Monday morning began with hope. For the first time in days it had been possible to have a near-decent night’s sleep at our safe house on the edge of Kyiv. There had been “only” four explosions during the night, my colleagues informed me, and I had slept through three of them.
It’s amazing how fast the shocking becomes normal in a war zone.
More good news arrived as we finished up our breakfast of toast, cheese, coffee and an apple shared four ways. After three days of being left stranded after our driver quit – understandably – to be with his wife and young child through the battle of Kyiv, our back-up plan had arrived in the form of a 2004 Land Rover that friends had driven to us from Lviv, about 500 kilometres to the west. Better still, the SUV came with a full tank of gas, plus jars of preserved meat and pickled vegetables sent to us by Ukrainian grandmothers we’d never met.
Then came grimmer tidings. Serhiy, the driver who had brought the Land Rover to our dacha in a two-car convoy with friends, received a phone call informing him that Russian tanks had been seen in the centre of Fastiv, a town not far west of us. Without an escape-route plan, to remain in the safe house and continue reporting from the outskirts of Kyiv was suddenly an even riskier one. My colleagues – photographer Anton Skyba and Emma Graham-Harrison, a correspondent for the Guardian newspaper of Britain – and I didn’t want to remain in our country cottage if it was surrounded by the Russian army.
We hastily packed our new vehicle and decided to head south while that was still an option. We would aim for the city of Vinnytsia, several hundred kilometres southwest from Kyiv, and then decide from there how best to continue our coverage of the war.
Our safe house had become an increasingly perilous perch anyway. We’d moved there on Friday, after 24 hours of running up and down the stairs into the bomb shelter underneath the Radisson hotel in central Kyiv. There were rumours that the Russians would soon encircle and besiege Kyiv, and we wanted to be outside their circle while at the same time remaining close enough that we could see and hear what was happening in the capital.
Our move to the outskirts worked, initially. But by Saturday we were frequently diving to the floor of our “safe house” as fighter jets screamed overhead and artillery – usually outgoing, indicating it probably was from Ukrainian positions – erupted closer and closer to us. There was a battle raging for a military base nearby, and although the village we were in wasn’t a target, it wasn’t hard to imagine getting caught in the crossfire.
Early Sunday morning we were awakened by the biggest explosion we’d heard to date, diving for cover once more as a Russian missile struck an oil refinery nearby, igniting a massive orange blaze followed by clouds of acrid smoke.
It was time to go, but until Serhiy delivered our Land Rover (which we had purchased online from a stranger for a cool US$6,000), we had no way to leave. Now, at last, we were mobile again. We rumbled west, joining the great exodus from Kyiv, a city that has dreamed for decades of joining the European Union but which was now facing a siege ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who dreams of restoring the Russian Empire.
We were on the road for less than 10 minutes when we encountered our first checkpoint: a group of perhaps a dozen men manning a barricade made of cinder blocks and sandbags, with a Ukrainian flag flying overhead. The men – who ranged in age from their early 30s to some who appeared to be at least twice as old – fidgeted nervously with their shotguns, hunting rifles and Kalashnikovs as they eyed the line of cars.
Our Land Rover, which somehow came complete with British licence plates, drew particular attention. My Canadian passport and Ukrainian press identification weren’t enough to impress Anton Alexandrovich, the 41-year-old chief of the checkpoint. He called what he said was his brother in Etobicoke, Ont., and handed me the phone. It was about 4 a.m. in Ontario, but his brother was awake and following developments in Ukraine.
I told Mr. Alexandrovich’s brother that if he opened The Globe and Mail homepage, he’d see who I was and the work I was doing. That wasn’t sufficient. I told him I grew up in Ottawa, but he wanted to know more. “Where precisely in Ottawa?” he asked. “Stittsville,” I said. “My house was right near the rink where the Senators play.”
I’m not sure the Canadian Tire Centre is considered a “rink,” but it was finally convincing enough for the voice on the other end of the line. I passed the phone back to Mr. Alexandrovich, who decided it was safe to speak with us. He was the village manager in peace time, he said, and the checkpoint was built with money raised by the 2,000 local residents, a number that has swelled to more than 5,000 in recent days as people from Kyiv have fled the Russian assault on their city.
“I’m not the authorities and I’ve never served in the army, but I’m not a bad organizer,” he said. “We have people from different backgrounds here,” he added, nodding at his ragtag group, which included web programmers and house builders. “We also have some military veterans who are sharing their experience with us.”
The number of veterans in Ukraine is something Mr. Putin may have underestimated when he decided to order his invasion of this country. Russia’s army is larger and technically more advanced than Ukraine’s. But hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have served in their country’s military over the past eight years. This is a nation practised at defending its territory.
It’s a situation that Mr. Putin himself created. When Ukrainians rose up and overthrew the Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Russia reacted by seizing and annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The Kremlin also started backing a “separatist” uprising in the southeastern Donbas region of Ukraine, fuelling a war that had already killed 14,000 people before Mr. Putin decided to resolve the issue by attacking the whole of Ukraine.
But while Ukrainians have no shortage of battle experience and courage, other things are becoming scarce. At our safe house, food supplies had dwindled down to only a bit of cheese, a few bags of nuts, half a pack of spaghetti and few loose pieces of fruit – after which we’d have to start eating from our strategic reserve of cereal bars and noodle pots.
After a weekend curfew, there were lines stretching outside grocery stores across the country as dazed Ukrainians emerged to try and restock for whatever comes next. Fuel is a particular concern, with hours-long lineups to buy the maximum of 20 litres for each vehicle.
“I just pray for Ukraine and our troops,” said Mariana Skoruk, a 34-year-old events manager from Kyiv who was standing outside the grocery store nearest our safe house. She was hoping to buy some candy for herself and cat food for two felines that she and her husband were taking care of at their own dacha, where they had fled shortly after the Russian assault began. She was already carrying a plastic bag stuffed with produce from the nearby vegetable seller.
A short walk from the grocery store lineup, two seniors – a man and a woman – picked through a garbage bin.
As we left the first checkpoint behind, we received more bad news: reports of Russian units in a town south of us. Staring at Google Maps, Anton and Serhiy plotted a squiggly route between the two reported sightings of the invading army.
We drove southwest through checkpoint after checkpoint; I counted 13 over the first 100 kilometres outside Kyiv before losing track. All were Ukrainian, speaking to how much fighting lies ahead if Mr. Putin really intends to try and subdue this entire country – bigger than France – that’s home to 44 million people.
Some checkpoints, like the one near to our safe house, were guarded by obviously nervous local volunteers. Others were staffed by better trained contract soldiers, who spent less time searching each car and more time cutting down trees and digging trenches to slow any Russian advance.
Some were decorated with angry anti-Moscow graffiti, others with Orthodox icons. Each flew the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, and soldiers dropped the traditional “dobry den” (“good day”) greeting for “Slava Ukraini” – “Glory to Ukraine.”
We skirted Fastiv, the city where Russian tanks had been sighted that morning, but there were no signs of activity, other than a long line of cars at the Ukrainian checkpoint guarding the road out of town. Further along, as we approached a strategic crossroads of two highways, we encountered a two-metre-high wall of cinder blocks – a medieval fort constructed in 21st-century Europe.
After dark and further west, we ran into a checkpoint manned by a grinning soldier who was less interested in our passports than the news that Russia had been suspended from international soccer competition a few hours earlier. “What did they expect?” he said before waving us on. They deserved it, he added, throwing in an expletive to make his feelings clear.
Anton, a native of the Donbas region whom I met in 2014 while covering the start of the war there, was both impressed and saddened by how his country was mobilizing. “Putin said he came here to demilitarize the country,” the long-time Globe photographer said as we drove past yet another group of Ukrainians making preparations to defend their village. “Now I see the same things here as in east Ukraine for the past eight years.”
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