How I escaped from Kyiv: Ian Birrell gets stuck in a traffic jam of human despair, waking up from the sirens

How I escaped from Kyiv: Ian Birrell gets stuck in a traffic jam of human despair, waking up from the sirens

Yesterday, for the second day in a row, I woke up to the sound of sirens warning of air attacks.

I covered the windows of my rented apartment with blankets to protect against flying glass in case there were explosions nearby.

My colleague and photographer Katya Baklitskaya slept behind the sofa for safety reasons.

Ian Birrell in Chernobyl, Ukraine.  He writes:

Ian Birrell in Chernobyl, Ukraine. He writes: “For the second day in a row, I woke up yesterday to the sound of sirens warning of air attacks.”

Residential buildings in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv came under artillery fire overnight, and images on social media showed a Russian jet was shot down just ten miles away, destroying an apartment building.

I looked out into the street as several groups of people hurried to shelters, some adopted cats or dogs.

Others set off on an uncertain exodus from Kyiv—an estimated 100,000 people fled the brutal attack from Moscow on the first day alone.

The key question that stood before me – along with other foreign media here – was it better to stay or leave.

I decided it was time to get out, rather than risk being locked in a basement for days, unable to report freely due to increased shelling and street fighting.

First, we needed a car – not an easy task when the streets are deserted. However, the minibus driver agreed to give us a lift.

But he couldn’t find petrol at four gas stations and needed 100 liters of fuel for the 1,000 km return trip to Lvov in western Ukraine.

Luckily, we managed to get two seats in a car with an almost full tank, which was driven out of town by another journalist. I agreed to meet him in the central government area, where street fighting broke out less than five hours later.

I went for the last walk in the Ukrainian capital after two weeks here. The sun shone as I walked towards the botanical garden, passing scattered groups of tense people with bags and suitcases. It was 8:30 am – the usual rush hour – in a European capital.

Rescue operation: 23-year-old Carolina and her cat.  Ian Birrell We passed a few more military vehicles heading into the city.  More armored vehicles.  More mechanized ambulances

Rescue operation: 23-year-old Carolina and her cat. Ian Birrell writes: “We missed even more military vehicles heading into the city. More armored vehicles. More mechanized ambulances

But the roads were almost empty except for a few crowded cars driving out of the city, packed full of frightened people. All cafes were closed.

In the center of the city, the sounds of shelling were heard again. I passed groups of heavily armed soldiers and police.

Around the famous tourist site of St. Michael – a beautiful cathedral with golden domes – there was no one.

It was there that in 2014 pro-democracy protesters hid from a massacre that killed 104 people and effectively started the protracted conflict that erupted last week.

After sticking “Press” and “TV” on our silver Skoda, I spotted a young soldier, barely in his teens, walking with a bag to join his unit. I wondered if he would survive this day.

At 10 am we set off, but soon got stuck in a pile of cars, vans and trucks. At the Beresteiska metro station, several Ukrainian soldiers stood over the entrance, and behind them an armored car hid in the trees.

On the other side of the road, a soldier stood on a knoll, legs apart, dangling his rifle, and surveyed the road. A colleague sat casually on the grass with several grenade launchers leaning against a tree, hidden behind blue sandbags.

Many cars were filled with families. A 24-year-old man named Maxim told me that he was traveling with ten members of his family in a three-car convoy, including his mother, father, three-month-old baby, and their pet spaniel.

It has already taken them two days to reach Kyiv from the city of Chernihiv, which lies east of Chernobyl and is in an area where some of the most vicious fighting against the Russians has taken place in the last 24 hours.

Ukrainian soldiers take up positions in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, today as Russia continues its invasion.

Ukrainian soldiers take up positions in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, today as Russia continues its invasion.

“Yesterday we went to see friends in Kyiv and were going to leave on Thursday,” he said.

“During the night we heard planes flying over the apartment building. Judging by the sounds, they were descending to drop something, either bombs or fighter jets. We were so scared.

“We packed everything into our cars and then sat there until we could leave. My only job right now is to protect my family.”

As we moved west, we began to see military vehicles heading into the center of Kyiv: tanks, armored personnel carriers with grim soldiers on the roof, Humvees with the Ukrainian flag on their radio mast, troop trucks, fuel trucks and somewhat motorized ambulances. In an hour we had barely covered one mile.

Along the sidewalk beside us was a continuous wave of human suffering, an endless procession of people with hastily packed backpacks and suitcases.

Family with a little girl on the shoulders of her father. Three teenage girls in colorful coats. An elderly couple is carrying suitcases on wheels. A young man with a cat in his arms.

45-year-old Ruslan walked alone. He told me that he was a taxi driver who worked in Kyiv and was trying to get back home to Khmelnytsky, halfway to the Romanian border.

“There are such problems to get out of the city,” he said. He tried to buy a bus ticket, but it was not available, and now he walked to the Dachna bus station. After six miles we passed the station. It was closed.

These scenes were a pitiful sight. So many lives are ruined when a corrupt dictator tries to thwart democracy in a neighboring country for fear it might infect his own beleaguered and repressed citizens.

We passed the digital billboard. At one point, he displayed a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, then a recruitment announcement for the Volunteer Territorial Defense Force—although it was almost certainly too late to count in this brutal war.

Crowds of people waiting to board the evacuation train from Kyiv to Lviv at the central station of Kyiv, Ukraine today

Crowds of people waiting to board the evacuation train from Kyiv to Lviv at the central station of Kyiv, Ukraine today

One featured a food delivery cyclist determined to save his city during this perilous time. Another shows a female doctor who signed up and said, “I’ve always had the desire to save others.”

And yet we crawled. Shortly after noon, a series of ground-shaking explosions rang out a few miles to the right of the car.

They came from Obolon, a district of Kyiv and the scene of fierce street fighting between Russian troops.

According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, the Russian contingent that arrived in the city was led by soldiers in stolen Ukrainian uniforms, followed by tanks and mechanized artillery.

I saw how new soldiers and armored personnel carriers were going into battle, as well as groups of fighters of the territorial defense forces going towards the city.

Sirens wailed again. Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion and mayor of Kyiv, has warned people to stay at home and go into bomb shelters when they hear the sirens.

He said: “There is fighting going on in several parts of the city and you can hear gunfire. The Ukrainian army is destroying Russian sabotage groups.”

We missed several more military vehicles heading into the city. More armored vehicles. More mechanized ambulances. And also the dull thud of Russian bombs and missiles falling on the unfortunate people of Kiev.

President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday declared martial law and ordered state arsenals to open so citizens could obtain firearms to defend their city.

As we moved forward, Defense Minister Alexei Reznikov announced that 18,000 semi-automatic rifles and ammunition had been distributed.

“The number of people who want to defend their homeland within the framework of territorial defense against Russian occupation is growing, and more weapons are being sent to us,” he said.

At 3:00 pm, on the opposite side of the road, we passed a National Guard checkpoint monitoring cars entering the city. Black-clad officers with rifles in their hands and holstered pistols on their hips ordered five men to get out of one car to search it.

I talked to other families in the cars that crawled alongside us. Everyone had stories of fleeing in fear from the hail of terror falling from the sky on their homes. 30-year-old Julia told how her mother woke her up at night.

“It seemed that the sky was on fire, and I realized that it was a shelling. I was very scared. I woke up my husband, I told him that we need to leave, but he said that we should wait for the morning.

“We ran to the bomb shelter and sat there for several hours. I started calling everyone I knew, asking if they could get us out of town.”

They found friends traveling west who offered to help. Julia said: “If it was just me and my husband, we could leave the city, but we have a six-year-old daughter. The husband stayed. I hope he can take a bus or a train.”

Irina, 28, told me that she was with her husband, who was taking their two young children, her mother and grandmother, but they had no idea where they were going, other than hopefully a safe place.

Lines of cars in a traffic jam on a highway outside the Ukrainian capital as people leave Kyiv today

Lines of cars in a traffic jam on a highway outside the Ukrainian capital as people leave Kyiv today

“Today we woke up from the sound of shelling very close to our house. It was still night, but we decided to leave,” she said.

Then we passed an abandoned concrete building, where six soldiers in balaclavas were standing, and two colleagues were talking on the phone, and saw the cannon of their tank sticking out of the forest by the road.

As I looked back at the city center, I suddenly noticed a large expanse of empty road right behind us. Obviously traffic has been stopped. It was impossible to tell if he was stopped by Ukrainian or Russian soldiers.

My colleague Katya began receiving voice messages from a lawyer friend, Anna in Kyiv, who told her that for safety reasons she had gone to the basement of her apartment with her partner, their dogs, and supplies of food and water.

She said, “There are a lot of people here. People are crying. It’s very stressful and people get nervous.”

As darkness fell, we began to see empty tankers and military trucks rumbling in the wrong direction on the other side of the road.

On the threshold stood a trio of surface-to-surface missile launchers – and some other unfortunate ones wandered with bags towards Poland.

Kate’s text messages didn’t reach Anna. Presumably she was still in the basement.

It is now nine o’clock as I write these words. We were on the road for 11 hours and drove 70 miles. Lvov remains far away; maybe we’ll go somewhere else to cover the torment of this nation. But at least we are – for now – safe, like everyone else in the thousands of cars leaving Kyiv.

Additional message: Katya Baklitskaya

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