One Ukrainian’s Harrowing Experiences During the First Days of the Invasion
About the interviewee: Nikita Khomenko is a 22-year-old English Teacher in Ukraine. He has lived in Kharkiv for the last 6 years and is originally from Pokrovsk in the Donestk Oblast.
Note: The article only reflects the interviewee’s personal opinions
Publication date: March 4th, 2022
Philip: What were your thoughts about Russian aggression in the months and days leading up to the invasion? Were you were surprised that Russia invaded?
Nikita: As a matter of fact, I temporarily moved to Lviv from October to December, not because of Russian aggression, but for a new opportunity. Then a little over a month ago I decided to move back to Kharkiv and rented a new apartment with my friend. I thought the possibility of an invasion was extremely unlikely. Everyone I know joked about Russian troops and thought it was just an empty threat. In fact, I would start every lesson by jokingly asking my students if they were still in Kharkiv.
But then I started to feel a bit anxious on February 22nd when Putin announced the formal recognition of Donestk and Luhansk as independent states. The next day I bought a train ticket to Lviv for the 26th even though my roommate thought I was just overreacting. I just had a gut feeling that Russia was going to invade. Most of my students still didn’t believe that there was a possibility for war and thought it was all just a big game that Putin was playing. But then it quickly ceased to be a game.
P: How did you hear about the invasion? What were your initial thoughts?
N: I woke up at 5 am to artillery explosions and immediately knew that Russia was invading. I didn’t even have to check my phone for the news. I knew. My roommate, Diana, and I quickly packed up the most important things like our passports and money. Diana asked me ‘what do we do?’ and I just responded, ‘we’ll run away.’
P: Where did you go after the invasion started? Did you grab supplies?
N: You know the shelling just confirmed my gut feeling that the war started, and Putin lost his damn mind. I just tried to get it together and calm myself down. We called to see if anyone could come to pick us up and take us to Lviv, but everyone said it was impossible. I knew we were alone in Kharkiv, so Diana and I ran to the metro (subway) station at first. Once we calmed down, we tried to see if we could get a train ticket to Lviv, but there was absolutely nothing available.
At this point there were only a few people in the metro. People were aware of the bombings but still did not seem to grasp the magnitude of the situation. I was so desperate to get to Lviv that Diana and I even discussed hitchhiking. We realized that getting out soon might not be an option, so we made our way to the store to buy food and water.
When we arrived at the store the lines were ridiculously long. Just to get into the store we had to wait in a line of 100 people. Once we got in, there were no carts or baskets. We found gift bags they were selling and decided to use those to carry our food, water, and wet wipes. Surprisingly, some people in the store were not panicking at all. One guy behind me was just buying milk, flour, and cat food. The line to check out seemed endless, and we waited for 2 hours just to buy our items and leave.
P: Describe your experiences hiding in the metro. Where did you sleep? How did others feel?
N: After leaving the store, we felt another round of shelling and panicked. People on the street seemed to be in a state of denial and told us not to run or worry. They were just talking on the phone and meandering down the street like nothing was happening. I think people thought that the shelling was just outside the city limits and that they were not in danger.
Once we got back into the metro it just felt like you were in a constant state of anxiety waiting for something to happen. I felt helpless and kept thinking that I am going to die. My mind kept replaying the thought of a bomb being dropped onto the metro station. The only thing you want to do at this point is to survive. After sitting there for a bit and hearing bombings, my sister called and said that one bomb had actually hit right above our metro station. A metro train came, and we decided to hop on and go to the deepest metro station in the city. But we only made it past a few stations before the trains stopped running.
Luckily, when the train stopped, we were sitting down so we got to stay in the seats for the night while other people had to sleep on the concrete floor with only some cardboard boxes or a towel as bedding. It was uncomfortable for two people to sleep on a bench, but it was better than sleeping on the floor. We were actually warm throughout the night since we were able to close the doors.
Then on Friday morning most of the people left the metro because it was quiet. But I knew that bombings could start at any moment and that to survive we had to stay undercover. At one point we were alone in the station, but I think people were just being careless. We waited 5 more hours and then around noon decided to go get more supplies from our apartment and charge our phones so we could stay in the metro for at least 4 days. In hindsight, Kharkiv was so safe at this point. But in the moment, we were terrified and sure that we could die any minute.
While we were at our apartment gathering supplies, another round of shelling started so we ran into the closest metro station. The metro was now overcrowded because people finally realized how dangerous the situation was. People even brought their pets. We couldn’t find any seats and had to set up a spot on the concrete floor. It was so claustrophobic because everyone was just side-by-side on the floor. This is where things started to become more difficult because I already had one sleepless night, could only eat canned food, and my adrenaline was constantly pumping. To make matters worse, there was a 2-hour line to use the restroom. It is insane to think that while all these people were taking shelter in the metro, some were still at home and not too worried about what was going on.
P: Why did you decide to leave Kharkiv? How did you get to the train station? What was the city like?
N: At 7:30 pm on Friday night I decided we had to try and get to Lviv. I could not sit there and feel helpless anymore. At the time there were really no right or wrong decisions, but I felt as though that was the best decision for us. My sister had called and said that the shelling stopped, so I took a chance and called two cabs and offered them an inordinate amount of money to take us to the station. Curfew started at 10pm so I felt like it was now or never. We ran up to the first one that arrived and when we opened the door some guys were already in there. In their desperation to get out, they grabbed the wrong cab. They got out without a fight, but it just shows how desperate people were to get away.
When we settled into the car, I was in awe of my taxi driver and kept thanking him for his bravery because if I were a driver—I wouldn’t have been out working. He and other taxi drivers were working together to transmit safety reports and prevent people from looting stores.
The trip to the train station was so eerie; Kharkiv was like a ghost town. We were the only car on the road, and I kept thinking that a missile was going to hit us. Seeing unexploded missiles lodged into the road definitely justified my fears. I was also anxious that we would not be able to get a train at the station. But that was a risk we were willing to take. Again, there were no right or wrong decisions in the moment. It was just a decision that seemed like the best at the time. The fear of dying was propelling me forward through every decision; I just wanted to live.
P: What happened at the train station?
N: Upon arrival at the station, the difference in mood was like day and night. In the metro there was an overwhelming sense that ‘we are going to die.’ But at the railway station there were fewer people, and everyone was just focused on getting on a train ASAP. This is when Diana and I felt our first glimpse of hope despite all the uncertainty. We felt like we finally had a chance. A train arrived shortly after we got to the station, but people swarmed, and we couldn’t get on. I still had a ticket for 4 am the next morning, but who knew if that train would be canceled. We were determined to get on any train going west. Diana and I chatted with the train attendant and hinted that we were willing to pay him a bribe to get on the next train, but he did not pick up on the hint. I wish we would have been more forceful, but again hindsight is much clearer.
We almost gave up and went back to the metro station, but a friend told us that foreign embassies announced to their citizens that anyone can now ride a train without a ticket. A train arrived at the station around 2:30 am after a 40-minute delay. Once again, people swarmed the platform. 80% of the people were international students and I was disappointed by their actions. Diana and I brought the essentials in just a small backpack, but they all brought suitcases the size of a person. The trains were so full that their suitcase literally took a human being’s spot. I was shocked by their selfishness.
The train’s arrival was like a movie scene. It rolled up so slowly and we were walking alongside to try and position ourselves as close to the door as possible. The train finally stopped, and we were just to the left of the door. The conductor came out and you could see the fear in his eyes from all the people standing there. He announced that people with tickets could board first and stepped back. That’s when the fighting broke out. All the international students began pushing and shoving. Everyone was bigger and stronger than me, but luckily a man in front of us bullied his way through the crowd and onto the stairs into the train. I don’t know exactly what happened, but in a blink of an eye we ended up on the stairs and in the wagon.
P: How was the train ride? What was the mood like?
N: We found an empty bed in a cabin where two women begrudgingly let us in. They were also angry at the international students and seemed to take it out on us. Luckily, they warmed up to us. Diana and I were beyond happy that we got to share a small one-person bed since we had mentally prepared ourselves to sit in the aisle during the trip. I admit that the mood on the train was a little angry and racist towards the international students because of their conduct while getting on the train. At some points I can’t blame them because everyone is just trying to survive, but their actions felt so inhumane. They didn’t allow for women and children to enter first, they pushed and shoved their way on, and they took up a space with their oversized suitcases. The international students all sat and slept in the aisle. It was packed tight.
The trip lasted 18 hours, but despite the threat of being bombed I was just so hopeful. Diana and I were laughing and joking the whole time. Once we passed by Kyiv, I felt like we were pretty much safe. I had it in the back of my mind that at any moment we could get hit by a missile, or the train could stop and we would all have to get out into a field. But I told Diana that we would ride bikes or go on foot to Lviv if we had to. Despite all the potential dangers, our spirit was unbreakable, and nothing could destroy our will to live. I would have rather died in the forest than in that metro station.
P: What was your feeling upon arriving in Lviv? How was it?
N: I was beyond relieved. We first called all our family members and told them that we arrived in Lviv safely. We had kept it a secret from everyone so that they would not worry. Diana’s parents had been completely against the idea of us leaving Kharkiv and thought that staying was safer. They were a bit mad at first, but ultimately were relieved that we made it to Lviv because of the intense bombings in Kharkiv that started after we left. We had lied to them and told them we were still in the metro station during our trip.
There was a sea of people when we got off the train and we just stood still for 15 minutes because no one could move. I was still relieved but angry because I just wanted to get to my brother’s. Obviously when we actually showed up my brother and his fiancé were beyond surprised.
P: Do you feel safer in Lviv? How does the mood in Lviv compare to Kharkiv? What are your speculative thoughts on the outcome of the war?
N: I do feel much safer in Lviv because for now we are far away from the fighting and I think Lviv will fight to the death if Russian forces come. They are extremely patriotic and have been preparing Molotov cocktails and other weapons. There is also a collective effort to gather medical and food supplies and make camouflage nets for the tanks.
While I do feel safer, I also feel a bit helpless again. I feel like a sitting duck waiting for Russian forces to come. I can’t leave the country so where can I go if they come. My friends in Lviv are much more patriotic and think that Russian forces will never make it to Lviv. I am somewhat patriotic and believe that the Ukrainian army is putting up a valiant effort, but I am also a realistic individual. Russia’s military is huge compared to Ukraine’s. They have nuclear weapons, an endless supply of rockets, and a lot more soldiers. We won’t lose because we are weak; we will lose because Putin has nothing else to lose. Russia’s economy is drowning, and Putin sees that his dictatorship is collapsing and there is no way to restore relations with other countries. Putin will keep pushing forward. Other countries are helping economically, but they are just watching as Ukraine’s military fights alone.
I see two scenarios for the outcome of the war. In my best-case scenario, Russian soldiers will realize that they are going to die for nothing and overthrow Putin. In my realistic scenario, I want to emphasize that this does represent the opinion of most Ukrainians and that I am not unpatriotic. I just think realistically that Russian forces will take Kyiv and Kharkiv and then move towards Lviv. Since Lviv has narrow streets, Putin will just bomb the city. Lastly, I don’t think Putin is afraid to use his nuclear weapons if sees no alternatives. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dropped a nuke right in the center of Ukraine. But I just hope the military officials realize that will end the world as we know it if they use nuclear weapons.