Exodus From Ukraine: A Night Spent With Civilians Fleeing Russia's Invasion

State-of-the-art SUVs, prehistoric Ladas, family cars... hundreds of vehicles belonging to Ukrainians of all social classes crawled along Thursday evening, bumper to bumper, for about 30 kilometres before the Polish border. As night fell, silhouettes of haggard pedestrians walking on the side of the road stood out amid the smoke of exhaust pipes.

The giant traffic jam between Lviv, the main city in western Ukraine, and the border with the European Union, which has been growing longer by the hour, is the most tangible sign of the exodus of Ukrainian civilians fleeing the Russian invasion. And it is only the beginning: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated on Friday that up to 4 million people may flee to other countries if the situation escalates.

“We left last night, but as the bus could no longer move, we walked 20 kilometres,” Sofia, a young mother from Chortkiv, told FRANCE 24.

Passage through the Ukrainian border post trickled while thousands of people kept arriving.

Most of the people still appear to be in shock.

“We saw planes and missiles hitting a military depot 15 kilometres from our home. It was total panic. How do you explain to the children that you have to urgently leave the house?” Sofia exclaimed, her face drawn, as she pulled a wool blanket over the shoulders of the two young children travelling with her.

Around her, women and children outnumbered the men. “Men aged 18 to 60 have been called up to the war and there are several checkpoints along the road to prevent them from fleeing,” added the young woman, whose husband lives in Poland.

A significant proportion of the men gathered in front of the border post were indeed foreigners. FRANCE 24 spoke to Algerian, Congolese, Nigerian and Indian refugees waiting to cross the border.

“I feel sorry for the Ukrainians because they’re really lovely people. We’re foreigners and we’re not leaving anything behind. They’re forced to leave their homes,” said Karim, a 28-year-old Algerian man working in finance. Karim left Kyiv with his partner after spending harrowing hours sheltering underground in the metro to escape the bombardments.

Most of the thousands of refugees do not have tents or sleeping bags, as they did not plan to spend the night outdoors. Those with a car can leave the engine running for heat, as long as they don’t run out of gas. Thursday evening, no humanitarian organisations were seen on the Ukrainian side of the border. Unless the crossing opens widely soon, the situation of civilians fleeing the fighting could deteriorate very quickly.

Ukrainian and foreign civilians line up to try to flee to the Polish border on February 25, 2022. © Mehdi Chebil
What these companions in misfortune at the border do have is a strong sense of solidarity. “When I see children who are hungry, cold and crying, I can't just stand by. I made three round trips between Lviv, Lutsk and the border, volunteering to transport people,” said Anatoly, an Israeli-Ukrainian entrepreneur working in agricultural equipment. A stock of cigarettes and energy drinks has kept the 23-year-old going with minimal sleep.

“The Russian army is very strong, it’s the second or third most powerful army in the world. But Putin will never be able to impose a new regime in the country in the long term, because the Ukrainians love their freedom too much,” Anatoly said as he got in the car to head back to Lviv.

He drove slowly along the interminable traffic jam leading the other way toward the border, when he saw two frail figures sticking their thumbs out on the side of the road: Two teenagers, a brother and sister, who decided to turn back to avoid spending the night outdoors.

Anatoly dropped them off at a gas station. Like thousands of other civilians, they would resume their exodus at sunrise the next day.