At five in the morning on February 24, in the now besieged Ukrainian city of Kharkov, Alex was hurriedly woken up by his wife, Maria, upon hearing the first Russian bombardments. The first thing he did was go online, where he read that the president of his country, Vladimir Putin, had just announced a “special military operation” that Ukrainian civilians should not fear because it only sought to protect the inhabitants of Ukraine from “genocide”. pro-Russian separatist regions. “It’s not so much that I believed it as that I wanted to believe it, because with a one-month-old baby we didn’t want to run away. And we thought that the war would last two or three days”, he explains today at the refugee reception center in the Polish town of Hrubieszow, where he has just arrived with his wife and three children: one 18 years old, another 14 and your baby.
Alex and Maria were born in the USSR in 1981, they are Russian citizens and have lived most of their lives in the Russian Far East. More than 10 years ago they decided to move to Kharkov, where their Russian father and Ukrainian mother lived, in a mix typical of the years when both republics belonged to the Soviet Union. “We liked the warm weather and the beautiful city. In addition, it is Russian-speaking and there have never been any problems due to ethnic reasons. We received permanent residence permits and it is where our [último] son, whom we registered as a citizen of Kharkiv. And there we lived happily until February 24, the day that changed our lives”, he says in a face-to-face conversation and a subsequent exchange of emails, already from the Polish city of Krakow, one more stage towards his final destination: a city of Spain in which their aunt will welcome them and which they prefer not to disclose for fear of reprisals.
He also does not want to give his last name or be filmed because he fears for his safety. He only allows himself to be photographed from behind with his wife and the baby’s stroller. “Russia is beginning to resemble North Korea,” he stresses after recalling that the country’s Parliament approved on the 4th a law that punishes “misinformation” about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and support for international sanctions on Moscow for the offensive.
They fear reprisals because they and their two eldest children have a Russian passport, as well as family and friends in that country. Few, actually, anymore. Before the war, Alex was in contact with 10, but two weeks later he only speaks to two. “In Russia right now they are like zombies, because of the propaganda machine, which is very, very powerful,” he says. “When we call friends in Russia they tell us that in Ukraine they are neo-Nazis and that everything they are telling us is a lie. I answer them: ‘But if I’m the one who lives here, I know what’s out there. You live in St. Petersburg or in the Far East.”
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When he talks about Putin, his eyes change. She insults him and, at one point, pulls out her phone and types in Russian to make sure his message doesn’t get lost in a foreign language: “We’re ashamed to have a Russian passport. We hate Putin.” She then adds three exclamation points and another sentence: “We have become hostages of this situation.”
hope to return
Kharkov, the second Ukrainian city by population (around 1.5 million) and with a Russophone majority, has been under intense bombardment for days. “We do not lose hope of returning, but we are afraid that there will be nowhere left. Many houses in the area have been bombed and Grandma’s has broken glass from an explosion,” she explains. Her neighborhood, Saltivka, is in the northeast of the city, just the part closest to the border with Russia, just 30 kilometers away. “It was the first area to receive the blow. I went out on the balcony and saw a glow on the horizon […] We decided to stay home so as not to put the baby’s health at risk, because for some reason we were sure that this would end soon.
They stayed in the apartment for two days, getting used to the sound of the bombs with the consolation that none fell nearby. Until in front of his building – next to the communal bunker to which they did not go down for fear that the cold would worsen the newborn’s pneumonia – a rocket appeared stuck in the ground without exploding, he explains while raising his arm to show how it bristles the hair when remembering it. Then he shows on his mobile a photo of the projectile and a video recorded from a window with the sound of explosions in the background. “We took only what was necessary: baby food, diapers, documents… and we went to a friend’s house in another part of Kharkov, which we thought was safer. That same night, the planes began to bomb the center of the city. The explosions were very strong. With a month-old baby in our arms, we felt powerless. In the midst of stress, my wife lost her breast milk. We decided to leave the city immediately to save our lives and those of our children”, she recounts.
His baby has basically only known two places in his scant month of life: the Kharkov hospital (where he spent two weeks in intensive care with pneumonia) and the Ukrainian city of Lviv, to which they fled by train and whose crowded platform shows images on the phone. “There were so many of us in the car that there were even people sitting on the toilet,” she recalls. They stayed a few days in Lviv, in the quieter western part of Ukraine, until the bombings this Friday, but they were restless. “We thought: ‘Who knows what Putin’s next step is? This place is not safe either and we have a baby.’ So we went towards the border,” she notes.
Once in Poland, volunteers took them by road to the center of Hrubieszow, a sports center with rows of folding beds, mats and mats where hundreds of refugees usually spend just enough hours to take a nap, eat hot food and shelter from sub-zero temperatures, before continuing on to other parts of Poland or other countries. Alex was able to be evacuated to the EU because he has a permanent residence permit in Ukraine and, as a foreigner, he was exempt from martial law, which prevents Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving. “Going back to Putin’s Russia,” he clarifies, “was never an option.”
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