British expat Sam and his Ukrainian partner Yulia learned of the imminent Russian attack when their smartphones came alive with alerts and warnings in the early morning of Thursday 24 February. They had been expecting Russian aggression of some form for several weeks; the van was packed with fuel, water, food, and clothes, ready for a rapid evacuation. Like many in Ukraine, they originally expected Russia to focus on the east – the disputed Russian-speaking regions – and the southeast, where the strategic port of Mariupol gave Ukraine access to the Sea of Azov. They knew that an assault from Belarus in the north would threaten Kyiv, and it became apparent in the weeks before the invasion that this was the Russian plan, making it clear they needed to get out as soon as it started.
Sam has lived in Kyiv for more than three years. Yulia is a lawyer and has worked on many cases against Russian interests. She expected to be one of the many Ukrainians on Russian lists of opponents to be targeted. Leaving Kyiv seemed the obvious step, as it would ensure her personal safety but also allow her to oppose the Russians more effectively. But immediate family members opted to stay, against her advice, making the decision to leave a difficult and painful one.
Escape from Kyiv
Sam’s escape plan had been developed over several weeks with friends and other contacts in Ukraine. They waited to verify the attack was real – not Russian disinformation to cause panic – and to make final preparations to leave their home. Instead of taking the obvious route directly to the west, which was expected to quickly become gridlocked, they opted to drive north – in the direction of Belarus and the advancing Russian army, and passing sites of some of the early missile strikes on Kyiv. Ultimately this proved a good decision, as friends who left Kyiv before them by the western route took much longer to reach the border.
They weaved through tanks and other defensive positions where the Ukrainian army were digging in to defend their capital city. Military convoys were everywhere, and since the Ukrainian army has a lot of Russian vehicles, it was not easy to be sure whose side they were on as they approached. They crossed over bridges which have subsequently been destroyed to hinder the Russian advance. There was a heart-stopping moment when Sam had to swerve to avoid oncoming military vehicles, driving into a pothole and bursting one of the front tyres on the van. They were prepared as they were carrying a spare wheel. They passed garages where fuel was rationed, and queues of people trying to buy food and other supplies.
Crossing the border
After driving several hundred kilometres – without sleep and fuelled by Red Bull – they eventually reached the end of the queue to cross the Polish border, some 20 km away. Sam and Yulia quickly came to understand the scale of the unfolding humanitarian disaster: many people were on foot – often women with children in push chairs, who would be forced to spend the night in the open in sub-zero temperatures. From this point, it was a question of progressing forward at a snail’s pace. Sam recalled that people’s discipline in the line was impressive to British eyes – those attempting to jump ahead would be blocked. People were trying to help each other where they could.
Sam and Yulia were determined to help someone and found two women, one pregnant, who had three young children with them. The women were trying to cross the border again having already been turned away once when with their men folk, who were not allowed to leave Ukraine, being of fighting age. They gave the women and children refuge, food, warmth, and shelter and they were all able to cross the border together. Perhaps less helpfully, Sam taught the children the words to “Baby Shark” and sang it with them during the hours of waiting to cross to safety.
Once through the Ukrainian check point, it still took several hours more (after over 60 hours from Kyiv) to enter Poland, safety, and a chance to rest. Their story is but one of many – the UN Refugee Agency reports that more than a million people have fled Ukraine in a week. [article continues below]
Fighting the Home Office
Part of Sam’s plan to evacuate from Kyiv involved making an early application to get Yulia a visa to enter and stay in the UK. As a long-term partner of a UK citizen, she was entitled to this even under the original UK Home Office rules. The process involved a complicated form asking for much – apparently irrelevant – information, with no guidance on how to complete it. However, as Yulia had started the process in Kyiv, she was required to submit biometric data and collect the visa there. The invasion and subsequent flight from home make this impossible (indeed the office is rumoured to have been destroyed).
Incredibly, the Home Office is currently refusing to be flexible over this. Yulia is already in possession of a visa, allowing her to visit (but not remain in) the UK for business reasons. She had to submit biometric data while applying for this business visa. It is hard to understand why she cannot either submit new data somewhere other than Kyiv, or for the Home Office to be joined up enough to accept the biometric data they already hold.
Accepting that this is a chaotic and fast-moving situation (see the latest Home Office information here), the Home Office approach still seems to be predicated on the idea that Ukrainians are a problem. This contrasts poorly with the EU policy (all Ukrainians can stay for up to three years without applying for asylum) and is probably against the wishes of most of the British population. As of Sunday 6 March there were reports that only 50 visas had been issued to date.
While they have escaped the immediate danger, Sam and Yulia, and all those who have fled, now must build new lives, and figure out how to help the beleaguered country they love and never wanted to leave in the first place.
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