On the Exodus West, Ukrainians Flee Hardship for an Uncertain Future

VIITIVTSI, Ukraine — The families staggered in, bleary-eyed, to a two-room kindergarten around 1 a.m., exhausted after a long journey from their home in Cherkasy, about 300 miles away. Fearful of the threat from the Russian invasion, they had decided it was time to leave, and make their way along with tens of thousands of others to the safer regions of western Ukraine.

It was slow going. The roads were jammed with Ukrainians making a similar exodus. As they settled in for a few hours of sleep on a set of cots sized for 4-year-olds, air raid sirens blared from the administrative building next door.

The next morning, as snow fell outside, 11-year-old Karolyna Tupytska and her younger sister Albina brushed their teeth, played with a small Terrier and braced themselves for another long day of travel. They were headed to Poland with their mother, Lyuba.

“My grandparents and my dad are still in Cherkasy,” Karolyna said. She said she was sad to leave behind her white hamster, Pearl.

In Ukraine, everyone who has the means is on the move, displaced by a war that seemed impossible to imagine, but has finally arrived. They are fleeing physical danger, of course — artillery attacks that ravaged hospitals, public squares and apartment buildings — but also the desperation of wartime conditions evident in food shortages, loss of work and a dearth of medical supplies.

In the past week, more than one million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. A million more are internally displaced. Aid groups have described it as one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent memory.

At the kindergarten, Iryna Boicharenko, a 19-year-old also from Cherkasy, was sleeping in a room with her extended family. The walls were painted with Soviet cartoons — a wolf with an accordion, a donkey with a balalaika, and a bear in a vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian costume.

“When I got in the car I started crying,” Ms. Boicharenko said. “I just started to cry because I realized I am leaving my country and running from a war. It’s an awful feeling.”

Tears welled in her eyes.

Her boyfriend, Daniil, also 19, had stayed behind to join the Territorial Defense, a new military unit that is arming civilians to help defend cities across Ukraine.

Her father, 55, had come to Ukraine to renew his Polish visa, but was now unable to leave because of a recently imposed martial law, which prohibits men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

The country’s main westward artery, E-50, is crammed with cars. What is usually a seven-hour drive from Kyiv to Lviv is taking days as cars navigate dozens of improvised checkpoints set up with steel anti-tank barriers and concrete observation points as the eastern and southern parts of the country begin to empty out. On Thursday, the traffic was so backed up east that people were relieving themselves in a ditch along the side of the road. The shelves in the shops at gas stations along the way were almost completely empty. Most families, like Iryna’s, had packed food from home to last for days.

But there were uplifting signs along the journey as well. The Ukrainian flag — yellow for wheat and blue for the sky — was ubiquitous, a display of the solidarity and national pride that has swept over the diverse country of 44 million since Russia first invaded in 2014.

At jam-packed hotels, local families were delivering mattresses and blankets to travelers grabbing a spot to sleep on hallway floors.

Along many thoroughfares, billboards criticized Russians. One common message was an obscene phrase, in Russian, to Russian soldiers. It is a meme that was started after Ukrainian soldiers on an island spewed the same obscenity at a Russian military ship. The soldiers were taken prisoner, but the incident, which was filmed, has come to represent the resilience and style with which many Ukrainians, including their president, have coped with a war they did not want.

Elsewhere there was more evidence of the common cause many Ukrainians have found: Road signs had been removed on the instructions of municipal officials, an attempt to confuse the Russian invaders trying to navigate.

One traveler, Anton, said he was driving his family from Kyiv to the western city of Ternopil after spending five nights in a bomb shelter. Anton, like others interviewed for this story, was only comfortable providing his first name out of fear for his safety.

Despite the hardships, he was “optimistic” because of the unity and strength his country’s army had shown against the Russian military.

He was not the only one confident of Ukrainian victory. Even as refugees streamed westward, the eastbound lanes toward Kyiv also bore heavy traffic. More than 50,000 Ukrainian citizens living abroad have returned to Ukraine to join the war effort, according to a Facebook post from the Ukrainian border security agency.

About 80 percent of them are men between the ages of 18 and 60, and they are closely examined at check points. Military vehicles were also heading toward Kyiv.

Many families were traveling together. Those who chose to stay inside Ukraine could remain together, but some men were sending their wives and children across the border, unable to join them because of the new law.

“My heart is heavy,” said Vyacheslav. He said he was happy his wife and two children would be safe abroad, but was devastated that he would be separated from them in a matter of days.

Hotels along the way were all booked. Many were refusing to rent rooms to people who would leave an empty bed, insisting that people double and triple up so that there would be room for everyone, even if they could not pay.

At a hotel called the Swallow’s Nest in Viitivtsi, guests crowded into every corner. A woman and her daughter were sleeping in a second floor hallway under a piano. Outside, a line of cars stood on the side of the road as their occupants tried to figure out where to sleep as an 8 p.m. curfew approached.

The hotel owner, Larisa Mahlyovana, said the hotel used to be known for hosting local wedding parties. But now it was crammed with people seeking safety and shelter from the cold night. She hosted them free of charge.

“At first people were sleeping on cardboard boxes, but we put out a call for help and within hours, people were donating spare mattresses, pillows and blankets,” said Ms. Mahlyovanya.

“No one can stay indifferent,” she added.

For the woman sleeping under the piano, Natasha, it was her second time fleeing west since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.

She is 36 and originally from Luhansk, the Russian breakaway enclave in the east. Her 7-year-old daughter was “born under the bombs,” she said, before she fled the area and resettled in the Kyiv suburbs. She got a job sewing clothes, and made friends with another recent transplant, from the other separatist territory, Donetsk. Now she is fleeing again.

“I have already rebuilt my life once,” she said, as her daughter played with a long-burning candle.

As an air raid siren sounded, all of the hotel guests climbed down the metal stairs into a chilly basement. Natasha cradled her daughter in her lap and kissed her, telling her that everything would be all right.

When she climbed out of the shelter, she said she was happy that at least this time, the world was paying attention.

“Thank God the whole world is now on our side,” she said.

Sabrina Tavernise and Marc Santora contributed reporting from Lviv, Ukraine.

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