The exodus from Ukraine: a night spent with civilians fleeing the Russian invasion

Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have fled the Russian invasion since Thursday and are trying to reach neighboring Poland. Chaotic evacuation, with dozens of kilometers of traffic jams on the Ukrainian side, portends a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Mehdi Shebeil, a France 24 correspondent, reports on the ground.

Modern SUVs, prehistoric Ladas, family cars … Hundreds of vehicles of Ukrainians of all social classes crawled along Thursday evening, bumper to bumper, for about 30 kilometers before the Polish border. As night fell, the silhouettes of rickety pedestrians walking on the side of the road stood out amid the smoke of the exhaust pipes.

The huge traffic jam between Lviv, the main city in western Ukraine, and the border with the European Union, which is getting longer every hour, is the most tangible sign of the exodus of Ukrainian civilians who fled the Russian invasion. And that’s only the beginning: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated on Friday that up to 4 million people could flee to other countries if the situation escalated.

A 30-kilometer traffic jam formed on February 25 in the evening as thousands of Ukrainian civilians flocked toward the Polish border. © Mehdi Chebil “We left last night, but since the bus could no longer move, we walked 20 kilometers,” Ukraine’s border crossings saw a heavy influx while thousands of people continued to arrive.

Most people still seemed to be in shock.

Sofia is stuck on the Ukrainian side of the border with two children aged 8 and 3 and a half. © Mahdi Shebeil “We saw planes and missiles hitting a military depot 15 kilometers from our house. It was utter panic. How do you explain to children that you must leave the house urgently? ‘ cried Sophia, her face taut as she pulled a fleece blanket over the shoulders of the two children who were traveling with her.

Around her, women and children outnumbered men. The young woman, whose husband lives in Poland, added: “Men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been called to war and there are several checkpoints along the way to prevent them from escaping.”

There are many women with children among the thousands of people who flock to the Polish border. © Mehdi Chebil A large proportion of the men gathered at the border crossing were indeed foreigners. Jowharspoke to Algerian, Congolese, Nigerian and Indian refugees waiting to cross the border.

“I feel sorry for the Ukrainians because they are really wonderful people. We are foreigners and we leave nothing behind. They are forced to leave their homes,” said Karim, a 28-year-old Algerian man who works in finance. Karim left Kiev with his partner after spending horrific hours in Take cover underground in the metro to escape the bombing.

Karim, an Algerian national living in Kiev, queues on the Ukrainian side of the border on February 25, 2022. Several foreigners are currently trying to flee the country. © Mehdi Chebil Most of the thousands of refugees do not have tents or sleeping bags, because they did not plan to spend the night outdoors. People who have a car can leave the engine running to warm up as long as they don’t run out of gas. On Thursday evening, no humanitarian organizations appeared on the Ukrainian side of the border. Unless the crossing is widely opened soon, the situation for 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 unfortunate comrades enjoy at the border is a strong sense of solidarity. When I see children who are hungry, cold and crying, I cannot stand still. I made three round trips between Lviv, Lutsk, and the border, and volunteered to move people,” said Anatoly, an Israeli-Ukrainian businessman who works in agricultural equipment. Stocks of cigarettes and energy drinks kept the 23-year-old from getting a little sleep.

The Russian army is very powerful, it is the second or third most powerful army in the world. “But Putin will not be able to impose a new order in the country in the long run, because the Ukrainians love their freedom very much,” said Anatoly, as he drove back to Lviv.

Anatoly, in his car, says he did not sleep “for 30 hours” in order to transport Ukrainian civilians to the Polish border. © Mehdi Chebeil slowly drove along the endless traffic driving in the other direction towards the border, when he saw two frail people with their thumbs up at the side of the road: two young men, a brother and a sister, who had 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 have resumed their mass exodus at sunrise the next day.

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