War in Ukraine: I Made the Heartbreaking Journey From Kyiv to the Border. This Is What I Saw

As my car headed west amid the small country towns far from Kyiv, Ukrainians let their guard down regarding Putin – and even handed you their child – once they got to know you

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Evacuees from a nursing home near Irpin.
Evacuees from a nursing home near Irpin. Credit: Nir Gontarz
Nir Gontarz
Nir Gontarz
Kyiv, Ukraine
Nir Gontarz
Nir Gontarz
Kyiv, Ukraine

KYIV — After two weeks of expecting a Russian assault, it looked like Kyiv was getting used to an odd routine of waiting. Sandbags still filled the city squares, and in the evening the supermarket shelves were empty, but more and more people dared to show their faces outside. People who in the first days of the war would only pop out with the dog were now taking longer walks. One café, La Fabrique, even opened its doors.

On Saturday, when I was invited to attend a briefing by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, I was taken to a secured residential compound where he was staying. I was escorted by security guards, sandbags and rooms where mines had been placed. In general, I noticed increased military presence in civilian buildings in Kyiv, some used for humanitarian purposes. It was clear the forces were not there only to protect the civilians, but also to protect themselves.

I got to ask the president if he could imagine Russian soldiers marching in the capital. His reply: “If they carpet bomb and erase the historical memory of this whole region, erasing Russia’s history, Europe’s history, then they’ll come to Kyiv.”

I managed to make contact with a Kyiv resident who organizes trips to Poland. The price, $1,600, reflects the risk assumed by the driver

But the Russians didn’t come, and at the beginning of the week I left Kyiv. I embarked on a journey west toward the Polish border. How do you leave Kyiv during wartime? Air traffic has been totally halted, bridges and roads have been blown up to slow the Russian advance, and refugees driving west got caught in traffic jams that stretched to the horizon.

Maybe take a train, but journalists who tried to board one to Warsaw had to give up even though they had tickets. They described a bleak scene: The train station is kept dark for fear of bombardments, and the platforms are jammed with refugees. The reporters were told that Ukrainian refugees had priority over Westerners, and their tickets were of no use.

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So instead, I managed to make contact with a Kyiv resident who organizes trips to Poland. The price, $1,600, reflects the risk assumed by the driver, the 14-hour circuitous route over treacherous roads, and the increasing difficulty of obtaining enough gasoline. My Kyiv contact sent a driver who insisted on cash in advance and explained that his car would take me to the border and another car would wait for me on the Polish side to take me to the Warsaw airport.

My uncle’s grave

The driver arrives at the appointed time. Twenty minutes in, after passing through a number of checkpoints in the city, he stops the car near a pack of stray dogs. I don’t quite understand what’s going on, but then an older man appears. This guy opens the hood, pours in a liter of motor oil (though this doesn’t stop the warning light from flashing the whole trip), tosses away the empty bottle and, to my surprise, gets into the car.

This is when I find out that I’m being joined on the long journey by a man named Ahmed, a 60-year-old Palestinian Jordanian. After the Six-Day War, he and his family moved to Jordan from Ramallah. For the last few years he has been living in Ukraine without a visa, and now he’s continuing his refugee experience, hoping to settle in Berlin. Ahmed doesn’t speak English, so it’s not easy to keep a conversation going. Every so often he plays songs for us on his phone by the famous Lebanese singer Fairuz.

A few kilometers from Irpin, a Kyiv suburb that has been suffering Russian bombardments, we come across a Red Cross tent where evacuated nursing home residents are being housed. Ninety-year-old Alexei tells me he has relatives in Israel. A short conversation with him offers a hint of what I’ll be hearing over and over in the small towns out in the countryside: The Ukrainians may have voted for Zelenskyy, but beneath the surface there are plenty who are sympathetic to Moscow and identify with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

People being evacuated from the city of Irpin near Kyiv this week.Credit: Nir Gontarz

“Russia and Ukraine are like my two parents,” Alexei says. “When they’re fighting, I just want to run away. When I was a boy, my real parents fought all the time, and back then too I just wanted to run away. Who am I loyal to now? I don’t know. Sometimes one and sometimes the other. I can understand both presidents.”

We come to Fastiv, a small city southwest of Kyiv where there’s no sign of the Russians. The Ukrainian army has blocked all roads to the city, and Ukrainian forces can be spotted underneath bridges, in canals and under camouflage netting. No one stopped us at the many checkpoints on the way from Kyiv.

But now, at the checkpoint at the entrance to the city, Ahmed’s Jordanian passport arouses a policeman’s suspicions. We’re delayed for an hour, so I use the time to get a sense of the situation in the city. Locals say that, unlike in Kyiv, the grocery stores are open all day and there’s no shortage of food. Only the gas stations have long lines.

Polish volunteers offer us sandwiches and hot tea, and some try to console the child with toys. But he keeps woefully crying, and I suddenly find myself sobbing along with him

South of Fastiv, we pass the city of Bila Tservka. My paternal grandmother was born here in 1917. Well, Ukraine was now under attack, my traveling companion was in a hurry to get to the border, and I knew that my grandmother’s first son froze to death during World War II and she had to bury him barehanded without leaving a trace. But if it weren’t for all that, I might have spent time searching for my uncle’s grave.

Instead, a man who introduces himself as a police detective suddenly offers to sell me a handgun for $1,000. “At a time like this, nobody will ask where you got the gun,” he says. “And if the invasion expands, this gun could be the thing that separates you from death. You’re Israeli, you must know how to use it.” I politely decline.

A few drinks and support for Putin

We keep heading west. Again and again we see Ukrainian tanks heading toward the front, again and again we have to pass through checkpoints. Next to the checkpoints it’s not unusual to see a wrecked car that must have crashed into the concrete barricade. The checkpoints aren’t lit up for fear of airstrikes.

'It’s not that you’ve forgotten what it means to be Jews and refugees. You’ve forgotten what it means to be human beings'

The drive goes on and on, and we frequently stop at towns to go to the bathroom or get something to eat. I buy Ahmed a bottle of water. At the next stop, he offers me a banana. At each stop, I try to linger as much as possible to talk with some of the people. They often respond in broken English, and our driver often helps to translate.

One thing that catches my eye in the towns are the butcher shops. In Kyiv, the butcher shops were closed, and fresh meat was also hard to come by in the supermarkets. The butcher shops we pass along the way appear very well stocked, with many displaying their wares outside. Recently slaughtered chickens with feathers still attached hang from hooks, as do large slabs of meat, sometimes even half a cow. With the temperature below freezing, you don’t need a refrigerator.

When we stop at one town in the evening, I walk into a hotel where smoking appears to be permitted everywhere, and I chat with a man named Arthur. He’s 47 and has spent the last few days here with his wife and toddler son. He thinks a hotel in a small town is safer than in a big city. After a few drinks, he tells me how he feels.

A radar altitude indicator which belonged to a Russian fighter aircraft that was shot down over Kyiv.Credit: Nir Gontarz

“Even though I’m Ukrainian, I would do exactly what Putin is doing,” he says. “I wouldn’t say this to anybody, not even my wife, but I believe that 90 percent of Ukrainians think this way. They’re just afraid of not sounding patriotic enough.”

Where does this feeling of solidarity with Putin come from? The owner of a car wash in another town who serves me a schnitzel for 50 hryvnia ($1.70) and declines to give her name tells me: “Zelenskyy is behaving with a lot of chutzpah. Of course I understand President Putin. I don’t understand why we can’t be satisfied with our democracy as it is. Why do we have to poke him in the eye and constantly talk about joining the EU and a military alliance with America?”

She only says these things after a long conversation in which her brother and son take part. At first, all three express unqualified support for Zelenskyy. But once a little trust has been established, the son says: “If Ukraine hadn’t tried to woo European countries like a cat in heat, Putin wouldn’t have started this war and wouldn’t have harmed Ukrainians.”

My grandmother’s lullabies

The hours pass and we come to a town not far from the border. I get into a conversation with Igor, a young soldier from the countryside with an unusually strong command of English. Igor has been posted here with several dozen more soldiers to maintain order as the refugees flood west.

“I personally think that we’re an independent country and that no other country, even if it’s stronger than we are, should tell us how to act,” Igor says. “If we want to, it’s our right to form alliances even with aliens from outer space. I’ll fight for that and give my life if necessary.”

'Of course I understand President Putin. I don’t understand why we can’t be satisfied with our democracy as it is. Why do we have to poke him in the eye'

He says he holds different views from his parents and older brother. “They're proud of the processes Ukraine has gone through since 2014 and they voted for Zelenskyy like most of the nation, but in the days before the war, they thought Putin was right in his demands and that nothing bad would happen if we were a neutral country between Russia and the West,” he says. “Since they’ve never been to Crimea, or to Donetsk and Luhansk, they don’t mind if these regions in the east become Russian if that’s what will bring quiet between Russia and Ukraine.”

In the towns near the border, the flow of refugees is having an impact and the banks now refuse to convert the hryvnia into dollars or euros. We get back on the road again, and after a long day of driving and countless inspections of our passports, we finally approach the border crossing into Poland. When we get out, I discover that the temperature has plunged below zero.

I’ll soon be leaving Ukraine, but for as long as I’m here, I wear a neon-colored vest emblazoned with the word “PRESS.” The border crossing looks a bit like a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank. There’s a lane for trucks, lanes for cars and buses, and a narrow path for pedestrians. The checkpoint is dark and there’s hardly any traffic right now apart from three women walking with two children in tow.

A woman in the Ukrainian border police collects our passports and asks us to wait next to a long row of low wooden benches. It’s bone-chilling cold. The oldest of the three women who were walking with the children comes up to me and tries to ask something in Russian or Ukrainian but turns back when she sees that I don’t understand.

A wrecked car after an accident at a Ukrainian checkpoint. They're not lit up so as not to make it easy on Russian bombers. Credit: Nir Gontarz

After 40 minutes of waiting, our passports are handed back. A Ukrainian soldier signals for us to follow him, and the woman who tried to talk to me comes over again, this time pointing to two large suitcases. Now I understand. I nod and help her carry her valises, which must have been very hastily packed before she and the others fled.

We walk onto a bridge in the dark and cold. A 4-year-old boy sits underneath the bridge, wailing. Later on, when we reach the lighted passport control on the Polish side, I spot the boy again, this time in his mother’s arms. He’s wearing a coat and a wide-brimmed hat, and two teary eyes peek out from his fur-trimmed hood. His nose is dripping and his cheeks are flushed.

Polish volunteers offer us sandwiches and hot tea, and some try to console the child with toys. But he keeps woefully crying, and I suddenly find myself sobbing along with him. I imagine that he was forced to flee with his family while his father had to stay behind with the rest of the men. I picture the boy hearing the first blasts, noticing the rushed packing, enduring the never-ending train ride. I ask him his name. Adam, his mother answers.

I gently tap his mother’s shoulder and gesture to her to let me hold him. Adam and I make eye contact, there’s some kind of connection, and he agrees. I whisper in his ear the lullabies that my grandmother sang to me in her mother tongue, and Adam soon falls asleep. His mother is called up to the counter and I think to myself how odd it is that we’re the only ones here at this inspection point.

After my passport is stamped, I pass a fence covered in red burlap and I’m suddenly in a world that breaks my heart. Hundreds of children, women and older people are sitting, sprawled on the ground or walking among tents searching for something, whether a heater, a bed for the night or anything else useful.

When I talk with Ula, a young Polish woman in uniform with a vest that says “Polish Border Guard,” I finally get a handle on what I’m seeing here. “These are the poorest of the refugees from Ukraine. Some of the rich arrive by car and keep going, and some take a cab or bus from here to Warsaw and then get on a flight to wherever they want,” Ula says.

“The women and children you see here have no money to go anywhere else. We take care of them, we house them in tents with radiators, we give them food. We have crates full of toys and coats and other donated items from Poland and other countries.”

I see Adam and his family settling into one of the tents and can’t help but think about Israel’s treatment of the Ukrainian refugees. I recall a conversation with a Ukrainian government official who was upset about the scenes of refugees stuck at Ben-Gurion Airport.

“It’s not that you’ve forgotten what it means to be Jews and refugees,” he said. “You’ve forgotten what it means to be human beings.”

A Ukrainian tank on the way to the front. Credit: Nir Gontarz

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