American Living in Kyiv Recalls Escaping Ukraine: ‘It’s Surreal’

By Jackson Elliott
Jackson Elliott
Jackson Elliott
Reporter
Jackson Elliott reports on small-town America for The Epoch Times. He learned to write and seek truth at Northwestern University. He believes that the most important actions are small and that as Dostoevsky says, everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys running, reading, and spending time with friends. Contact Jackson by emailing jackson.elliott@epochtimes.us
March 15, 2022 Updated: March 15, 2022

The first thing David heard about Russia’s war on Ukraine was the explosion near his apartment in Kyiv.

David, an American who asked not to use his full name, has lived in Ukraine on and off since 2015. After COVID-19 travel restrictions ended, he visited Kyiv again.

At about 4 a.m. on Feb. 24, a resonant “kaboom” woke him, he told The Epoch Times. He knew instantly that it had to be a Russian missile.

“It woke me up. And that was the first,” he said. “It was so loud that I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got a war on our hands.’”

To David and other Ukrainians, Russia’s missiles and invasion came as a shock. Russia President Vladimir Putin had never done anything like this in Ukraine before, he said.

“Everybody said, ‘There’s no way Putin’s going to do this. This is insane,’” he said. “He bluffs, but it’s only to negotiate. He never goes all the way.”

Todd Gallagher, a Baptist missionary serving in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, agreed. When he advised his church to stock up on supplies in case of war, they laughed at him.

“I wasn’t really too offended by it, but I’m like, ‘Come on, guys. We’ve got to be smarter than this,’” Gallagher said.

In preparation, he gave his Ukrainian father-in-law money to buy and store food in the church. So far, it’s been crucial to keeping the community fed, he said.

Russia’s previous invasions were always marked by a cunning ability to push the line and steal territory without starting a war, David said.

Then tanks rolled into Ukraine.

Epoch Times Photo
Kyiv, Ukraine, stands motionless and empty after the news of the Russian invasion in February 2022. (Photo courtesy of David)

David, a former New Orleans resident, said that in many ways, the war has felt like a hurricane. He stocked up on food and water, and hunkered down. Then the Russian military smashed through the cities in its path. He described the sound of missiles hitting Kyiv.

“Everything just sort of shudders. Almost like clockwork, at 4 a.m. every morning, you’d hear explosions,” he said.

David wanted to leave, but he couldn’t travel because he’d just had major surgery. But his apartment building was fairly safe, he said. It was in the middle of a rough wall of other buildings. A Russian missile would have to be aimed directly at it to hit it.

A City Under Siege

Kyiv changed overnight, David said.

“Suddenly, there was martial law. You couldn’t go anywhere. It was like mass hysteria,” he said. “It was like a ghost town practically immediately.”

For 10 days, David waited to recover until he was well enough to travel and leave the country. Each night around 4 a.m., missiles would strike the northern side of Kyiv, he said.

Otherwise, life was strangely normal. The power and internet stayed on, people still bought groceries at stores with near-empty shelves. But some businesses were closed, and explosions echoed in the distance.

“It’s really is surreal. That’s all I can describe of it,” he said. “It was almost like a dream. I’m like, ‘What the hell just happened last week?’”

Despite the shock of the invasion, Ukrainians are willing to fight, David said.

“You can see the resolve in everyone’s eyes,” he said. “They’re absolutely stone-faced determined. There’s no one scared. Everybody’s calm. I didn’t see excitement or worry, or people wringing their hands.”

They’re motivated by memories of the cruelty of Soviet Russian rule, David said. The Soviets killed millions when they ruled Ukraine, and because they remember that history, Ukrainians are willing to fight to the death against the Russians, he said.

“Everybody has a family story about living in the USSR, and none of these are good,” David said. People either knew of kids or family members who disappeared, or their personal effects were stolen. “These people know what’s in store for them if they lose.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also been a major factor in Ukrainian morale, David said. When the president showed he was willing to stay and face death, people decided they were willing to die for him.

“They were willing to die for this man because he was willing to die for them,” David said.

“They’re fighting tooth and nail. Men and women together are doing everything that they can do to fight this war.”

Gallagher told The Epoch Times that Ukrainian militias are being equipped for war in towns across the country. Because of Ukraine’s tight cultural bonds, citizens are willing to unite and sacrifice to fight the invaders, he said.

“Those are things that have united and sparked the unity. The militias, the civilian militias, the little guerrilla units that Russia just didn’t count on are especially keeping Russia at bay,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
A group of Ukrainian militia pose with new radios. (Photo courtesy of Todd Gallagher)

Fleeing Invasion

On March 5, David left Kyiv in a car with a few other people. A guard on one of Kyiv’s bridges told him they were only allowing military vehicles through, but let him and his group pass anyway.

First, David stayed at an acquaintance’s house. Then he slept in a church where the windows had been blown out by a bomb blast. He heard air-raid sirens all night as the Russians bombed a nearby military base.

In the four days it took to reach the Romanian border, he had only two meals, David said. But what he got was enough.

“That water bottle made all the difference in the world,” he said.

He also recalled the moment when a man with two young children begged David to take his two children over the border.

“Here I am, a stranger, and he’s handing me his kids,” David said.

Gallagher was the one to help drive David on the final stretch across the border. Although David and his family had a chance to leave, they stayed in Romania so they could send aid into Ukraine.

The Russian invasion has left Ukraine, one of the world’s most fertile countries, without food, Gallagher said. Now, many Ukrainian families depend on donations from missionary organizations such as his church for food. That crisis is worst in the small towns.

Epoch Times Photo
A Ukrainian baby who received formula and diapers sent by Baptist missionary Todd Gallagher (Photo courtesy of Todd Gallagher)

“There’s no food, there’s nothing here,” David said.

A couple of weeks before the war, Gallagher took his family on vacation to Romania. While he was there, his car was damaged in an accident, stranding them there for a few weeks. When the war started, his family considered leaving for the United States, but they reconsidered, choosing to help war refugees.

The most needed items for Ukrainians now are food, medicine, blankets, toiletries, and diapers, he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Todd Gallagher, a Baptist missionary, and his family visiting the Transylvania region of Romania. Gallagher and his family are currently helping Ukrainian war refugees. (Photo courtesy of Todd Gallagher)

Gallagher depends on donations for these crucial items, he said. All the money he collects from his church’s donation page goes toward buying supplies for the needy in Ukraine.

When David arrived at the Romanian border, a long line of Ukrainian refugees stretched for miles, he said. While some waited in cars, many others were on foot in the freezing sleet.

The refugees wore winter coats, but often carried little else, David said.

According to Gallagher, the vast majority of refugees are women and children. Ukraine isn’t allowing men from 18 to 60 years old to leave unless they have at least three children. Many Ukrainians are hoping against hope for the war to end soon.

Jackson Elliott
Jackson Elliott reports on small-town America for The Epoch Times. He learned to write and seek truth at Northwestern University. He believes that the most important actions are small and that as Dostoevsky says, everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys running, reading, and spending time with friends. Contact Jackson by emailing jackson.elliott@epochtimes.us