The day began, as most now do, with air-raid sirens over the Black Sea port of Odesa. But last Friday morning’s screams were accompanied by bursts of heavy shooting, seemingly just a few blocks from where we were standing.
I stood on the sidewalk with a group of Ukrainian men and speculated nervously. These weren’t the singular, spaced booms of artillery that we’d become sadly accustomed to in Kyiv and other cities in the three weeks since this war began. These more rapid sounds suggested Ukrainian anti-aircraft fire targeting something overhead, or – perhaps worse – small-arms fire somewhere inside the city.
Either way, it was time to move. And for the first time since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine, I was heading not toward another Ukrainian city, to another part of the war zone, but away from it all, into neighbouring Moldova and eventually all the way home to London.
It was agonizing for me to leave – after three weeks of war and two decades of reporting on Ukraine – while friends and colleagues remained. My editors, however, foresaw a long war, one that would require many more reporting trips to Ukraine over the months and maybe years ahead, rather than a single long deployment. It was time to take a break.
MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS
Less than two hours later, I was leaving Ukraine aboard a green minibus that had 12 seats, but on this day held 27 passengers. All, except me, were women and children. The minibus also held a long-haired cat, plus all the luggage we could collectively carry.
Other than a few sniffles, we sat mostly in silence as the minibus approached the border.
Even the children – piled onto each other’s laps in the seats, while most of the adults stood and pressed their hands against the ceiling for balance – seemed to grasp the enormity of the moment. They were joining the nearly four million Ukrainians who have fled this country and this unnecessary war.
A phone somewhere on the crowded minibus repeatedly played U2′s Beautiful Day as a ringtone, but the owner quickly blocked the call each time after only a few notes.
At the border, a guard perused my passport, pausing to look suspiciously at my unused Russian visa before moving on to the back of the passport, where Ukrainian border guards always leave their stamps. Amid all comings and goings from this country over the past few years, she couldn’t find the current one.
Finally, she gave up and asked: “When did you enter Ukraine?”
The first time I landed in Kyiv was in December of 2002. Back then another war loomed – the U.S. invasion of Iraq – and I had been sent to the Ukrainian capital to investigate reports that then-president Leonid Kuchma’s Russian-backed government had sold sophisticated radar systems to the regime of Saddam Hussein, in contravention of United Nations sanctions.
I remember the reporting less than I do wandering through Kyiv in the evenings. I watched an outdoor concert in the city’s historic Podil neighbourhood, where the musicians played songs by Russian bands like DDT, Kino and Splean. Then I strolled back to my hotel along the city’s main Khreshchatyk Street, past protest stickers that read “Ukraine without Kuchma” – a call for the country to hold free and fair elections.
With its blocky Soviet architecture, domed Orthodox cathedrals and a population that primarily spoke Russian, it was easy to see why many Russians considered Kyiv (or Kiev, as we spelled it back then, using the transliteration from Russian) to be a lost part of their own country. Mr. Putin certainly felt that way, as did the man he and Mr. Kuchma were both supporting to be the next president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
It’s arguable that 20 years ago, shortly after Mr. Putin first came to power in the Kremlin, something of a “Russky Mir” – a “Russian World” that l
ooked to Moscow for leadership – existed across much of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. Mr. Putin believes this is what the U.S. and the West, with their meddling and their democracy promotion, stole from him over the past two decades. And this is perhaps the main reason he has chosen to go to war against a country and a Ukrainian people that Mr. Putin referred to as being “one” with Russia and Russians in an essay published last summer.
In laid-back Kyiv, it always felt like it was Mr. Putin, with his autocratic and imperialistic politics, who was pushing Ukraine away. One of his first visits to the country as Russian President was to oversee a Soviet-style military parade through the streets of Kyiv, a city that associated the USSR with murderous repression.
Standing in the gently falling snow one evening during that first reporting trip to Ukraine, I called my foreign editor and jokingly suggested that we move our bureau from Moscow – where I lived at the time – to Kyiv, a city I had quickly fallen in love with. We both laughed. There wasn’t enough news happening in Ukraine to justify it.
The real answer the guard at the Moldova border crossing was seeking was that I had landed in Ukraine, this time, on Jan. 15, 2022, via Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport. The guard looked up with a sad smile as she finally found the relevant stamp in my passport. Boryspil Airport had been bombed on the first day of the war, Feb. 24, and the country’s airspace has been closed to civilian air traffic ever since.
Only two months have passed, but it was a different Ukraine that I landed in and reported from back then. Along with Ukrainian photographer Anton Skyba, I flew in late January to Kharkiv, a Russian-speaking city in the east of the country that military analysts felt would swiftly fall to Mr. Putin’s forces, which had been amassing around the country since April last year.
The Kharkiv I discovered was determinedly preparing a resistance that has since stunned Russia and the world. We met businessmen, lawyers and scientists who were learning to handle weapons and defend their homes. The city’s high-tech industry was pumping out drones for use against Russian tanks and artillery. Kharkiv, just 30 kilometres from the Russian border, knew well what life was like on Mr. Putin’s side of the frontier and didn’t want to be a part of that. The city’s fierce resistance has helped change the script of this war, from an expected Russian blitzkrieg to a war of attrition that’s taking an enormous toll on both sides.
Later, we drove to the northern city of Chernihiv, near Ukraine’s border with Belarus, and watched more civilians hold automatic rifles for the first time as they prepared for a Russian assault from the north, through Belarus, a country where many in Chernihiv have relatives. The city’s refusal to capitulate, despite an increasingly cruel siege, has prevented Russia from fully encircling Kyiv, just 150 kilometres to the south.
Anton and I also visited prewar Odesa, which was even then
bracing for a possible amphibious assault by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. We also took a pair of nerve-wracking helicopter trips to the front line in the Donbas region, where Russia had been waging a low-level proxy war against Ukraine since 2014.
In the village of Stanytsia Luhanska, we visited a kindergarten that had been shelled by pro-Russian forces on Feb. 17, precisely a week before Mr. Putin widened the battlefield from Donbas to include all of Ukraine. Three teachers were hurt in the shelling of the Fairy Tale Kindergarten, and the children were only spared by the swift actions of the adults around them. The shattered kindergarten wall and the scattered soccer balls and other toys were a horrible portent of the merciless war that was about to begin.
Every now and again, someone asks me what the happiest story I’ve ever reported on was. My answer has long been the Orange Revolution in 2004, which saw Ukrainians take to the streets to demand a genuine election, rather than the sort of stage-managed farce that Mr. Putin’s regime in Russia had by then already perfected.
The revolution was slow to get going – I remember an awkward conversation in October of that year with my editor, who wondered what had happened to the massive popular uprising I predicted – but it rapidly swelled as more and more Ukrainians realized they were not alone in their disgust with Mr. Kuchma, Mr. Yanukovych and Mr. Putin.
Many years before air-raid sirens became the standard wake-up call in Kyiv, I would open my eyes each morning in November and December of 2004 to chants of “Yush-chen-ko!” for Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western politician who had become the face of the uprising after surviving a poisoning attempt that many believe was masterminded in the Kremlin. The Orange Revolution was named after the colour used by Mr. Yushchenko’s campaign.
After more than two months of non-stop peaceful protests on Kyiv’s central Independence Square, better known now as the Maidan, Mr. Yushchenko and his supporters got what they wanted – a fairly held runoff vote, which gave Mr. Yushchenko a clear win over Mr. Yanukovych.
The celebrations on the Maidan were joyous. Though Western embassies in Kyiv had provided behind-the-scenes support to the pro-democracy demonstrations, it was nonetheless fair to say that people power and hope had won out over cynicism and authoritarianism.
If you looked at geopolitics as a real-life game of Risk – as many in Washington and Moscow did and do, overlooking the will of the Ukrainian people – the West had wrested an important country out of the Kremlin’s orbit and moved another chip into the territory of the former Soviet Union. But the modern struggle for Ukraine was only beginning.
After weeks of rumours this February, the almost nightly reports about a Russian invasion that would start at this or that hour had become a source of grim humour among the Western media based in Kyiv. We’d joke about whose turn it was to stay up late watching for the first air strike, laugh and then drink another glass of wine or beer in the lobbies of our still-functioning hotels.
They were, in retrospect, the very strange last hours of the Kyiv and the Ukraine that we knew.
The latest rumour, about an attack that would start at 4 o’clock on the morning of Feb. 24, a Thursday, felt more solid than the ones that preceded it.
Mr. Putin’s speech three days earlier, in which he recognized the “independence” of the areas of Donbas that were under the control of Moscow-backed militias, had turned war from a possibility into what felt like an inevitability. The only questions still unanswered were when the invasion would start, and how big it would be.
At 3:50 a.m., I gave up waiting and went back to Room 717 of the Radisson Hotel. My eyes were closed before my face hit the pillow, and I had optimistic plans of sleeping until at least noon. Just more than an hour later, I was running down the emergency stairs into the parking lot under the hotel as air-raid sirens wailed over the Ukrainian capital for the first time in this conflict.
It was a routine we’d repeat often over the days ahead. The sirens shouted, you grabbed your bulletproof vest, helmet and “go bag” – a backpack stuffed with what you hoped was everything you’d need to survive the night (and if you’re a journalist, file a report) – and you dashed into the nearest basement, parking lot or subway station to hunker down until the all-clear siren finally came.
On the morning of Feb. 24, we emerged sleepless and frightened, not knowing what had happened to the city while we hid in our parking garage. After a breakfast magicked up by the Radisson staff, a group of journalists decided to go for a walk. At first, we planned only to wander the street outside the hotel, then we decided to range a little further toward what we assumed would be the safety of the city’s golden-domed Saint Sophia Cathedral, 700 metres away.
The streets were deserted, and the normally bustling heart of Kyiv eerily quiet, other than the solemn lineups that were already forming at bank machines. I spotted an open coffee shop and ducked in for a cup while my colleagues muttered about how my desire for caffeination was going to get us all killed.
A trio of us then headed downhill to the Maidan, the scene of so much tumult and triumph in the past. I must have 1,000 photos on various phones and cameras that I’ve taken over the years of Independence Square. Some are touristy snaps. A few are grim. (I took one in December, 2013, that shows a line of Mr. Yanukovych’s helmeted riot police hitting at a crowd of pro-European protesters with batons.) But most of the photos capture s
omething either inspiring or joyous. The square, in the photos and in my memory, is almost always packed with people either fighting for, or enjoying, their freedom.
But that morning of Feb. 24, the square was empty. Fear, which this country had fought so long and hard to shake off, had returned.
The Russian narrative of what happened in Ukraine over the past 20 years – which is important because this is the alternate reality in which Mr. Putin lives, thinks and acts – is one of stolen Russian lands and Western aggression.
The Kremlin was willing to tolerate Ukraine’s independence as long as it had a pliant regime in Kyiv, as was the case under Mr. Kuchma and Mr. Yanukovych. The Orange Revolution, which collapsed after a few years of bitter infighting among the pro-Western camp – allowing Mr. Yanukovych to win the presidency in a fairly fought 2010 election – ironically only strengthened Russia’s hold over Ukraine.
Then came the winter of 2013-2014, which saw Mr. Yanukovych yank the country off its course of European integration, and toward something called the Eurasian Economic Union. The EAEU is a Moscow-dominated trading bloc that is widely considered an attempt by Mr. Putin – who has always mourned the fall of the Soviet Union – to rebuild something like the USSR. All five current member states were Soviet republics until 1991.
Mr. Yanukovych’s about-face brought Ukrainians onto the Maidan once more. But where both sides avoided the use of violence during the Orange Revolution, this time they came ready to fight. An attempt by Mr. Yanukovych in November, 2013, to crush the demonstrations with riot police only caused the protests to grow in size and determination. In February, 2014, when police used live ammunition on a crowd of protesters advancing toward the presidential administration building in Kyiv, the demonstrators fought back, using everything from pieces of torn-up sidewalk to their own guns.
Mr. Yanukovych was forced to flee, and the uprising became known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity. Chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko, one of the key leaders of the revolt, was elected President, and five years later, he lost a fairly run election to TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky.
In Moscow, however, the events of 2014 were viewed as a coup that the West had supported diplomatically and financially. Mr. Putin sent his troops to seize and annex the strategic Crimean Peninsula – the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, a Soviet-era arrangement that Mr. Yanukovych had agreed to extend – and Russian agents stirred up a popular uprising in the Donbas region, sparking a war there that would kill 14,000 people over the next eight years.
The Donbas wa
r was Mr. Putin’s counter to the Revolution of Dignity. The proxy conflict was supposed to bleed Ukraine of its fighting strength while simultaneously preventing economic development. The West responded with a phalanx of sanctions that now looks modest alongside the economic weapons that have been used to punish Russia for its most recent invasion.
The failed peace process that Mr. Putin fostered over the course of the Donbas war revealed his true aim: to force a Ukrainian surrender that would give Moscow a permanent say, via its armed control of Donbas, over how the country was governed – as well as a de facto guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO. But Ukraine, as we see now, never intended to surrender. And so Mr. Putin decided to escalate yet again.
After spending the first 48 hours of Mr. Putin’s latest war dashing in and out of bomb shelters in Kyiv, Anton and I – along with two colleagues from The Guardian newspaper of Britain – decided that we could do a better job covering the war from a base just outside the capital than we could if we were caught inside a Russian siege of the city.
Or so we thought. But that changed as soon as we arrived at the country cottage that The Guardian had arranged for us about 30 kilometres southwest of the capital.
First, the driver we had hired, supposedly for the duration of the war, quit – understandably choosing to remain with his family.
Second, our new countryside retreat was caught between two targets that didn’t appear on tourist maps of Ukraine. The Vasylkiv military airport, just south of us, would be the scene of fierce fighting over the three days that we stayed carless on the outskirts of Kyiv. Russian warplanes repeatedly hit an oil refinery in the area, turning the sky orange with fire by day and darkening it by night with toxic smoke.
After a weekend spent repeatedly diving to the floor of our cottage as warplanes flew overhead and the sounds of artillery got closer and closer, our rescue arrived in the form of a 2007 Land Rover that we’d purchased over the internet (driven to us by the courageous Serhey Mastriuk, whom we hired on the spot as our new full-time driver).
We left almost immediately, heading west to the relative safety of Lviv, the cultural capital of Western Ukraine. These days the city feels more like the set of a Cold War movie, full of refugees, journalists, aid workers and spies eying each other warily in the increasingly crowded cobblestoned streets.
Midway through our stay in Lviv, we got a chance to head back toward Kyiv, following a 14-car convoy of volunteers who were delivering donated food, medicines and hygiene products to the city of Fastiv, a smallish centre on the last open road into the capital. After a night of sleeping on the floor of a community centre there, the volunteers would head back to Lviv with as many women and children as the convoy could carry.
As we stood on Fastiv’s main square, listening as the local priest read out a list of t
he 70 people who would be evacuated that day, Anton had a request: Could we dash back into Kyiv?
He wanted to grab a few more things from the apartment he’d abandoned days earlier – the second time he’d been forced to flee a home in just eight years. A badminton fanatic, it deeply bothered Anton that he’d forgotten to grab his rackets when we hastily departed Kyiv.
Given all we had been through together, I couldn’t say no. Serhey drove our Land Rover into the city via the still-open southern road, through a maze of Ukrainian checkpoints.
When we reached Anton’s apartment, we filled a duffel bag with extra clothes, a book about the pro-Ukrainian protests in Donbas in 2014 that featured one of Anton’s photographs on the cover, plus a bottle of 30-year-old whiskey that he’d received on his 30th birthday.
As well as his beloved badminton rackets.
Some of the wars I’ve covered have begun to blur into each other.
I met Anton while covering the war in Donbas, and we later travelled together into Donetsk, a city controlled by so-called separatists to rescue a source – a pro-Ukrainian blogger – who had gone missing after speaking to me. Vlad, our source, had been jailed for several months by the authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic and released in early 2016 with neither his passport nor his mobile phone, making him a free man who could never leave the Kafkaesque territory.
Anton and I – mostly Anton – got Vlad out by bending all the rules of journalism and arranging for a smuggler to drive our source out to Ukrainian-held territory on a night when soldiers on both sides were paid a little extra not to look into that specific car.
Five years later, as Kabul fell to the Taliban, and The Globe and Mail and other news organizations scrambled to evacuate Afghans who had worked for them, it was Anton and his girlfriend, Lisa, who helped me settle The Globe’s long-time news assistant, Sharif Sharaf, in Kyiv after the Ukrainian military had flown Sharif and his family out of Kabul.
Though Sharif and his family were quickly allowed to move on to Toronto, we nonetheless found ourselves enmeshed in yet another drama set in Kyiv. Jawed Haqmal, a Canadian military translator who was evacuated by the Ukrainian military – at The Globe’s request – at the same time as Sharif, found himself stranded by the byzantine processes of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for six months even as another war closed in on Jawed and his extended family of 12 people.
Anton and I met Jawed on the Maidan the morning after the first bombs fell on Kyiv. He
was going to flee with his family to Lviv, he had decided, and then wherever fate took him from there.
I was worried, and suggested he might be better staying at his hotel room in Kyiv (which The Globe had been paying for) rather than chancing the potentially more dangerous road out of the city. But Jawed, whose wife was six-months pregnant, had seen enough of war to know he didn’t want to put his family through another one.
On March 1, Jawed messaged me to say that he and his family had safely reached Poland and were planning to head next to Germany. A few days later, Lisa – already displaced once by the Donbas war – reached the European Union too, as the pain Mr. Putin has inflicted on Ukraine continued to grow.
Sitting in Lviv as war rages in the rest of the country came with a strange feeling of guilt.
The city, with its UNESCO-protected old town that reflects its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has always felt different from the rest of Ukraine. Ceded to Poland at the end of the First World War, it was protected from the Holodmor famine that Stalin unleashed on the rest of Ukraine in the 1930s. Though it was captured by the Red Army in 1945, Lviv nonetheless maintained its unique feel, eventually becoming the heartland of Ukraine’s drive for independence in 1991.
Lviv has largely been spared again through the awful first month of Vladimir Putin’s war of reconquest. The city is overflowing with internally displaced persons from the rest of the country, with an estimated 60,000 more arriving or passing through every day. But the city’s banks and restaurants have continued to function, and grocery stores continue to operate with constant resupply from Poland, just 65 kilometres away. The city’s airport and the nearby Yavoriv military base have been struck by Russian cruise missiles, but otherwise the invasion is something that’s happening somewhere else.
After prolonged debate, Anton and I decided Lviv was too removed a spot from which to properly cover the war. So, we headed east and then south toward the strategic Black Sea port of Odesa, a city founded by the Russian empress Catherine the Great, which is believed to be one of the key objectives of Mr. Putin’s war. Halfway through our 800-kilometre journey, we paused for a sleepless night in Uman, a normally serene Jewish pilgrimage site. Air-raid sirens wailed throughout our short stay in the city as Russian rockets targeted another nearby airfield.
Though the war had not yet come to Odesa, returning to the city after six weeks away was nonetheless one of the most jarring experiences of our journey. In early February, we had repeatedly gathered with friends in the cafés and restaurants of the city’s famed Deribasovskaya Street, staying up late and arguing about whether Western media and diplomats were being ridiculous with their predictions that Mr. Putin was about to attack.
By mid-March, the centre
of Odesa was deserted other than the Ukrainian soldiers who manned the city’s newly built labyrinth of concrete blocks and sandbags. The restaurants and bars of Deribasovskaya were all closed, and the street was blocked by dozens of metal anti-tank barricades. Ukrainian armoured vehicles were parked at strategic locations around the city, the barrels of their guns pointed out toward the Black Sea, where Russian warships lingered somewhere over the horizon.
The reason Odesa had thus far gone untouched was the ferocious defence mounted by Ukrainian forces in the smaller port city of Mykolaiv, 130 kilometres to the east. Mykolaiv, which before the war was the centre of Ukraine’s shipbuilding industry, has become one of the defining battlegrounds of the early stages of this conflict, alongside Kyiv, Kharkiv and horrifically battered Azov Sea port of Mariupol. Half of Mykolaiv’s prewar population of just under 475,000 are believed to have fled the city.
We made the slow trip into Mykolaiv via the last remaining bridge over the Bug River – a narrow lifeline that connects the city and its remaining population to the rest of Ukraine. The bridge had already been scarred by at least one explosion that left a hole in the road that drivers heading in and out of the city had to navigate around.
As in Kyiv, the fighting for Mykolaiv has been largely contained to the outskirts of the city, while the centre has become a transit point for desperate families fleeing their destroyed villages, some of which had fallen behind the slowly advancing front line. A hostel in the city, operated by the local Red Cross as a transit centre for people fleeing their homes, was a whirlwind of activity when we visited.
We met a family that escaped that morning after Russian forces had been sighted near their tiny village outside Mykolaiv, then a carload of evacuees – with the back window of their Soviet-era Zhiguli blown out – who had been sheltering in a school basement that morning when it was hit by an air strike in the adjacent Kherson region.
As we spoke to them, a yellow bus rolled up, disgorging more than a dozen disoriented and displaced elderly residents of local villages that had become battlefields. We heard tales of bodies – some of them said to be Russian soldiers – lying uncollected in the streets.
In the distance, artillery sounded. We decided to head back to Odesa before nightfall, cognizant of the fact that if that last bridge was hit again, we would be trapped in Mykolaiv for the duration of the battle.
Following the trip to Mykolaiv it was time to go home, at least for now.
After leaving Ukraine on foot, I was given a seat on a second minibus that took 10 of us – six women, three girls and me – to the first refugee camp inside Moldova, another corner of the former Soviet Union. As we rode, I followed our journey on Google Maps.
We were just south of Transdniestria, a part of Moldova that has been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since the ear
ly 1990s. Another conflict fuelled by the Kremlin as a way of maintaining its influence over the far-flung bits of its former empire, one many in Moldova worry could lead to fresh fighting in their country as the war for Ukraine enters its second month.
When we reached the refugee camp, a yellow-jacketed volunteer boarded the minibus. “Just to inform you we have free transportation from here to Romania and to Kishinev, also free. There is also food and tea here in the camp,” she told the newly arrived refugees using the Russian name of the Moldovan capital city, Chisinau. There were other buses heading from the camp to Germany, France, Poland and the Czech Republic.
The volunteer was Moldovan, but spoke in Russian. The women on the bus all responded in their own native Russian, the lingua franca of Odesa and Mykolaiv, as well as Kharkiv, Mariupol and much of Kyiv. “Spacibo,” they whispered in unison to the volunteer. “Thank you.”
The Russian World that Mr. Putin dreams of existed here, or at least it could have. But rather than building a Russia that the former Soviet republics looked to with admiration, Mr. Putin repeatedly resorted to intimidation and violence. If there is a Russian World now, it detests the Russia they see attacking its cities, destroying its treasures, killing its people and forcing the survivors to flee their homes.
I sat on a bench in the refugee camp and watched as the Russian-speaking Ukrainians – the very people Mr. Putin sent his armies to “rescue” – clambered onto the waiting buses. All of them were headed west.
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