Ukraine: The day the war broke out

Опубликовано: Friday, 24 February 2023 07:52

There’s always delayed shock when a war starts. It takes time to adjust to the enormity of what’s happening.

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

It was in the early hours of the morning, a year ago in Kyiv, that blasts could be heard coming from the direction of Boryspil International Airport, southeast of the capital.

Early commuters were already on the road and, for nearly two hours, traffic continued to build. It was as though this was just another normal workday, and the blasts were nothing more than an inconvenience — like a severe rainstorm that weather forecasters had somehow, irritatingly, failed to predict.

As I looked down from my hotel balcony and talked with my newsdesk, planning the day’s coverage, the contrast between the morning commute and the rumbling explosions in the background was jarring. This is the start of a major European war, I thought. And much as I felt 21 years ago, when planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon was engulfed in smoke, everything was going to be different now.

There’s always delayed shock when a war starts. It takes time to adjust to the enormity of what’s happening; people cling to their routines.

But by around 7:30 a.m., the commute into Kyiv had thinned out, as workers began to understand that the long-feared invasion was, indeed, happening. Those who had reached their offices turned tail and headed home. Down in the hotel lobby, there was pandemonium as television crews navigated past guests, frantically trying to check out.

Portly businessmen ordered their bodyguards to muscle through the panicked crowd and pack their Louis Vuitton suitcases into waiting black Mercedes and BMW SUVs. Squabbles erupted, as other guests tried to outbid each other at the concierge for drivers to speed them 600 kilometers away to the Polish border.

As this was happening, Russian President Vladimir Putin broadcast an angry address from Moscow. He said he could no longer tolerate, what he called threats from Ukraine, and that his goal was the “demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine.” I glanced around but couldn’t see anyone in uniform — nor anyone identifiable as a Nazi.

Shortly after Putin spoke, the barrage on Kyiv intensified, and there were more thuds coming from the outskirts too, including from the direction of the city’s second airport at Zhuliany.

Reports of action elsewhere increased — of missile bombardments on half a dozen Ukrainian cities, and the targeting of air defense facilities and military infrastructure as far away as western Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian troops had also landed on the country’s south coast and, even more alarmingly, armored columns had crossed the border north of the capital, from Belarus.

Broadcasting from his phone, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Ukrainians he would declare martial law, and he urged them to stay home, saying: “Don’t panic. We are strong. We are ready for everything. We will defeat everyone. Because we are Ukraine.”

His words were echoed in the hotel by a spa attendant: “Everything is OK. Keep calm,” she told the jostling crowd to little avail.

People wait to board an evacuation train at Kyiv central train station on March 5, 2022 | Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

By mid-morning the streets of downtown Kyiv were eerily deserted. The only people to be seen were dog-walkers and a handful of scurrying tourists, dragging their luggage and breathlessly asking for directions to the train station.

The capital’s suburban roads and the highways leading west, however, quickly gridlocked with the start of a huge, breathtaking exodus of families to Lviv and other Ukrainian towns near the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary.

As the next few days unfolded, these are the snapshots left in my mind, of what I saw of a country on the move — the most dramatic flood of refugees seen since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, although it quickly dwarfed even that mass flight within days.

I saw the young saying their goodbyes to their parents, and trying to persuade their grandparents to leave as well. But many of the elderly refused, deciding to remain in family homes either to keep them secure or because they were too infirm or simply too plain stubborn to leave.

My mind now fills with images of evacuating families who fled the crash and thump of ordnance, pulling over by the side of the road to get some rest from their hours-long, or even days-long, personal odysseys. They were trying to get to neighboring borders that seemed to only get further away with each passing kilometer, their journeys disrupted by snarled-up traffic, sudden road closures, abrupt alarms and distant blasts. Families foraged for gas and food and water where they could — in small towns and at besieged gas stations, which quickly emptied of snacks, drinks and fuel.

As we traveled around, we saw cars creaking under the weight of stacked luggage and bags spilling over. Startled family pets were held by flagging hands. And etched in my memory are the faces of exhausted, disoriented children. They’d started out on their voyages gripped by a sense of excitement, seeing it all as a great adventure. But then the anxiety of their parents started to seep in, fatigue struck them, and they slowly realized something momentous had happened and struggled to make sense of it all.

Journeys that would normally take four or five hours stretched on and on. For some, getting from Kyiv to Lviv by car that first week took up to two or three days, and for families further afield in the east, it could take four or five days — a trip further complicated by the country’s notoriously inadequate road system.

But along the way, they — and I — encountered the kindness of strangers. For me, this kindness was personified by the middle-aged, deeply devout Oksana Shuper in the western town of Ternopil. She welcomed exhausted evacuees into her cramped apartment, also occupied by an infirm father, so that they could get some sleep. She would feed them oatmeal, strong coffee and fruit, before sending them on their way again with a hug and a prayer.

And as these evacuees made their way west, sometimes taking ever more circuitous routes down pot-holed country roads to bypass gridlock, they fretted: Where will we end up? And how will we cope when we get there?

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