Leaving Kyiv: Air raid sirens and finding a ride

Leaving Kyiv: Air raid sirens and finding a ride
Jeff Oller

This is the view Jeff and Yanna Oller had out the window of their apartment in Kyiv. The Ollers fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion and eventually made their way to Jeff’s parents in Fredericksburg.


Editor’s note: Jeff Oller, a native of Fredericksburg — where his parents still reside — and his wife Yanna were living in Ukraine, where they were both teachers, when the invasion from Russia occurred. This is the second in a three-part series of how Jeff and Yanna managed to leave the country.

Around 3 or 4 a.m., the air raid signals go off for the first time in a distant district. The sound is piercing, and it permeates every ounce of your body. We head down and go to the shelter, which is crude but is a safe place to be — an unfinished basement of a 16-floor apartment building.

Going down the flights of stairs, we see men and women, children of all ages, and pets, all huddled in a cold, dark place. There are lights in the hallways, but the rooms are dark and dusty. We stay there a couple of hours and decide to go back home, as the sun rises to the start of day two.

The day is relatively quiet, nothing out of the ordinary, but the night comes fast and the terror rises again: sleepless nights as you watch the news in a blacked-out apartment and every noise causes you to check both north and west. The air raid signals go off again, and tonight the explosions are much closer. We head back to the shelter around 6 a.m. and stay there until 9. Day three is different than day two. We hear the explosions in the morning hours, and there is fighting 10 kilometers away from where we live. In a snap decision, we decide it is time to leave the city.

Although it may sound easy, all modes of transportation are hindered because of the shelling and possible missile attacks. With the metro being closed, hordes of people are trying to flag down cars to go to the center of the city. We and some strangers get a taxi to Arsenalna metro station just to get to the train station.

As we go down the two escalators to one of the deepest metro stations in Europe, you see people sleeping on the floor and huddled in safe places. Upon arriving at the train station, the air raid signals go off again. In sheer terror people are flooding into the metro station from the exit. The number of people is unfathomable. People are getting stuck on the escalator, and the terror on people’s faces is evident. We decide to go to another station and wait for people to start to clear from the train station metro.

At the next station, people are making it their home, with mattresses and things of comfort. Their faces are what stood out to me the most — the utter sadness of the events and how it changed our world in the matter of three days. After 15 minutes we left the station again to get a train. At the train station, which is normally not that busy, we find hundreds of people trying to make their way on a train headed west. Once we see the lines and hear people talking about mothers with babies jumping on leaving trains, we know it’s a fallacy that we will actually get anywhere.

We resign ourselves to having to spend another night in the city. We head to another American’s place with his family and just want a place to relax for a couple of hours and decide what is the next best step. My wife is a Ukrainian national, and her mother from another region in Ukraine calls her and says she has a ride for us in two hours.

Although the fear of leaving the city at night is real, we decide to accept the ride and go to the village. After arriving at the pickup point, we hear the high-pitched wind of missiles and the air raid signals blaring again — again to the metro station to wait it out. As we leave the metro station, clouds of dust are floating in the air as something near us has been hit. Waiting for the car is an eternity, as he is stuck in traffic and night is falling fast. Again the nervousness sets in.

This is where the unbelievable parts of the story take place. Oksana, my wife’s mother, was the start of all of this. First, she arranged a ride for us to leave Kyiv. This ride is like none other I have taken in my life. The driver takes every back road he knows to avoid block posts — places where soldiers are checking people’s documents — and the twists and turns and many u-turns he makes to get us to our destination.

We finally arrive at the village of her parents, and we notice many people are standing outside near one of the schools. We are quite unnerved by this, but we continue to walk to her parents’ house on pitch-black roads. We find out refugees from Kharkiv and other areas have converged in the village because of its safety. As day breaks on day four, there is a kind of peace, but also an uneasiness.

I hear her parents talking about Moldova, and I start to do research about the border crossings there. They say it is only three or four hours away. So now the next step of the plan is starting to be developed. Her mom says we are going to go in a few days.

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