An American’s journey out of war-torn Ukraine

Being an American, you know when a country is preparing to go to war.  I’ve seen it many times.  Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq in 2003,… Read More »

An American’s journey out of war-torn Ukraine

Being an American, you know when a country is preparing to go to war.  I’ve seen it many times.  Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq in 2003, even Vietnam.  When mobilized in a detailed manner, they are going to do it.  By mid-December, intellectually, I was convinced Russia was going to invade Ukraine to settle a lot of scores, old and new. 

Of course, it didn’t seem logical – what was going to be the end game if Russia was militarily successful?  We can see now the opprobrium the Russians have brought on themselves.  So, emotionally, myself, and many of my friends and colleagues, dismissed the idea of war as impossible.

In late January, after all the New Year holidays were over, I was sitting with a dear friend in the opulent Intercontinental in downtown Kyiv over ice cream and coffee – and 100 grams of Ukrainian cognac for good measure. (The constant threat of war will inevitably increase the level of alcohol consumption in the geography of a target’s bullseye) My friend is a very intelligent and experienced war correspondent.  We both agreed that the atmosphere in the city and country must have been like that in Europe in 1939 – “waiting for the war that never came” she said.  I remarked, “and then it came.”

The first of February, I hit an internal timer clock.  I calculated that I had 15 “safe” days, and every day after that would be a consecutively proportionally less safe day.  I spent many a late night looking out the window at the neighborhood waiting for a cruise missel to come crashing in…  Still, most of my colleagues thought this was just a hybrid-war high stakes poker game.

On the 16th of February, having completed 90% of the tasks I had set for myself, I arrived in the very idyllic, peaceful, and blessed Caritas Youth Camp in the western Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains.  A meter of snow, and not a military target for 100 klicks.  Almost alone there, the few people and my friends back in Kyiv were sure I was overreacting.  Talking to good contacts in DC and elsewhere, I was convinced the Russian “punishment express” was going to come right through the Chernobyl exclusion zone aiming for Kyiv.  In this case, quality Ukrainian “samogon” (home-brewed vodka) was the beverage of choice.

I was scheduled for the last few months to be in Saudi Arabia for a special event at the end of February.  I had initially planned to fly direct from Kyiv on the 18th of February.  Then the airlines started cancelling flights.  From western Ukraine, I rebooked for Friday the 25th out of Lviv, 250 klicks away.  The Olympics ended on the 20th – no war!  Maybe my colleagues were right, and I was wrong.  The 23rd is Red Army Day – I needed 48 more hours.  Thursday, the 24th, I was up early packing – got a call from a friend near the airbase outside of Kyiv at 06:30 – the “party had begun.” I was 30 hours short…

That evening was one of mixed emotions in the camp.  We had a prayer service, sat down for dinner, a certain calmness set in.  Kyiv is far away.

Friday morning, the mood was darker.  The overnight news was alarming.  Lviv airport had been hit.  I told my friend at the camp that I had to go.  Government decreed that all males from 18 to 60 years old were required to stay in their place of registration, and road checkpoints were already up.  No one would take me to the border.  I pushed – considered buying an older car to drive myself the 100 klicks to the Romanian border and abandon it there.  I had to go.

Finally, around 11:00 am an older person, agreed to take me.  What was a $200 trip the day before, was now considerable multiples of that – war does strange things to people.  At 13:00 we left for the border.

An important consideration to understand, among many considerations, is the critical roll the US Embassy Kyiv’s American Citizens Services (ACS) unit has done for all Americans in Ukraine during this terrible time.  From the early days of the crisis after New Year, they have stayed in constant contact with the American community in Ukraine.  They held open town halls, explained what they could and could not do for us, and provided a WhatsApp channel for American Citizen Liaison Volunteers, of whom I am one, to further communicate to our friends, family, and colleagues.  Amazing communications.  For those, like myself who cut it a little too close, they continued to provide us communications on the best and safest land crossings west. 

On this day, ACS Kyiv and ACS Bucharest combined to give me excellent recommendations on where to cross the border.  In this case, they said best to cross to Romania from Zakarpathia at Solotvyno on the Ukrainian side, onto Sighetul Marmatiei on the Romanian side.  At noon, we left.

My high priced “chauffer” was pleasant enough – I had paid him enough.  After all, we were in God’s country, and the only military targets there were some dams and river crossings.  We did confront a checkpoint not far from the camp in Rakhiv.  No problem.

When we got to Solotvyno, as soon as we turned into the town, we hit the line of cars – at least a kilometer long.  After an hour or two, I started to reconnoiter the situation, and periodically we lurched 5-10 meters ahead.  Lucky it was a pleasant day, everyone was in the same boat, so very little reason to communicate about anything else with the people I encountered.

Many people were on foot, dragging baggage and whatever they could carry.  I concluded that at some point since my driver would not cross the border, I’d have to get in the pedestrian line.  I went ahead.  When my car finally caught up with me, the driver dropped off the baggage, and he did tell the border soldier that I was American, and had been in the car for about five hours.  The guard called me out of the line and sent me to the Ukrainian processing point.

One funny anecdote – if there are any funny anecdotes in this situation:  For 30 years I have used a surplus US Army backpack from the Vietnam era – the guard pulled me aside and said as a “military man,” he had to inspect the backpack.  The first thing he found was my rosary, St. Christopher medal, and some prayer cards.  He said goodbye.

The Ukrainian authorities were trying to keep a stiff upper lip, but it’s not the Ukrainian style – there were tears in their eyes.  I did my best to try to perk them up…after all, they were witnessing an exodus in 21st century Europe.  Sad.  Really sad.

The Romanian checkpoint was about 300 meters away on a wooden slat bridge that looks like it was last repaired during Soviet times.  The roadway had holes in it, and the walkways were closed as the guardrails and other construction were in pieces.  I lugged my gear across the Tisa River to Romania.

The Romanian side was like another planet.  Throngs of people and news organizations were waiting for whoever got across.  People – strangers – covered me with food, water, soda, offers of free accommodations, free rides to hotels, etc.  Amazing, and amazing people.

I took them up on the free ride…I had researched a good hotel in Sighetul.  Hotel Iza – great place if ever God wishes you to be there.  Great staff and people.

After a night of rest, and a few more rounds of cognac, I organized my departure from Romania.  The first logical flight was from Cluj to Frankfurt at 04:00.  The next night I left at midnight for a five-hour switchback drive through the mountains in a chilly van with a few other passengers to Cluj.  We stopped twice to drop off and pick up.  Every time we stopped, the shop at the station gave all the passengers food, water, whatever.  I tried to explain that I could not take it across the security line, but the owners insisted that we must be fed.  At the airport, I tried to place it all so that someone who needed it would be able to use it.  Twenty-four hours later, I was at my destination.

I am not a refugee.  I have been around the block more than a few times and I have property in the States. I have work, I have resources, I have experienced and good friends, and I had the American Embassy.  I planned, I organized.  It may have been Plan E, from Plan A, but I had the luxury of being able to plan and make my own calibrated moves.  

Many others do not.