Chaos in Kyiv as escape routes close

By Neil Hauer in Lviv March 1, 2022

It has been nearly 80 years since Kyiv was last consumed by fighting, when the Red Army liberated the city from three years of Nazi rule.

Now, a Russian army is again approaching from the north and east. But it is coming to conquer, not to liberate.

This is the situation now faced by Ukraine’s capital, as the civilians remaining in the city scramble to flee or seek shelter as the Russian noose closes.

The city has been in a tightening state of siege since the war’s first day. When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine last Thursday, a wave of cruise missile strikes at dawn forced daily life to a halt almost immediately.

The next day, the situation worsened with the entrance of Russian special forces into the capital, searching for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in gun battles that echoed throughout the city’s streets. That was followed by yet more missile strikes later that night.

By the weekend, Kyiv had become a city of bunkers. The streets were almost empty, populated mostly by Ukrainian militiamen armed with Kalashnikovs and ready to do battle with Russian saboteurs roaming the capital. Unlike the first two nights, the city’s shelters now sport a half-dozen armed volunteers at the entrance to each – a testament to the threat posed by plainclothes Russian agents.

Staying is becoming increasingly untenable, as Russian armour closes in. But fleeing, too, is not easy. 

Last Saturday morning, after the overnight curfew ended, the heavy metal doors blocking the entrance to the metro station shelter were opened, and the Territorial Defence soldiers allowed civilians through. Most dashed out, hoping at least to reach their homes to grab supplies before the next air raid siren rang.

Others headed to the one reliable route out: the train station. Getting a taxi to the station is difficult, and requires both personal connections and negotiation skills. Taking one out of the city is impossible: The drivers say that not only are the few remaining roads open to the south clogged with traffic and checkpoints, but that petrol is now in short supply as well.

At the station, chaos reigned. A crush of civilians attempting to board whatever train is heading east made even pushing through the crowd difficult. Many at the station were trying to reach Lviv, Ukraine’s westernmost major city, in order then to flee to the Polish border and onwards to safety. But few trains are going that far, leaving most to settle for any other westerly destination they can find.

One such target is Khmelnitsky. As a train bearing that name pulls up to the platform, civilians scrambled on board, quickly filling all available space. Seats were crammed with extra occupants and aisles were packed with even more passengers; even the toilets hosted a few travellers. The odour of densely packed humanity lay heavily over the carriage.

When the train finally pulled away, there was an audible sigh of relief from those aboard. The threat of being trapped in the capital, an unwilling witness to the urban warfare to come, seemed to have finally passed.

The passengers were a snapshot of Kyiv’s cosmopolitan society: people from all walks of life who had been thrust together by undiscriminating fate.

Olesya, 26, is a designer in her daily life. She moved to Kyiv from the central city of Dnipro a few years ago.

“I’m lucky, to be honest,” she says. “I’m still young, and I’ve got plenty of money to be able to afford to run from this city. I can handle some time at the border or in another country.”

She, like many others, has plenty of family left behind.

“My parents won’t leave,” Olesya says. “My dad insists that he will kill any Russian soldier who tries to come into our house. Of course I’m worried for them, but what can I do? They are from that generation, they won’t budge,” she says.

Others on the train include foreigners, immigrants to Ukraine.

“I came here about four years ago,” says Ali, a history student from Iran. “I applied to a programme in Canada, but I didn’t get in, so this was the more reasonable option. At least it’s closer to home,” he says.

His friend, Mo, is busy sharing Iranian dried fruit snacks with fellow passengers.

“We have a small shop here too, selling products from Iran,” he says. “It wasn’t a ton of money, but it made enough to pay for our rent. I hope it’s still there when we come back,” he says.

Their chances of getting across the border and into Poland are not as clear as the others.

“You know we have lots of problems with visas for Europe, because of politics,” Ali says. “I hope we’ll be able to get in [to Poland]. Our embassy couldn’t tell us if it’d be possible,” he says.

The exodus has been massive. Just five days into the war, the UN has reported that half a million Ukrainians have fled to neighbouring countries, with more than half of those heading to Poland.

Some Ukrainians, meanwhile, have stiffened their resolve over the last few days and now want to stay.

Hanna, a 29-year old fitness instructor and blogger, is a minor celebrity owing to her many Instagram followers. She recounts a story of being recognised by one of them the previous night at the bomb shelter.

“My parents are already in Poland, so I’m hoping to join them there,” she says. “I have a friend in Khmelnitsky that I can stay with, and in Lviv too. So I can take my time if the border is crazy,” Hanna says.

Her plans would change, though. A day after arriving, having watched the innumerable videos of other Ukrainian citizens joining civil defence brigades or preparing supplies, she decided to stay in Ukraine. “I can go to Poland later,” she says. “I’m going to make Molotov cocktails here [in Lviv] now, like everyone else is doing.”

There are now indications that Lviv, too, may not be safe forever. The past two days, air raid sirens have sounded in the evening, warning of missile attacks that have yet to come. Belarus, too, is gearing up to enter the war on Russia’s side, with huge columns of Belarusian troops spotted on the country’s south-west border with Ukraine, about 200 km north of Lviv.

For now, though, western Ukraine remains a safe haven. For those still in Kyiv, meanwhile, they may have a lot of war still to see.