Part One: The Crossing
Ukraine's border is haunting and beautiful, a testament to the misery and resolve of a people
It shut me down.
No hyperventilating or heart palpitations. No dizziness or cold sweats. No warning at all.
I went limp and reached for the car to steady myself, missing by at least a foot. My hand sailed passed the side mirror and I dropped to one knee.
If you do this job for long enough, you learn that — when you really need to — you can kill the part of you that feels. But no amount of dissociation can cut through the absolute misery of a refugee crisis on a cold winter night. Picture children bundled in winter clothes, crying over the clatter of diesel engines as they flee an army that keeps pushing deeper into their homeland.
Their mothers can’t carry them any farther because they’ve been walking for days. Their fathers have all been conscripted or killed. There’s just no way to grasp it until you’re among them. Close enough that one of the kids notices you and smiles, revealing gums where her front teeth used to be.
It reaches into you and finds a pain you never knew existed.
“This is Europe, this is the future for us,” Andrij said, shaking his head. “What did they do to deserve this?”
I met Andrij at the border after being turned around by guards who wouldn’t let me drive a rented car into war. Fair enough. Desperate to get to Lviv before the military-imposed curfew began, I pulled my car into a truck stop and asked stranger after stranger for a ride.
After an hour of polite rejections, I was ready for Andrij to brush me off. Still, I gave him the hard sell.
“My friend, I have American cash, food, as much fuel as we can siphon out of my tank and two cases of German beer. Can I get a ride across the border?”
The sale of alcohol was outlawed by order of President Volodymyr Zalensky when the invasion began. So I foolishly thought German beer might be my ace in the hole. Andrij shook his head and smiled.
“I don’t need your money man, just show me your papers,” he said. “You have um… license? Journalist license?”
We loaded my gear over the crates of water bottles and headed for the border.
Over 1 million people have left Ukraine to flee the nonstop airstrikes. And the numbers keep growing.
Every day thousands more pour into Lviv from Kiev and the port cities that line the Black Sea. So it isn’t surprising that the line to get out of the country can last for days.
But the cue into Ukraine was surprisingly long Sunday.
Two volunteer soldiers sat in a Volkswagen ahead of me, wearing uniforms cobbled together at army surplus. A man with ill-fitting fatigues and black boots stood next to one with tan boots and what appeared to be camouflage skinny jeans. Some lorries carried so many cans of food that their chassis practically scrapped against the pavement. The diaspora had also come from across Western Europe to fetch their relatives and take them to safety of their adopted countries.
I met a man called Max who drove a van with the logo of his Tae Kwon Do school printed on the side. When I tried to ask him if I could climb on top to take a photo of the line, he agreed but then gently pulled my arm.
“You are journalist?”
He crossed his forearms, making an X.
“No more skies. Clear the skies. You must tell.”
If this were merely a ground war, Putin’s army would have been stopped in its tracks. Ukrainian forces overwhelmed Russian tank columns during early engagements, ambushing them with shoulder-held rockets powerful enough to kill everyone inside the armoured vehicles.
The Russian tank offensive has been spinning its wheels in Ukraine’s enormous grasslands. Melted snow and rain turned the rich soil into an ocean of mud.
Adding to their frustrations, soldiers serving their mandatory conscription seem confused about why they’re in Ukraine. Are they liberating the country from Nazis, as their president claimed? Was this a peacekeeping mission? Why aren’t they being greeted as liberators?
But the airstrikes are keeping Putin’s forces in Ukraine; emptying cities, killing civilians and destroying the country’s infrastructure.
“The airport in my city, it’s gone,” Max said, miming an explosion with his hands. “Clear the skies.”
I heard people chant those words the previous night during a protest on the streets of Krakow. Putin’s bombardment of Ukrainian civilians has been condemned by NATO but there’s no sign they’ll get involved in a shooting war with Europe’s biggest army.
Eight rocket strikes took out the Vinnytsia airport some 270 kilometres southwest of Kiev. If they take the city, Putin’s forces will nearly cut the country in half.
We try to communicate through Google translate as Max calmly walks me through his journey back home. He dropped his wife and kids in Dresden, Germany and now he’s taking “something tactical” over the border. Before the invasion, he was a coach who ran a school where kids could live and study as they practiced martial arts.
He pulled out his phone and started scrolling through the encrypted social media app Telegram. Two photos stood out. In one, a man pointing what appears to be a Soviet-era Kalashnikov at two teenagers whose palms are pressed against a steel fence.
“They try to bomb my school.”
It seems paranoid but he swipes and reveals a second photo showing what he says is an improvised explosive device.
Subterfuge and surprise attacks are all trademark Putin tactics, according to former Ukrainian diplomat Olexander Scherba.
In his 2021 book, Ukraine vs. Darkness, Scherba recounts how men with Moscow accents posing as Ukrainian “separatists” seized a police station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk eight years ago.
In a video filmed by local journalists, one of the separatitsts asks someone to step back to the porebrik — a Moscow slang term for curb — as heavily armed men wearing green military uniforms take over the building. Within days, the area was teaming with Russian special forces, kicking off the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the Donbas.
A video of the incident went viral and Max says it created a climate of paranoia. Before coming to Ukraine, I was warned to always have my press pass at the ready lest and not so much as dream of being out past curfew lest I be mistaken for a “provocateur.”
“Be careful at the checkpoints,” my fixer Anna, warned me. “Their job is to ask for your papers, your job is to be polite and don’t make any sudden movements.”
Andrij and I waited just a few meters from the customs agents.
“Look!” he said, pointing at the long line of refugees. “They wait one point five days to get here.”
“Where do they sleep?” I asked.
Two days ago, Andrij’s mother and sister escaped Crimea and headed west. They had tried to emigrate at the outset of the 2014 war, staying with relatives in the Netherlands but their refugee claim was denied and the Dutch sent them back into the war zone.
“You see? Only girls and children, no men,” Andrij said.
“The men all have to fight?”
“Fight or volunteer.”
It was a harrowing sight.
A child dangled at the edge of her mom’s arm as she’s rushed to get them on a bus for Poland. The girl’s other hand clutched a doll. A baby boy was carried into a portable toilet to have his diaper changed as temperatures dropped below zero degrees. The children wore cute little outfits — beanies with cub ears, pink leggings with puppies drawn on and scarves so long they dragged on the pavement.
I can’t imagine how anyone could explain this to them. Some looked terrified and others smiled as though it was all an adventure. They may never return to the place they called home. Or if they do, it may be as visitors rediscovering the country of their youth, speaking in accented Ukrainian because for years they’ve had only their parents to practice with.
Andrij lives in Lviv with his wife, and his two sons — they’re eight and 12 years old. He’s part of a crew of four volunteers who make cargo runs in and out of Poland. I ask him what the Ukrainians need the most right now.
“Food? Water? Medical supplies?”
“Peace. We need peace.”
Once we made it past a series of checkpoints, he dropped me off at a gas station on the other side.
I owed him so much but he wouldn’t think of any sort of payment. So I gave him a pin of the Canadian and Ukrainian flags interlocked. We hugged and he passed me over to his associate Nazar.
Nazar and I are about the same age and our daughters almost share a birthday.
Marta was born on September 26 and my Wednesday on the 25th. Of course, my kid is just a five months old whereas Marta is in grade school.
“What’s she like?” I asked. “Does she like sports? Books? What sort of kid is she?”
“One week it is drawing, drawing, drawing and then the next it is maybe dancing for a few months,” he said. “She got a ukulele for her birthday. She likes it but I think that will pass. She’s a good kid.”
We drove towards the villages that line the border, passing a convoy of refugees that went on for miles.
“This war, we are losing a lot of people,” he said. “Not only soldiers but our people. Our future. There they go.”
He pointed out the window.
When the convoy was behind us, Nazar’s van sputtered along the winding roads of rural Ukraine; villages without so much as a light on, gas stations and mini markets with pallets of construction materials out front, sandbag fortifications piled onto every bridge.
The western edge of Ukraine is still relatively safe. The heart of Putin’s offensive is along the Black Sea to the south and looping around Kiev some 540 kilometres east of Lviv.
On the second day of the invasion, Nazar’s Kiev office was destroyed by rocket fire. He sells German made trucks to businesses across Ukraine, spending his weeks in Kiev before returning to his wife and Marta on the weekends.
“It’s not like I can sell trucks right now so I must help,” he said. “I don’t think I would make good soldier. But I am very experienced with organization, logistics.”
Though he has a kind face, Nazar is built like a fire hydrant — short with steady shoulders and thick legs. Whether he would be a good soldier or not, I don’t think I’d like to wrestle him.
Every day since his office blew up, Nazar coordinates supply runs into Poland and back. He leaves before Marta wakes up for school and returns long after she’s gone to bed.
“I kiss her while she sleeps,” he says. “Last night, Andrij and I slept four hours. I will maybe get six hours if I am too tired but I must help.”
People think of war as something that men with guns do to each other, as something that’s won or lost on some faraway battlefield. In reality, it takes an army of workers to supply the front with food, water, materials and another group to keep the roads intact. In reality, war is children freezing outside a border crossing.
Why else would the Russians be trying to surround Kiev if not to starve it? As brutal as bombs are, famine is no picnic.
Nazar, who is 39, spent the first eight years of his live under Soviet occupation. He was a kid so he has a lot of happy memories but — like all Ukrainian children during the communist years — all of his courses were in Russian.
“Did you speak Russian with your parents?”
He says that after the Holodomor — when Stalin’s forced collectivization policies starved millions of Ukrainians — the Soviets brought in workers from across the empire to take all the good jobs in Ukraine’s industrial heartland. In addition to being Russia’s breadbasket, Ukraine was also its manufacturing centre.
In Scherba’s book, he describes being taught that Ukrainian was a peasant’s language, that speaking Russian was the only way to have a future in the Soviet Union. But when Ukrainians began to assert themselves again in the 1980s, he rediscovered the pride of his native tongue.
“We must be proud to speak Ukrainian,” Nazar said. “It’s our language, it’s something we should appreciate. It’s who we are.”
We arrived at the first real checkpoint just outside of Lviv.
Five men stood around a barrel fire flanked by iron tank traps, concrete barriers, a portable toilet and a mat green command centre. Under martial law, it’s illegal for journalists to photograph the checkpoints or soldiers without the military’s permission.
A moustachioed man in his 50s checked our documents and waived us through. On our way out, we drove past a statue on the Virgin Mary wearing a neon green halo. Ukraine is the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox faith and, unlike in Western Europe, most of its people are still practicing Christians.
Nazar and Andrij went to bat for me, a stranger who knows exactly two Ukrainian words, yes (tak) and thank you (which I can’t spell but believe is pronounced DIAK-yu).
In my rush to get to my hotel, I hadn’t noticed what Nazar was carrying in the back his of his van. But when I grabbed my luggage out of his truck, I saw sleeping bags, cardboard boxes and a baby doll wearing pink overalls.
It shut me down.