Oleksander Sydielnikov surveyed the motley collection of cars, pickup trucks and minivans gathered Sunday at a gas station near Lviv, in western Ukraine, with a mixture of pride and apprehension.
With their country at war, and people trapped in cities under attack, this group of strangers was going to do something about it.
The plan was simple, although clearly dangerous: The 12 vehicles, plus two more they would meet up with along the way, were stuffed with food, water, diapers, toys and as many badly needed medical supplies, including insulin, as the volunteers could find. Soon, the cars would form a line and drive toward the partly besieged capital, Kyiv, 500 kilometres to the east.
Step 1 would be dropping off all the boxes in their cars in Fastiv, a small city near Kyiv that is becoming a hub for people fleeing the capital, but where store shelves are now completely bare.
On the way back to the relative safety of Lviv, they would take all the women and children they could.
“For me, it’s like Dunkirk. It’s very similar. Remember how Churchill said whoever has a boat, even civilians, has to go to Dunkirk and save lives? It’s not the same, but it’s similar. We’re self-organized people who only want to help women and children escape,” Mr. Sydielnikov said. “The Russians are trying to block that area, to occupy Fastiv and block the only way out of Kyiv.”
As they pulled onto the highway shortly after dawn, Mr. Sydielnikov’s red Kia was followed by a handful of sedans and station wagons, each crammed with goods hastily donated by people in western Ukraine, some purchased with money sent from abroad. One of the sedans had Czech licence plates.
A black Ford pickup with red crosses taped to its sides joined the convoy, carrying dozens of bottles of water, plus a few cases of Coca-Cola. So did a white truck covered with advertisements for a home renovation company.
Trailing the convoy was The Globe and Mail’s team in Ukraine, driving a recently purchased 2004 Land Rover, clearly marked “Press.”
“None of us knew each other before today,” said Mr. Sydielnikov, a 30-year-old legal reform expert. The small flotilla had assembled after responding to a call for volunteers posted three days earlier on Telegram, a social-media app. As he spoke, a Ukrainian military helicopter flew low overhead.
The captains of the other vessels joining this overland Dunkirk said they were doing so out of a desire to help their fellow Ukrainians.
“I’m not a military guy. I would be useless because I’ve never held a gun in my hands, so I’m trying to do what I can here,” said Mike Salo, a 41-year-old who before the war was the chief financial officer of a blockchain company.
He said he was nervous about driving so close to Kyiv while the Russian army was trying to surround the city. But he was more worried about his brother and his family, who were trapped incommunicado in Bucha, a suburb north of the capital that has been battered by some of the worst fighting of the war.
There was a certain guilt, Mr. Salo said, that came with sitting in Lviv – which has thus far been spared the bombings and cruise missile strikes that have hit other major cities – while the rest of the country was on fire. Bank machines, grocery stores and restaurants all still functioned in Lviv, although nothing felt normal in a city of 700,000 playing host to tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes in other parts of Ukraine.
Inna Harko, a 25-year-old drone salesperson, had a very personal reason for joining her boyfriend, Bohdan Klisch, on the drive from Lviv. She said a close friend had been trapped in Fastiv since the start of the war.
“I really want to bring her to Lviv. She’s alone there and she doesn’t have anyone to help her.”
We headed east through a dense network of cinderblock and sandbag checkpoints along the highway, hastily built fortifications that were higher and thicker than they were just a few days earlier. Tank traps sat by the roadside, ready to be pulled onto the highway should the Russian army approach Lviv.
Later, we sped by a group of Ukrainian T-72 tanks that were being transported on trucks toward the front line, further east.
There were relics of previous conflicts, too. Near Lviv, we passed a Cold War jamming station that the Soviet Union used to try to block the transmissions of the U.S. government’s Radio Free Europe.
Driving east was easy. Very few people, besides our mini-Dunkirk flotilla, were intentionally heading toward the fighting.
The road west was clogged with traffic. Cars, buses marked with the sign “children” and emergency vehicles all idled in traffic jams several kilometres long.
Each driver was stopped and briefly interrogated by suspicious Ukrainian reservists at the checkpoint to one village, then stopped again at the next settlement and asked the same things.
Gas stations had become especially tense. With fuel rationed to 20 litres for every stop – and the stations offering what is sometimes the first hot food refugees have seen in days – long queues snaked from every pump, and tempers rose as the overwhelmed attendants struggled to keep up with who should be paying for what.
As we drove, we received grim news from the road ahead. Shells fired by Russian tanks had reportedly hit a school and residential buildings in Buzova, a suburb west of Kyiv. Soon we received photos confirming it. “That’s my home,” our driver, Serhiy, said after seeing an image of a modest house that he said had taken him 10 years to build. “That was my home.”
Air raid sirens blared as we stopped for fuel in Khmelnitsky, one of the few big cities on our route. But while the warning would send people scrambling for shelter in the first days of the war, many Ukrainians now barely look up when they hear the high-pitched wail.
The gas station where we were hoping to refuel suddenly closed because of the alarm, but alert drivers noticed the station on the opposite side of the highway had remained open – and there was no one at the pumps. Despite the sirens, we sped across and bought as much gas as was permitted.
In Khmelnitsky, the convoy grew. The two new drivers had a 17-seat Mercedes minibus and a Volkswagen van. Mr. Sydielnikov was particularly thrilled by the appearance of the minibus. “Now we can carry even more people.”
As we approached Fastiv, word began to spread.
A colleague of Serhiy’s, Olena Kanchukivska, called as we crossed into Vinnytsia, the next region over from Kyiv oblast. “Serhiy, is it true?” she asked, hope breaking through the anxiety in her voice. “Yes, Olena, it’s true. If you can make it to Fastiv, we have space for you and your child. We’ll bring you to Lviv.”
“Thank you, thank you” was Ms. Kanchukivska’s only reply before hanging up. She and Serhiy worked together at the Ukrainian branch of Mary Kay Cosmetics before the war.
It was becoming apparent that getting into Fastiv would be easier than getting out. The four-lane M-12 highway connecting Khmelnitsky to Vinnytsia, intended to be two lanes in each direction, gradually overflowed its banks, becoming four lanes of cars and trucks heading west while vehicles heading east were forced to hug the dirt shoulder on their side of the road.
Another newsflash came up on my phone as we got a brief moment of 4G cell reception. More than 1.5 million Ukrainians had crossed into other European countries, Agence France-Presse was reporting. Staring at the clogged M-12, it was clear that number would continue to grow. (By Monday afternoon, it had reached 1.7 million.)
On the edge of Vinnytsia, we spotted a plume of dark smoke rising on the horizon to the right. The local airport had been hit by eight rockets just a few hours earlier. We would learn later that nine people had died in the attack.
“We’ll rebuild it,” Mr. Sydielnikov said when I showed him a video of what had happened. He was born the month after Ukraine declared its independence in 1991 and has already seen his people rise up twice in revolutions against Moscow’s meddling. “After our victory, we’ll rebuild it all.”
There was only time for a few quick handshakes after the convoy arrived in Fastiv Sunday night and drove straight to the city’s main market building. It was already after the local 8 p.m. curfew, so the boxes of food and other supplies were quickly unloaded by an assembly line of men and women.
An air raid siren soon reminded everyone of the reason for the haste. It was time to find shelter.
Our haven for the evening was the city’s Roman Catholic church. The drivers of the 14 vehicles, plus The Globe, were hustled into the 110-year-old Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
We were given bowls of borscht, cabbage rolls and pierogis by church staff, then assigned mattresses on the floor of the nearby school and community centre.
The journey was half over. It had taken 14 hours to drive from Lviv, and the convoy had spent much of that time waiting at the myriad checkpoints along the way. In the morning, the vehicles would turn around and go back, this time filled with people fleeing the mayhem unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There would be room for 70 evacuees, Mr. Sydielnikov calculated. Women and children only.
A night in Fastiv, just 75 kilometres southwest of Kyiv, is a night of sirens, thuds and rumours. Although the city wasn’t hit during our stay, something hit the ground hard enough and near enough at about 2 a.m. that it set off car alarms in the church parking lot. In the room in the community centre where the children were sleeping, someone turned on some cheerful music to drown out the sounds of war.
Monday morning dawned with hope. Rev. Mykhailo Romaniv came into the breakfast room and shook each driver’s hand. “Thank you,” he said to each one, adding a brief blessing for the drive back to Lviv.
Father Mykhailo had the task of deciding who among the crowd gathered outside the church would make the trip west. One by one he pointed older women and young mothers clutching children, including two on dialysis machines, toward the vehicles they would travel in. Speaking to the group, he warned them that the road ahead – which for most of them lies via Poland – would be hard.
“You should rely only on yourselves. You need to ask questions and take care of your own issues and conditions,” he said, as some in the crowd nodded and others looked on with tears in their eyes. “Nobody knows how much time you will spend at the border, so be patient, be strong and plan your resources. It might take a few days to cross.”
Nastya Zubotenko was one of those bidding farewell to Fastiv. The 20-year-old and her four-month-old son, Maxim, could no longer remain in the city, especially after the explosions they had heard Sunday night.
“It’s scary,” Ms. Zubotenko said, even for little Maxim. “He feels that I am anxious, so it’s making him anxious.”
Serhiy’s friend, Ms. Kanchukivska, was also ready to go with her 11-year-old daughter, Veronika, after a terrifying week living too close to the continuing battle for the nearby Vasylkiv airport. “I don’t know what the future will be,” the 46-year-old said during a roadside break on the way to Lviv. “But I think we will be happier now.”
Others, including Ms. Harko’s friend, decided to stay – no matter what the future would bring.
And for some, the decision to remain in Fastiv was both a shrug of resignation and an act of defiance. “We’re not going anywhere. We’ll stay here until victory,” said Luda, a 75-year-old pensioner who was waiting outside the community centre to receive some of the donated goods the convoy had delivered the night before. Four of her friends, all senior citizens, chimed in. “If we leave, we’ll have no pensions, no work,” Luda continued. “We’ll stay and live where we were born.”
Watching the little convoy of hope preparing to depart, Father Mykhailo predicted far more people would soon flow west via Fastiv to Lviv and points farther west as the cruel war raged on.
“People from Volnovakha, Kharkiv and Mariupol are moving here,” he said. In those hard-hit cities, hundreds of kilometres east of Kyiv, the intense fighting has thus far made all three difficult to evacuate. “There will be people who are definitely suffering. People who are afraid. People who have lost their homes and everything they have.”
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