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Lessons Learned by A Tribesman in Ukraine - Evacuating the Family

By a Tribesman and American military veteran who got his family out of Ukraine at the start of the Russian Invasion and then stayed behind.

The weeks leading up to the war in Ukraine were marked with peak anxiety. I was in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, the embassy was sending out alerts to U.S. citizens in Ukraine that a Russian invasion was imminent. They outlined evacuation plans for citizens which consisted of two primary methods of exit. The first being commercial flights out of Ukraine and for those who remained the location of the land border crossings with Poland. The message was clear though, evacuate immediately. As U.S. citizens we were told we would be on our own once the invasion broke out if we remained in the country. The Russians began testing cyber-attacks on various targets within Ukraine, to include banks and government websites. Another American friend and I began taking shifts every day to wait for the invasion. He remained awake at night while I took the day shift to alert the other in case the war broke out. The situation was further complicated, my family and I got covid two weeks before the war started.

Russian troops began massing on Ukraine’s border sometime in December. Most Ukrainians paid little to no attention to this, because Russia had staged pre-invasion drills the spring before. They had achieved two goals; one was to determine a Western response and the other to desensitize the Ukrainian population. During the drills in the spring there was a marked difference in general anxiety amongst the population than the events that led up to the war in the winter of 2021/2022. As an American I could not believe the lackluster response to an obvious invasion force being staged on the border. There’s an innate Soviet fatalism still within the population that manifested itself in complete apathy towards impending doom. I was called crazy and dismissed for trying to warn Ukrainians. “The Russians will never invade.” they said. It was for this reason I couldn’t convince my wife to leave the country. We were therefore left to the mercy of fate.

I staged and purchased all equipment I thought I would need to fight the Russians. I was desperately trying to establish contacts with various military and volunteer civilian organizations to build a network before the outbreak of war. The Ukrainian government created the territorial defense force which was an all-volunteer mainly civilian militia. They were given little training, were poorly equipped and were given government authority that would prove disastrous once the war broke out. I was almost certain the Russians wouldn’t attack the capital directly. I miscalculated the Russians intentions which I believed to be only in the east. The Russian government pushed the narrative that Russian speaking eastern Ukrainians somehow needed liberated from a fascist Ukrainian government run by Nazi’s and pro-Bandera sympathizers. My plan was to grab volunteers and travel east to participate in combat operations once the war broke out.

I can remember a pressure build up during the month of February. It was very much an internal feeling, and it seemed as if no one else was feeling it. That pressure broke February 24th during the early morning hours. I was awoken from my sleep from my phone going off, it was my American friend who was pulling night shift. “THE WAR STARTED,” he screamed in the phone. I was confused in my stupor; I opened the window of our seventh story apartment and listened. I couldn’t hear anything. “Are you sure?” I asked. It was soon after that I could hear booms in the distance and small shockwaves. I ran into the bedroom and woke my wife up. She refused to believe what she was hearing. We put on the news and there was nothing being reported. We looked outside and no one was leaving. Everyone had been caught completely off guard.

Soon a rocket landed close to our apartment complex and shook the entire building and felt as if it was going to shatter the windows. We grabbed our child and threw what we thought were our most precious possessions into a bag and got into our vehicle and began our evacuation. It was a rush to the Polish border, by this point a considerable amount of the population began evacuating west. We had no idea how close we were to danger until after we had reached safety, but Russian paratroopers had landed just up the street from us at a small international airport to try and capture it. Rocket parts had fallen from the sky and smashed into our development, and one of the buildings in our complex was hit with a rocket.

As we were evacuating the news started to come in, everything was gridlocked we only moved inch by inch. Many Ukrainians have given up with public or private transportation and simply walked out of Kyiv. Tanks and troops were staging everywhere to begin the defense of the capital. The Russians had made a critical error though, we still had radio, GPS, and service terminals were still functioning. That meant that the gas pumps still worked, and you could still purchase food and supplies. I was determined to get us out of the capital at all costs, there was no way I was going to get caught in an encirclement of the city. A broadcast had come through the radio stating the Russians were in the west pushing towards the capital and cutting off access to Poland. My wife begged me to turn around and shelter in place in our apartment. I knew this was suicide and that we needed to keep pushing west. I took us almost an entire day to get to the outskirts of the capital. All traffic was moving west while the military was racing past us on the east bound lanes.

As we exited the capital, we were shaken by low flying fighter jets, the Russians and Ukrainians were engaged in a dogfight over our vehicles. I was unphased, I knew that now that we were out of the capital, we had options. We pulled into a gas station to fill up our tank and we were the very last vehicle to receive diesel at the gas station, because they had run out of fuel. As I stood in the parking lot of the gas station, I could see troops setting up emplacements in the woods outside of the gas station. There were tanks staging just across the street. We continued west.

Our initial goal was to reach the Polish border, but due to the traffic conditions we travelled west for as long as we could. We ended up in the city of Rivne after 14 hours of driving. Normally the drive from Kyiv to Rivne would take around five hours. We found a small hotel to stay in during the early morning hours and immediately passed out from exhaustion. In our exhaustion we were unaware that the city we travelled to was bombed that night as well.

We remained in Rivne for two more days calculating our next steps. The border was now backed up with a 10-mile-long line of vehicles. Supplies and diesel were now running out and we were unsure if we would even be able to make it to the border. Invasion conditions set in, and martial law was declared. All fighting aged men were prohibited from leaving the country and cities would adopt low light conditions. At night there were very few people on the streets and virtually no light. The hotel was running out of supplies and the city began mobilizing the men and putting them on old Soviet buses to send them off to staging areas. We decided that it was time to make our last leg of the journey regardless of the obstacles in the way. We were able to set up living arrangements with a friend's family that lived in a village deep in the Carpathian Mountains on the border with Hungary.

We headed south from Rivne to the Zakarpattia region. We were able to find a gas station that had fuel and we were able to resupply with diesel and snacks. As we journeyed south, we began passing checkpoints. The locals were using tires and construction materials to construct makeshift checkpoints. We passed burned and destroyed civilian vehicles that had been pushed to the side of the road. It took us another entire day of driving to get to the village in the Carpathians. Most were still trying to get to the Polish border whereas the Hungarian and Romanian border were mostly delay free. We encountered our first manned checkpoint later that night. It was run by a makeshift group of Police and territorial defense dressed in mismatched camouflage fatigues and balaclavas. They were instructing vehicles to pull over and searched through the vehicles. When I displayed my American passport, we were waived right through the checkpoint. In the early days of the war that was quite common, it wasn’t until later that I would get detained as a spy or accused of working for the CIA on a regular basis.

We made it safely to the village of our friends where we encountered a very sketchy checkpoint run by locals wearing high visibility vests. On our approach to this checkpoint, I readied myself to fight as they looked extremely suspicious. We were able to give them enough details about where we were headed that they were convinced we weren’t saboteurs or spies. After that we finally arrived at a place of safety.

After arriving in the village, we learned just how close of a call we had. The highway we used to evacuate Kyiv was destroyed in the Zhytomyr region. A bridge had been hit and several vehicles had driven off the destroyed bridge with no warning and all the occupants of the vehicles killed. Russian incursions had made it that far north and the remains of burnt-out tanks littered the highway. Unbeknownst to us while evacuating through that region active fighting was occurring only a few miles from the highway we were gridlocked on. In the days following there was active street fighting just down the block from where our apartment was. Evacuating under no circumstances saved my family.

I learned several valuable lessons from this experience. First and foremost is to not be in a critical situation unless you must be. The next is to have several stages of bug out bags. I had set up our luggage in such a way that if we had to abandon our vehicle on foot, I could downgrade what we carried. If you have a family, you need a large vehicle, the SUV we used to evacuate was just big enough to carry my wife, daughter, and I along with the possessions we chose to take with us. Always keep the gas tank on your vehicle as full as possible on a regular basis. If you’re on your own in an urban environment grab a backpack and a bicycle or motorcycle. I watched as someone on either of those rushed right past all the gridlocked traffic in the capital. Research and invest in alternative GPS methods. Had the Russians destroyed critical infrastructure we would have been out of luck. Which brings me to my final point, you must plan as best as you can, but ultimately it is luck or fate depending on how you look at it and how you make it out of a critical emergency such as this scenario.

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