On February 24, at 5 am, I awoke to the sound of a loud bang. It wasn’t the first time: in the previous weeks, fireworks and construction works had cut my sleep short – sounds that made me nervous given the constant threat of war in Ukraine, given the Russian troops amassing on our border. But this time, it was different. This time, it was real. I checked my phone and saw the long-dreaded news flash up on my screen: “Putin declares a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine”.
Notification after notification was pinging in our chatgroup at work, as my fellow editors at Kyiv Independent were scrambling to confirm what locations had been struck in the initial barrage of Russian missiles. It then became clear that I had woken up to the sound of a Russian missile striking a military base north of my residential building. This was a possibility we had discussed for months. But now, it was hard for reality to settle in. It was difficult to fathom that Russia not only crossed the border into Ukraine but has begun to launch strikes into cities throughout the whole country. That we are at war.
After the shock set in, I went to wake up my wife, not knowing how to tell her that we were now in the middle of a potential warzone. All I could say was: “we need to pack our bags.” She understood what it meant straight away. We hastily packed a big duffle bag, as well as one backpack per person, with our essentials, valuables and documents. We then told our two daughters that we were going to visit their great-grandparents for a few days. As any child would, my four-year-old daughter’s first concern was which toys should she bring for the fun trip we were about to embark upon. Nothing broke my heart more than after she picked out her favourite plush bunny and said, there’s no reason to bring more toys because “we can just come back for them tomorrow.”
Then, we looked for a way out of Kyiv. We had no car or relatives that could take us, so I began looking for a lift out of town on ridesharing apps, knowing that it was a long shot. After multiple drivers cancelled our request, we managed to secure a driver. The fare cost four times what it normally would have. Luckily we had been prepared for this situation and had cash at the ready.
The trip out of the city felt like the opening scenes of an apocalypse movie. Massive queues at gas stations, traffic in all directions, and grim looks on everyone we passed. The driver knew the city well and managed to get us out much quicker than those that had taken the main highway. Regardless, the trip that normally took 50 minutes took us five hours to complete.
We spent the night at my grandparents, at a village called Hrebinky on the outskirts of Bila Tserkva – some 60 kilometres south of Kyiv. The next morning, we convinced my grandparents, with the help of my grandfather’s sister, to leave for western Ukraine. After another nine-hour trip, which would normally have only taken three hours, we arrived in a village about an hour away from the western city of Vynnitsia.
After spending two days there, relatives drove us to the Moldovan border, which we crossed on foot. I was able to leave as I am a Canadian citizen. On the other side of the border, we were met with volunteers who sheltered and fed us, who offered us moral support. Another volunteer group arranged a ride to Bucharest: a 13-hour trip took us from eastern Moldova to the Romanian capital. The same group arranged to house my family and other refugees that travelled with us. After two nights, we made our way to Toronto, Canada.
Throughout our escape, I felt torn. I tried my best to support my colleagues at Kyiv Independent – despite patchy internet, which only allowed me to help intermittently. And whenever I had signal, I was endlessly scrolling through the latest updates of the situation on the ground. I felt an extreme guilt at not being able to do more. At the same time, I knew my main responsibility was to ensure the safety of my wife and children.
By this point, the Kyiv Independent team was spread throughout Ukraine. Some reporters who were already in safety western countries took on the responsibility to keep the information flowing while those in Ukraine got some rest. Everyone dedicated as much time as possible to deliver quick and accurate information 24 hours a day – an important task in the midst of a parallel disinformation war.
Our efforts paid off, with the newly founded Kyiv Independent going from some 20,000 followers on Twitter to over 1.6 million within a week. Our news outlet managed to gain worldwide attention – a testament to our reliable and quick reporting. Our contribution in helping Ukraine is to make the world understand what is happening here, what atrocities are being committed by Russia. This has been a driving motivation for our team. Several of our reporters stayed in Kyiv, despite numerous chances to escape to the safety of the West. Some reporters initially left Kyiv, but decided to return to continue reporting on the ground. We now have six journalists on the frontlines of Putin’s invasion providing interviews, visuals and first-hand accounts of the war.
With this newfound attention came public recognition and funding. But it also brought a larger sense of responsibility. The team continually ensures to portray the war as factually as possible, checking Russian propaganda and fakes, but also ensuring that information provided from Ukraine is also accurate. This comes with a lot of stress, as people look to us as the main source of knowledge on Ukraine. We do what we can to uphold those expectations.
The war wasn’t unexpected. We have had an ongoing war since 2014. It has, however, escalated in its brutality and scale. Now that the invasion is reaching all parts of Ukraine, the resilience of the Ukrainian people is shining through. Ukrainian’s experience of war varies greatly. Some are picking up arms to fight, who never held a gun before. Others are contributing in whatever way possible, from cooking to filling sandbags to protect Kyiv from further attacks. The war has uprooted life for everyone in Ukraine, everyone has been affected. But it also brought the nation together. The previously controversial President Zelenskyy has reached a heroic status. Even his opposition can’t help but commend him for his actions.
The war has shown that Ukrainians will not succumb to Russia’s authoritarian ways easily. But we also urgently require assistance from the West to stand up to the giant that is trying to oppress us. Many Ukrainians believe that we will not be conquered, that we will win. We just hope the war will end soon to minimize the casualties and suffering that Russian forces have inflicted.
Sergiy Slipchenko is Political Reporter at the online newspaper Kyiv Independent. Previously, he wrote for the Kyiv Post. His work focusses on right-wing extremism, disinformation and international relations.