This is how Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has looked to one 16-year-old high school senior from Kyiv, the daughter of Worldcrunch contributor Anna Akage.
My name is Sofiia, I’m 16 and I’m from Kyiv. Like my friends, I had plans … and dreams too. I believed in the future.
And then came 5 a.m. on February 24, and nothing would ever be the same.
Suddenly, and for the next two weeks, everything around me became very specific and elementary: how many kilometers, how many people, how much gasoline. Life became like simple mathematics — and math never fails.
That first day, we already decided to try to leave Kyiv, hoping to go to relatives 120 kilometers south. We were lucky that we could get out of the capital because our grandfather was in the army. I thought it would just be for a day or two. Well, at least I tried to convince myself that it might be temporary.
Twelve hours to Lviv
We stayed in the village for three days and then tried to head west, to Uzhgorod, in the direction of Slovakia. But there were tanks and we had to turn around, and we didn't have enough petrol to detour north toward Lviv and the border of Poland.
On the fourth day after the invasion, we returned to Kyiv and went directly to the railway station. There we said goodbye to my grandfather, who joined the Donbas battalion and is now defending Kyiv. I had never seen the station so crowded, as I arrived with my nine-year-old brother Demian, grandmother Tatiana, and our fluffy white-fur Samoyed dog Bonya.
Screaming women, crying children, old people who could barely move. Hundreds of us were waiting for the train approaching the platform heading to Lviv. But it didn’t stop — it was already full of people coming from eastern Ukraine.
It was, I hope, the worst moment of my life.
It wasn’t long before another train arrived, and right away a mass of people assaulted it like I had only seen once before: on a New Year’s Eve subway in Paris near the Eiffel Tower. France, we hoped, would be our final destination now. That’s where my mom lives, and at that moment she was heading toward Ukraine to try to get us out.
The train door opened and the people pushed forward, slowly beginning to climb in. We stood back, staring at this panicked rush, not realizing that in a few minutes we would have to join the crowd and only managed to find space on the metal platform between two train cars with three other people and two dogs.
We were blocked on both sides. It was, I hope, the worst moment of my life. There was no heating, and we rode with the lights off and the windows tightly closed. There was one toilet and one kettle for the whole train. Twelve hours to Lviv.
Sofiia's dog Bonya waiting on the platform of a train station
To the Polish border
People tried to help each other, shared food, rotating shifts inside the compartments so the children could sleep in turn. Those sitting on the platform told stories, some that made us laugh about how unarmed Ukrainians are resisting the Russian occupiers. One passenger said she’d heard about a grandmother who took sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers and told them to put them in their pockets, because when they die, their bodies will fertilize Ukrainian soil, and at least sunflowers will grow on our land.
It seemed like all of central and eastern Ukraine had arrived in Lviv. But we knew not everyone would make it to the border. Bonfires were lit in huge canisters on the streets to keep warm, there were tents and children everywhere. The cold was terrible. But again, we were lucky: We had a friend in the city who took us to her small apartment.
We ended up staying in Lviv for two days. Sounds of air raid sirens came several times a day. Still, we felt that now the worst was over. I was very worried about my grandmother: She is 60 and not only did she fear for her life, but also had an incredible responsibility to take my brother and me out of Kyiv.
Every time we stopped at checkpoints and the Ukrainian military asked for documents, they wished us a good trip, and let us pass. I felt safe, incredibly grateful, and was even letting myself to start to feel relieved. All these Ukrainian servicemen seemed so tall and beautiful to me. I will never forget their eyes. It seems to me that now I will be able to distinguish a Ukrainian from any other person by the look in their eye. Checkpoints run by the Ukrainian military on the road to Poland would be the last thing we saw in Ukraine.
No news from dad
I wasn’t able to say goodbye to my dad. The day we left Kyiv he joined territorial defense as a volunteer. Now we have very little news about him, sometimes not a single message for two or three days. I think about him all the time.
I couldn’t feel any emotions during our journey, and I'm not sure if I can even feel them now. Like I said, it was like math. I understood what was happening, but could not make any further sense of the situation. The only thing I can say that I felt was the gratitude that began to awaken as we walked. We were saved by the simple acts of people, and by destiny.
How could it all just disappear?
Mama arrived in Lviv early in the morning on March 1st. Without taking a rest she went to the Lviv train station to find how to get out but all the buses were full, endless lines of people waiting under the falling snow.
Getting to Poland required more luck because there was a critical shortage of buses, cars, and gasoline. But my mother’s friend got the contacts of one of the evacuation bus drivers who saved four places for us. It was only for women and kids — thank God the driver was so kind that he let us take the dog too. We departed the same day and reached the border past midnight.
Sofiia (and her brother Demian in the background) at a refugee camp
A parallel destiny
Across the border, there was a refugee camp, with Polish and Ukrainian volunteers, and their patience and caring felt like a miracle too. At one point, a girl volunteer approached me, covered me with a blanket, and touched my shoulder without saying a word. There would be volunteers in three more countries in Europe, and we trusted that all of them only wanted what was best for us.
Another train brought us to Warsaw and another refugee camp. It was in a dormitory near the school. While waiting on the bus, I saw teenagers at the school stadium. They looked to be around my age, and reminded me of my class back home: the boys playing football, the girls walking in groups, chatting, the teacher lecturing some kid who was up to no good. Looking out the bus window, I wondered about my friends still trapped in Kyiv.
There was one more question in my head: Where did that life that I know go? What will happen to my plans? To those five minutes rushing before the lesson to finish my homework? To the volleyball matches, and final exams, and getting ready for the senior prom ... How could it all just disappear?
If you believe in the theory of parallel worlds, there must be a place somewhere where I graduate high school. Where the weather in Kyiv starts to warm and the days get longer. My school is flooded again with sunlight, winter is finally over and I am wearing the skirt I’d bought in January to wear to school when spring arrives.
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