An Evacuation Saga: From Kharkov To …

When was the last time that you had an “open-ended” trip where you would leave to somewhere without working out how you’d get there, where you’d stay, and what will happen next? I know that some young and adventurous people would do that. But I’ve never been that adventurous. So, it would be really hard for me to imagine that type of a trip even for myself – leave alone organize it for an elderly person, in another country and during a war.

It took the collective efforts of many people to make it happen. And I’m still amazed that we managed to do that. So many things came together through quick thinking, resourcefulness and sheer luck. And I’m extremely grateful to everyone who took part, directly or indirectly, in helping my friend and my vSO’s mothers to get to safety. The story below has too many details, but I just wanted to document it – probably for myself more than for you. We were “running that show” for several days straight with a couple of hours for sleep (not every night).

* * *

My MIL is pushing 80. She is not in the best health. She hasn’t traveled to anywhere outside her city in the last 30+ years and, being not vaccinated, she spent the last two years mostly in her apartment, not seeing anybody in person (with food delivered to her door and all communications done via phone or computer). Several years earlier, pre-Covid, we couldn’t persuade her to travel to one of the European countries, accompanied by my friend, to spend a week or so there with us since we couldn’t visit Ukraine because of the situation with Crimea. When the war started, our friends had offered to move her in with them into the private house in the suburb thinking that it would be easier for her to stay with someone, and the house had an independent heating system and water supply. She blatantly refused. So, it took several nights with heavy shelling and bombing that she spent sleeping in an armchair in the corridor of her apartment, away from any windows, for her to agree that it was time to leave. Coincidentally, one of our friends “from the previous life”, K., who currently resides in Germany, found herself in the same situation: her mother was stuck in the same city, and K. with her husband Y. were trying everything they could think of to bring her to Germany.

On March 2nd, we combined our efforts and started looking into what could be done. Half-World away and with a 9-10-hours time difference, it wouldn’t have been easy even in better times – let alone during a war. It’s hard to imagine the helplessness one experiences trying to figure out the logistics of what we were trying to accomplish. We needed to get our moms all the way from Kharkiv to Lviv and from there to Poland. It’s more than 1000 km/600 miles.

Map of Ukraine

Trains. They do run, and they are free, but one needs to:

  • get to the train station (public transportation doesn’t work; some taxis theoretically are available but they are hard to get one for when you need them; volunteers who help people to get to the train station can be found online via Telegram chats, again, theoretically, but it feels like there are more people who need a ride than those who can help, so nothing is guaranteed)
  • get through the crowd of other people waiting for the evacuation (the picture below is actually from the train station in Kharkov one of these days)

Kharkov Train Station Evacuation March 2022

  • travel to the border for 15+ hours standing or sitting on the floor, and then somehow get across the border – either on another train or somehow else. We knew our mothers wouldn’t survive that.

Evacuation Train in Ukraine

Private cars. We tried. R., a friend who by that time had left Kharkov but was still in Ukraine helping people, as a volunteer, to move to safety, tried to help. Through his channels, we offered to pay thousands of dollars for the ride from the house to the border. We couldn’t find any takers.

The last option left was a bus. It was still a long trip, and we needed to get both women to that bus, but at least a seat was guaranteed, and buses were supposed to go to the border.

When I say “bus,” I do not mean an organized bus station with a timetable and known routes. You need to find who offers such a bus, get on the list and arrive at the departure location in time. We tried but couldn’t find a bus to Lviv, the city on the border with Poland. Our friends from Germany suggested an alternative plan: to get our mothers to another city, Dnipro, that at least wasn’t being bombed at that time (220 km/137 miles). And from there to the border they hoped to get help from another mutual friend, S.

My close school friend, L., from Hungary to where she had evacuated a week earlier, through the volunteer organization where she used to work helped us to find potential seats on the bus to Dnipro the next morning. Our moms were supposed to be ready but whether they got those seats would have been known just a couple of hours before the departure, and L. was supposed to wait for the call from that organization to coordinate. We agreed to assume that we got those seats, and the same friend helped to find a volunteer who would take both women to the bus.

Since nothing was certain, we kept looking for other options. A friend here, in the US, sent me a FB link for the buss being organized by several guys from Israel. That bus was supposed to go from our city to Lviv and then to the border. I knew nothing about those people, and not too many details were provided (with those buses, you give the name of the passenger and a phone, and at some point someone might call you. Or not), but I signed up both moms for that bus as well, and told my MIL to say “yes” if they call.

At the same time, K. & Y. (a daughter of the second mom and her husband) found co-workers of S. (the friend who was initially supposed to help with the evacuation from Dnipro) who were leaving for Dnipro in a car and agreed to take our moms with them.

It seemed like a better idea than a potential bus ride to the same city, so we agreed to change the plans. I started helping my MIL to pack her things for the trip. Mostly to keep her mind off what was happening and what was coming but also to make sure she wouldn’t forget something essential (like documents, water or toilet paper). While all the people mentioned above were calling each other connecting dots of that trip, my MIL was tasked with writing down a list of things to take with her, I did my own list, then we compared them and figured out what could be left behind. It was good that we had just hours to make those decisions, otherwise, it would have been even more nerve-wracking.

As the morning of the departure was nearing, we discovered that there was no real plan of how S. would actually help our moms once they get to Dnipro (he wasn’t in that city himself). From the vague but comforting initial plan that our moms would be taken care of by those co-workers until S. helps us to transport them further (that was what we got from K. & Y. when we started planning the trip; we were so busy organizing the departure that we haven’t questioned their further plan), it somehow transformed into the idea (coming from S.) that moms would need to get to the railway station in Dnipro and … get on the train to Lviv… My vSO and I realized that the situation would probably be worse, not better: without bombing (as a plus), but not knowing anybody in that city, not having anywhere to go and probably facing the same situation with getting on the train (which was confirmed later by the news) and a similar distance to travel.

As my vSO and I were discussing our options thinking that we would probably have to cancel that trip, the organizers of the Israeli bus to Lviv called my MIL and asked if she was coming. Since at that moment she still thought she was going in a car, she didn’t know what to say, so she told him that she needed to ask us. He promised to call back. She called us, we told her that she should have agreed to it, and we started waiting for the bus people to call. They weren’t calling back.

In a panic, I started looking for people who knew these guys in Israel, found and contacted one of them via WhatsApp, explained that the MIL was confused and that she and her friend did want to go and were ready. It was a one-sided contact, he hadn’t acknowledged the communication there. But within the next hour, he called back to my MIL, confirmed that she and the second mom were on the list, and gave her instructions as to where to be and when.

It took us a while to persuade K. & Y. to abandon the initial car plan and move to this one. Ironically, K.’s mom, when she got a call earlier from the same organizers, immediately told them that she wasn’t going (since she thought that they would be going by that friends’ car) – and hadn’t even mentioned it to her daughter until all that came up. So, for a while, our friends weren’t sure which came last – the confirmation from my MIL for 2 people of the rejection from their mom. But finally, we decided that Lviv was a better option (our friend Y. confessed later that he spent another couple of hours to contact that organizer and get a final confirmation that their mother was on the list before he canceled the car ride).

And then we were waiting for the morning to get a confirmation from the volunteer driver found by my friend L. that he would be there in time to take our moms to the bus. While we waited, we found 2 backup plans from other friends “on the ground” – in case the driver wouldn’t be able to come. But it worked out with that volunteer who was ready to do it completely free of charge. We persuaded him to take money – for gas for future rides. And since it was cold (-1C/+30F), we asked him not to just drop the moms off at the location for the bus but wait until they were safely inside.

That was a lucky idea because one of the two buses suddenly required some repair, and the departure was postponed for almost 3 hours. Most people were waiting on the street or hiding in the nearby subway vestibule (not much warmer), so it was great that the driver stayed, which allowed our moms to sit in a warm car (though, after they got cold having spent some time next to the first bus, hoping that they would be let in).

Evacuation BusIt wasn’t a good start. I tried contacting the organizers to make them let people in the second bus – at least to get warm, rotating people inside and outside. They didn’t want to do it because the two groups were separate, and the list of who goes where was with the second bus. Our driver needed to go (he had the next important trip to make taking someone to a hospital), so he wouldn’t have stayed for money (he was a volunteer). But he took pity on elderly women and waited until, finally, the second bus arrived, and everyone got in. Through my friend L., I sent him twice as much money as we initially planned to donate. We were extremely thankful to him.

And the trip began.

There was a WhatsApp group created for those who traveled on those buses. Since neither of the moms had that app, we persuaded organizers to add us to the group hoping to be getting any updates on their progress. We pleaded with the passengers to periodically publish any updates… Nope. Not a word. During the night, we didn’t want to call – not to disturb anyone. And when my friend K. called her mother in the morning and asked where they were, she got an unexpected response that it was a secret. She decided that her mother wasn’t completely herself because of the stress, and we were joking among ourselves that it was a covert Mossad bus…

For all we know, it was! When we finally learned that they were approaching Lviv and shared it with some of our friends, they couldn’t believe it because they knew people who left a day earlier either by car or by bus and were still on the road. But together with the relief from the long leg of the trip being over, an unpleasant realization dawned on us: the organizers haven’t really worked it out (or properly conveyed to us) how the next, not less important part of crossing the border would happen. Initially, we were told that there will be another bus, local, going across the border. But somehow that part wasn’t happening, and after dropping off some of the travelers in Lviv, the bus was taking the rest of the group to the border crossing point planning to leave them there. At night. With the above-mentioned -1C/+30F. In the queue of 2,000 (TWO THOUSAND!) pedestrians, according to the official FB page (see the screenshot below). On foot, without any heat, cover or restrooms for hours.Ukraine-Poland Border Crossing

We started panicking: we didn’t think our mothers would survive that night. Looking at the same information, we noticed that there were other crossing points with fewer pedestrians. We had no idea if those were real numbers, where those crossing points were or whether those even had a crossing for pedestrians. We did some investigation and figured out that it was likely that the place marked in green on the picture above actually had the necessary crossing with a shorter line.

The organizer from Israel didn’t know the driver’s phone number, so we called my MIL, she gave her phone to the driver – but he didn’t want even to talk to the organizer (or didn’t believe that he was talking to him). Then through the organizer, we connected with a man who was previously traveling on one of these buses but stayed in Lviv (he was too young to be let out of the country) but whose mother was still on that bus. Being one of the more active and personable travelers (he maintained the connection with the organizer), he managed to establish some type of relationship with the driver of the bus during the trip and knew his direct phone number. So, he called the driver and persuaded him to accept financial incentives we were offering (luckily, before the war started, we managed to send enough money to my MIL, and she had them right there – many people hadn’t) and drive everyone on that bus for 3 more hours to that next crossing point (and this active guy’s mom got all the passengers to agree to this new plan).

During those 3 hours, there were several more ups and downs (including those for my blood pressure), but I’ll skip those details because, in the end, it all worked out: the line on that crossing point went through the border much faster, and not counting the first 20-30 minutes, it went inside heated tents.

So, less than 3 hours after being dropped off by the bus, our moms were on the Polish side, where our friend Y. with his brother were already waiting for them after driving all the way from Dusseldorf. The picture below shows people coming out on the Polish side taken from where our friends were waiting. Our moms didn’t even have to walk this part: they got a ride from border guards to where our friends could pick them up with their car.

Smilnizya Crossing Point

* * *

My MIL is now in Germany. We do not know how long she’ll have to stay there. We’re doing everything we can to bring her to the US, but at this point, we found ourselves in legal limbo: to get the US visa (which she could through family-based immigration since my vSO is a US citizen), she would need a valid Ukrainian travel passport, which she doesn’t have; Ukrainian consulates in Germany have officially stopped issuing those because of the war situation; we have no idea how long it might go on. But even after it ends, we don’t think my vSO’s mother would be able to go back, because, as we learned from her neighbor, her flat became uninhabitable the next day after she left: as the result of the shelling, central heating system on the roof was damaged, and all flats underneath got flooded with the hot water. And since she has no other relatives back there, I don’t think it would be possible to restore it for her – with all the destruction that has already happened in the city. So, we’ll just have to keep trying to resolve this conundrum. But at least she’s not being bombed. Yet.

* * *

The regular Saturday Question post will be published later than usual, but it is coming.


23 thoughts on “An Evacuation Saga: From Kharkov To …

  1. Oh my goodness! What a trauma. I’m sorry you and your family and Mother in law had to go through it. Thank goodness you still had people there whom you could contact from the US and ask for help.
    I can’t believe it’s been already over a month since Putin invasion. I hope this will come to an end soon and that at the same time this will be the end of Putin era.

    Take care my dear!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, I can’t imagine having to go through this from such a distance. My heart really goes out to you and your VSO and all the hundreds and thousands that are dealing with this same situation. It’s so tragic and so unimaginable and unnecessary. I’m glad the mothers are now safe…bless those who helped them get out. xoxoxoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My heart was in my mouth just reading this account, let alone living through it. Thank god it all came together. With so many uncontrollable factors and other (unknown) people involved it is truly a wonder. I know it’s not over but she’s out of the war zone and just in the nick of time. Your nerves must be shot. Thinking of you all.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Undina, thank you for sharing. I’m happy to hear that your MIL is safe, and I hope she will be with you soon. You managed to describe the flight for me to better comprehend the horrible situation that many will be in, trying to escape. It breaks my heart thinking of those not lucky enough to have resourceful relatives. when will this be over?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gosh, what a nightmare you have all lived through. I couldn’t follow all of that, but I suppose that just shows the confusion you were faced with. It sounds like you and your VSO were very resourceful. How you came across these connections is a whole new story! But thank goodness it worked. 80 year olds should not have to face this kind of upheaval in their lives. Hopefully the new initiative to accept Ukrainians into the US will help you get your MIL here sooner.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Unbelievable. I’m so glad both of the mothers are safe for now, and your nerves must be shot. Please look after yourself.

    Best regards,

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What an incredibly harrowing time, and so frightening for the elderly. (I’m trying to imagine my FIL in such a situation and the thought terrifies me). I am so glad they made it to Germany, and although the situation is still challenging at least they are safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh Undina, what a harrowing experience for your friend, MIL, your VsO and you. I find the plight of the elderly saddens me most. I am glad they are safe so far. Poland, Roemenia, Hungary and the Western European countries are hosting and helping very generously. My father of 87 hosts a Ukranian family of 3, and will host 2 more Ukranians. A shop owner of a nearby village drove to the Polish border and found a family of 4 in need via Facebook. They now live with him. Everyone is doing what they can. And keep human decency alive. All strength to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow! Glad everything worked out for the moms but what a nail biter! It shows how important connections and their connections (to infinity) are and that one needs to leave the situation to divine intervention and a little bit to informed chance.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is all so utterly traumatic for your family, the very worst of times, but thankfully your m-i-l is now in a place of safety. Still a lot for you to organise for her ongoing journey and hopefully there’s someone on the ground to help you navigate this. There are still a lot of good people in this world, take some comfort from that at least.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. How traumatic for you to have to go through all of that, not knowing what could go wrong at any moment and so many close calls. So thankful that both mothers had you and your vSO and your friends to help them to safety and each other to share the journey. I hope your MIL will be able to come to the US somehow.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. A harrowing tale – so glad they made it to safety. May you have her with you as soon as possible in the US!
    Not that I expect to be in such a situation (hopefully not ever) but this is why I keep my passports up to date. You never know….

    Liked by 1 person

  13. So glad your MIL is safe in Germany now. What an ordeal! Best of luck with the next steps of trying to get her to the US. I’m sure it won’t be easy but, at least she is safe for now.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Слава Україні! Героям слава! I am 80% Ukrainian and am funneling as much money as I can directly to the Ukrainian military as well as in-country organizations and people helping refugees. з миром

    Liked by 1 person

  15. What horror!
    I cannot imagine the horror or arranging this tragic journey & how terrified those two elderly women must have been!
    Well done for having both a plan A & a plan B and for having the forethought to ensure your MIL had funds.
    I wish you all the best in getting your MIL to you & your vSO in the US from Germany. I can tell that until she is with you, you won’t be able to relax.
    🇺🇦 ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This story was very emotional to read, and at the same time I got more facts about what Ukrainians and their families and friends are going through than I have from most news coverage I’ve watched. Thank you for sharing this story and I join all your readers in being thankful these Mothers are away from the battle front.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. My thoughts were exactly along the lines of Tara’s – I felt on the edge of my seat reading this – so many ups and downs and logistical difficulties to overcome, and all from a great distance. Well done for planning the evacuation so carefully, and for “extracting” your relatives to safety.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Phew! Thanks so much for sharing this personal story, dear Undina. So many things to overcome in this evacuation but, thankfully, your MiL is now in Germany. Well done to you and all who helped get her to safety!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I felt so many emotions reading this, but above all gratitude. Thank you for sharing this story, thank you to all the people who helped you and your family, and thank goodness your MIL and your friend’s mother are safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Unimaginable. You and your VSo and your friends are so amazing and resourceful. I’m so glad your MIL’s were able to make it to Germany and they have a safe place at least for a while, we hope. And you got your MIL out just in time. The US needs to be taking thousands more Ukranian refugees and they need to make exceptions in situations like this with your MIL. I’m writing to my senators and representatives to urge them to loosen the requirements for people escaping Ukraine.

    Liked by 1 person

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