Volodymyr and Kate were on the road out of Kyiv when they heard an explosion. Black smoke began to cloud the horizon in the direction they were driving.
The couple, their cat, and Kate’s mother, Irina, were headed west to Bucha, where Kate’s grandmother lived. They’d learned Russia was invading Ukraine just a couple of hours earlier, and knew Larisa, who is 86, would need help.
Volodymyr and Kate thought they might be safer in Bucha, too. They were wrong.
They spent the next five days huddled in a windowless room at the center of Larisa’s house, listening to explosions near and far. They finally fled on March 1 — just in time.
“We took the last wagon, if you will, to actually leave. The window was closing,” Volodymyr told Insider. He declined to share his family’s last names in order to protect their safety.
Bucha is now encircled and partly occupied by Russian military, according to the BBC. This week, several civilians died under fire while traveling in Bucha and the neighboring town of Irpin.
Three volunteers were shot and killed while delivering food to a Bucha dog shelter, Global News reported. In Irpin on Sunday, a Russian mortar shell killed a 43-year-old woman, her two children, and a church volunteer as they tried to cross a damaged bridge over the river into Kyiv, according to The New York Times.
Now Volodymyr, Kate, Irina, and Larisa are tucked away in a small town in the Carpathian Mountains, away from the fighting. But their time in Bucha was perilous, and the family steered clear of tanks and drove beneath fighter jets as they fled. Volodymyr had nightmarish visions of Bucha for days afterwards. They may have escaped the worst violence, but the flight and its aftermath have taken a toll.
Enduring a winter war without heat or bread, and lots of news
What’s normally a 30-minute drive to Bucha took more than five hours, Volodymyr said. They later learned the cloud of black smoke they saw in the distance came from a battle at the Hostomel airport, three miles north of Bucha.
They arrived at Larisa’s house tired, hungry, thirsty, and in desperate need of a toilet. The first night, they slept in the bedrooms, but incessant explosions soon drove them to the central room, where there were no windows.
They slept on the couches and mattresses on the floor. They cooked with what little they could find in the grocery stores, but there was no bread, and very few milk or meat products. Mostly, they watched the news.
“We were constantly talking about what’s going on,” Volodymyr said, adding, “Somebody would read the news aloud. Sometimes there was good news. Sometimes there was bad news and we would all freak out.”
One day, the gas went out, taking the central heating system with it. In the freezing Ukraine winter, they huddled around an electric heater. The battles outside continued.
“A few times a day we considered trying to leave, and ultimately decided not to leave every time, because it seemed too dangerous,” Volodymyr said.
Occasionally, they lost cell service, and Volodymyr’s parents would “freak out big time” when he didn’t answer their calls, he said. His father was safe in western Ukraine, but his mother was in Kyiv with his brothers, who are 8 and 12 years old.
Nearby explosions drove the family to the basement — and a breaking point
One day, the electricity went out and the explosions became significantly louder, according to Volodymyr. Fearing bombs were dropping nearby, the entire family and their cat went to the basement beneath Larisa’s garage.
“At some point after those loud explosions, I almost broke psychologically,” Volodymyr said.
He felt paralyzed and helpless, he said, and stared at a single point for hours.
“I was sitting on the floor waiting for the war to end or something,” he said, adding, “I felt stuck. It’s dangerous to stay. It’s dangerous to leave. People are telling scary stories. People are dying. You hear explosions and you don’t know if one day that explosion will be right on you. It’s just unbelievably hard.”
After hours of sitting, unmoving, he stood up, looked at his wife and her family, and went to shave. Doing something normal made him feel better.
“I thought: ‘I should get used to this,'” he said.
He later saw on the news that there had been fighting in the streets of Bucha that day, not far from the house.
Soon Volodymyr’s colleagues started calling, warning of an enormous convoy of Russian troops approaching from the north. They begged him to leave Bucha, he said.
“You don’t know if those risks or these risks are higher. You have no idea. My family fully relied on me to make that decision [to stay or leave]. That’s a lot of responsibility,” Volodymyr said.
When a civil defense volunteer arrived at their door with blood-pressure medication for Larisa, they asked about a potential escape route — driving southwest, where people said the bridges were still intact. The volunteer said others had fled that way, and it was probably safe.
That was all Volodymyr needed to hear. With no explosions that morning, this could be their only opportunity to escape.
A tense drive from Bucha: ‘We did not feel like humans’
It didn’t take long for the plan to go awry. A few blocks from home, they reached a Ukrainian civil defense checkpoint. The volunteers there said Volodymyr couldn’t drive any further. Instead, they advised him to drive north through the town, then turn south.
Soon they were part of a caravan of cars driving out of town. The streets were empty except for metal rubble. It was a “ghost town,” Volodymyr said.
They left Bucha and drove south, crossing a major road where two fighter jets roared over their heads, flying low. At another checkpoint, volunteers said there were Russian tanks a few miles down the road, he recalled. They rerouted again.
He asked at every checkpoint whether their planned route was safe. Most often, the response was, “We don’t know. Try it. Good luck,” Volodymyr said.
Eventually, they reached a village in Vinnytsia Oblast, where Larisa’s sister lives. They spent the night, then drove another six hours to a hostel friends had helped them book in a small town in Khmelnytskyi Oblast.
“When we arrived there, the first thing that struck us was that they offered us to order pizza,” Volodymyr said. “That seemed completely absurd to us. It seemed like something from a parallel world.”
“We did not feel like humans at that point. We felt like, I don’t know what,” he added.
‘I feel like I could easily wake up and find myself still there’
As the family drove west, they got more comfortable. Stores were open and they could buy food and medicine. They began to feel guilty.
“You feel like you should not be eating this much, you should not be laughing at jokes. It just seems wrong,” Volodymyr said.
And yet, life continues.
Volodymyr accepted a new job since the war began, and he started it from his laptop in the hostel where he and his family are now staying. On Sunday, he met his mother and brothers at a coffee shop in a nearby town. They had escaped Kyiv on their own.
“That felt unlike any other meeting that I’ve had with them. We didn’t know if we would even see each other ever after the war started,” he said.
Larisa’s next-door neighbors stayed in Bucha and spent a week without gas, electricity, or water, afraid to go outside, according to Volodymyr.
“When I hear from them how bad it is there, for a minute it brings me back into the paralysis, because I start thinking about ‘What if we stayed there?'” Volodymyr said on Sunday. “I get paralyzed again for a few minutes and I get scared again, as if I’m still there.”
He added: “That universe where we stayed there seems still very, very close to me. I go to sleep, and I feel like I could easily wake up and find myself still there.”
The neighbors finally escaped Bucha this week, he said, and he’s feeling much better. The paralyzing visions are mostly gone now.
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