Listen to this story:
It was 5am on February 24 when Sergey got the first phone call from a friend in Kharkiv. “They told us that they’re under bombing attack.”
Sergey pauses, recalling the day Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine.
He and most of his family were in their hometown, Kyiv, at the time. But as the war raged on – fighting gripping the country, slowly casting its shadow from east to west – they were forced to flee.
From a hotel in Ostrów Mazowiecka, a small Polish town 100km (62 miles) north of Warsaw, he and his sister Oksana share their story with Al Jazeera via video call and text.
Sergey left Ukraine with his father, his wife and his wife’s mother. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Melbourne, Australia, Oksana could only watch as they drove for days to escape the conflict.
As the family travelled, their 84-year-old father Oleh’s health dramatically declined.
When they finally made it to safety across the border, Oksana flew to Poland to meet them.
The start of the invasion
Remembering the first day of the invasion, Oksana says: “I was in Melbourne, at work. I met for lunch with colleagues. Then as I came back from lunch … I looked at the news and there were four explosions in Kyiv.”
She immediately rang Sergey and her other relatives in Kyiv.
At first, Sergey made the choice to stay put. “[There was] bombing, alarms every half an hour,” he says, adding that he and his wife made a bed in the bathroom.
Oksana explains that the room was on the outer edge of their apartment, next to the thicker external walls, so they felt that it would be safest if the apartment got shelled.
“[For the] biggest part of the day we were in the bathroom and just [went] out … to prepare some food or to [eat quickly] … because we didn’t know what was going to happen next,” Sergey says.
Oleh, Sergey and Oksana’s father, is retired. And two strokes in 2020 and 2021 have left him disabled and wheelchair-bound. In Kyiv, he lived in his own apartment with two dedicated carers attending to his daily needs.
During the first week of the war, there were a couple of times when the carer on shift would leave Oleh’s flat to buy supplies and get stuck outside, hiding from an air raid, Oksana says. “Our dad … was on his own in the corridors waiting for [her] to come.”
When the carers said they had to return to their own families, Sergey knew he had to get his father out of Kyiv.
“I didn’t arrange anything before because I believed that the carer will stay with Father and everything will be ok, that the war will be finished in a couple days,” Sergey says. “But then I understood that there is no … medical service [for my father] and we have to do something.”
He remembered that Oleh’s older sister in Latvia had invited him to stay there a couple of years ago. So Sergey called her and she agreed to help find aged care for her brother near to her.
At age 87, his aunt couldn’t help much more than that, but it was enough for Sergey.
On March 14 at 7am, immediately after the nightly 9pm-7am curfew in Kyiv ended, “we came to [Father’s] flat and started to collect all the things that we need during this trip,” Sergey says.
“[Father] felt very weak, he [could] hardly do one step to turn around to help me to place him [on the back] seat. Therefore I had to drag him from the saloon of the car like a sack of potatoes,” he remembers.
“They had just one car,” says Oksana, “and luckily they had a car because some people didn’t even have that. They packed it to the brim … my dad … his wheelchair, his portable toilet, a few of his … clothes. And then they had a little dog as well.”
“It was like Noah’s Ark!”
As they left, the Russian front line was approaching the northern suburbs of Kyiv.
“The highway which leads from Kyiv to … Lviv was about to be occupied by the Russians,” Oksana says, “my husband was very anxious to pass on the news that … ‘Do they know that they can’t take this highway?’
“‘They need to take a highway that goes to the south and then they need to … somehow bypass the Russian forces … and go north.’”
In the end, Sergey took a route that went through Lviv to the west. From there, he intended to continue driving through Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Lithuania to reach Latvia.
The journey was difficult.
“Our trip started. The road was quite empty and looked as usual. Only some block-posts reminded [us] about war in the country,” Sergey says.
“The biggest problem which we had during this trip was the absence of fuel, and huge queues of cars to [get fuel],” he says, explaining that petrol was being rationed at filling stations – they could buy only 10 or 20 litres (2.6-5.2 gallons) at one time, so had to fill up at least two to three times to get a full tank.
“To stay in queues for one hour or one and a half hours to be fuelled up … it was very scary because we didn’t know if there was still petrol left in this gas station or if we would have enough petrol to get to our finish point,” he adds.
But the journey was the hardest for Oleh, Sergey says.
“For our father, it was an extremely big problem to go out from the car … to [relieve himself],” he says. They bought him adult nappies to help, but he refused to use them.
Oksana says their father had a few accidents in the car along the way, and when they finally reached their first stop – a refugee facility about 60km from Lviv – he “had to be washed fully”.
“Every night … we had to wash him and our bed,” Sergey adds.
Along the way
Before they decided to leave Ukraine, Sergey’s wife Natasha had also asked her parents, who live in Kharkiv, to join them. Her father chose to stay, but her mother came by train to Lviv and met them in the refugee facility there.
“She was looking after … our dad … in terms of washing and everything,” says Oksana.
The facility outside Lviv was an old building that had been rebuilt at the beginning of 2021 to become the central office of a local factory.
“Part of this office was changed, furniture was brought out and they put back beds for people,” Sergey says.
Oksana says the beds were “Soviet-style with metal netting, it’s almost like a hammock made out of metal and you’re supposed to put your mattress, your cotton mattress on it … They are still quite uncomfortable because they sag.”
The residents were welcoming, Sergey says. “[They] brought … all the stuff which we need, they even brought … boxes with food and some stuff like toothbrushes and some clothes. People invited us with a very high level of hospitality.”
The next step in their journey was to arrange a certificate to prove that Oleh was disabled so that Sergey could cross the border with him as his carer.
Under Ukrainian rules all men aged 18-60 – with a few exceptions – face mandatory conscription and must stay behind and fight.
But it would have been impossible for their father to go any further without Sergey, Oksana explains, as ”the two women couldn’t have coped with dad in this condition”.
In the end, they chose to leave Ukraine through Romania, as “it was [said] that Ukrainian border guards on the Romanian border were less strict … and probably could accept my doc[uments] to release me from Ukraine,” Sergey explains.
They were right – he was allowed to safely cross into Romania, and the family continued on their way.
A difficult journey
But the long, arduous journey had taken its toll on Oleh.
His health was deteriorating quickly. “[He] ate almost nothing and was looking weak,” says Sergey.
The turning point came at 1am on March 15 when they crossed into Poland.
Oleh had slipped down in his seat to the point where he was almost lying down.
“I suggested to stop at a gas station and help him to sit correctly, but he refused … In 10 minutes he started to cry and asked to call an ambulance. His body started shaking.”
They stopped at a gas station near Ostrów Mazowiecka and Sergey ran inside a shop to ask someone to call an ambulance.
“The young girl behind the counter couldn’t understand me. But a man who was in this shop asked me in the Ukrainian language what happened and translated … This man was a Ukrainian truck driver who stopped in this gas station to refuel his car,” Sergey recounts.
The ambulance came in just five minutes, he says.
Paramedics put Oleh onto a stretcher and began running tests in the ambulance. After another 10 minutes, they told the family that he would have to be taken to hospital.
“After waiting about one hour, the receptionist … called me and informed [me] that we have to stay for most probably several days,” says Sergey.
It was 3am by then – in a tiny town with few hotels – so Sergey asked some locals to help them find a place to stay, and they soon found a hostel.
The room was dirty, the linen wet, the bathroom had “dirty equipment” and it was cold, Sergey says. They decided not to use the bathroom and covered their pillows with their own towels or blankets.
The next day at the hospital, they were informed that Oleh had COVID-19 and would have to stay in hospital for at least another five days.
“We had a limited amount of money and couldn’t afford a hotel or even a hostel,” Sergey says. “So I left my mobile phone number for urgent calls and we went to Italy, Piacenza city … [where we] were met by our [business] partner Luca.”
They stayed with Luca in Italy while Oleh remained in hospital.
But when they returned to Poland, the doctor told Sergey that Oleh was extremely weak and she could not be sure he would recover.
Sergey asked if he could see his father. The doctor said no but agreed to arrange a video call. “I made a video call to her phone and she came to Dad’s ward,” Sergey says.
“He could say almost nothing, but I mentioned that he recognised me and even tried to make a smile. I was shocked … he was looking much worse than a week before when he was placed into hospital.”
Determined to return
Because Oleh has kidney problems, recovery will be slow, says Sergey. But over the past few weeks, his condition has begun to improve a little.
“Every following day he looks slightly better and better,” says Sergey.
For now, says Oksana, their immediate priority is to be with their father, to ensure that he gets proper medical care.
“The plan is now to find a good rehabilitation facility for him either in Poland or Latvia until it’s safe to take him back to Ukraine.”
Oksana feels for Oleh, whose health and pride were so dramatically affected by the war, and for other Ukrainians who have had their worlds turned upside-down too.
His journey exemplifies the reality of fleeing the war in Ukraine, she says, a war that has “destroyed or derailed people’s lives, and [has] taken away the right for normal dignified existence”.
But the war has “[shown] to the whole world how strong Ukrainians are,” Sergey says, and “showed to Ukrainians, who we are and how we can defend our homes and families”.
“For sure we will come back right after winning this war to build the most successful, happiest and rich country in the world,” he says. “Our country Ukraine! Our city, Kyiv!”