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A Teenage Ukranian Refugee Fighting To Reach Safety Texts His Story


13 min read

PoliticsHome followed the journey of Aleksandr*, a 19-year-old Ukranian student, as he tries to flee the country. Through voice notes and swapping messages, he charts his last seven days of escaping war, and the impact on his family.

* Name changed at his request to protect his identity.

Thursday February 24

Putin begins his invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of the morning with missile strikes across the country. Explosions and gunfire are heard in Ukraine's capital Kyiv. In a televised statement Putin says he has ordered the military action to de-Nazify and demilitarise Ukraine, thus signalling the end of diplomatic efforts from the EU and the US to avoid war.

Just days earlier he officially recognised the separatist areas of Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk as Russian and said repeatedly he wants no further expansion of NATO. Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calls on all Ukranians to defend their country, and the European Council hold an emergency meeting declaring the invasion "unjustified military aggression".

In a town 25km to the south of Kyiv, Aleksandr and his mother wake up in the middle of the night to find there's no electricity.

Shortly after, they hear explosions, believed to be coming from a nearby air base. A few hours later his brother and his wife-to-be arrive at the family home, having driven from central Ukraine on log-jammed motorways as people begin fleeing the city.

Aleksandr We are split on whether we should scramble and leave now. My mother doesn't want to leave our home unattended, and three out of four of us believe that we should not go anywhere until the night because it's really unsafe. When we get in the car and we're on the highway there's no shelter. At least in the flat we have shelter.

Aleksandr Sorry just heard a jet fly above us. Not sure when I'll call you back.

Kate Proctor Don't worry. Keep safe.

Aleksandr You can text me your questions.

Kate Proctor Will you leave today? And are you hearing that your friends and family are leaving Ukraine too, or at least thinking about it?

Aleksandr We're not leaving today. We managed to pick up my girlfriend and now we moved to our friend’s place. They live in a secluded area.

Aleksandr We're developing plans about how to leave the country, currently we've got two:
One is rushing towards the Polish border. Our sources tell us they're letting everyone in despite 15km queues at the customs crossings. Two, we managed to get tickets from Lviv to Poland. Might be a great option.

Aleksandr We managed to team up with our neighbours, we intend to leave tomorrow around 8am if everything's alright

Aleksandr We just got news that Ukrainian customs don't let any males above 18 out of the country.

Kate Proctor Do you have a form of national service in Ukraine?

Aleksandr Our president approved mass mobilisation, which means any male above 18 fit for service will get drafted if the authorities "find him"

Friday 25 February

Many people in Kyiv wake up from a night spent in bomb shelters and sleeping on platforms in the underground system. Throughout the early morning there are direct rocket strikes on the capital. The Russians take Snake Island in the Black Sea with 13 Ukrainian border guards captured. President Zelenskyy records a video message, promising that he will stay in Kyiv. The Russian military advances from the north, south and east of the country. The UK, US and the EU announce plans to impose sanctions on Putin personally.

Aleksandr is joined by his 17-year-old girlfriend, and the family begin driving from their home to Vinnytsia

It lies 280km to the south of Kyiv. He is driving in a convoy with neighbours. Aleksandr has Polish residency rights but isn’t sure if he will be allowed into the country, and worried that because of his age he could be conscripted.

Kate Proctor Are you okay?

Aleksandr Hi.

Kate Proctor Good.

Aleksandr We're on route to Vinnytsia, getting some other guys to join our car caravan [of cars] and then we'll head to Lviv or the Carpathian Mountains.

Kate Proctor And everyone is safe? As can be?

Aleksandr Apparently our military is doing great, but it was vital to leave Kyiv due to the possibility of encirclement.
Yes, everyone’s alright.
We're constantly getting some good news from the front, as well as bad.

Kate Proctor I was shocked to see the further attacks so close to Kyiv. Have some people stayed?

Aleksandr My father decided to. He was actually on a trip to Poland but decided to come back here. He’s convinced the invasion will go fast and without major fighting, but that’s simply not true.

Kate Proctor Did you leave with your neighbours too? And where will you stay when you get there?

Aleksandr Yes for now it’s four cars in our chain, we’re getting more once we get to Vinnytsia, then heading westwards right away.

Kate Proctor Great. Good luck and hope this journey goes well.

Aleksandr Thanks!

Saturday 26 February

The Russians continue their advance towards Kharkiv, Kherson and Kyiv. Sanctions and restrictions on Putin's war come thick and fast; European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announces that Russian aircraft will be banned from EU airspace and Russia Today is banned from the airwaves. After significant pressure, including from Boris Johnson, the EU decides to cut off some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system. BP removes its 20 per cent stake in Rosneft, the Russian state oil company. The Rouble plummets.

Ukranians are urged to take up arms and defend the country – volunteers start making Molotov cocktails at home and make-shift road blocks are set up to defend Lviv, which is yet to encounter the Russian military. It is estimated that 150,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed into neighbouring countries, half of them to Poland, and many to Hungary, Moldova, Romania and beyond. Boris Johnson appeals to Russians to say he does not believe the war is in their name.

Aleksandr and his family make it to Ternopil after their road journey to Vinnytsia becomes too dangerous

Kate Proctor Are you okay?

Aleksandr Hi.

Kate Proctor Sorry for the late reply.

Aleksandr Our plans to get to Vinnytsia were crashed as we drove along the road. We started to receive news about air raid sirens going off there, so we decided not to stop there and head directly to Lviv.

Aleksandr We got really scared, as we just realised that although we’re quite far away from Kyiv already, there’s still a possible danger of a land assault.

Aleksandr Eventually we decided to go to Ternopil, and were sheltered there by our friends. We had dinner, we drank and finally had time to wash.

Aleksandr Tomorrow, if everything’s alright and the road to Lviv is open, we will proceed there. From there, my girlfriend and I plan to leave Lviv ASAP on evacuation trains to Poland.

Aleksandr As for my dad…now, the town really close to him is under a heavy paratrooper assault. I hope he’s fine, but I’m really angry at him for being so oblivious and stubborn [and not leaving].

Aleksandr My family and our whole caravan relies on you and people alike. We need the west to know what’s going on. We are strong, our army is strong and prepared for anything. We hear countless reports of Russian war crimes and civilian casualties, we need to hold them responsible for this.

Sunday February 27

The Russian artillery bombards residential areas of Kharkiv in the west of the country and the fighting intensifies as Russians are met with strong Ukranian resistance. Putin says he is putting his nuclear deterrence on high alert, and satellite images show a 40 mile-long convoy of military hardware entering Ukraine.

The UN General Assembly meet for an emergency session while Russia and Ukraine prepare to meet for talks in the morning at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, near the Pripyat River.

Germany makes a historic policy shift by dramatically increasing its spending on defence, and the EU agrees to fund weapon supplies. Around 500,000 people have now fled the country.

Aleksandr, his 17-year-old girlfriend, and his family arrive in Lviv.

Kate Proctor Are you okay?

Aleksandr We’re in Lviv. We got an apartment given to us by friends and we finally had a good portion of sleep - not like three hours. It’s scary but at least we don’t hear any explosions.

Aleksandr My mother, brother and his wife went to meet with the rest of the people in our caravan and they’re going to volunteer to help the soldiers coming from Lviv to Kyiv. I’m going to go and donate some blood and also sign up for some volunteering because I need to be doing something, not just having a sharp ear listening to every sound thinking it’s an airplane or bomb.

Aleksandr We tried to take the train to Poland from Lviv yesterday. People were fighting for a place there. There was a man grabbing a woman by her hair just so he could get forward. One person died apparently from being stepped over. When we finally climbed upstairs to the platform we saw the train and it was already packed. The policemen were fighting with the people to try to get here and the only accepted mothers and their kids. Nobody could get through. There was gunfire. It was a complete disaster…a very horrible picture. We decided to leave there and go back to the apartment by foot in the dark.

Aleksandr My father has signed up for the territorial defence force. He’s a hunter so he was telling us that he’s going around with his hunting rifle and headphones to amplify the sound around him.

Aleksandr Hang on Kate…there is a shady guy on the other side of the street …what the fuck is he doing … anyways….Please try to put as much effort as possible into letting people know what’s happening in Ukraine. We need the toughest sanctions possible, and for the UK Parliament to be pushed by its own people to have those sanctions. We need it.

Wednesday March 2

The death toll mounts as bombardment of key cities continues, along with Kharkiv’s Freedom Square government buildings and opera house. Rockets are fired on Mariupol. Russian soldiers take the city of Kherson in South Ukraine, while the Kremlin confirms that they’ve lost 500 of their own soldiers.

Ukranian hospitals are under huge strain from constant bombing with terminally ill children unable to get access to medical care. Babies are born in bomb shelters and hospital basements. The pressure mounts on the UK to take people fleeing from the Ukraine, and Home Secretary Priti Patel announces a bespoke scheme for 200,000 eligible people - likely to be immediate family of those living in the UK already. Boris Johnson tells Parliament he believes Putin has committed war crimes.

Kate Proctor Just checking you’re alright?

Thursday March 3

The death toll of Russian soldiers is now predicted to be in the thousands, not 500, by Ukranians and the 40 mile long artillery chain is not advancing and may be stuck. However encirclement of key cities continues, including around Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, and residents of the port city of Mariupol say they are being shelled continuously and their supplies are running out. The International Paralympic Committee says Russian and Belarusian athletes cannot take part in the games.

Aleksandr and his girlfriend make it to Poland

Aleksandr Hi.
We’re in Krakow now. But only my girlfriend and I. We’re settling down here.

Kate Proctor Glad you made it though I’m sure it was hard leaving your family. Did you get the train out?

Aleksandr No. My girlfriend’s relative works for a company who were evacuating employees family members by bus. That’s how we made it.

Aleksandr It’s a miracle.

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