No expectations. That’s the mindset I decided to have when coming to Ukraine. I did have the jitters as the date for my flight got closer and closer. But I distracted myself by focusing on both the history I was about to witness and the opportunity I would have to share the stories of the individuals suffering because of this war. I graduated college twelve days before I came to Ukraine. I swapped my graduation attire for body armor.
Once in Poland, my big hurdle was getting across the border to Lviv before my ride to Kharkiv left without me. I had fifteen hours to get to Lviv. Now that sounds like a lot of time but a border crossing into a warzone isn’t smooth. Outside of the Krakow airport, I found a taxi driver willing to take me all the way to a border town where I could hopefully hop a train that would take me into Lviv. But there were no seats left on the train. My taxi driver then took me to the Polish border where he found some Ukrainians gracious enough to let me cross with them in their van. My traveling companions were three Ukrainian ladies, a Ukrainian driver and a Romanian who was also hitching a ride. The ladies gifted me two bananas which was nice.
But right before we crossed the border, they told me they were not going to Lviv. So, they would tell the border guard on the other side that I was looking for a ride to Lviv and he would put me in the next vehicle that could take me.
After crossing the Ukrainian side, I told them thanks through Google translate, shook hands with the driver and jumped out with my bags in tow. I stood on the side of the road for maybe twenty minutes before a huge bus heading to Lviv pulled up. Except for three Ukrainians, the bus was completely empty because it had apparently just dropped off a bunch of humanitarian workers on the Polish side. A Ukrainian woman on the bus looked at where I was going in Lviv. She told me she lived only a block from my destination and that she could give me a ride all the way there. The bus driver dropped us both off at her car parked on the outskirts of Lviv and then she took me straight to my contact.
Hospitality. Something Ukrainians continue showing me despite their country being at war.
Early the next day, I began the journey to Kharkiv. I learned two things along the way. One, gas is rare and something you must scrounge for here. Two, the only rules on the roads are don’t hit anything and get to your destination as quickly as you can. With this in mind, my driver flew across Ukraine and made the cross-country drive in just under twelve hours.
What shocked me along the way was how quickly life had returned to Ukraine. The areas around Lviv and Kyiv had numerous people out and about. Shops were open and construction crews were working to repair the blown up roads and bridges. It was incredible to see this rapid return of relative normalcy when only a month and a half prior some of the roads we were traveling on hosted heavy tank and infantry battles. Besides the occasional military checkpoint or destroyed building, the war seemed gone.
But when we got farther east, the signs of war became explicit. The checkpoints no longer waved us pass. Now we would have to exit the car, be photographed, have our car lightly searched and then have our documents taken to an unseen SBU officer for inspection. The roads also became rougher.
Once in Kharkiv, the noise of artillery began splintering through the air. At first, the loud far-off booms made my adrenaline slightly race. But after watching the uncaring reactions of those around me, I soon accepted the noise of explosions as just something to take little note of. Like clouds in the sky telling the weather, the intensity of the fighting around the city is told by the intensity and frequency of the explosions.