Anastasiia Vanzhura found herself walking in -10 C temperatures carrying what she could of her belongings and her beloved orange tabby, Rinchen, in a travel kennel, toward the Slovakian border.
She and thousands of others trudged for hours in sub-freezing temperatures because the trains were full.
Vanzhura had left her apartment in Kyiv, the city she’d called home for four years and where she’d owned a clothing store and then worked in a casino. That life was now hundreds of kilometres behind her, destroyed by weeks of bombardment by the Russian military.
Vanzhura said the country had been preparing for the invasion. People were worried and some panicked in the days leading up to it, but she, like many others, didn’t believe Russia would attack.
“The airport was closed and everything was being prepared, but you cannot believe it’s coming because you have your life, you have your plans and everything. It’s not possible. How is it possible?” she asked.
She’d stayed in Kyiv long as she could, helping the company she worked for get wages to co-workers scattered around the region where the banking system was failing, roads, bridges and buildings were being bombed and the city was under nightly curfews. As systems and services started to fail under the bombardment and people evacuated to safer regions of the country and beyond, warfare was also disrupting Ukraine’s ability to produce food and grocery store shelves were becoming bare of even basics like milk, bread and eggs.
Defence forces prowled the streets for saboteurs in the darkness of blackouts ordered to help thwart the Russian military. Vanzhura remembers the sounds of air raid sirens, missiles and artillery rounds that were lobbed into targets around the city every night.
“In nighttime you’d hear everything. It’s like you’re living on another planet,” she said.
As it became harder to stay in the city, Vanzhura was finding it increasingly difficult to arrange transport to get out. Travel was complicated in part because she refused to leave Rinchen behind. She made arrangements to catch a ride out of the country with a family friend, but was left stranded.
Anxiety grew over the weeks. A friend had fled to Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, just prior to the invasion and had invited Vanzhura there, thinking the community of 37,000 would be safer than the capital. However, after two weeks without hearing any more, Vanzhura got a phone call from Lviv from the friend who had escaped Bucha, where there had been no electricity or running water.
“She cried; she really cried and said, ‘Anastasiia, you should leave Kyiv now because what I saw, it was terrible … I don’t want you broken inside … You should leave and decide which place you want to go and how you can go,’” Vanzhura said.
The choice was to become a refugee, or stay and possibly lose her home or even her life. So on March 10, Vanzhura left Kyiv with Rinchen and a friend, spent a night with her mother to say goodbye, and the next morning went to board a train to Uzhhorod, a city in western Ukraine, en route to Slovakia. Arriving at the station at 6:30 a.m., the train was already full with, Vanzhura estimated, about 800 people still waiting to board. She and her friend were told they’d have to walk to Slovakia from there – a seven-hour trek.
There were cars along the side of the road and people would get in them to warm up for a few minutes and be given tea or coffee before carrying on.
“You’d see just women and children and maybe some dogs and cats who go with them,” she said. “You didn’t see one man in all this place.”
Vanzhura said she remembered her grandmother telling her stories about similar scenes from the the Second World War when only women and children could leave the warring countries and how the trains were kept dark while travelling at night to avoid being attacked.
“Oh my God, you’re seeing the same story, but it’s right now,” she said.
Vanzhura’s journey brought her to Spain where she stayed with families in Barcelona and Madrid before she received clearance to come to Canada. She arrived in Nanaimo in early April.
Vanhura said she sometimes fights depression following her experiences – she avoids watching news about the war – but said it’s important that people know what’s happening in her homeland.
“I’m Ukrainian and I’m proud of my country, so I should [talk] about the things that I saw,” she said. “That’s the good thing I can do for my country because I’m here now, in a safe place … so I should tell my story.”
Her mother and brother are still in Ukraine. Her younger brother, a chef, worked in a restaurant in Odesa, which is no longer safe, so he moved to be with their mother in what Vanzhura described as a small city near the borders of Belarus and Poland. Her brother can’t leave the country, but has not yet been called on for military service.
Vanzhura now works at Casino Nanaimo and has found accommodations within walking distance of her work, thanks to a local restaurant owner who asked a friend, Norm Jensen, if he would take in the refugee until she got on her feet financially.
“She said, ‘I know you have room in your home and you’re alone, so maybe you would like to take on one of these Ukrainian refugees,’ was how she put it,” Jensen said. “I asked how long and she said two to three weeks, which really was just sticking the foot in the door because she knew and I knew that in two to three weeks nobody’s going to get themselves settled … After I said yes, she said, ‘oh, she’s got a cat,’ and I’m a bit allergic to those critters. Well, you know, I’ve committed myself and she’s going to live upstairs with the cat in a spare bedroom, which is OK.”
Vanzhura and Jensen have since extended the arrangement until the end of June when she can start paying a small amount of rent.
“She looks after herself. She’s not a problem and I’m happy to have her here. She’s very good company,” Jensen said. “I can talk to the walls, but they don’t always answer me.”