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Escape from Ukraine

Serhii, a Ukrainian surgeon, holds a photo of his twin daughters as they appear on his cellphone. The family escaped to Poland from Bucha, a city that has seen some of the worst destruction from invading Russian forces. (Photo by Christopher Briscoe)
Ashland photographer documents struggles of fleeing refugees

Editor’s note: Ashland photojournalist Christopher Briscoe has been on the border between Ukraine and Poland for the past couple of weeks, aiding refugees while recording the stories of their journeys out of their war-torn homeland.

Originally scheduled to return home this week, Briscoe has decided to stay longer, as more people escape from the Russian invasion.

“With so many heart-breaking yet inspiring stories to listen to, I cannot leave,” Briscoe said in an email. “It occurred to me that your Rogue Valley readers may want to read something about the war that’s more personal than what they’ve seen on the news.”

What follows are two such stories.

Hands of a Surgeon - Heart of a Father

This morning I sat down over breakfast with Serhii, a robust Ukrainian surgeon.

“At 5 a.m. on February 24th, I woke up to the sound of explosions. The bombs were falling from the sky,” he said.

“In two weeks, 80% of my beloved town, Bucha, would be destroyed. We lived close to the crossroads of where the tanks were. A targeted airbase was also nearby. This made it impossible to escape. It seemed safer to stay in the house.”

I listened to his gut-wrenching story of hiding with family and friends — nine total — in his tiny root cellar, with two guns, a small generator and some provisions. Occasionally one would sneak out to find firewood and get some water from the family well.

When his son turned 17, and no way to bake a birthday cake, his twin 6-year-old daughters drew pictures of cakes on paper instead.

As a rite of passage into manhood, Serhii and his son dashed to a local hospital to donate blood.

On the ninth day, they planned their escape in three cars. Serhii drove with his wife and daughters — who were in the back seat, next to a couple of jerrycans full of necessary gas — weaving as he watched Russian bullets riddling some of the vehicles in line just three cars ahead of them.

Racing past them, he turned to see the bloody dead bodies. He also noticed visual markers Russian soldiers had put on some destroyed cars to ensure that the bombings would be more precise.

With some luck and knowledge of the area, Serhii chose an alternate route that bypassed the stalled lines of traffic and raced to the Polish border.

At the end of his story, Serhii took a final sip of coffee, looked at me and said, “At night I dream of my previous life. I miss it.”

Ksenia and her daughter Julia find a moment’s respite with their pet dogs in the apartment of an artist in Poland, following their harrowing escape from Lviv in Ukraine. (Photo by Christopher Briscoe)
There’s No Room For Your Snails In Our Car

“We went to sleep in a peaceful country and woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning to the sound of explosions,” 12-year-old Julia remembers, speaking slowly in English. “It was so scary. I ran down the steps to our basement with my mom. No one knew what to do.”

Mother and daughter are finally safe now, thanks to the kindness of a Polish artist in Przemyśl. They cuddle together on the varnished wood floor holding their two tiny dogs that let out a continuous guttural growl at me, protective and suspicious of everyone.

Ksenia, a 37-year-old computer programmer, has an expressive face that shifts from a warm smile to deep despair and back again at the sight of her daughter’s bright eyes. When I first met Ksenia, she told me that Julia is very shy, but in a few minutes her daughter is showing me how well she can play the piano.

I sit and listen for the first time to the Ukraine National Anthem. Julia concentrates on the keys as the notes bounce off the brick basement walls, and I’m soon feeling patriotic enough to join the resistance.

Ksenia describes their escape into the night from Lviv. Five were jammed into the car, with two dogs. When they joined the solid line of cars pointing toward the Polish border, it was 20 kilometers long, soon it was 30.

“We couldn’t turn on the car lights at night because we were afraid of being spotted and attacked. We frequently had to turn off the engine to save fuel, but at least we were inside.”

As gas tanks ran dry, many abandoned their cars, joining the others walking for hours in the falling snow. Soon children were too tired to go any farther and had to be carried, along with their family pets. To lighten their loads, many let go of their belongings. The roadside was soon littered with discarded suitcases, clothes blowing in the icy wind.

At the border, a group of nearly 100 desperate African migrants were not allowed to cross the Shehini/Medyka border into Poland. Their only hope was to try another crossing. The snow continued to pile up. An African man, looking half-frozen, gathered pieces of garbage, trying to make a fire to get warm.

Before their escape, Ksenia mentioned that many friends were in denial, saying that the war was not going to happen, but Mom was prepared, making sure she had enough cash, food and, most importantly, a full tank of gas. Long before the bombings, young Julia was frightened and wanted to leave.

“My imagination was already drawing scary pictures. I was having dreams about fighting and war. I told my mom that it was time to go.”

Ksenia looks toward the window at the gray day, lost in thought.

Mother and daughter smile at each other and snuggle even closer.

“It’s impossible for us to make any plans for the future. We just react to the moment. The situation changes every hour. My best friend, Maria, has lost her mind from being so nervous. Her entire family is in Mariupol.

“When something happens to a friend, it affects us all. I have close friends who are fighting for our freedom, protecting our homes. They need money to buy helmets and walkie-talkies, even clothes.”

“What I am certain of is that we will go back and rebuild — as soon as it’s safe for children to go outside.”

And hopefully find more snails.