When air raid sirens began to sound in Kyiv at 5am on February 24, Olga Balaban’s instincts told her that she had to get out of the city with her family while they could still.
“Many of my friends said it will be ok, that it would finish soon, he [Putin] is just doing this to scare us, ”she says,“ but I just knew we had to go. ”
So, Olga rounded up her grandmother, mother and 18-year-old brother and headed towards Kyiv central station, boarding the first train heading west towards the country’s border with the European Union (EU).
The 26-year-old recalls a relaxed atmosphere on the train which was only half-full.
“Ukrainians have been under threat for so many years, many of us did not believe a full invasion could really happen,” she explains. But as the train began to snake its way through the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine, the severity of the situation had sunk in around the country, and thousands of people began to flock to the borders.
There were traffic jams on the roads out of major cities like Kyiv as Russian forces attacked the country from multiple directions.
Olga and her family then boarded a second train at Ternopil. It was only a three-hour ride to Lviv, but she said the tension on the train was palpable. “People were starting to scream and to panic,” she says, “the train staff did not even ask for payment, they just let us all get on.”
By the time Olga and her family arrived in Lviv and took a taxi to the border with Poland, they were met with 30km (18.6 miles) of queues. Thousands of people stood in the damp bitter cold waiting for the Ukrainian border guards to let them through. “I was so completely exhausted, and I’m 26, I can not even imagine what it was like for the children,” she says.
Her grandmother, who is 74 and recovering from an operation, could barely walk, so Olga began to beg those in cars to take her. Eventually, a family took her in.
Emotionally and physically exhausted after two days of waiting in the queue, Olga, her mother and her brother finally made it to the front of the line. But just as they did, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine announced that all male citizens aged 18 to 60 were banned from leaving the country.
Tears appear in Olga’s eyes as she remembers the moment she had to say goodbye to her younger brother, knowing that he would soon be learning to fight one of the most powerful military forces in the world. “I could have done anything to keep him with me; I would have paid money, but what could I do? ”
“I do not think it is humane to call up all men to fight,” she says, “maybe some are sick or have mental health issues.”
Their mother could not bear to leave her son behind on his own so turned back with him.
At 3am on Sunday, Olga made it across the border – alone. She was fortunate to find a small hostel, where she could get some rest and warm up.
Twelve hours later, she returned to the border to wait for her grandmother who had kept in touch with her via WhatsApp. The car she was in was edging closer at an agonisingly slow pace as border guards tried to cope with the overwhelming number of vehicles trying to make it into the EU.
At the border, she waited as a group of Moroccan men, who had been studying at a university in Kharkiv when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, warmed their hands by a log fire nearby.
Wearing a yellow hat and blue earrings, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and clutching a bag containing a blanket and food for her grandmother, Olga watched as coaches carrying women and children crossed from the Ukrainian side. Her eyes scanned every car that passed, looking for her grandmother.
Dozens of makeshift stalls set up by local NGOs and volunteers handed out free coffee, tea and hot meals; luggage, clothes, and empty water bottles littered the streets. Polish border guards pushed back groups of men shouting ‘women and children first!’ as the coaches transporting people to the dozens of temporary shelters set up all along the Polish border pulled up.
Nearby, men traveled the other way, entering Ukraine from the opposite border point. Most of them were Ukrainians who had been living and working abroad and were now returning to fight for their country.
Two hours later, Olga was reunited with her grandmother. They plan to move into Poland, passing through Przemyśl, a picturesque city that has seen a large influx of refugees and American soldiers who have been working with Polish forces to set up processing centers along the border. From here they will move further south to Slovakia where they say they will stay until they learn the fate of their country.