Dispatch

From Siege to Sanctuary

In two weeks, ordinary Ukrainians have become refugees, soldiers, and the symbol of a nation’s resilience when under attack.

Refugees walk to safety at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing.
Refugees walk to safety at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing.
Refugees walk to safety at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing near the Ukrainian village of Uhryniv on March 7. Jack Losh photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures.

EUROPEAN ROUTE E50, Ukraine—Darkness fell over Ukraine’s endless fields as an immense line of tail lights stretched into the distance. To the east lay siege and suffering; to the west, an uncertain sanctuary.

The highway, part of a trans-European route that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea, has become a key lifeline for the hundreds of thousands of uprooted Ukrainians fleeing Russian bombs on the country’s northern, southern, and eastern fronts. As the United Nations warns of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, this long road, for now, is offering safe passage through Ukraine’s heartlands amid grinding gridlock, military checkpoints, and bands of militiamen mobilizing in villages to resist the invasion.

“We spent six days hiding in the basement,” said Vadim Halushka, a 36-year-old web developer from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where Russian rockets are flattening civilian neighborhoods. “It was very hard to escape. Only when the heating stopped and it got extremely cold did we decide we had to go.”

Refugees walk to safety at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing.
Refugees walk to safety at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing.

Refugees walk to safety at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing near the Ukrainian village of Uhryniv on March 7.Jack Losh photos for Foreign Policy

EUROPEAN ROUTE E50, Ukraine—Darkness fell over Ukraine’s endless fields as an immense line of tail lights stretched into the distance. To the east lay siege and suffering; to the west, an uncertain sanctuary.

The highway, part of a trans-European route that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea, has become a key lifeline for the hundreds of thousands of uprooted Ukrainians fleeing Russian bombs on the country’s northern, southern, and eastern fronts. As the United Nations warns of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, this long road, for now, is offering safe passage through Ukraine’s heartlands amid grinding gridlock, military checkpoints, and bands of militiamen mobilizing in villages to resist the invasion.

A huge queue of cars jams at a checkpoint.
A huge queue of cars jams at a checkpoint.

A huge queue of cars jams at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Uman in central Ukraine on March 4.

“We spent six days hiding in the basement,” said Vadim Halushka, a 36-year-old web developer from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where Russian rockets are flattening civilian neighborhoods. “It was very hard to escape. Only when the heating stopped and it got extremely cold did we decide we had to go.”

Among 12 people split between two cars, Halushka took to the highway with his wife and two children to flee the indiscriminate violence, hoping to reach friends in the peaceful Carpathian Mountains far to the southwest.

“The explosions were so powerful,” Halushka said. “You couldn’t feel your legs, the blast was so strong. The feeling is indescribable. I hope you never experience it.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine almost two weeks ago and began shelling residential areas across the country, from the besieged coastal city of Mariupol in the southeast to the capital city of Kyiv, 2 million Ukrainians have crossed into neighboring countries. Besides the huge lines of cars jamming roads, displaced people have piled into overcrowded evacuation trains, with many forced to stand during cramped journeys across the country. Some rely on the kindness of strangers for temporary lodging; others are moving in with friends or relatives in safer parts of the country.

Then there are those escaping the killing by heading to Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Officials worry about the pressures this relentless exodus will put on host countries. 

“Frankly, these governments have done very well in their initial response,” said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. “But if the numbers continue to grow, it will be a problem.”

Refugees at the Ukraine to Poland border crossing near the Ukrainian village of Uhryniv on March 7.
Refugees at the Ukraine to Poland border crossing near the Ukrainian village of Uhryniv on March 7.

Refugees at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing are seen near the Ukrainian village of Uhryniv on March 7.

On the Ukrainian stretch of the trans-European highway, as it funnels families away from the fighting, the road passes rural communities where many have vowed to stay and defend every inch of territory. In village after village, resistance is mounting as farmers, shop owners, and other ordinary Ukrainians gather in a hodgepodge of military clothing, armed with anything from Kalashnikovs to shotguns, pistols, and hunting rifles. An urgent response to an unfolding crisis, such scenes are also nothing new here when it comes to fending off foreign invaders. Over the centuries, peasant paramilitaries, fiercely independent Cossacks, and nationalist partisans have all risen up in Ukraine to protect the land.

In Ukrainka village, west of the Dnieper river where Russian and Ukrainian language and culture freely mingle, local men are seen shoveling earth into sandbags at a newly constructed checkpoint, with the barrel of a machine gun sticking out from among bags already stacked. Beside tank traps and piles of tires, militia members search cars and check passengers’ papers. Twenty miles to the north, at the edge of a village called Domotkan, men in puffer jackets, sneakers, and the odd splash of camouflage stand guard, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders as stray dogs play on the side of the road.

A magnificent vista opens to the east as fields roll down to the Dnieper river, an immense body of water slugging south to Kherson, a Ukrainian city now more or less occupied by the Russian army. Upstream lays Kaniv, near the resting place of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, who as far back as the 19th century wrote of “this land of ours that is not ours.”

Another checkpoint marks the start of Kirovohrad Oblast, where a farmer’s tractor rests after digging trenches and piling up defensive berms of earth. Amid the thatched cottages and tin-roof farms of sleepy Kutsevolivka village, armed men in black tracksuits lean against a lime green Lada as chickens scratch the ground, ducks waddle through a vegetable patch, and ponds lay under ice. An elderly lady in a fur hat strolls past, her bucket filled with potatoes.

A car with a sign saying Dyeti, Russian for children, drives past Ukrainian artillery being towed along the E50 highway in central Ukraine on March 5.
A car with a sign saying Dyeti, Russian for children, drives past Ukrainian artillery being towed along the E50 highway in central Ukraine on March 5.

A car with a sign saying deti, Russian for children, drives past Ukrainian artillery being towed along European Route E50 in central Ukraine on March 5.

Beyond Onufriivka, where men pile up sandbags in front of a small town hall, cars of escaping families are redirected into the backcountry and begin slowing into a huge line. Taped to their windows are signs reading deti (“children” in Russian) in the wake of shocking videos that have shown Russian forces repeatedly targeting civilian vehicles. More local men gather in a nearby forest, carrying shotguns and rifles as yet another checkpoint is constructed.

“A lot of people are passing through, and we’re taking in whoever needs to stay,” said Aleksandr Tischenko, mayor of Monastyryshche, a small town in neighboring Cherkasy region, 130 miles farther west. “We offer them what we can: food, clothes, shelter. But it’s difficult. We’re struggling to estimate how many more will come, so it’s hard to know what to prepare for.”

When it comes to the Russian army, he is more definitive.

“If they come here, we will defend the town,” Tischenko said, opening up his jacket to reveal a holstered handgun against his ironed shirt. Outside, an AK-47 assault rifle lays in the backseat of his parked car. “It’s as simple as that. We will defend this place with our lives. We see the bombing of Kyiv, of Chernihiv, but we only want one thing: to live in peace on our own lands.”

Nearby, a group of mothers gather in a hall to peel potatoes, chop onions, and make borscht for the troops.

“We are doing this for victory, only for victory,” said Yelena Kravchenko, 46, heaping a mound of sliced mushrooms into a giant pan. “Our morale is high. Sure, we get scared when we hear the air raid siren, but we keep our heads down and keep working.”

Hundreds of miles further along European Route E50, as it approaches the relative safety of the Polish frontier, such buoyancy gives way to fatigue. On Monday, at the border village of Uhryniv, a large line of Ukrainian cars clustered one behind the other while up ahead, hundreds of refugees traveling by foot huddled together, waiting to cross.

In freezing temperatures, mothers collected diapers from International Committee of the Red Cross workers while a young aid volunteer handed out cups of hot coffee. Children wrapped in blankets waited in line as pensioners struggled with suitcases. Snow began to fall, and a cold wind blew across the open field. The road behind them was full of pain. The road ahead promised relief, mingled with sadness and great uncertainty.

Volunteers hand out free bibles and coffee at the Polish border on March 7.
Volunteers hand out free bibles and coffee at the Polish border on March 7.

Volunteers hand out free Bibles and coffee at the Polish border on March 7.

“The journey from Kyiv was hell,” said Bohdan Lazepnikov, a 17-year-old standing in line with his mother and aunt. “We left two days ago. There were so many people in the train. Many of us were standing for 11 hours. Then a friend drove us to the border. Back home, we heard bombing every day.”

The teenager steeled himself against the cold and looked toward the border post, where armed guards waited to let the next batch of refugees through. “Have a nice trip,” read a nearby sign. Lazepnikov and his relatives were not sure of their destination but were hoping that Polish volunteers would offer them food and shelter.

The family wasn’t complete though. Lazepnikov’s father had stayed behind to defend Kyiv.

“I just kissed him, shook his hand, and said goodbye,” Lazepnikov said. “It was very hard leaving my dad. I’m proud of him, but more than anything, I’m just afraid for him.”

Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures. Twitter: @jacklosh

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