed as it tried to flee Bucha, near where we lived. Photo cred: Scott Peterson/ Getty Images

While some things seemed bleak and horrifying, others were inspiring. All throughout Kyiv, soldiers, the territorial defense, but mostly civilians had rallied and were preparing a giant battlefield. At every corner and intersection, men had piled sandbags and were digging trenches. They were not going down without a fight. Checkpoints were frequent within the city, growing further apart the more west we drove. Our American passports were heavily scrutinized, usually earning 2 or 3 second opinions before they were confirmed to be legitimate. Then, the suspicion was usually replaced with a friendly smile.

“Wow! I have never seen an American passport before. Thank you for coming.”

We were quiet for the most part; no music, very little talking. Dasha and i did our best to entertain Sara. We were constantly scanning the skies. At least once, I remember seeing a low flying helicopter. Thankfully, Mitch knew enough about military vehicles that he was able to tell what things were and who they belonged to. We stopped at several gas stations along the way, trying to find fuel. Most were empty, and those that did only allowed a little bit at a time. Even if there was no fuel, there were still long lines as people tried to find food or use the bathrooms. The shelves were barren by the time we rolled through on Day 3. Only the worst or more expensive was left. We found some chocolate cake and saved that for breakfast on Day 4.

These people are not waiting for the light. They are trying to get gas, and the line most likely stretches for a mile behind them. You saw the lines before the actual station.

It is usually a 7 hour drive from Kyiv to Ternopil. But there were so many checkpoints and so much traffic. Then they closed one of the checkpoints for the night, and we were stuck on the highway for around 6 hours at least. It was cold, but we couldn’t run the car the whole time because we didn’t know when we could more fuel. There were no bathrooms, so when we really reached the point where we couldn’t hold it, we had to walk off the highway into the trees.

Up until this point, we had been pretty consistent about posting and responding to messages from people to let everyone know we were still ok. But when we traveled we had to go dark for a bit for our own safety. I think we just let some immediate family members know. We were flooded with so many messages during this long drive that eventually we did send a few sparse updates. It was amazing to see how many people checked in on us, some we hadn’t even heard from in years.

Finally, 21 hours after we left Kyiv, we arrived at a refugee shelter in Ternopil. They fed us a warm meal, gave us a quick tour, explained the rules (no photos or videos, lights out at 7 or 8), and then we all took hot showers and collapsed into bed for the first good rest we had had since everything had started. Mitch and Max were running on only a few hours of sleep. It was so hard to force ourselves awake a few hours later, but we knew we had to if we were going to sleep through the night. We heard from Galya that day. The YWAM base at Kyiv were finally able to make it to them and would send vans in the morning. We were so glad, but we still worried for them and prayed we would make it until then.

While we waited, we went for a walk to find some food and much needed medicines. It felt strange to see a different city. People were still living their normal lives, albeit a little quieter. Kyiv seemed like a distant nightmare. War didn’t feel real. Until the sirens went off, you could almost imagine it didn’t happen. We couldn’t hear the sirens in Gorenka, in the basement. This was the first time since the morning of the 24th we had heard them. It was eerie. We checked the alert apps. Missiles were being launched from Belarus or the submarines off the coast. They didn’t know where they were headed, so sirens went off across the whole country. The city went dark if this happened at night, only cars’ headlights visible as people tried to drive home. We had to explain to the youth group why this was so important. They didn’t understand at first.

Like everyone else in the shelter, we ate dinner quietly, still in a state of shock, then went to bed.

Finally made it to Ternopil around 10am. 20-21 hours driving total. A very well organized shelter. We were fed some food and then took hot showers, most of us took a nap afterwards. I did not want to wake up from my nap but I knew I had to. Thankfully Galya said they already have transport. They will start traveling tomorrow as soon as curfew ends. We will prepare for them here.

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