LVIV, Ukraine — Before the war there were so many ways to travel in this country. There were sleeper trains that crawled across the country in the dead of night, rocking passengers in bunks before sidling up to stations in new cities as dawn broke. There were express trains that raced between Kyiv and Donbas, ferrying foreign correspondents and soldiers to the old front lines. There were bumpy mini-buses and yelling cabbies and chain-smoking private drivers who refused to go slower than 80 miles per hour and hated seatbelts.
Now there are two: You can go by train or you can go by car. Eventually, you may have to go by foot. In the past 13 days more than two million people have left Ukraine, the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, per UN estimates. There are so many more who have yet to escape. People wait in enormous crowds and queues on freezing platforms while shells explode nearby for hours or days just to fight for enough space to stand straight up on a train across the country for 28 hours. There are no more tickets or conductors, only physical space on a vehicle that will hopefully take you farther from death. These are desperate times; they bring out the worst. International students with skin a different shade than native-born Ukrainians are often shoved aside by guards and cops who prefer to get their own countrymen out first. But everyone is running from the same thing. As you leave a city like Kharkiv, they shut out the lights on the train, not so passengers can sleep, but so that it won’t be an illuminated target for Russian guns.
When passengers arrive at their destination the fear does not stop. Daniel, a Nigerian student I met in Kharkiv last week, told me that the most frightened he felt was when an air-raid siren in the Western city of Lviv caused a stampede on the platform. “I just zoned out,” he says. “I felt like everyone was moving around me.” A friend grabbed him and pulled him to safety.
I took the other route, by car. On Monday last week, I caught a ride from Kharkiv to Dnipro, a river city in the southeast of Ukraine that has yet to be touched by the worst of the war. Still, there are preparations everywhere. A few blocks from my hotel I passed a group of volunteers piling sandbags against the base of human-shaped stone obelisks next to the city’s National Historical Museum. I stopped to take a picture. Lera, the museum’s deputy director, told us that the statues are called “Babas,” and were traditionally placed over burial mounds in the 12th and 13th centuries by members of central Europe’s various tribal groups, though some can be dated back to the Neolithic era. Dnipro’s museum has the largest collection in Europe, but many of the massive stone figures are placed outside, where curators fear they may be shattered by Russian bombs. As I helped Lera pull a sandbag toward one of the babas, an air-raid siren rang out. We rushed toward the museum’s basement, past a parking lot converted into an exhibit covering the first war in Donbas; a graveyard of burnt-out materiel and bullet-torn street signs from the region. Lera said the museum had recently returned its displays of body armor and helmets to the military for use in battle. “We’ll wait for more Russian trophies,” she said.
We left Dnipro by road in a rented car, passing first through Uman in the dead of night, every business closed, the city blacked-out and quiet. In the morning there were more sirens. The roads through Western Ukraine are now unpredictable and chaotic. Every traffic jam is further evidence of war. There are checkpoints at major intersections and at inexplicable places, tank traps in driveways and concrete partitions across freeway interchanges. Some are manned by grim soldiers in full uniform carrying silenced Kalashnikovs. Others are haphazard groups of local farmers with shotguns, scraps of yellow cloth or tape around their right biceps. Along the way there are surreal indications of what life was like before they took up arms: a horse-drawn cart parked in the center of town, men with pitchforks shoveling hay next to a newly-built checkpoint, a farmer’s tractor repurposed to drag concrete blocks into position.
At a small town called Monastyryshche, west of Uman, a group of armed men told us they had captured a Russian spy, pointing to an abandoned white sedan left at the checkpoint. We asked how they knew he was Russian. “We just know,” one said.
A cop agreed to drive us into the town for an interview, and escorted us to the local government building, where we were ushered into the mayor’s office. The mayor, Alexander Mikhailovich Tishenko, was an imposing man in a tailored suit, his fingers thick with rings, a large watch on his wrist, heavy cologne in the air. He said his city was ready for the Russians, opening his jacket to show a pistol underneath. He forbade us from taking photos and then took us to his car where he had another gun, a rifle. A guard dog snapped at my leg on the way there. Then he drove us to a communal kitchen where a group of women fed us borscht and pasta and a heaping bowl of salo, or cured pork fat, chatting and laughing as they made food for the volunteers at the barricades outside.
The parts of Ukraine the violence has not yet reached are all like this, a jarring mix of suspicion and hospitality. If you stop for even a minute in a strange city, you will be asked what you’re doing by an angry resident. If you stay any longer you will probably be given a meal. In Vinnytsia, miles west of Monastyryshche, all of the hotel rooms were booked, but a man who ran a hostel knew someone who was taking in refugees at a converted school building that had a few beds free. As we were washing our hands for dinner a woman struck up a conversation. Her name was Nataliya, and, like us, she was fleeing Kharkiv. She had been there longer — long enough to witness the first cluster strikes in her neighborhood of Saltivka on the Monday that I left. “We are alone,” she said. “And we are scared.”
It seemed like every person I met along the way was in one of the stages of grief. Over dinner, I watched a woman maybe a decade younger than me eat a full meal while staring into space, her eyes shocked and blank. After I ate, I sat down at a table with a group of young employees of a Kharkiv-based digital design firm called Zajno. They had spent four days huddled in their office basement and the local metro before piling 11 people, one dog, and six cats into a couple of cars and fleeing the city under fire. “Every night I see the war,” Sofy, an artist, said. “I don’t want to sleep. I see it in my dreams.” She laughed a little as she said this, probably knowing that it was a cliché. But it is also true. I have dreamed of cluster bombs while in beds in Uman and Lviv and places in between.
“When I started at Zajno I tried to explain to people what happened in 2014, in Donetsk,” said Andrew, the company’s art director. He grew up there and moved to Kharkiv after the war began. “They didn’t understand.”
“I couldn’t relate,” Sasha, one of the co-founders, said. “But now you can?” I asked him. “Yeah.”
“I can’t believe it. To look back at Kharkiv. You see the ruins,” Sofy said. “It’s so painful.”
Everyone has family somewhere else. Sasha’s parents are in Kramatorsk. Many others left family in Kharkiv. The isolation can feel immense. War has severed many of the connections that held Ukraine together. It is over 600 miles from Kharkiv to Lviv by the most direct route, which goes through Kyiv, which is a battlefield. Travel takes many days longer than it did; mail and supplies seldom move. Gas stations are empty or backed up for hundreds of yards. Now mobile networks are going down in the cities hit worst by Russian shells. Families can no longer reach each other. On my Facebook feed, there is a stream of posts asking for news from the southern city of Mariupol from fixers and journalists who have worked there or lived there or left loved ones and colleagues behind. There is a sense that once you leave a place, it may become impossible to know its fate just a few days later.
We woke before dawn and left Vinnytsia. Later in the day a Russian missile struck the airfield there. We made good time to Lviv, roads miraculously clear on routes that days earlier had been snarled for dozens of hours. It took us only nine. There is no way to plan in Ukraine anymore, no way to consistently navigate a country that was once accessible everywhere by train and plane and car. Lviv is a beautiful city, its center a maze of cobbled streets and sandbagged buildings, its graceful statues now wrapped in plastic and foam. Most restaurants are closed. The curfew begins at 10 p.m. Again, I leave before dawn.
Lviv is the staging ground for Western governments and press and also hundreds of thousands of refugees, who leave the cities by bus, train, or car. It is roughly 90 minutes from several different crossing points for the Polish border, a journey which many refugees make by bus. Car lines at the borders often stretch for miles, so when the road gets blocked, refugees get out and walk. At a small-town crossing near Uhryniv, the dirt margins of the two-lane highway were littered with refuse and forgotten things: a teddy bear in the dust, a broken suitcase in a ditch. Families lucky enough to have a car settle in for a long wait. An older woman holds a child’s hands straight up while he or she totters across a gravel parking lot, learning to walk. For many families, this is the last time they’ll have together. Men of fighting age are no longer permitted to leave the country. When I reach the line to cross, I am the only grown man there. It is bitterly cold and snowing lightly, tiny delicate flakes swirling and suspended in the air, never seeming to reach the ground.
The wait takes hours. I am next to a family originally from Syria, who moved to Ukraine decades ago. The daughter, Alisar, is 22 now, and has been studying to be a doctor for the past six years. The son, Salah, is 17, just months away from conscription. They are going to stay with relatives in Hamburg, Germany. The father stayed home in Kyiv to fight. Alisar speaks Arabic with her mother and Russian with her father and brother and English with Western reporters when they ask her about the invasion of the only country she has ever called home. She says that she hopes she’ll be able to return to Kyiv in a week; denial is another stage of grief. But so is rage.
“I’m angry. Not so much sad,” Alisar says. “I see that they’re killing children and killing people and killing the doctors who try to save them. Of course I’m sad because I have to leave. But I’m angry because they made me leave.”
In the press of bodies outside the Polish customs office I lose touch with Alisar and her family. The Ukrainian guard inside glares at me, standing head and shoulders above the women and children in a black parka and cargo pants, until he has thoroughly inspected my U.S. passport and determined that I am not a party to this war. I am allowed to leave. The Polish guards stamp my passport. I walk out of the building back into the snow.
Behind me the war is getting worse. The bombs I fled from in Kharkiv have churned their way through the city, turning parks and streets I walked down into unrecognizable mountains of rubble. This morning, Russia bombed a childrens’ hospital in the port city of Mariupol, which has been without power or heat for days. Ceasefire talks to open humanitarian corridors for evacuating civilians from cities like Mariupol are ongoing almost every day. They are often agreed upon and then immediately abandoned when Russian troops bomb the evacuation routes. The front line shifts. Roads close. Train routes change to avoid battles. The woman I rented a car from in Dnipro texted me this morning and said “We’re not bombed yet,” followed by the prayer hands emoji, before talking about the attack in Mariupol, just a few hours south of her. “The dead are lying on the road and the dogs are dragging the bodies,” she wrote. I didn’t know what to reply. We know that over two million have fled by car or by train or on foot, and more leave every day, and we know that before the war, 44 million people lived in this country. Someday, after the war, we will find out how many people died there. Until then, those who left will watch and wait, not knowing if they will be able to return and what will be there for them when they do.