Time stopped that very moment I heard the first explosion. I woke up to the warmest hug I ever got from my husband. He said, “Please, wake up. It has begun.” I sat up on my bed. Our blankets and sheets were still warm. But my body felt as cold as ice. My mind was clear. Eyes wide open to the darkness of the room. I heard the explosion. The first, the second, the third.
I remember the shape of my husband’s body in the twilight, moving closer to the window. I had no fear. Shed no tear. The war has started. And I felt… relief. It started. Now for real.
Everybody in Ukraine knew it was coming. We felt it in the air. People talked about the chances Russia might invade our territory for months by that time. There were people packing go-bags and booking apartments in advance — “Just in case.” There were people laughing about the possibility of war. There were people strongly arguing the chances: “It’s impossible” they said. “It’s the 21st century, nobody is making real war now.”
Yet, we felt it was coming. This endless waiting drove me crazy. Would it come? Would we move west? Would we be able to escape in time? Would everybody be safe? Would everybody I know be sane enough to leave? Would there be a safe place to go?
“I saw it,” my husband said. “I saw the flash of the blast. We have to get out as soon as we can.”
I stood and put on my warmest clothes. He took out our backpacks. “I’ll take a bigger one, you take a smaller one.”
I knew what to do. Laptop, chargers, documents, one warm sweater for a change. I was ready in 5 minutes.
“We need to find someone who can drive us away,” he said.
Think. Who can it be? My father promised to take us out, but he’s 5 hours away from Kyiv. And there are explosions all around. It’s too dangerous. Friends? Who had the plan? Who has a car? Think. There’s no time, just think faster.
I dialed my best friend while recalling every slightest opportunity there was. Every car, bus, evacuation opportunity. My friend’s phone was unreachable. Is she safe? She was online 6 hours ago. She must be sleeping. Must be sleeping. The explosions were heard afar.
She must be sleeping. Damn phone.
I called the emergency line from my company. They promised to get us out. No answer.
I called a friend with the car. No answer.
I hopelessly called a carrier. No answer.
I called my friend, who booked an apartment in Lviv a week before and planned to leave the city. “Hi, what’s up?” he said.
“Where are you?”
“I heard the explosions.”
“I hear them, too.”
“What are you about to do?”
“Nothing. I’ll stay.”
I stood in the middle of my kitchen in complete silence. The dawn was breaking. I saw people with bags, pets, and children, getting to their cars and leaving. I heard my husband packing.
“Yeah, I read the news. I think it’ll be over soon.”
I couldn’t say another word. It was like all the words I had, my every hysterical impulse was crammed right in the middle of my throat. I had a thousand thoughts flashing in my mind. But I knew there was nothing I could say to make him change his mind. And I should not.
“I’m getting out.”
It was 6 AM. The 24th of February. Kyiv. The heart of my country. The heart that had suddenly stopped beating that morning.
I came back to the room, where my husband had just finished packing his backpack. He looked at me with a silent question in his eyes. I shook my head, whispering, “No.”
“I can’t reach her. Something with her phone.”
“Dial her again.”
I started calling again while seeing him filling my backpack with books. “It might be heavy to carry, but it would protect you in case of shelling,” he said.
“I need to take these empty carton boxes out, so they won’t be set on fire in case… I need to go down. Would you be alright if I do? It’s just for a few minutes.”
I suddenly felt numb. I knew it would be alright, but the idea of getting separated, even for a few moments, felt like death.
“Yes. I know you’ll come back”
“I’ll go down, and maybe will ask some people around. Try to find somebody with a car while I’m gone. Okay?”
“Sure, will do”
I opened the front door. My husband left with a bunch of carton boxes. He called the lift. It was just like any other day when I saw him leaving for work. He always came back. He would this time, too.
I called my father.
“Dad? Sorry to wake you up. We heard the explosions. They are bombing Kyiv. We need to get out, but we have no car. I don’t know what to do.”
“There are some guys from my work, who might be going home today. I’ll call them up. If not, I’ll drive all the way to Kyiv and will take you out. Give me 15 minutes, I’ll call you back.”
Left in the complete silence of the morning, I stood in my kitchen and couldn’t move. I kept thinking of the possibilities to get out. Of my friend, who didn’t pick up the phone yet. How would I get her out, if she won’t hear my calls? I’d go to her place and will be knocking on doors until she’s woken up. Yes. That does sound like a plan. The way out of the city is on the way in any case.
I heard my husband opening the front door.
“People are getting out. They are not panicking. Just said — get out as soon as you can. Found someone?”
“My dad is calling up his co-workers, they might take us out. If not, he’ll come himself.”
“Nope, haven’t reached her yet. We might need to go to her place if she won’t answer.”
I heard my phone ringing. My dad.
“Ok,” he said. “The guys from my work are getting out on a corporate van, they will take you. Write down the number. They are leaving in two hours, but you’ll need to go to the Kyiv Zoo. Can you make it that far?”
“Ok, call them, they wait.”
“Thank you, dad. Thank you so much.” I suddenly heard my voice trembling.
“Just call me back when you find them. Just call me back.”
I immediately dialed the phone. My father’s colleague said they would be waiting at Sviatoshyno subway station in two hours. We were ready to leave.
Finally, my friend called me back.
“I don’t know whether you heard the explosions, but I did. Start packing, we are leaving. Meet us at the Sviatoshyno subway station, we are leaving now”
“Ok, I’m getting up. Meet you there”
I felt like I was leaving a part of myself in that old Kyiv apartment. I hated it so much — the old walls and yellowish wallpapers, dusty couches and faded furniture, aged curtains, and awful brown carpet I hopelessly tried to clean up. I wanted to leave it for months; I felt like choking in there. Yet, at the very moment we were stepping out, I felt heartbroken. I could never imagine we would be forced to leave it that way.
Time stopped. And I didn’t know whether it would ever go on again.
Photo provided by the author.