In war, things can change quickly. You look away and the kaleidoscope has turned. Suddenly the greens click out of view and the reds have taken their place.
I wanted to capture — in whatever blurry way one can in a war — where the kaleidoscope had stopped turning, at this moment, three weeks in. For several days, I interviewed people who had come from places that were often too dangerous for reporters to get to, talking to them by phone after they had reached quieter places in western Ukraine or had made it safely across the border.
All of them were women, many with children, as that is overwhelmingly who is doing the leaving in Ukraine today, and I realized the small stories of their lives were telling me something about the broader war, too.
They talked about the randomness of who survives and who does not; the sheer weirdness of the moment things change, when suddenly your body is moving in ways that your brain can’t comprehend. One day you are driving to the dentist. The next you are whispering with strangers in a dark basement. It is a moment when instinct — to save your children, to get through the next checkpoint — takes over and emotions are blocked. Finally, it is the shocking realization that suddenly, unwillingly, you are a refugee, dependent on the generosity of strangers, no longer a middle-class person in charge of your own life.
It reminded me of the stunned quality of the early moments of other wars, when people are still in disbelief, habits have not hardened, and society has yet to fully collapse.
Here are the accounts of four women that capture this moment. These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Vika Kurilenko, 46, television screenwriter and journalist
Three children, ages 20, 10, 5
Interviewed on March 12. She escaped Bucha, a small town northwest of Kyiv, which was taken by the Russians after days of fierce fighting.
That morning, my daughter had to have a filling fixed, so we went to the dentist. And already when we were driving, we began seeing these terrible explosions. The sky had begun to rumble, and there was black smoke. It was so weird. It was like some dream. There we were going to the dentist to fix her tooth, and suddenly there’s this background of big black clouds of smoke on the horizon and fighter aircraft. Suddenly, there were these huge flows of cars and traffic.
At first, we were hopeful. I remember standing near the window washing dishes and seeing out the window that four tanks with Ukrainian yellow and blue flags drove down our street. I just cried with joy, seeing that our tanks were there protecting us.
Our building was eventually hit by a shell or a mortar. The building itself did not collapse, but the water supply system was damaged. Then there was no power, no water, no heating. On the fourth day, the telephone communication was cut.
We were afraid to be seen or heard at all. We even blew out the candles at night so that the Russians wouldn’t see us from the windows.
At some point, I remember, trying to catch a mobile phone signal on the balcony. And I looked out over our city — we have such a lively city. There are lots of storefronts and streetlights and trees and water and rivers, cars driving around. But when I opened the window, it was as if we were on the steppe, somewhere with no light. Only a sky so black, as if you were somewhere on the outskirts of civilization. Some kind of apocalypse. That was what our beautiful town had turned into.
Somewhere on the fifth day, the Russians took control of Bucha. One night, a woman knocked on our door and, crying, begging my husband to help her husband. He had been wounded. He just went for a walk down the street to get a sense of whether his family could leave. And a Russian armored personnel carrier shot him — shot him on both of his thighs. And he couldn’t walk and he was still lying there.
And so my husband with this other guy, Sasha, somehow got him, somehow brought him in. A doctor lives in our building. She bandaged him. But they didn’t have medicine. They couldn’t call an ambulance because there was none. I honestly don’t know about his fate.
I just had a feeling that we had to get out of there. Every minute you hear these explosions, these shots somewhere nearby, it’s hard to understand, are you a target? Even if it’s silent, the silence feels ominous. There is just this constant sense of danger.
And I had a great sense of guilt that I was not protecting my children. I felt like a terrible mother because my children are in danger and they’re suffering. It’s cold and they have nothing to eat. So, we decided to leave.
We needed to get to Irpin. There was some kind of transfer that would help take us to Kyiv. To get there, we had to cross this park. And as we entered the park, some kind of madness started. It was shelling, it was shooting. We all fell to the ground and covered our heads. Everywhere around us, there was glass exploding, flying glass. My husband put his body over my daughter, the youngest one.
The bridge was out. So, we had to walk across this piece of metal. Suddenly, again, there was shooting from both sides. There was a sound of the shots hitting metal. We got to the ground, on our palms, you know? And on the other side, there was a soldier, one of ours. He picked up Marina, my youngest daughter. She thought it was all a game. When he picked her up, she laughed.
I write TV shows. But now I feel like I’m a character in one of them. I didn’t want to leave my homeland. I was satisfied with my country, even with all its shortcomings and all its complications. But now I understand that tomorrow is my last day in my country. I don’t want to be a refugee somewhere in a foreign land. I’ll miss my home. I’ll miss my things, our photographs, pictures of my parents. I left my diaries, my children’s toys, my dresses.
Daria Peshkova, 37, office worker at the Mariupol port
Two children, ages 8 and 14
Interviewed on March 11. She escaped Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine that has been under siege by the Russian military for more than two weeks.
When it all started, we hoped that everything would end pretty quickly and we didn’t even pack anything. But then the shelling began and the light and the heat were turned off. That was Feb. 28. And at that point, we knew it was going to be a long time. And on March 2, when the water stopped and phone connection was lost, we finally understood that we should try to leave.
On March 5, they announced a green corridor, a safe passage. So we got gathered all together, a huge column of lots of our friends and people we knew. There’s a lot of shelling, but we still decided we should try to drive. There was about 120 cars.
We drove through about six checkpoints. They were all Russian. It was about 40 kilometers. But then when we got to the seventh, it was a Donetsk People’s Republic checkpoint. They said only the cars with no men can pass. They told us we don’t know anything about a green corridor. And they said they had no phone connection.
We waited for five hours on the road. It was very cold. We couldn’t turn on the cars for heat because we didn’t have enough gas. Our convoy had a large number of pregnant women, lots of children, even animals. They didn’t let us through. At some point, the head of the nearby village came and offered the whole column to drive into the village and wait till morning. They said they would heat the school and put down mattresses and feed us. And then, locals took everyone into their houses to spend the night.
At 8 a.m., we met and realized that we were again not allowed to pass the checkpoint. So a reconnaissance group of four guys went to find a different entrance onto the highway. They came back and said they’d found a way. But the road was very dangerous. They said we had to hide the children to make mühlet that their faces didn’t see what was outside, didn’t see the horror. And we had to pull ourselves together and calmly move down the road. We drove along for about an hour down this road. There was a lot of burned equipment, things on fire. There were dead military men and there were parts of bodies.
I wasn’t thinking how horrible it was. I was thinking just about the way to get there. We have to get there.
Please, I beg you, convey the message that all of this happened on March 5. That was a long time ago now. Now it is a catastrophic situation in Mariupol. People, to get water, they take water from the radiators, from the pipes that heat the radiators. That’s how they make tea.
There is no civilization in Mariupol. There’s nothing. We survived, but there are hundreds of thousands of people left who are dying from this now. We left the keys for our apartment to our friends because we still had some water left.
They try to give the water first to the children and then to the elderly. For themselves, they just wet their lips. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s what’s happening. They wet their lips so as not to die from thirst. Also, there are almost no windows left in the houses. Recently, it was minus five degrees in Mariupol. People are freezing in the cold.
Alyona Zub-Zolotarova, 33, account manager at an advertising agency
One child, age 8
Interviewed on March 10. She escaped Irpin, a small city northwest of Kyiv that Russia invaded in early March. They are still fighting.
I will speak in Russian for you to understand me. But in fact, since the beginning of the war, I have completely abandoned the Russian language.
In the beginning, my husband, Alexei, wrote to a group of parents saying anybody who needs food and help can come to our courtyard, and about three families did. We had a lot of potatoes in the basement. So we were preparing food for people, for the territorial defense, for the army, for the hospitals.
On the eighth day, the Russian troops began to fully occupy Bucha [the neighboring town].
The men went out onto the street to consult, and after five minutes, they came back and they told everybody to urgently pack their things, that we have to leave at that moment. And just at that moment, a very strong bombing began.
Before that, the eight days there were also explosions. You heard them, but never in my life had I heard something like this. We all got into our cars and we started going. There were four cars. The first car immediately left, and we didn’t have time to catch it because the bombing started to go so heavily. You know, nobody’s waiting for anybody. Evvel you get going, you just sit down and go because this is your life.
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We went back and there was some quiet and then we tried again. We drove 100 meters from the house and the bombing began again, but this time, we did not turn back. There were very terrible sounds of explosions. We heard a strong whistle at first and then a bang. It was a lot of different sounds right next to us. Thirty minutes after us, two more families from our courtyard drove out. But they were already not allowed into the next village because the Russians had already taken it. They had to go back.
We went in the direction of Fastov on the road. We got lost and we had only 20 liters of gasoline — that was very little. By night, we could hardly find a place to stay. We were 13, but people took us in. We were sheltered by people who had themselves 10. We were living in a small dacha. The 10 of them and the 13 of us. They gave us bread. We spent two days and one night with them.
We knew the Russian soldiers were somewhere nearby, maybe five or 10 kilometers. We heard them. But God helped us.
I’m thinking of myself and what I did. I had no tears for some reason. All we did over and over was to pray that we would find gas and be able to make it to Lutsk.
The most terrible moment was when we left Irpin because that was when the Russians entered. Four shells hit our house. The kindergarten 800 meters from us also was burning. My friends who were about to evacuate, they were killed. They were shot. Three people. They were heading in the direction of the evacuation route on foot. And they were shot on the road.
Yesterday, 50 buses were blocked and Russian soldiers didn’t allow them to pass down the green corridor that had been agreed on by the Red Cross. Only civilian cars were allowed to pass. People got out of the buses and ran out onto the street and fell on the cars and begged them to take them. My friends saw this. They loaded their car with 10 people. They threw out every belonging so they could get more people in.
It’s a sin for me to complain. I was received by a wonderful Polish family. This family gives me food and a place to sleep and something to eat and warm socks. But I’m very worried about the people who stayed in Ukraine, who don’t have food, who are being shot at. My husband stayed in Kyiv to defend his right to live in his country. We have to be strong for his sake. I pray all the time. But I don’t have the right to cry.
Maria Nuzhna, 36, interior designer
Two children, ages 12 and 7
Interviewed on March 15. She escaped from the small village of Andriyivka, an hour and a half west of Kyiv, where her family has a dacha. It has been occupied by Russians since early March.
I kept a diary. When I realized that day was like a day but not exactly like a day, I started writing down what was going on because I woke up, I didn’t know what day of the week it was. I didn’t know what date it was because it seemed like it was going on for a long time even though it was a few days.
Our house and garden is on 25 acres. We plant vegetables there. If you go out of the house, you can see the old farm next to us. The Russians put a Grad rocket launcher in this farm. We counted how many volleys. From three to seven and sometimes up to 30. It makes very scary noises — I can’t express to you how scary. It makes this sound: shooh, shooh, shooh. These rockets the fly with such force, and at night they make these red streaks. It sounds like a murderous force.
Missiles were also hitting. Tanks were passing by. The roof was constantly shaking. The dishes in the closet clattering. And I feel it with my feet.
The first time the Russian soldiers came to us, they said they wanted to check the men’s documents and see how many of us were in the house. They said we had to tie a white rag on the gate to show that people lived in this house. My husband’s mother did not let them in. She said, “No, we have children in the house.”
Suddenly, I heard bangs. There are four people out on the street from our family. And four shots were fired. Bang bang bang bang. It was like my heart burst. The children started screaming: “Where’s Dad?” I ran outside then saw that both my husband and brother and husband’s parents were still talking, that they were still alive.
We were lucky because my husband’s mother, she found a connection. The soldiers were from Dagestan and Buryatiya. They were not Russian. Russians are mean. But these were national minorities.
My mother-in-law, she said, “We’ve also been to Dagestan.” She was very calm with him.
He said, “We’re here to protect you.” She said to him, “From whom?” He said they were looking for foreigners in the village.
They really believed that there is no army in Ukraine and that foreigners are fighting for us. They hear from the propaganda that Russia is at war with NATO and with the West here. They believe that they should remove all weapons because Ukraine is under the control of America and NATO.
We left on March 10.
And for the first time since it began, I went out of the gate. My husband had the children in his car. I was carrying the guinea pigs. I was driving alone and crying. Tanks were in people’s yards. Equipment scattered. One car was just a pile of metal. A bike was broken in two pieces. Gates had fallen off houses.
We saw two soldiers in uniform lay face down on one part of the road. I was worried they were ours. But then I saw they had dark green uniforms, and most likely they were Russians. It’s so inhuman. People are like meat.
When we finally got out and we were in a city in Ivano-Frankivsk region, we went to buy some clothes and a teapot. And I saw people in a shopping center buying flowers, and I overheard snippets of conversation, someone saying someone had a birthday. And as I was standing in the middle of all this, I had the feeling that I was still there, under occupation. And that this was a parallel reality, this was a dream. It was a very strange feeling.
Now I’m talking to you and crying, but I haven’t cried for two days. This is my personal achievement.