Editor's Note: This column, written by Irish man JP O'Malley, was first published on March 1 on the New Humanist blog. O'Malley has kindly given permission for it to be republished here.
I awoke at dawn expecting war
A quick click on Twitter confirmed my worst fears. “Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes”, tweeted the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba.
“This is a war of aggression and Ukraine must defend itself and will win," Ukraine's foreign minister added. “The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now.”
Why didn't I leave sooner? As an Irish citizen, I'm privileged in having that option. I moved to Lviv two and a half years ago while trying to finish a novel. An affordable, picturesque city that sits on the crossroads between Europe and the Russian-speaking world, it seemed like the perfect destination.
In that time, the city has become my home. Once an important regional outpost of the Habsburg empire, Lviv has always been culturally closer to Vienna than Moscow. But since the 2014 Maidan Revolution, it has become visibly pro-European as Ukraine attempts to move away from its Soviet past. The use of the Ukrainian language in the public cultural and civic life of the city has been a particularly important part of that process.
I don't claim to be an expert on these matters. To my shame, I have little knowledge of the Ukrainian language. Yet I've also made good friends here – with Lviv locals, with people in Kyiv, and with Europeans and Americans in Lviv with similar literary and cultural interests. When the drums of war started beating, I didn't know if I should stay or go. In mid-February, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin told all Irish citizens it was no longer safe to stay in the country.
I ignored the advice. Leaving in a panic seemed drastic. Also, the close bonds I had built in Lviv had become important to me, especially as a war seemed increasingly likely. Our friendships had strengthened during the few months leading up to February. Finally, however, I booked a flight to leave Ukraine. I was checking Twitter every minute or so. My bags were packed, but I wondered if I would be too late.
Get out sooner rather than later
Just after 8 am on Thursday 24 February, with three bags and my passport packed, I decided it was best to get out sooner rather than later.
As I opened the door of my flat, I saw my neighbour across the hallway.
“You are leaving,” she said.
“Well, I hope everything will be okay,” I said an awkward goodbye and then boarded the number 1 tram on the outskirts of Lviv.
Heading down Lychakivska Street, there were long lines of people outside ATMs, frantically withdrawing cash.
Passing by Lviv Town hall in Rynok Square, I heard the sound of emergency aerial bomb sirens. I messaged a good friend in Kyiv on WhatsApp.
“Stay safe,” I wrote.
“Stay alive,” she replied.
At Lviv-Holovnyi railway station at 9am crowds congregated calmly in the main hall looking for a ticket promising a way out of war. The mood was stoic, and quietly respectful. My train to Przemyśl, Poland, 114 kilometres from Lviv, was due to leave at 11am.
Two hours later, the train station in Lviv was eerily empty, with no sign of moving transport. More Ukrainian military arrived outside the station in trucks, smoking cigarettes, unpacking their equipment. The emergency bomb sirens rang out in the distance. I messaged my friends who were fleeing to the Polish border by car. “We are a bit stuck,” one of them explained. “We might have to abandon the car and walk.”
The train finally left Lviv just before 4 pm.
By 6 pm, I was in Poland, where the press eagerly awaited the first contingent of war-fleeing migrants. I set up camp in Przemyśl train station, near the border, surrounded by others who had fled the country, and settled down for the night. We lay on deck chairs and texted our loved ones. A small, cute, ruddy-cheeked infant laughed in front of me and made me smile. Her grandmother silently wept across the room.
Polish military handed out soup, coffee, bread, water, and chocolate to all arrivals. The cross-European tolerance, decency, and solidarity was reassuring; proof, if any more was needed, of why Ukraine wants to turn west. The hospitality continued the next day, on the train south to the capital, Kraków. More free water, fruit, sandwiches, and smiles from the Poles.
But on the afternoon of Friday 25 February, the news coming from Kyiv was not good. Ukrainian officials urged residents to take shelter from advancing Russian forces, as Vladimir Putin encouraged them to take the capital by force.
Another friend told me she was going to spend the night with her boyfriend at one of Kyiv's metro stations, hiding from rocket fire. Like tens of thousands of fellow Ukrainians, she was heading west towards Lviv, and then to the Polish border. But the exit strategy was getting harder and harder.
An acquaintance in Lviv told me the city was becoming unsafe. “There are rumours of a full-scale Russian bombing on the city," he said. “And people are regularly going to bomb shelters.”
At 6 am on the Saturday morning, another friend texted from Kyiv. Her 60-year-old uncle was preparing to go fight with a rifle on the capital's front line to defend Ukraine, she said. “Night was very hard,” she told me. “There was many explosions just a few km from me for hours. Not going now to railway as there are shootings and street fights not far from me and railway. I'm also still hearing explosions from time to time.”
“The Russians just bombed the airport close to my place,” she added. “And got to a civil building too.”
Miraculously, she managed to board a train a few hours later.
On Saturday afternoon in Kraków, I met some of my Lviv friends for lunch. It had taken them 24 hours to cross from Lviv into Poland. They were sleep-deprived and trying to maintain their sanity. Finding ourselves suddenly in Poland with a war raging in the east, we all began to ask the question: where to next?
Some talked of staying in Kraków. Others mention going to Prague, maybe Berlin, or even Copenhagen. In these uncertain times, however, most plans weren't going beyond the next few hours.
I texted my friend in Kyiv again to see if the train had safely reached Lviv. It had.
“You must be glad you finally made the decision to flee,” I wrote.
“No," came the response. "I am scared for my family and what happens to them and that I will never see them alive again,” she wrote. “There are no words to describe all the bombings and the horror of the situation.”
On Saturday at dusk, in Kraków's beautiful Old Town, we joined a hundred or so Ukrainians on a peaceful public demonstration. Some were refugees. Others were Ukrainians, long-term residents of the Polish city. We walked behind and joined in with the continual chanting, the demand for a No-Fly Zone to stop the Russian airstrikes, including the shelling of residential neighbourhoods. “Close the sky, close the sky, close the sky.”
One American-Ukrainian friend from Lviv broke down in tears beside me. Her grandparents had fled to the west from Lviv after the Soviets occupied the city at the end of the Second World War.
"History repeating itself," we said.
That night we took a drink in a dive bar in Kraków. I read on Twitter how the Pravda Beer Brewery in Lviv had suspended all production of alcohol. It was now making Molotov cocktails instead.
We spent most of the night on our phones making contact with friends in Lviv and Kyiv. The news was moving fast and much of it was coming via Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Anyone who had left Lviv was offering their free apartments to fellow refugees fleeing from various other Ukrainian cities.
A small network of war-time bonding was building in real-time. Most of the talk returned to Putin's next possible military moves. Some said they felt sick even looking at the news. At midnight I tried to sleep in my hostel. On my Twitter feed, I looked on in horror as Kyiv and Kharkiv lit up in balls of orange flames.
Am I also a refugee?
On the Sunday afternoon, I boarded a bus from Kraków to Budapest. It was mostly Ukrainian refugees on board. I struggled to understand my relationship to them. As an Irish citizen forced to leave my home of two and a half years, am I also a refugee? I do not speak their language. I also had the privilege of being able to plan my departure.
We all left Ukraine suddenly, for the same reason: war. But their loss would be much greater than mine. That much I knew. Some might lose homes, family members even. The country they return to will have witnessed great horror, whatever changes it achieves.
As we passed over the snow-capped mountains into Stanica, Slovakia, a Ukrainian woman beside me took a phone call, speaking in English. It appeared she was speaking to a man who was paralysed by panic. “Go to the Polish border now," she was telling him. "You need to move quick. But remember, it's women and children who go first,” she added. “And in any case, Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 cannot leave Ukraine because of martial law...You must be patient and trust in God.”
On the bus, I befriended a woman from Kyiv in her mid-20s who was sat beside me. She spent most of the journey on her phone watching live speeches from President Zelenskyy, on the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, and sanctions on Russia applied by the west, along with their contributions of military support.
“I feel I already want to return to Ukraine and help my country out somehow,” she told me.
When the driver announced there was a 10-minute break, we bought a coffee and smoked a cigarette. “Maybe we could find a church and pray,” she said. But there was no time. So we went back to the bus as darkness fell.
On Sunday evening I made contact again with my friend in Kyiv who had fled for Poland on Saturday morning. “I think I'm having a nervous breakdown,” she wrote to me, just after she crossed the Polish border at Przemyśl. “I got to Lviv and there was a huge clash of people trying to get the train to Poland to escape. Instead of the normal two-hour train, we spent 24 hours on a train without a toilet and the ability to sit or stand properly, and now I'm just sitting here crying.”
"My mind refuses to accept this new reality.”
On Monday morning, I was in central Budapest. When I bought a coffee outside my hostel on the central street of Dob Utca, most people around me were speaking Ukrainian, dragging their suitcases. I checked my Twitter feed. The UN claimed up to 368,000 had already by then – only four days after the start of the invasion – already left Ukraine. It's estimated that up to 4 million could leave in what is shaping up to be the most devastating conflict on European soil since 1945.
I messaged my friend in Kyiv again, discussing possible options as she moves on from Poland. “I know it must be hard to plan ahead after what you have been through,” I wrote. “But you should try and think of what you are going to do short-term, and what the easiest safest options are for you.”
“I feel like it's a bad dream,” she replied. “Like in a few days, I'll be able to go back home to my ordinary life, to my parents, to walks, and to nice coffees. My mind refuses to accept this new reality.”
In the afternoon, I boarded a train to Zagreb. Snow fell as it passed Lake Balaton in the Transdanubian region of Hungary. Movement felt like a distraction. Or a coping mechanism of sorts.
No real plan
My intended destination is Sarajevo. But I have no real plan. I'll most likely spend my days on Twitter, watching a conflict from afar that's becoming more brutal and unpredictable with each passing day.
There's now a scary realisation that this is no small-scale war. Europe and the wider world, meanwhile, look on with horror. Now I have a little time to reflect on my journey, I remember that initial sense of relief on crossing the border to Poland. It didn't last for long.
H/T: New Humanist