The driver of the blue van, packed full of people, was desperately trying to close the door. Then I watched as a distraught woman stopped him from leaving by handing over the newborn girl to one of the passengers.
After the car started moving, a middle-aged woman, weeping quietly, told me that her sister was in the car and was on the last bus to Uman, a city in central Ukraine, where she would join their parents.
So why didn’t she go? ‘Why should I go? If they start bombing cities, they will bomb everything. It’s not safe there, but at least she’ll be with her family.
The heartbreaking scene was eerily reminiscent of flashing stills from the films of the early days of World War II.
I found myself among the crowds of desperate people clutching bags, suitcases, pets and the hands of their partners, trying to escape from the advancing army, invading their country from three sides.
Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kiev, Ukraine, on Thursday after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine.
To make matters worse, I later saw CCTV footage that showed Vladimir Putin’s armed forces killing him in Uman — the bus’s destination — when a rocket tore apart a 39-year-old cyclist and wounded five others.
This was just one desperate story of many that I encountered yesterday on the streets of Kiev, the capital of a country facing the tragedy of our time, when a vicious dictator unleashes the hellish might of his massive war machine to crush its democratic quest.
My day started about five hours early, when rocket attacks on military targets near Kiev came shortly after 5 am.
I heard a loud knock in the distance. I realized that the war had really begun – and Putin was carrying out his insane threat.
I found my Ukrainian colleague and photographer Katya Baklitskaya looking out the balcony window. ‘Did you hear that?’ she asked. – Began.
I heard these two words haunting me repeatedly yesterday, when the fears of millions of Ukrainians turned into the most terrible reality with the attack on their land, which was brutally announced by rockets and shells that fell on at least ten cities.
My early morning shock was shared by countless other people in this city on the banks of the Dnieper, the capital of a country experiencing the tragedy of our times.
A woman waits for a train trying to leave the Ukrainian capital on Thursday after big explosions sounded in Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa before dawn.
A quick scan of social media on my phone revealed that the strike had been on a military airfield near Kiev, where a young mother named Nation also heard the pre-dawn missile strikes.
She told me how she looked out of her home in Vasylkov, a city 25 miles from Kiev, and, to her horror, saw a nearby air base of Ukrainian MiG-29 fighters, shelled.
“I heard it and also saw it through the window,” she said. “So I packed my things, packed my son’s clothes, and we left. I’m not panicking, I just want my child to be safe.”
I met a 28-year-old Nation who, with her ten-year-old son Vanya, stood in line for buses with thousands of other fearful Ukrainians.
“I’m leaving everything – home, work. None of this matters when my son is in danger. That was the only thought that struck me today when I woke up to the sound of gunfire. I knew immediately that we needed to go as far as we could.”
The nation admitted that it was not ready for this catastrophe, despite the concentration of Russian troops near the borders of Ukraine.
“Whenever I heard bad news, I always thought it sounded so unreal, like a bad dream. I couldn’t believe something like this would happen.
“I still hope that I will just wake up and everything will be fine, that life will be wonderful.”
But things don’t look so good.
My colleague Katya and I left the apartment we rent in the center of Kiev shortly after 7 am.
A bearded man with a sleeping roll dangling from his red backpack followed us down the stairs and told us to be careful.
People hug as a woman with a suitcase walks past a metro station in Kiev on the morning of February 24.
Vitaly was in a hurry to speak normally, but said: “I am going to my elderly parents, who live on the outskirts of the city, because they are very nervous. I have a small child. Yesterday we went to the kindergarten, and today the war. It started.
An elderly couple with their son also left with suitcases across the yard. The man opened the car door and then yelled at his wife to ask why she was taking so long.
“I can’t find the keys,” she shouted back. Brief panic attack. Then sirens wail throughout the city.
However, the atmosphere at our local cafe seemed calm when we went to buy croissants and some people were clearly determined not to disturb their lives.
This is evidenced by the surreal overheard conversation of the reception staff. One woman whose daughter worked at a beauty salon said: “We woke up to the sound of gunfire and my daughter started calling her clients to cancel appointments. But one girl refused to cancel. She kept saying, “What’s wrong with that? I need to get a manicure.”
The roads seemed so quiet after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law, except for the deafening traffic on one of the exits from the city, where people fled to join their families.
“It’s like the early days of a pandemic,” my colleague Kate said.
Inevitably, despite the early hour, queues began to form at ATMs, gas stations, supermarkets, and later in pharmacies.
“We live in an age where medication is as important as food,” said the 81-year-old, who is waiting with 15 others. “But we are not afraid, because we were born during the Second World War.”
Social media was full of pictures of artillery shelling, including a destroyed military building and a kiosk torn apart on the outskirts of the city, as well as the wreckage of a destroyed drone smoking in the street nearby.
A woman with a suitcase and a cat carrier checks her phone at a metro station in Kiev on Thursday after sirens wailed in central Kiev.
Kate’s friend posted on Facebook the details of starting her own day, which began with her young children asking why they weren’t woken up for school.
– Celebration? they asked excitedly. “No, dear ones, the war has begun,” their mother replied.
No child should hear such frightening words. Yet, across this country of 44 million, the innocence of too many children has been torn apart by the uniquely grotesque barbarity of war.
We walked for half an hour back to the train station where there were scenes of chaos, with police guarding the entrance to the station, many delayed trains and scenes of desperation at the nearby bus station.
People told me about their futile attempts to escape, about the cancellation of flights, the closing of ticket kiosks and the instantaneous appearance of profiteering in the war.
“We need to run,” said Tatyana, 32, who was with her husband and two young daughters.
This family, who lives in Poland and visited her parents in Ukraine, was already at the airport and found that their flights home had been cancelled.
Hearing the disgusting sound of artillery fire, they jumped into a taxi to the train station, only to find that the armed police would not let those who did not have pre-booked tickets through.
Despite this, it seemed that the trains were not leaving, but only arriving. Later, at the station, I saw lines of people trying to return tickets from canceled flights.
A woman holds a baby in her arms as she sits at the border crossing between Poland and Ukraine in Medyka.
Unable to get money from ATMs that were empty, Tatiana’s family found money changers offering scandalous prices and minibus drivers inflating prices in order to get 2,000 euros, the equivalent of five months’ average income in Ukraine, for a ticket to Lviv, the city. near Poland in the west of the country.
‘How is that even possible? We are a family of four. We don’t have that kind of money,” Tatyana said in despair.
‘It’s horrible. My daughters are so tired. We spent the whole night like this. This is a war, and we cannot escape, and even if we do, my parents are still in Ukraine. But what can I do? How can I help them?
Another man explained that he worked for a travel company that organized tours to Europe and that his company provided him with three buses to evacuate to Lvov. Among its passengers was a woman with her daughter, grandchildren and two Yorkshire terriers.
Stas Mukhin, a theater student, said he was unable to buy tickets to reach his parents in Dnipro, taking only a folder of personal documents and a laptop with him.
He said, “I don’t want to die at 20. I’m afraid that many people will be killed. I thought that the information about the Russian invasion was spread to intimidate people. But now it’s happened and I’m trying to escape.”
Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion and now the mayor of Kiev, wrote on social media a couple of hours later that the city was building “protective structures” on key roads into the city, so “entry could be difficult.”
Back in the city center, we stopped at our local cafe.
He had several clients, including two 18-year-old students who told me they had bought their first bus ticket out of town and were waiting for it to leave.
The heartbreaking scenes have been compared to the early days of World War II. Pictured, people wait on the subway in Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, on Thursday evening.
I received a call from a journalist colleague to report that he was confronted by a group of drunken vigilantes armed with guns, possibly the unfortunate result of a presidential order to hand over guns to civilians earlier in the day “to protect the country.”
There was also a strange warning from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, in which citizens were advised not to wear red in order to avoid persecution. Shortly after 3 p.m., sirens began to wail over the city again, calling for people to take cover. Numerous explosions were heard.
There were reports that Russian helicopters took over the Antonov International Airport in Gostomel, 21 miles from the city, and their tanks were only six miles north of Kiev, although last night Ukraine said it had recaptured the runway at Gostomel.
A couple of hours later, alarming reports appeared from reliable sources in social networks that 18 aircraft with paratroopers were heading towards Kiev.
Yet outside my window, everything seemed eerily calm: several people were strolling down the street, including a man holding his small child’s hand as they passed the swings.
However, everyone seemed to be glued to their phones in a country under brutal siege.
One young man I met in the middle of a hand-to-hand fight at a bus stop pleaded with the world for help amid the unfolding tragedy and terror his people faced. “I try not to panic, but it’s hard,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen.”
Unfortunately, no one knows what will happen to Kiev and Ukraine.
But as I walked through the deserted streets with the darkness falling, it was impossible not to feel the pain of these people, suddenly plunged into horror and anguish in the midst of the terrible fury of war.