Journalist escapes Ukraine, details harrowing journey at the border

People grew impatient quickly and started pushing each other. The situation turned dangerous, as we risked being crushed. We heard mothers and children screaming.

  • 1 year ago
  • April 8, 2023
5 min read
Hundreds of thousands of people waited for hours at the border between Poland and Ukraine in the cold. Hundreds of thousands of people waited for hours at the border between Poland and Ukraine in the cold. | Photo courtesy of Maria Romanenko
Maria Romanenko is a journalist, writer and presenter in Ukraine. She is now living with her partner in Manchester but her home is in Kyiv, Ukraine. She campaigned to raise money for Ukraine while staying in England. Maria and her partner Jez Myers are writing a book about the their experience getting out of Ukraine.
Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022. While many chose to fight in the war, others decided to flee the country. The border between Ukraine and Poland was packed with hundreds of thousands of refugees. In addition to the long waiting queues, some refugees had no access to food or water. Many lost patience and began pushing each other, which resulted in injuries and death.

LVIV, Ukraine —  On February 24, 2022, my partner and I woke to the sound of bombs being dropped all over the country. Terrified for our safety, he urged me to accompany him to his home in Manchester, England. He planned to cross the border from Ukraine into Poland, then go to England. He did not want us to be trapped in a country at war. Once we got to the border, things become much more complicated, as chaos ensued. 

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We found ourselves stuck in a sea of cars, all seeking to escape 

On the same day we heard the bombs, we decided to leave Ukraine. Without wasting any time, we packed our bags and asked my father to drive us from Kyiv to Lviv. On the drive, we spotted Ukrainian tanks and military vehicles heading in the opposite direction. Thousands of other cars cloggd up the road on a journey which took us 10 hours.

Finally, we got to Lviv and stayed at a friend’s house. We slept for a couple of hours but awoke abruptly to military planes flying above the house. We hurried down to the bomb shelter and hid there, terrified. I grabbed my phone and went on Flight Radar, an app that tells you which planes are in the sky. Unfortunately, my phone received no signal down, so I went back up the stairs to check again. When I realized the planes above us were Ukrainian, we felt great relief.

After resting, a friend drove us to the border of Poland. The journey normally takes an hour and 30 minutes, but it took us six hours to get there. Heavy traffic caused the delay. Sometimes, the cars barely moved at all. It felt endless. Some people tried to form another lane to get to the border more quickly, which only made things worse.

We attempted to cut through the village. The first two times we tried, the police sent us back. The third time, they checked our passports. They saw we held passports from the United Kingdom. They expressed gratitude for the help being provided by the U.K. and let us through.   

We waited for hours with no food or water 

It felt like a miracle. The passage allowed us to go straight to the border, where our friend dropped us off. At the Polish border, there were three different steps to go through. The first part was the filtering process, where thousands of people wait behind a fence. It looked so crowded; people barely had room to put their arms down. We felt like we were running out of air from the lack of space. We received no water or food, and no one had access to bathrooms.

I stayed there for eight hours and my partner stayed for 10. I got out early because I got really sick and nauseous, unable to continue to stand. Thanks to a group of women I followed, pushing through the crowd, I made it out. Only two workers occupied the gate, letting one person out at a time. On the other side, I laid flat on the floor for 15 minutes to catch my breath. After a couple more hours, I began feeling scared for my partner.

Drivers could see tanks and other military vehicles heading in their opposite direction. | Photo courtesy of Maria Romanenko

I went back near the gates to look for him. He appeared far from getting out of Ukraine. I tried to call the embassy for help, but no one picked up. At one point, I found a suitcase outside the fence and climbed on top of it to shout my partner’s name. My anxiety grew as I noticed people being carried out unconscious or dead at the gates. The worst scenarios crossed my mind and I filled with worry. Finally, after calling out his name repeatedly, he responded back. Flooded with relief, the guard agreed to let him out. We ran towards each other and fell into an embrace.

Finally making it out of Ukraine into Poland

The second part of the border crossing included another long queue. It took us about 12 hours to pass through. People grew impatient quickly and started pushing each other. The situation turned dangerous, as we risked being crushed. We heard mothers and children screaming. Twenty-three hours passed in total since we first arrived at the border, and we still drank no water nor used the restroom. 

Finally, we got to cross the border. Once we made it to the Polish side, things went faster. We saw a group of volunteers offering help. They gave us food, water, and coffee. Many offered free rides anywhere we needed to go. Some people even offered free lodging. We accepted a ride to Kraków and booked an Airbnb from two kind men. 

Packs of water and other supplies awaited refugees on the other side of the border. | Photo courtesy of Maria Romanenko

We stayed in Poland for four nights to sort out my documents for the flight to the U.K. on February 26, 2022. The trip was delayed, but we finally flew to England on March 2. While I felt immense relief, I still feel haunted by the horrible scenes we witnessed. We saw people being crushed to death, being carried out on stretchers, and children crying.

For some time, I doubted we would ever make it out. I feel so lucky I had my partner Jez at my side. We supported each other through the entire journey. My heart went out to those who remained waiting behind that fence. I hope they made it out too.

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