All-out Russian invasion could result in the worst refugee crisis in decades, with five million people being displaced
Some leaped in their cars with as much luggage as they could take. Others simply headed straight for the railway station hoping to find a last-minute ticket. All had the same objective: get out of Kyiv before it was too late. As thunderous blasts from Russian ordnance shook the Ukrainian capital on Thursday, a mass exodus was underway. The city’s tube network was packed with evacuees carrying belongings hastily stuffed into bulging carrier bags, wheelie suitcases, and handbags. Outside bus and train stations, people clutched pets anxiously. Others sat on the floor and clapped their hands in prayer.
Kyiv’s roads were already jammed by the grey light of dawn, not long after the first explosions echoed across the city of three million. At that point, many who had gamely stayed put decided to risk it no more.
“This morning I woke up to the sound of bombs … not just in my district but other districts of Kyiv too,” said Marina Chankova, a journalist, who fled the city in her car with her elderly mother.
She posted a video of her journey on Twitter, waving to Ukrainian tanks heading in the opposite direction as she drove to Lviv, the regional capital of western Ukraine, some 400 miles away. “We hope we will be safe in Lviv. A lot of people are driving with kids, babies, cats and there’s been a lot of traffic jams and queues at petrol stations. Everyone’s frightened, but helping each other, if someone needs water or help with a baby.”
Lviv, which lies close to the Polish border, is already the temporary home of a number of Western embassies that have relocated their offices there. The makeshift British embassy in the city, functioning out of a hotel, is operating on just a skeleton staff.
On Thursday, Poland and other neighboring EU nations were already making arrangements to receive Ukrainians fleeing across the border, amid warnings that Europe could face its worst refugee crisis in decades. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, warned that up to five million people could be displaced.
Many of those joining Thursday’s exodus had already bolted from areas further east of Kyiv near the Russian border, where fighting has flared up in the last few weeks and intensified on Thursday morning.
Haiane Avakian, a resident of the city of Bakhmut, in the Donbas region, was trying desperately to make her way west by train.
“Since the war began, in the morning, we left Bakhmut, with my husband and my seven-year-old son and my cat,” she said. “We took only the most necessary stuff.”
Unable to find a car, Ms. Avakian had to pay a taxi driver $500 to drive the family to the city of Dnipro, only to find there were no trains leaving the station. “There are no tickets in any directions,” she added. “There’s just too many people,” she said, as she waited for news of a special evacuation train that officials were attempting to lay on.
An American woman cries after crossing the border and fleeing the violence to Medyka, Poland CREDIT: Reuters/Bryan Woolston
At the Polish border, officials reported a steady trickle of fleeing Ukrainians, many accompanied by children. With at least 250,000 Ukrainians holding Polish residency, the Polish government is braced for many more arrivals in coming days, with officials predicting up to a million or more. Most are expected to stay with friends or families, but on Thursday eight refugee reception centers were being hastily opened up near the Polish border.
Lviv, which is around 50 miles from the Polish border, has so far escaped the Russian onslaught, despite air raid sirens sounding on Thursday morning.
With hotels, guest houses, and hostels quickly booked out by wealthier Ukrainians fleeing Kyiv, city officials said they had set aside schools and other public buildings as makeshift refugee shelters for those with nowhere else to go. In each district of Lviv, depots have been set up for residents to donate provisions and other essentials for the new arrivals.
“All services are still functioning fine here in Lviv so far,” said Andrei Sadoviy, the city mayor. “But we are asking for donations of sleeping bags, mattresses, hygiene products, and clothes.”
As of 5 pm on Thursday afternoon, he said the city had only registered around 100 people requesting shelter. But many more were still thought to be still en route from Kyiv, an eight-hour drive even on a quiet day. Most are expected to stay with relatives and friends or in towns nearby.
Western embassies, including the British and American missions, relocated many of their staff to Lviv earlier this month as fears of Mr. Putin’s threatened invasion intensified. Most have now moved out of the downtown hotels where they were based to more discreet locations elsewhere in the city amid fears that they could be targets for a Russian attack.
Beds are being prepared at refugee reception centers in Poland, such as this one in the south-eastern town of Korczowa CREDIT: Darek Delmanowicz/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Melinda Simmons, the British Ambassador to Kyiv, was still understood to be in Lviv as of Thursday night, while a small group of British staff was on hand to deal with emergency consular matters. The Foreign Office advised all remaining British citizens to leave Ukraine a fortnight ago.
A city of winding cobbled streets and elegant Habsburg architecture, Lviv has long been seen as Ukraine’s gateway to Europe, and historically a center of resistance to rule from Moscow. Unlike the rest of Ukraine, where Russian is widely spoken, it is almost entirely Ukrainian-speaking, and today it is one of the most pro-Western cities in the country.
Although the streets remained calm on Thursday, many residents queued up at ATMs to get cash. As in Kyiv, there were also long lines at gun shops as locals sought to arm themselves in the event of Russian troops arriving.
“We do not believe Kyiv will fall, but it is no problem if people want to leave and come here to Lviv,” said Andrei Shevchyk, a 37-year-old software programmer, who was queueing with his brother Vova to buy pump-action shotguns and additional ammunition.
“I don’t think it’s a case of everyone panicking, it’s more that people want to get their wives and children out of Kyiv if it ends up in the fighting. People will feel much better doing that if they know their kids are safe first.”
Offers of help for displaced Ukrainians have already come in from around the world. Australia has said it will fast-track Ukrainian visa applications, while Portugal, which also has a large Ukrainian diaspora, has made similar promises.
One resident, Roman Kakhnevich, 60, said the Russian incursion had made the city’s residents even more pro-Western than they already were.
“My kids live and work in Europe,” he said while he waited in a long queue of people to use a cash machine. “The sooner we join Nato, the better. We either stop Russia now or never.”