A Ukrainian woman's story of escaping the war
By Galyna Solovei The author is a senior lecturer at the International Relations Department of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine.
Galyna Solovei's eldest daughters Maria, 16, and Sasha, 14, on a train from Berlin to Amsterdam as they flee Ukraine following the outbreak of war between Russia [GALYNA SOLOVEI]
I studied at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management (KDIS) from September 2016 to May 2018, where I received a master’s degree in development policy. Thanks to my education in Korea, I have been working as a senior lecturer at the International Relations Department of one of the most prestigious universities in Ukraine, the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, since September 2019. KDIS not only gave me knowledge but also an opportunity to build friendships with wonderful people, which always brought me sincere joy and helped me and my three daughters — Maria, 16; Sasha, 14; and Anastasia, 9 — in the critical times of war after Russia attacked Ukraine.
On Feb. 20, my German partners at the University of Jena wrote that they would not attend an offline workshop scheduled for mid-March due to the “tense situation” on the Russian border. It really made me angry. There is nothing to be afraid of, I thought at the moment. After all, this tense situation has persisted in Ukraine since 2014. We were already used to it. I honestly did not understand them.
On Feb. 24, the war began. I heard explosions at five in the morning. The Igor Sikorsky Kyiv International Airport, which was a few kilometers away from my house, was bombed. For a person who had never heard an explosion, it felt like it was happening in my neighbor’s yard. We will stay in Kyiv, I thought. At 10 a.m. that day, I had an online lecture with third-year students. It was a virtual class, but only six out of 50 students joined. They all lived in western Ukraine. They told me that their classmates from the east, south and northern parts of the country were under evacuation with their families. The west and central parts of Ukraine still seemed safe to me. We didn’t have a normal class that day. I just talked with them and said how smart and beautiful they were, that they must save themselves for the future of Ukraine, and that we will soon meet again.
The next three days in Kyiv were tense. Rockets destroyed buildings in what used to be peaceful neighborhoods, all shops were closed, missile alerts continued and curfews were imposed. Staying in Kyiv became an undue risk. So I bought the last train tickets from Kyiv to Lviv, the most western city in Ukraine.
Solovei, left, and her classmate, Geert Slabbekoorn, at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management (KDIS) in Sejong
On Feb. 28, my older girls and I went out into the city to buy something to eat. Only one of the many grocery stores was opened. We stood in line for two hours, yet we failed to get any bread. We managed to buy some crackers and vegan milk. I told my daughters to pack the most necessary things in their backpacks to carry. The central metro stations were all closed, so the next day, we would have to walk 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) from the Olimpiiska subway station to the central railway station. My two older daughters boycotted my decision to leave the city, crying and demanding to stay home and not go anywhere. I also cried and told them to listen to me. At night, the strikes continued and missile alerts went off. At dawn, the girls packed their belongings and obediently left with me.
During the war, the subway stations in Kyiv have become bomb shelters. My girls and I reached the Olimpiiska subway station, and from there we traveled to the central railway station. While waiting for our train to Lviv, I received a message from Geert Slabbekoorn, a former KDIS classmate, who said that his parents in the Netherlands had a free room and were ready to provide shelter for my family. I responded that I was very grateful, but that I would stay with my friends in Lviv.
Our train to Lviv arrived, and the crowd rushed madly toward it. There were soldiers with machine guns on the platform who did not allow men to enter the train. Only women, children and the elderly were allowed. Fights broke out. I managed to squeeze in with my daughters and place them on the top shelf of the compartment. It usually takes six hours from Kyiv to Lviv by train, but it took nine hours that day, as we had to stop mid-way for the attacks to end.
Lviv was full of refugees by the time we arrived. Volunteers offered us warm meals, tea and coffee. I had the address of my friend's house where we were supposed to spend the night, and a volunteer gave us a ride. I knocked on the window and we were let in. The house had two rooms and there were already four people inside. Everyone huddled together, and we drank tea, ate sandwiches and fell asleep.
The next morning, I heard the same sirens in the city of Lviv, which meant there was the same chance we could get bombed or attacked by a missile. It became quite obvious to me that my girls and I needed to leave our country. I wrote to Geert, saying we would like to accept his offer to come to the Netherlands. Decisions were made instantly.
That evening, there were traffic jams on the roads of Lviv, and we barely made it to the bus that would take us to the Polish border. There were only women and children on the bus. After crossing the border, everyone had different paths. Some were moving to France, some to Italy, Germany and Spain. We were the only ones going to the Netherlands.
Solovei at a refugee shelter in Poland
The bus kept driving an hour and a half through Poland, but then the most shocking thing happened. The bus driver dropped us off at a bus station in Zamosc and went back to Ukraine. It was 1 a.m. and the station wouldn’t be opened till 9 a.m. It was snowing, but there were no buses, so we were confused and frightened. I didn’t know what to do. Then, a young Polish woman approached my middle daughter. They were speaking in English. The woman said she knew a shelter for Ukrainian refugees and took us there. We were the first ones in the shelter. After registration, we were taken to a gym where there were rows of Army camp beds with warm blankets. The gym was full of people and pets.
The next morning, we took a bus to the train station. The European Union provided free travel for Ukrainian refugees, but there were so many refugees that we barely managed to find a spot in the corridors of the train cars. We arrived in Warsaw six hours later, standing throughout the entire ride. In Warsaw, we bought free tickets to Berlin.
Solovei’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, 9, at a refugee shelter in Poland
When we arrived in Berlin, refugees were given three options: to move on, eat food on the spot, or find a place to stay for the night. It was too late at night and there were no trains to Amsterdam. We had to take the third option. Hundreds of Berliners were waiting in an area to offer refugees a place to stay, holding placards that read the number of guests they were ready to receive. A volunteer who had been helping us asked us to wait, disappeared for five minutes and came back with a wonderful woman who said she had a car and a place where we could wash and sleep in warm beds. I was impressed by her kindness. She said she waited for six hours to meet a refugee to take in for the night. There was a moment when we both looked at each other in amazement and in a bit of fear. We were similar in many ways. She was a woman with three daughters, and so was I. She really wanted to help us, but at the same time, was no doubt afraid her family might end up in harm's way. I really needed help, but I, too, was afraid we might be in harm's way. As I fled the war, I was afraid that I might meet bad people who kidnap my beautiful daughters and sell us into slavery. This woman and I recognized each other’s fears and laughed with relief. When we arrived at her home, we were greeted by her daughters and a cat and a dog.
Solovei and Slabekoorn at Slabekoorn’s parent’s house after Solovei and her three daughters took shelter there to escape the war
The next morning, it was already March 4. The events of the war made the time fly by, as my whole daily routine vanished. For me, the time of our escape was divided into extremely tense moments of boarding trains and the several hours of numbness on them. After five hours on the train to Amsterdam, I was finally able to hug Geert. After another hour in the car passing the evening Dutch plains, we were at his parent’s house. We were well received by the hosts. My gratitude is boundless. I hope that in a few weeks, I will be able to return to my favorite city, Kyiv, and to my students.