At around 5am in the morning of February 24 I was awoken by the sound of large explosions. Having been confident that a Russian invasion of Ukraine wouldn't realistically happen, and that there were no signs of obvious panic outside – neither air raid sirens nor screaming people – I simply assumed it was just car backfiring and went back to sleep. Waking later, I opened my phone to dozens of notifications telling me that war had begun and Russia had invaded Ukraine.
I was wrong – that hadn't been a car, but a Russian rocket falling close to central Kyiv. I realised that the worst-case scenario was about to unfold and I needed an evacuation plan.
Meeting with an American friend working in Novopecherski Lipki, a business district of Kyiv, home to offices and penthouse apartments of Ukraine's business elite, we decided to leave and go for the Carpathian city of Uzhgorod, where he lives with his Ukrainian wife.
Lipki was experiencing an exodus of people. What looked like every family had spilled out of their plush homes into the street, loading their BMW and Mercedes 4x4s with all the goods and luggage they could carry. For us, our first action was to reach Kyiv's north-west outskirts and make for the road heading westwards to Zhitomyr.
We left Lipki by car heading westwards to news reports that Kyiv would soon be under ballistic missile attack. Unbeknownst to us at the time, however, was the fact that the road we were taking to get outside the city was in the same direction as Antonov Airport, which was being stormed by Russian airborne troops at exactly that moment. Between 20 and 30 Russian helicopters landed at the airport with the goal of creating an air bridge to bring in more troops, presumably in preparation of an attack on the capital.
Although we were far enough from the airport itself and therefore unable to see any of the actual fighting, Russian jets buzzed the road we were travelling on on their way to support the storming of the airport.
As the open road finally gave way to immobile traffic jams, it became increasingly obvious that leaving Kyiv by road that day was impossible. We decided to take the risk of walking to the end of the traffic jam and hitchhiking. As the lane outwards remained log-jammed, the lane towards the city was open, with Ukrainian tanks heading north.
It took around 30 kilometres of walking to find the end of the congestion on the E40, where we spotted a family who had parked for a break. Slipping the father $100, he said that he would take us with his family to Zhitomyr, where he would then leave us to our own devices to head further west.
The family remained calm. The two children, a girl of around six and another infant, did not scream or cry despite everything going on around them. The father spoke in Russian, the mother in Ukrainian. However, friends were updating us on the situation in the Zhitomyr region, noting that the city was starting to be subjected to serious shelling. Eventually we were dropped off at a petrol station, at around eight in the evening, with the intention of cutting south of the city to avoid shelling and Russian tanks coming into Ukraine from the Belarusian border to the north.
After asking around at the petrol station, a young couple from Odesa, named Vova and Inga, agreed to take us as far west as possible, hoping to be in Khmelnitsky by the next day. The couple had planned to fly to London the following day, having finally obtained their British visas (a torturous process for Ukrainians) before the beginning of this new phase of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict took hold. Keen to help us foreigners, they refused any offers for us to pay for their petrol on the way and offered us food and water they had stocked up on.
It took an entire night of driving with next to no sleep and constant war reports for us to eventually reach the peaceful Khelnitsky region. Sleepy villages where next to nothing had happened for decades were now swarming with internally displaced Ukrainians, piling up in the local village shops, giving their owners the most lucrative business they had ever had.
In a small village in Khmelnitsky Oblast stood a large monument built by the Soviets to commemorate their dead during the Second World War, where Ukrainians and Russians had fought side by side against the foreign Nazi invader. It was a moving reminder to how the world has changed so much since then.
Pushing from Khelmnitsky Oblast to Ternopil, during yet another traffic jam we witnessed the Ukrainian police bust a van that had been illegally carrying migrants. However, these migrants were not Ukrainians looking to cross the border, but of Middle Eastern appearance. They had attempted to flee one war only to transit through another.
Having stopped at a motel in Ternopil, Vova and Inga decided that moving further west looking to exit the country was already futile, as military-aged Ukrainian men were no longer being allowed over the border. Also with news that their hometown of Odesa would soon be subject to amphibious assault, they were now brimming with fighting spirit and had decided to stay.
We decided to hitchhike once more on a lorry, looking to reach Ternopil by 4am to make the train westwards to Uzhgorod. The lorry driver was well acquainted with the roads heading west, describing to us the history of the area. The border of Ternopil and Khelnitsky Oblasts was once the border between the Soviet Union and Poland prior to 1939's Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It was also where the Soviet Army had gathered one month before the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in which the driver's father had served. During the war itself, Ternopil Oblast was a base for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, with the region's hills and forests allowing the insurgency to carry on well into the 1950s.
The lorry driver could only drop us at the edge of the city, so we had no choice but to break curfew and head for the railway station by foot, as there were no taxis available at the time. The result was predictable. Within about 20 minutes four servicemen and women from the National Guard greeted us with flashlights and AK-47s, asking to check our documents. Assured of the fact we were not saboteurs, we were left to move forward and reach the station.
Squeezing ourselves on to the train after an hour's wait at the station, we began to realise how multicultural the evacuation process was. The carriage was full of a mixture of Ukrainian families and Cameroonian students, who had until recently been studying at Ukrainian universities. They were to make the fatal decision to get off at Lviv, however, rather than Uzhgorod. Lviv seems to have been the destination of choice for all those fleeing Ukraine and its border points quickly became incredibly congested. Ukrainian women with children were prioritised and many African and Indian students were left stranded in Lviv.
As we woke up to the morning sun gleaming over the snow of the Carpathian Mountains, we spoke with our fellow travellers. One older, bearded, portly man from Kyiv was describing how he believed the battle of Kyiv would be won by Ukraine within five days as the Javelin missiles were causing Russian tank divisions such pain. He was criticised for his use of Russian by an elderly woman from the Carpathians sitting next to us, but he pointed out that the language people choose to use doesn't bother him. Russian or Ukrainian, it doesn't mean they are not Ukrainian, he said. I also pointed out that me and my American friend conversed in English and that did not mean that he was English. Behind them sat two families. One of the small girls asked her friend if she would be visiting them in Odesa next year.
Uzhgorod was a different story. This small, quaint city, hidden away beyond the Carpathians, is probably the last place the Russians would be interested in in Ukraine. The city's dialect of Ukrainian is so distinct it is often unintelligible to other Ukrainians. In addition to Ukrainian, Russian and Hungarian are both spoken and understood. The city of 100,000 has border checkpoints nearby with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.
After a brief meal at my friend's family house cooked by his mother-in-law, I decided to head to the border crossing at Chop, a railway point on the Hungarian border. My American friend decided to wait with his family before deciding what to do. The station was heaving with people, many of whom were Roma (gypsies) and African students. Amidst the screaming and jostling, I spoke with a calm and collected Jordanian dentist student. Surprised he was speaking to a British citizen he exclaimed "You have a British passport" I'm sure you can still even fly out!”
His calm, collected demeanour was not shared by anyone else at the station. Around 50 people swarmed the single ticket office, causing vitriol and heated shouting matches. The police quickly intervened, knocking back the crowds. Convinced I wouldn't be able to buy a ticket, I booked a taxi and headed to a Slovak border point that allowed both cars and pedestrians to cross. The traffic jam went for around 5 km from the checkpoint, with most people sleeping in their cars. Having got to the front of the line, it dawned on me that crossing this border point by foot would probably take around 40 hours. Despite the offers of warm, sugary tea and free meals, I decided to head back to my friend's house and rest, unsure of what to do.
At around 4 am, unable to sleep, I decided to try Chop one more time, and to my amazement was greeted by the sight of a train station that was quiet. Hearing of the crowds backed on the platform earlier in the evening, Ukrainian Railways had released four extra trains to carry people out and relieve the congestion.
With a ticket booked I waited in line. The train arrived 20 minutes after buying the ticket and the border points opened. Unfortunately the train filled up fast and I knew I would have to wait for a further two hours. As the two hours finally arrived, we were all hurried out of the station, as rumours had spread that the station had been mined. Standing in line waiting for the station to reopen I decided to chance it with a taxi driver who said he could take me to another crossing nearer. However, just as I sat down in the taxi, it turned out the mine threat was a false alarm. The border checkpoints reopened and I was stamped through, straight on a train to Hungary.
The Hungarian side of the border, just like the border crossing, was considerably quieter than those with Poland and Slovakia. "We can more or less understand Slovaks and Poles," one Ukrainian told me, "but Hungarian is like an alien language." The language barrier is of course in addition to the fact that Hungarian President Viktor Orban has been ambivalent about supporting Ukraine and is seen as a friend of Putin by many Ukrainians. That said, there are many in Uzhgorod with relatives in Hungary who were putting up with their grandchildren.
A small group of Hungarian TV journalists observed the station, as groups of Ukrainian and African refugees sat around it. Comments about Orban aside, local Hungarians were more than happy to take care of Ukrainian refugees, with a couple mistaking me as one, and offering to buy me large quantities of food and water for my trip to Budapest. Those exiting from Lviv Oblast had suffered a considerably more agonising ordeal.