The first time you flee war is hard, the second one is easier: a Ukrainian personal Odyssey

Abel Polese

Fleeing – Kyiv (Ukraine), 24 February, 05:48 AM

Escaping your first war is harder than you may think. You hear the bombs from a distance, you see the blast of the explosions and your brain still thinks “it’s far away, it won’t get all the way here”. It is the first step of a shock: denial, when you simply think “this can’t be true. I am dreaming”. After all, you grew up in a safe society, do not know war or have never seen a killed person.

You look at yourself from the side and it feels like watching a bombing on TV. The danger is just “out there” but definitely not here, you think. Denial could continue until eventually, a blast takes your life or, hopefully, until you finally make the association: bombing may lead to death, just go. You make a mental note for the next war and you eventually decide to flee.

This was the choice faced by millions of Ukrainians on 24 February in the morning. Should I stay or should I go? There is no “right” choice. After all, many rural areas have not been bombed and even the centre of Kyiv has been relatively untouched. What we know now is that people who fled Ukraine after a few days of the bombing were more traumatised than those who left immediately. Their nerves were completely shattered.

A month later, in Brussels, I hosted a family that had escaped from Kyiv after living several weeks in the subway station to stay safe from bombs. When they heard planes passing over my house – something normal in a large city with an international airport – a girl asked “are you sure these planes will not drop bombs on this place?” It felt so sad, just thinking that for many more weeks, perhaps months, their first reaction when hearing a plane will be to run and hide somewhere.

The city that wakes up in war looks surreal in that people react to danger in completely different ways. Some are going to work, others are queuing outside for groceries to ensure they have enough to eat if they cannot go out. Some are queuing to fill their car tanks as the country might get short of fuel and resources soon, others are lining up at ATMs before the central bank blocks cash withdrawals.

Many expected that the war might happen, but nobody prepared in full. My (ex) father-in-law had already changed all his savings into USD and kept his car full of gas every day. Yet, the whole family lost precious minutes in making the decision and packing their bags. After all, who imagined that a full-scale invasion of a country of 600,000 square Km and 44 million people would take place in the 21st century? And all this unprovoked, and at the borders of the European Union—an institution that was created to maintain peace in the European continent!

Danger – Irpin (Central Ukraine), 24 February, 09:33 AM

The way out of Kyiv is slow. Cars move but roads are blocked and you wonder how much is due to the notorious Kyiv traffic jams and how many are escaping. Queues outside pharmacies, gas stations and supermarkets continue. You reach Irpin, a densely populated town just outside Kyiv that will be completely destroyed during the invasion. This is also the place where the main headquarters of the Ukrainian police academy is located. You remember with nostalgia meeting with young cadets and their naive questions when you were invited for a lecture on the geopolitics of Europe.

The Ukrainian airspace has been closed and, with it, your hopes to get out of the country quickly and painlessly. You acknowledge it was naive to hope that the airport would remain open once the country was attacked but who would expect that? You could have guessed. On February 14 international insurance companies stopped covering planes flying to Ukraine. If insurance does that, it means they think the risk is real. After all, Russian missiles already shot a civil plane in 2014 on Ukrainian territory. Also, embassies and international NGOs had started evacuating their non-essential personnel weeks ago. But yet, you thought they were being just excessively prudent. After all, you expected an attack would happen but would be limited to the eastern regions, an event that would still allow you enough time to leave the country before things get worse.

Danger is all around. All major military objects have been attacked, almost at the same time, including the airport in Ivano-Frankivsk, one of the farthest cities in western Ukraine. Is there anywhere you can go without risking being hit by a random rocket? There is not… and this is why you change direction, avoid Zhitomir (also hit by bombs) and, avoiding major urban centres and main roads, embark on a long journey through villages and tiny mountain roads that you hope, will not be the primary target for the Russian military.

The border – Chernivtsi (Southwest Ukraine) 24 February


In a previous life, you’ve enjoyed multicultural Chernivtsi, the capital of Ukraine Bukhovina, a region hosting ethnic Ukrainians, Polish, Romanians, Russians and Jews. You had been invited to an event at the university, located in the centre of the city and hosted in a beautiful 19th-century building. The ethnic composition of most Ukrainian regions is complex, with Russians, Ukrainian Polish, Bulgarians, Romanians and many more groups living in one country. Located on some major silk routes, Ukrainian regions were part of a variety of kingdoms and empires including Tatars, Mongols, Russians, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom and Ottoman Empire.

Few in Western Europe know that the very meaning of Ukraine is “borderland” (U Kraina), the place where east and west meet. When studying the region of Odessa for your PhD, you came to learn about German, French and Swiss villages established around the city. Not incidentally the region produces Cabernet and Pinot Noir wines with technology imported from Europe. It is during your studies that your colleague and friend Prof Prigarin patiently shared his knowledge on the diversity of the area, hosting inter alia Old Believers churches, Gagauz settlements, Moldovan and Greek-Bulgarian villages where, he claimed, everyone speaks four languages by default.

And one day you wake up and the world seems to have changed. It’s the end of the world as you knew it. Chernivtsi is not the place where you go to learn about the history and eat Mămăligă (polenta, a local dish) or visit the beautiful surroundings. It is the place where you try to get some sleep before attempting to cross the border with Romania. In the village where you stop for sleep, you cannot hear any explosions around, just silence. The war seems just a bad dream, perhaps it will end soon. Perhaps it won’t get down here and you could just wait in this corner of paradise. But are you ready to take the chance? And what happens if Moscow takes control of Kyiv, closes the border and decides to punish everyone for simply being in the wrong place at the right time? Do you really want to risk it?

Recovering – Suceava (Romania), 28 February

For the third time, the lady accompanying you around mentions that you are a “Ukrainian refugee” in the shopping mall and you still can’t get used to it. She means no evil, she is just trying to speed up all the procedures, helping you to get a local sim card, asking for information about the next trains departing to Bucharest and where you can find anything else you might need.

Solidarity made you cry last night. Dozens of Romanians were waiting on the Romanian side of the border with food and water, a place to sleep, a car lift to anywhere in the country and signs expressing solidarity for Ukrainians. Even the lady who helped you and your son to cross the border did not ask for any money. She simply helped everyone she could take in her car.

You can finally relax now but it is not easy. The days at the border have been tense. POS terminal had been blocked, ATM no longer issued cash. Used to paying for everything by card, you quickly realise you had not enough cash to buy what you wanted and had to be careful. Also, shops were running out of supplies. It was humiliating to enter a shop and be unable to pay. It is worrying to think that you might not be able to buy what your children need to survive.

But the scariest thing was the crowd. One, two, or ten people can act rationally. But thousands of people pushing and trying to trick one another to get out of the country faster was scary. You understand everyone, they are running for their own life, they are afraid, tired, nervous. But this is exactly the situation where one small event pushes everyone to act irrationally and creates a deadly situation. What would happen, you thought, if a bomb was dropped on the line to the border? There would be no escape. And if people from behind started pushing they would simply squeeze people in the front of the line to death. When a crowd starts panicking, for some there is no escape.

Suceava is the first place where you finally feel treated like a human being. Your friend’s mother waited until late at night for you to arrive, bought groceries, and sim cards and offered you to use her brother’s apartment for a week. All planes from Suceava to Brussels were full, you need to fly from Bucharest. She helps you with the train and buys first-class tickets for you and your son. “the train will be crowded with Ukrainians” she says “at least I know that in first class you’ll have space for yourselves and can take some rest”.

You wonder if you deserve so much care. At times you feel something close to guilt. After all, so many people are in a much worse situation. Their bank cards have been blocked, they’ve lost their job and they do not have anywhere to go. You think how humiliating this must be for those who cannot afford to buy groceries or clothes for their kids, not knowing if their bank card will work when they to the cashier to pay. But it is also so sweet to be taken care of. Yes, your drama was lighter than theirs, but you’ve spent difficult days too, not knowing if you’d be able to get out of the country alive.

Another realisation strikes you, however. You are a lucky one, your clothes and books are spread across Ukraine, Belgium, Italy, Korea, Japan, and Ireland. Sometimes you cannot find a book or a shirt and you wonder on which continent you left it but you also know that you have spare clothes here and there. You cannot say the same for your children who are, in fact, refugees. Your son’s possessions are all stuffed in a small trolley. There is a tablet but no charger (left it in Kyiv), schoolbooks (useless because they are for Ukrainian schools), some (very few) clothes and his laptop, which he was fast enough to pack when escaping and it’s a relief. Most of his life lies inside that plastic trolley.

It becomes almost a routine joke. You ask him “do you still have this” and he answers “yes, I have it…but in Kyiv”. Then you both smile knowing that there is no way you can possibly go there to fetch the missing object. The biggest loss, in your view, are his sports shoes. You were so happy two weeks ago, when you had finally found a model that he likes that fits his non-standard foot shape and he was very happy with it. He is constantly running and jumping so he needs sports shoes. You decide it will be the first thing you will buy again for him. You find an outlet shop and are lucky that they have his size. He gingerly starts jumping and running everywhere again, finally in comfortable shoes.

Ghosts in your head – Bucharest (Romania), 1 March

Children: we assume they think the way we do, they live emotions the way we do, just they have not come to our “maturity”. It is not so and you are always surprised noticing, and then reminding yourself, that their capacity to digest emotions and to accept change goes well beyond our imagination, well beyond an adult’s capacity.

During your escape, your son hardly complained about anything. But this is more moving than any words.  You quietly observe him, seeking potential signs of breakdown but all you can see is a calm acceptance of his destiny, a simplicity and maturity that you would never imagine seeing on a child’s face. On the last day in Bucharest, after lunch with a local colleague, you take a walk in the old town and he shares his realisation. “You know?” he says, “I realised only now that we’re not on one of our usual trips with you but will not go back to Kyiv for a long time”. Your heart melts. He says that in all honesty. You wonder how much harder would it be for an adult to admit such a thing so candidly.

Conversely from your son, demons seem to have entered your head. These days, an unusual memory emerges from your past. Some years ago, you were intrigued by the reviews of “A Serbian Film” and bought the DVD. It took you days to recover from the shock of watching such a violent movie. It is a controversial work, praised and ridiculed, but the amount of violence—physical and psychological—shown in that film was absolutely revolting for you. You wondered why would someone be willing to make such a disgusting movie and claim it represented him and the troubles his country (Serbia) had gone through after the Yugoslavian war.

And a realisation comes. You cannot believe yourself when you admit that you finally understand the reasons behind the movie, that the amount of violence you’ve witnessed so far was not enough but, with a few more days in Ukraine, witnessing massacres all over the country, you would probably find that movie a reasonable reaction to all the frustration wars and bombing can bring. You feel lucky to have experienced only a fraction of what is now happening in Ukraine and fortunate to have kept your mental sanity to a good extent.

Evil is difficult to digest, sometimes it takes years and sometimes it just generates more evil. The only refuge is perhaps ignorance or genuine naivety. You remember “Slaughterhouse no. 5”, Kurt Vonnegut’s most acclaimed book. Kurt Vonnegut was considered, even when still alive, one of the most important science fiction authors of the twentieth century. His books often combine reality, politics and fantasy leading to a political satire of our times. A prisoner of war in Germany, he was in Dresden when the city got destroyed in 1945. He managed to survive and was brought back to the US, keeping the trauma of the bombing for many years in his heart. However, his reaction to pain and suffering was in many respects unique. In his most acclaimed “Slaughterhouse no 5” he creates a character equipped with the naivety of a child, an alter ego of himself moving throughout time and space, protected by his naive ignorance of reality and his simplicity. Transforming himself into a child, it seems, was his way to survive such dramatic events.

Propaganda – Brussels, 2 March

The family reunites, at least a part of it. Your ex-wife, her husband, your elder son and two cats came by car to Brussels, where you arrived by plane the night before with your younger son. Her parents are still in Ukraine, hiding in the west of the country because the father is under 60 and cannot go out of the country under martial law. He also has to take care of his mother, who moved from Russia to Kyiv some years ago.

They have nowhere to sleep for the next few days so you offer your place. When you divorced, with all the usual drama annexed, you would never imagine that one day not too far away you’d share everything with her and her husband, let alone have to live in the same place in Brussels. The situation is so absurd to be funny. Yet, it is further evidence that your world has been turned upside down in a week or even less.

One evening, your ex-wife receives a call from her cousin who lives in the south of Russia. “Quick” the cousin yells, “put grandma on a train to Moscow or the Nazi will kill her. Or put her on a plane. We will keep her safe”. What Nazi is she talking of? The only people killing innocents in Kyiv are the Russians, who came uninvited and have started targeting civilians indiscriminately, as footage from Bucha, Irpin and other cities will show a few days later.

You are shocked, outraged, or both. One thing is to know, abstractly, that people in Russia have been domesticated to believe Kremlin propaganda, another thing is to see that members of the family prefer to believe Russian TV rather than their own family. The cousin seems to live in a parallel reality. First, there are no trains between Kyiv and Moscow since Moscow’s occupation of Ukraine’s eastern regions in 2014. Second, the Ukrainian skies are closed to civil planes because of the Russian invasion. And, last, does she really believe that we are all Nazis out there in Kyiv? That the Russians really came to “liberate” us? That some vaguely defined Ukrainian Nazis are there looking for Russians to slaughter them?

European values – Paris (France), 4 March

It’s hard to concentrate on your daily tasks. You have projects to submit but you can hardly spend five continued minutes on the same task. Months ago, you accepted an invitation to a conference in Paris and it’s time to go. The topic should have been: cultural change in post-Soviet spaces. But there’s a war out there, people are dying every day. Is it really possible to discuss anything else? Besides, Russian and Ukrainian participants cannot come. Ukrainians cannot leave the country because of the war. Russians cannot talk on zoom or even come, since anyone who enters in touch with the Western world could be accused of betrayal.

Expressing dissent is increasingly dangerous in Russia. People protesting against the war, or simply demanding peace, can go to prison for up to 15 years. Even when protesters just stand outside the Kremlin with empty signs or nothing they are taken away by the police. Many of your Russian friends and colleagues have already left the country for Central Asia, the Caucasus, Istanbul or wherever they had some contacts. Some of their payment means have been blocked and it is not clear how long they will have to stay, or if they will ever return home.

Given the situation, the conference is turned into a closed-door event where academics will discuss what can be done, in practice, to help Russian and Ukrainian colleagues. Participants discuss fellowships for Russian scholars (who can flee to Europe), and online work for Ukrainian colleagues (who cannot go out of a country under martial law) but also the logistical risks. Helping too many Russians would leave no money for Ukrainians when they can come out. But how much is too much? Everyone needs help right now.

A Georgian colleague mentions that Russians fleeing to Georgia can get help, open a local bank account, and enrol in the university, as long as they sign a statement: “I am against the war and against Putin”. Refusal to sign means being denied some services and false information (if the person is found supporting Putin and the war) can have legal consequences.

At first, you think this is an excellent measure. After all, why should someone support people that are in favour of a wicked regime that caused a deadly war? Such people should not be allowed anywhere. But then a different perspective is brought about. Think of Europe, its values, the wars and the centuries of struggle to give everyone a voice, to teach respect for different opinions, and freedom of choice. The whole idea of the European Union is based on the principle that choices should not be imposed, that people should be free to decide for themselves and then, the sum of these decisions determines the choices of a society and a country. This is the very principle of democracy. It is by educating people that you achieve freedom, not by telling them what they have to do and think, which is what Russia has done for years. By telling Russians in Europe “either you’re against the war – that is you endorse our opinion – or there is no place for you here”, Europe would automatically behave like Russia, denying everyone the freedom of speech and thought on which Europe is based.

A moral dilemma emerges. What are the limits of freedom of choice? To what extent diversity of opinion should be protected if that means allowing people to endorse a bloody war? People should not be indoctrinated but educated to think and distinguish good from evil. If we impose a single view on the conflict, we just deny European values, diversity of opinion and all the values that have brought Europe where it is now. But if by supporting freedom of speech we allow people to demonstrate in favour of the war, aren’t we somehow endorsing war crimes? To what lengths can we go to defend freedom of opinion? There is no right and wrong answer. Whatever choice we make, it will have an impact and change what are EU and European values today.

Refugee training – Montpellier (France), 10 March

People are drinking wine while eating cheese. In some bars, people start dancing to loud music. You watch them from outside while still feeling a silent storm inside your heart. Ten days ago you were under the bombs with little food and here people are partying everywhere. Yes, after two years of being locked in their houses because of the pandemic, you understand people’s keenness to enjoy life. But there’s a war out there. You feel like entering the place and just yell “stop, it’s not the time to have fun, people are dying, we are under threat of a nuclear war”. But you keep everything inside. You walk silently across the narrow streets of the old town, order your dinner, eat and walk back home but the noise of the war still echoes in your head.

There are so many work tasks that you’ve left unattended for days and still, you cannot get yourself to work on them. You wake up reading the news, you go to bed reading the news, you scroll Twitter until late at night in the hope to read some good news, a victory, an event that will end everything – even if you know that the war will not end in one day. You go to bed too late and wake up too early but you can’t help it, news about the war is your new addiction.

War changes you. You start putting “like” to posts announcing the death of Russian soldiers, and the seizure of Russian equipment. You rejoice when you see that the umpteenth Russian tank has been blown up by some heroic Ukrainian infantry, so outnumbered by Moscow’s army but able to bring so many blows to the allegedly second strongest army in the world. Are you still a human? Is it normal to cherish death this way?

By a weird twist of fate, last November you had accepted delivering a training about Ukrainian refugees for social workers in southern France. You were supposed to teach them about Ukrainian history and culture to enable them to better deal with the few Ukrainian refugees who had fled to Europe from the eastern regions.

By the time your training is planned, Ukrainian refugees are everywhere in Europe. Ukraine is on everyone’s mind and mouth, and on fire. School pupils are learning some sentences in Ukrainian to welcome refugee children; interest in the Ukrainian language saw a five-fold increase. What is equally important, you are no longer just a trainer but also their target group, an atypical refugee but still someone who has fled a war. By force of this, you start the training by simply explaining your story, Then you joke that you are training them so that can take good care of you once they understand Ukraine.

Social workers are a special category. They believe in people, they believe in peace, and they often are people with big hearts. It’s all so beautiful to be surrounded by such idealists who show you support and respect. You wish you could do that more often even if it’s tiring.

Silence – Marseille (France), 11 March

Silence. This is all you longed for. Like all Mediterranean cities, Marseilles takes you into her arms, no matter what is your language, skin colour or religion. If everyone is a foreigner then nobody is really a foreigner. Boats have been coming and going, century after century, to mix people, cultures, recipes, and ideas. This is, in your view, the blueprint of any Mediterranean port from Alexandria to Tunis, from Athens or Izmir.

You do not know anyone here nor do you want to engage in deep conversations with anyone. When the hotel staff suggests you go to a bar that has live music and “good vibes” you politely thank them, knowing you cannot possibly enjoy a concert in the state you are in. All you want is to watch the sea calmly and slowly crush on the shore, get lost in old narrow streets, and feel the warmth of a port city, where talking to strangers is normal but people know also how to keep distance and not be intrusive. For the first time in a long time, you feel in a familiar environment. People are friendly but discrete, the Mediterranean is all around you.

Meditation has become popular in Europe some years ago as a way to communicate with your inner self. For those born near the sea, there is another way. You just go to the shore and watch the waters around you, smell the iodine, and listen to the sound of the waves crashing calmly on the shore. This is enough to find inner peace sometimes. It is a light meditation, perhaps the European correspondent of what Japanese call boutto or bonyari (but globally is more known as boketto ( ボケット: gazing into the distance without concentrating on anything in particular). You stand there waiting that the sea helps you heal your ripped soul.

You increasingly hear Russian in the streets, even in Marseille, and think whether you’ll be willing and able to speak Russian again in Ukraine, or will try to completely switch to Ukrainian. Already in 2004, and then in 2014, Ukrainian started being more widely spoken. Ukraine is an interesting place also linguistically. Most people know both Russian and Ukrainian but the public discourse has almost entirely switched to Ukrainian. For their everyday communication, Ukrainians have always been very pragmatic, sometimes you would hear a conversation between friends or family, with one person speaking Russian and the other answering in Ukrainian. However, in the past years, you have noticed that several Russian-speaking friends have started using Ukrainian as a way to show they have nothing in common with Moscow. You have also met Ukrainians that refuse to use Russian. It makes little sense to you as Russian would still be the easiest language to communicate between, say, a Ukrainian and a Kazakh, an Armenian and an Uzbek. But the issue is getting highly politicised and you start suspecting you’ll eventually feel more comfortable using Ukrainian for official purposes.

Epilogue: what’s next?

No matter how much you reflect on the situation, there seems to be no way out. Many experts seem to feed the naive idea that, once Putin is gone, troubles for Ukraine and the rest of the world will be over. In the short term perhaps this is true. With no leader and no direction, Russia might have to give up some of its imperial aspirations to recover from the current situation. But even if a conflict in this area of the world is sedated, another one will likely emerge elsewhere, innocent civilians will start dying again and we will witness the same things over and over again. After all, before Ukraine, there was Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. After Ukraine, the question is not whether, but where the next conflict will erupt.

Putin and his entourage seem to incarnate all the worst human qualities. They have invaded a free country alleging futile and illogical reasons, and have engineered the massacre of civilians, mass raping and widespread destruction. But nowadays Putin just giving a face to the wicked side of human nature that has alimented wars and killings throughout the whole human history.

We can get rid of Putin in one way or another but can we get rid of the attitude and conditions that bring people like Putin to power, states to war, and people to think it is normal to slaughter fellow human beings? There are at least two fights ahead. One may be against an individual and his entourage, to set Ukraine free. But the other, and bigger, is to set humanity free. It is a fight against some aspects of human nature such as selfishness lust and short-term thinking that makes it impossible to live in harmony with other people and with nature in general. If this is not addressed, there will be one, two, or many more “Putins” ahead of us.

Abel Polese is a senior researcher at the International Institute for Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction of Dublin City University. In 2021 he was JSPS visiting fellow at Ritsumeikan University. On the day of the Russian attack, he was in Ukraine and had to find a way to escape with a part of his family and his children—an ordeal that he has documented here. He is the author of “Limits of a Post-Soviet State: How Informality Replaces, Renegotiates, and Reshapes Governance in Contemporary Ukraine” and several other scientific and magazine articles on Ukraine.

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