We need to talk about Ukraine
Thursday February 24th 2022 – England
“He’s done it.” said Kate.
This is what woke me up on that Thursday morning. We were lying in bed in Kate’s parents’ house in England and despite the statement apparently having no context at 7:30am, I instantly knew what she meant.
I think I said ‘Shit.’ Which in retrospect, was an understatement.
We got up and went into the kitchen and turned on the news.
The ‘he’ Kate referred to was Vladimir Putin and the ‘it’ was the invasion of Ukraine. And there it was on TV. Tanks. Missiles. Air attacks. All happening in a country that we called ‘home’. Standing there in a kitchen in a quiet English village watching this happen on British breakfast news was surreal to say the least. We instantly messaged friends back in the country to find out what was going on – somewhat in disbelief. Had I really actually woken up? Was this a dream?
But how did we get here? How did we end up evacuating Ukraine 9 days before the invasion? With all the talk of it on western news, why didn’t we leave before? What kept us there? What happened afterwards? Away from the news reports, what was really happening in Ukraine?
It’s taken us a long time to put pen to paper on this. It’s been a turbulent year, you could say, and we were the lucky ones who could run away to our families back in the far west of Europe, far away from the sound of explosions. But I figured it was time to give an account of our last snippet of time in Ukraine – a country we called our home (it’ll always be ‘a home’ to us) for a total of 7 years. A time that was abruptly and brutally cut short the day after Valentine’s Day 2022 when we boarded one of the few remaining flights out of Kyiv and home to England.
So let’s go back a bit and see what happened.
Friday, 11th February, 2022, Kyiv.
A normal day at the office. Despite the massing troops surrounding Ukraine’s borders life went on. Despite the panic in western media. Despite Biden’s warnings of ‘Russia will invade Ukraine any day now’, no one in Ukraine really believed it. Russia is always posturing. Always showing off its military might. Most people in the country at the time (not everyone – some had left) saw it as another one of Putin’s set pieces. He likes rattling his sabre and people’s cages. And this seemed like another incidence of this. On that particular day, I think there was a marketing meeting at work to plan for sales strategies over the coming weeks. I was editing a new grammar book probably. With that Friday feeling at 6pm I took my usual 30min stroll through the streets of Pechersk in central Kyiv to our flat. Dodging around commuters making it to the metro and being wary of the shiny patches of ice forming on the pavement. The shop fronts were lit up, bars were open. Life seemed like any Friday.
Then I got home and met Kate who worked in another part of town but the same company. She said she’d had a call with our boss because the British Embassy had announced that our citizens should leave ‘while commercial means were available’. Meaning, ‘if you don’t leave now and something happens, you’re on your own’.
They were talking about moving the teachers out of Kyiv. They wanted to move operations to Lviv in the west (a city relatively little known before the war that I know you all know now). The reason was, if Russia does come, they’re coming to Kyiv. We sat at our kitchen table in our peaceful little neighbourhood and it all started sinking in. Things were real.
In the weeks that led up to this night, I’d received numerous messages on Facebook from people I hadn’t talked to in ages. Concerns. Asking when we were leaving. Asking why we hadn’t left. Largely, I have to be honest, although flattered they’d thought of us and polite in my reply, I was a little annoyed sometimes. I kinda felt like – ‘We’re not here on holiday! We have a life here. We can’t just abandon our job and our home and our friends and colleagues at the slightest sound of a tank ignition’.
I even took amusing pictures at the time. On a nightly run in the park, I came across a snowman built under a tree. I snapped a pic and made some comment on social media about Ukrainians keeping their cool.
I was running in the very same park, right by the presidential palace, when Boris Johnson dropped round too. A line of soldiers closed down part of the park and I was doing a lap as a few limos left. When I checked the news, it was Bojo himself. ‘He didn’t even wave’ I joked.
So back to our kitchen.
I think Kate and I were a bit confused. We weren’t in a panic. We weren’t booking flights. In fact, the next day I had a tattoo booked so I was pleased nothing would happen before the following week. That was my main concern – will I be able to get this tattoo done?
Then, as it was Friday, I said to Kate ‘Well you know what we should do? …..Drink the champagne!’
I’m including this to demonstrate how ludicrous this whole situation was. Our boss had got us a bottle of Moet as a new year present and we hadn’t drunk it. It was in the fridge. We joked that as we don’t know what will happen the next day or the day after, we should probably enjoy that before we leave. So we popped a cork, clinked glasses and faced the uncertainty ahead convinced that ‘Nothing is actually going to happen’ and ‘we’ll be laughing about this in a few months’
Saturday 12th February 2022, Kyiv.
I got up, had a run, pottered about and then went to my late afternoon tattoo appointment. Same tattooist as usual. He seemed in good spirits. No mention of war. No mention of Putin. He just mocked me for getting a butterfly tattoo…
Kate made a quiche cos we’d got an online shopping order in. Then she went to work for a bit to arrange the new semester.
Then after a particularly unpleasant session on my ribs, I went home for a shower and then, as planned, met up with Kate and Sean (our boss and British owner of the company) in the local. Not so much a pub as an Italian restaurant we used as a pub just by our block of flats. Pint of Lvivske poured, small talk done, the mood went more serious. We WERE moving the teaching staff to Lviv. In the coming week. They’d be teaching online from there until the ‘heat dies down’. Again, another slap in the face from what was coming that we were happily ignoring.
Sean said we had 2 options. We could go to Lviv and live in a shared teacher property for an indefinite period….or we could fly to England and work online from there. He also suggested whatever we do –
‘Get the fuck out of Kyiv’.
So we had a decision to make. It wasn’t about staying or going, it was about where we were going.
Sunday 13th February 2022, Kyiv.
People were leaving. Our friends were disappearing off to hole out in other countries. On this particular Sunday, we took one of our usual walks around Kyiv in the chilly February afternoon. We dropped by our friend Pam’s place – another British expat. She was packing everything up. We had a leaving drink with her and said we’d see her soon anyway. Then we continued our wander as we usually did. Ending up have a few beers ‘for the road’ in the Black Piglet – one of our usual places. We didn’t know it would be our last drink in Ukraine for who knows how long.
The question of where to go was raised when our boss called while we were in the pub. Lviv was going to be a 7 hour train ride. The UK is a three-hour flight. It seemed closer. Add to this that to the family and friends who were at home watching the news, concerned for our safety, Lviv was still in Ukraine. It didn’t matter to them that it was to the west, near European borders. It was still Ukraine. So the UK it was.
Monday 14th of February 2022, Kyiv.
We’re not big on Valentine’s Day really. But I would usually at least buy Kate something. Often, I opted for chocolate and champagne as the mass jostling crowds in Kyiv’s flower stalls scared me. But this year there was no time for that. We had to pack.
In the morning, as I was walking to work, Kate rang me and told me there was a flight leaving for the UK the next day and asked if she should just book it. I specifically remember where I was. I was crossing the road just outside our apartment building.
‘Book it’ I said. And that was that.
That day, I taught three classes. One of which – a group of teens I had been teaching since 2020 when I met them in the online classroom during covid. I kinda felt they’d already been through a lot.
But anyway, not wanting to cause a scene and knowing (or now – hoping) that this would all be over in 2 weeks and we’d be back in Kyiv…I told no one. The majority of my colleagues and friends in that office were Ukrainian and they went about their Monday with their usual cheeriness – making sure they’d said hello to everyone as they arrived. Sometimes returning to my desk as they passed to say ‘Sorry Kris. Have I said hello to you today?’. I often wondered how often I’d been the rude foreigner, forgetting to greet everyone each morning.
So as all this was going on, I knew I was flying out the next day. The only people there who also shared this info were Sean and my direct managers who spoke to me about it in hushed tones.
A feeling of anxiety crept in suddenly. Like I was running away. Which I was… but I still hung onto the idea…
‘We’ll be back in 2-3 weeks.’
So I got back home that night at 10pmish after my last class and we continued cramming as much as we could into our luggage allowance. I agonized over which of my t-shirt collection to include. Should I take all these ties? What about my work shoes?
At one point Kate said ‘Don’t stress too much, we’ll be back in a few weeks.’
Tuesday February 15th , Boryspil Airport, Kyiv to Brewood, Staffordshire
The place was packed with foreigners queuing to check in luggage. We hadn’t seen it so busy in years, since Covid. Most were in jovial mood. Or at least acting it. Probably all thinking the same thing Kate had said the night before.
As we stood in the queue reading about today’s events on our phones, a newsflash appeared – Russian troops were pulling back from the borders.
See? Knew it! Tut!
But we were on our way now and the plane banked and we saw our last glimpse of Ukraine for a while.
Hours later, we were suddenly in a different world as we arrived at Kate’s parents’ house in a Staffordshire village. I think we had a sherry before bed and chatted about the journey. Almost like it was a normal visit.
But the next day we’d be setting up 2 work areas in 2 rooms where we’d be teaching our classes online – much to the students’ surprise.
Wednesday February 16th to Wednesday February 23rd – Staffordshire
And so we started a brief new routine. We now taught online from England 2 hours earlier than we had in Ukraine due to time differences. This meant we were done by 7-something and I could go out for a run around the quiet village streets with my head still in Ukraine. (I still remember, with my music on shuffle, hearing ‘Waiting on a War’ by Foo Fighters one of those nights. Creepy.)
“I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young
Since I was a little boy with a toy gun
Never really wanted to be number one
Just wanted to love everyone”
Is there more to this than that?
The students were incredibly understanding about it. They were told that further to British Embassy advice we had to leave. They understood. A few told us that we had to stay safe and if that meant leaving Ukraine, then that’s what we should do.
So we had some funny online lessons reminiscent of the covid days – I met my students’ dogs and occasionally a little brother or someone’s child appeared in shot. We laughed about it and said we’d be back in the classroom in no time.
And a constant very real worry for us at this time was – I wish we hadn’t left those tomatoes in the fridge. They’re gonna be mush when we get back.
Which brings us back to the morning of the 24th.
Twentyfour news coverage.
Constantly on our phones messaging people in Ukraine through any means necessary with the inane question – ‘How are you? Are you safe?’
The answers flooded back – generally – ‘We’re fine’
But nothing really was fine, was it? Wednesday had been a normal day of work in Kyiv. People going about their normal lives. Commuting. Planning for the weekend. Drinking coffee in the cold by a city kiosk. Complaining that the winters were getting warmer.
And on Thursday these same people were taking refuge in metro stations. Or sticking mattresses to their windows. Or streaming to the borders in convoys of cars trying to get out.
I tried to keep track of people I knew wherever they’d scattered. And it was the expats too. Some of our colleagues had chosen not to leave and now had a rude awakening on the 24th. Our school was getting them out. The Ukrainians were getting them out – but there was no room for luggage now. Just a small bag to put on your knee – and they set off for Lviv where they could get to the borders. Yes, it became a massive priority to get the expat staff out for our company, which continues to amaze me. Friends who worked at the school, like Vitaly – driver and general Mr Fixit – were now ferrying Brits and Americans out of the country. He couldn’t leave of course. But he was getting them out.
If you want to read our American friend and colleague’s story of being driven to the border by Vitaly and what he saw on the way, read Escaping the war in Ukraine.
Incidentally, Vitally had fitted our new dishwasher in the few weeks before the war. In a lighter moment as we exchanged messages sometime in late February – him in Ukraine, me in England – I told him ‘You know, Vitaly, we never got a chance to use that new dishwasher.’
He replied ‘I hope one day soon, Kris, this will be over and you’ll use your dishwasher.’
And we all hoped that.
At least the first bit, anyway.
Messages received by our Ukrainian Vodafone numbers, that had previously sent messages promoting their products and reminding us to top up:
Meanwhile, classes obviously ended and we had time on our hands. Feeling useless, we spent a day helping a Polish group in Stafford that was getting supplies there for Ukrainian refugees. We filled bags with shampoo and teabags and antibac sprays and hoped any of this would bring some comfort to someone.
Other than that, most days went like this –
Wake up – check phone. Reply to messages. Contact anyone I hadn’t heard from for a while (‘How are you?’ – ‘Fine’). Check the news. This went on for most of the morning. Then I’d run, come back and repeat.
We suddenly realised we needed a few days away from the 24-hour news footage. We had our own news coverage coming in from friends across Ukraine. So we spontaneously booked a few nights in Llandudno, Wales. Yes, this is random. Especially at that time of year. But we needed to get away for a bit.
Still here, one night in a pub – there was the 24-hour news footage on showing people making petrol bombs in Ukraine.
Kate was in the toilet and two blokes in front of me were talking and one said to the other – ‘But why are they putting polystyrene in the bottles?’
I interrupted and said – ‘because it melts and sticks so does more damage’
They looked at me quizzically and there was an awkward silence. They said nothing, then went back to their drinks.
So this pretty much brings to an end what I wanted to share about our departure from Ukraine. People often ask these days…
‘Are you still in touch with people there?’
‘Would you ever go back?’
Yes. Times and life have moved on, but when this is over and Ukraine have won – we’ll be there for a toast with our friends if they’ll meet up.
Okay, here goes putting it into a wider perspective
I wrote this blog as an account of what actually happened from our experience. It was unpleasant and it’s been a helluva year, but I want to add here that our experiences of leaving Ukraine are nothing compared to what Ukrainians are experiencing every day. Whether they’ve been ripped out of their normal lives and are sheltering in Germany or Poland or Sweden or they’re still in Ukraine. Life is painful and so unnecessarily so. But they’re so resilient. The first days of the war showed us that the military might of Russia was as overestimated as the military might of Ukraine was underestimated.
And while Russia gets weaker and resorts to more desperate tactics, Ukraine gets stronger and pushes forward.
A beautiful country and an amazing people are being battered and blown up by a huge neighbouring nation in front of the world’s eyes in the 21st century. And occasionally you see it slip down the news. This happens. This is just how the media works. A lot is going on in the world. But there’s still a war in Ukraine caused by Russia and it’s not just affecting those countries. The repercussions are far and wide and involve all of us.
And for the people who think other countries should stay out of it. That this is a Ukraine-Russia thing and it won’t affect the rest of Europe if we just leave them to get on with it.
Remember what we kept saying up until the 24th of February.
‘Nothing is actually going to happen….Is it?’
Kate and Kris.
Hong Kong – October 2022.
If I could talk to my younger self now I’d say
“Don’t take nothin’ for granted, kid
You haven’t seen just how bad things can get
And you never know what’cha got ’till it’s gone
You’ll never know ’till it’s gone…”
Days N Daze: Damaged Goods
To learn more about this amazing country and see what places like Kharkiv were like before Russia attacked, we have a lot of posts about our travels around Ukraine over the 7 years we called it ‘home’.