With two-year-old Ilya in her arms, Anya Smirnova was running eight stories down into an air-raid shelter and then climbing back up to her flat several times a day as bombs rained on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The World War II-era shelter downstairs served as a dive bar for many years but was restored to its original purpose after Russia launched airstrikes last month.
The bunker nearly came crashing down when a rocket hit a nearby administrative building on March 1. That was when Smirnova knew she had to leave for her son’s sake.
But as the world seemed to fall apart around her, Smirnova did not know where to run. Then she clung to a friendly voice from afar.
Tamuna Ivelishvili, a Georgian whom Smirnova had met during a 2014 trip to Tbilisi and then befriended on Facebook, had written with concern and offered refuge in Georgia. Smirnova responded to say she was on her way.
Her elderly mother categorically refused to leave, fearing she would be a burden. After a tearful embrace with her mom, Smirnova threw a loaf of bread and a few necessities into a tote bag, grabbed her boy, and sped to the railway station.
“There was an enormous crowd there and a single train that everyone was trying to climb into. One woman fell into the gap between the train and platform,” Smirnova said. “Then bombing began and everyone stampeded back toward the station building to take cover. I was afraid that Ilya and I would get trampled by the crowd.”
Holding Ilya above her, Smirnova eventually managed to push her way into a train car. Along with eight other people, she was seated in a couchette meant for four.
Kharkiv is in eastern Ukraine, but since Russia lies between Ukraine and Georgia, Smirnova had to travel west first to reach Poland – the primary escape route for about 3 million refugees from Ukraine – and then loop around to Georgia by plane.
The train crept through the night in total darkness. “We were not allowed to turn the lights on inside the car and the train barely had any lights on outside to avoid being targeted,” said Smirnova. “It was also incredibly hot inside and there was no water. People were stripping down to their underwear.”
In Tbilisi, Ivelishvili was busy mobilizing friends to help Smirnova and her son. One bought Krakow-Tbilisi tickets for the pair; others pitched in money for a rental apartment. “I asked on Facebook if anyone could take in Anya and Ilya for a few days until I could find a fitting place to rent for her,” Ivelishvili told Eurasianet. “In a split second, offers just came raining down on me from everywhere.”
The train was still plodding along for a second day when Ilya started having an asthma attack and Smirnova realized that she had forgotten his inhaler. She went from car to car, pushing her way through the crowded hallways and begging for help until one passenger miraculously happened to have a corticosteroid drug that helped stop the attack.
The train eventually arrived in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where people volunteered to drive the displaced to the Polish border. “There were crowds of people trying to get a ride, but I was lucky: One man had an empty front seat in his car so we just jumped in,” Smirnova said.
As Smirnova headed for the Polish border on March 3, Nadiia Boiko was still reluctant to leave her home in Kyiv despite her family’s implorations to come to Georgia, where her daughter and grandchildren live.
A fit and wiry 70-year-old, Boiko covered her windows with sheets of plastic film and put a mattress against a glass door to protect herself as her five-story building shook from explosions.
She had been in a state of disbelief from the moment her neighbor called early on February 24 to tell her that the city was under aerial attack. “I was preparing to go to work when she called,” Boiko said. “I told her she was out of her mind, but then I listened to the distant sound and realized that it was true, these were explosions.”
The explosions drew nearer. The Sikorsky Airport, one of Kyiv’s two international airports, was a target. “Planes flew over my house and dropped bombs,” Boiko said. “From my window I could see tanks going along Lobanovskyi Avenue. I saw a bomb hit and destroy a Georgian restaurant that was just across the street.”
“You watch movies or read books about it, but you don’t realize how terrifying bombardments are until you are caught in one,” she said. “Just the sound of it was sheer horror.”
With no subway stations nearby, Boiko ran from one underground structure to another during the airstrikes. With Russian ground troops closing in, the Ukrainian capital began bracing for street-to-street combat. “They put up the hedgehogs [anti-tank obstacles made of angular metal beams] on the streets and squares,” Boiko said. “My neighbors began leaving the city.”
Her neighborhood emptied. She gave in.
She embarked on the road to Georgia on March 5, the day Smirnova and Ilya landed in Tbilisi. Boiko’s son drove her to a railway station to find a frenzied crowd of mostly women and children storming the west-bound trains. Soldiers had to shoot into the air to keep the crowd back.
“It was a horrible sight. Children were falling to the ground and crying,” Boiko said, gesturing as if to chase that image from her memory. “Sirens went off and soon we could hear distant explosions, but people were still trying to get on the trains.”
Boiko boarded a train bound for Chelm, a Polish city close to the Ukrainian border. “Someone pushed me into the car. It was so crowded that people had to leave their luggage behind, right on the platform, to make space for more people inside the train,” she said.
“Then there was an explosion very close to the station. Train attendants covered the windows, turned off the lights and told us to switch off our mobile phones and stay silent.”
Crammed in a tiny, hot compartment with 14 other people, Boiko gasped all night for air in the blackness. She and Smirnova fight back tears when they speak of Polish and international volunteers and aid workers who met them upon arrival.
“The moment I stepped off the train someone gave me a cup of hot soup and another person carried my bag. They took all of us to a place where we could stay warm,” Boiko said. “Every single person who stepped off the train was surrounded with attention and care. It was incredibly kind and incredibly well organized.”
“When we went across, people literally came rushing toward us,” said Smirnova, who crossed the border on foot. “They gave us water, food, clothes and helped me with the kid. Everyone, everyone was trying to help.”
An elderly Polish couple took her and Ilya to their home in the town of Medyka, where they spent the night. The next day, the couple’s son drove them two and half hours west to Krakow and helped them get on their plane to Tbilisi.
In Chelm, volunteers put Boiko on a train to Warsaw. After her hellish journey out of Kyiv, the Polish train seemed clean and comfortable. Boiko was thinking how Poland has become a modern, “truly European” place – everything Ukraine was trying to achieve by seeking EU membership in the face of Kremlin opposition.
Two weeks before Boiko and Smirnova arrived in Georgia, Aleksandra Volkova was packing for home in Kyiv. An animal-rights enthusiast, Volkova had volunteered to come to Georgia to deliver two rescued dogs from Ukraine. The 23-year-old took her teenage brother along for his first international trip, her birthday present to him.
Volkova and her company of human and animal charges arrived in Tbilisi on February 21. She handed over the dogs to a rescue group, which then shipped off the animals to their adoptive owners in the United States. The coordinator of her volunteer mission in Tbilisi convinced Volkova to change her return tickets to February 24 – to stay an extra day for some sight-seeing. “She probably saved my life,” Volkova said.
Early on February 24, oblivious to the horror that had begun unfolding in their country a few hours earlier, the siblings were on their way to the airport when Volkova got a call from her mother. She was calling from their hometown of Slavutych, a young city in northern Ukraine built to house survivors of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
Struggling to process the news about the war, Volkova could hear explosions at the other end of the line. Then her stepfather took the phone. In what sounded like farewell words, he instructed her not to come back to Ukraine and to take care of her younger brother.
“I could not wrap my head around any of this,” recalled Volkova. She had heard warnings of war before, but thought it was politicians’ gibberish.
Their flight was canceled and the siblings were left stranded in Tbilisi along with scores of other Ukrainians. The war caught some visitors snowboarding in the mountains, others in the middle of business trips. In the first days of the war, Georgian authorities provided accommodation for over 200 Ukrainians. Dozens were housed for free by hotels and ordinary Georgians.
A family of British diplomats took in Volkova and her brother. “They fussed over us and surrounded us with care,” she said.
The siblings have lost all contact with their mother in Slavutych, which was swiftly overrun by the Russian army. Their British host, whom Volkova describes as an adoptive mother, stepped in to help her out of her state of apathy and despair, working with her to collect humanitarian aid.
An acquaintance recently took Volkova to meet a group of expat friends in Tbilisi. As she went around the room greeting the people, she noticed one young woman looking at her cautiously. The woman introduced herself as Lena.
“She spoke in English, but I looked at her and asked if she was from Russia,” Volkova said. “She began to cry. ‘Do you hate me?’ she asked. I went with my instinct and gave her a hug.”
When Boiko reunited with her daughter and grandchildren in Tbilisi, neighbors in her Georgian son-in-law’s building began bringing small gifts to welcome her. “They bring something every day, pies, cakes,” Boiko said.
She is touched by the gesture, but her thoughts are with her 50-year-old son, who remains in Kyiv. “I talk to him all the time and hope for the best,” she said.
In another corner of the city, Smirnova could not believe the endless stream of donations that were filling up her room. Individuals and business kept sending everything from clothes to toys. Every new bag helped distract Smirnova from heavy thoughts about her mother and the city she left behind. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble in Kharkiv, one of the hardest-hit cities in Ukraine.
“Look, it even fits perfectly!” said Smirnova, as she put on a beige turtleneck and a pair of jeans that she found in one of the donation bags. “We will run out of room soon,” chimed in Marina Dgebuadze, an elderly Georgian who is hosting Smirnova and Ilya, with a smile.
“We already have money for more than three months’ worth of rent. We just need to find a place for them,” said Ivelishvili as she came to pick up Smirnova to show her another apartment.
Smirnova was getting ready to leave when a young girl walked in with balloons and a box for Ilya. Smirnova opened the box and her voice caught. “It’s a kick scooter,” she said. “He had one like this back home in Kharkiv.”