As an American, you know when a country is preparing for war. I’ve seen it many times. Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq 2003, and even Vietnam. They are going to do it if compiled in detail. In mid-December, intellectually, I was convinced that Russia was going to invade Ukraine, a lot of scores, old and new.
Of course, this did not seem logical – what would be the final game if Russia succeeded militarily? We can see now that the Russians have oppressed themselves. So, emotionally, I and many of my friends and colleagues dismissed the idea of war as impossible.
Towards the end of January, after all the New Year holidays were over, I sat down with a dear friend at the opulent Intercontinental in downtown Kiev with ice cream and coffee – and 100 grams of Ukrainian cognac for good measure. (The constant threat of war will inevitably increase the level of alcohol consumption in the geography of a target Bolshevik.) My friend is a very intelligent and experienced war correspondent. We both agreed that the city and country environment must have been the same as in Europe in 1939 – “waiting for the war that never came” he said. I commented, “And then it came.”
On the first of February, I hit an internal timer clock. I calculated that I had 15 “safe” days and each day thereafter would be proportionately less secure. I spent many deep nights looking out of the surrounding windows waiting for a cruise missile to crash… yet, most of my colleagues thought it was just a hybrid-war high-stack poker game.
On the 17thM In February, having completed 90% of the work I had planned for myself, I arrived at the beautiful, peaceful and blessed Caritas Youth Camp in the western Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains. One meter of snow, and not a military target for 100 clicks. Almost alone there, a few returning to Kiev and my friends are sure I was overreacting. Talking to good acquaintances in DC and elsewhere, I was convinced that the Russian “Punishment Express” was about to pass through the Chernobyl boycott zone aimed at Kiev. In this case, the standard Ukrainian “Samogon” (home-made vodka) was the drink of choice.
For the past few months I have been scheduled to be in Saudi Arabia for a special event at the end of February. I initially planned to fly directly from Kyiv on the 18thM After February, the airlines started canceling flights. From western Ukraine, I re-booked for Friday the 25thM 250 clicks away from Lviv. The Olympics ended on the 20thM – No war! Maybe my colleagues were right, and I was wrong. 23rd Red Army Day – I need another 48 hours. Thursday, 24M, I was packing early – at 06:30 I got a call from a friend near the airbase outside Kiev – “The party has started.” I was less than 30 hours …
That evening was one of the mixed emotions in the camp. We had a prayer service, sat down for dinner, a certain tranquility was set. Kyiv is far away.
On Friday morning the mood got darker. The overnight news was alarming. Lviv hit the airport. I told my friend at camp that I had to go. The government has ordered that all men between the ages of 18 and 60 must be at their place of registration, and street checkpoints have already been set up. No one will take me to the border. I pushed – thinking of buying myself an old car to drive 100 clicks across the Romanian border and abandoning it there. I have to go.
Finally, at about 11:00 am, an elderly man agreed to take me. What used to be a $ 200 trip the day before now has a significant multiplier – war makes people do weird things. At 13:00 we left for the border.
An important consideration, among many considerations, is for all Americans in Ukraine to understand what the American Citizens Service (ACS) unit in Kiev has done for all Americans in this terrible time. Since the first day of the crisis after the New Year, they have been in constant contact with the American community in Ukraine. They hosted an open town hall, explained what they could and could not do for us, and provided a WhatsApp channel for American Citizen Liaison volunteers, one of whom I am, to communicate more with our friends, family and colleagues. Amazing communication. For those, like me, who have cut it a little too close, they continue to provide our communication at the best and safest land crossings in the West.
To this day, ACS Kiev and ACS Bucharest have given me excellent recommendations on where to cross the border. In this case, they said it would be better to cross the Sigetul Marmatiye to Romania from Jakartapathia in Solotovino on the Ukrainian side. We left at noon.
My high-priced “chaffer” was pleasing enough – I paid him enough. After all, we were in the land of God, and the only military target there was some dams and river crossings. We encountered a checkpoint not far from Rakhib’s camp. No problem.
When we arrived in Solotvino, as soon as we got to town we hit the car line – at least a kilometer long. After an hour or two, I started to reconsider the situation and in turn we proceeded 5-10 meters. Luckily it was a happy day, everyone was in the same boat, so there was very little reason to communicate about anything else with the people I encountered.
A lot of people walk, pull luggage and carry whatever they can. I concluded that since my driver would not cross the border at any time, I would have to get on the pedestrian line. I went ahead. When my car finally caught up with me, the driver dropped off his luggage, and he told the border guard that I was American, and had been in the car for about five hours. The guard called me out of line and sent me to the Ukrainian processing point.
A funny anecdote – if there’s one funny anecdote in this situation: I’ve used a surplus U.S. Army backpack from the Vietnam era for 30 years – the guard pulled me aside and called me a “military man”, he had to check the backpack. The first thing he found was my beads, St. Christopher’s Medal and some prayer cards. He said goodbye.
The Ukrainian authorities were trying to keep a tight upper lip, but it was not Ukrainian style – they had tears in their eyes. I did my best to make them happy … after all, they witnessed emigration in ’21St. Europe of the century. Sad. Really sad.
The Romanian checkpoint was about 300 meters away on a wooden slat bridge that looks like it was last repaired during the Soviet era. There were potholes in the road, and the walkway was closed as the riders and other structures fell to pieces. I brought my gear across the Tissa River to Romania.
The Romanian side was like any other planet. Crowds of people and news agencies were waiting for anyone to get it. People – strangers – covered me with food, water, soda, free accommodation offers, free rides to hotels, and so on. Amazing and amazing people.
I took them on a free ride … I researched a good hotel in Sigetul. Hotel Iza – Great place if God ever wants you to stay there. Great staff and people.
After a night’s rest and a few more rounds of cognac, I arranged my departure from Romania. The first logical flight was from Cluj to Frankfurt at 04:00. The next night I set off in the middle of the night for a five-hour switchback drive through the mountains in a Chilean van with a few more passengers to Cluj. We stopped twice to drop off and pick up. Every time we stopped, the station shop gave all the passengers food, water, whatever. I tried to explain that I could not get it into the safety line, but the owners insisted that we must feed. At the airport, I’ve tried to set it all up so that those who need it can use it. Twenty-four hours later, I was at my destination.
I am not a refugee. I have been around the block a few times and have my property in the state. I have a job, I have resources, I have experienced and good friends and I had an American embassy. Planned, organized. It could be Plan A to Plan E, but I had the luxury of being able to plan and create my own sequential steps.
Again, many do not.