By Judson Rollins
April 6, 2022, © Leeham News: This week, LNA reports on a story outside our usual beat: an account of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through the eyes of a local who watched tanks and explosions from her window.
Three years ago, I spent several months on a consulting engagement in Kyiv, where I made a few local friends. I’ve been fortunate to stay in contact with some of them.
One of those friends is Anna Kovalchuk, a talent acquisition specialist for German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG. Anna lived until last month in Irpin, Ukraine, a few miles from Antonov International Airport, previously home to several of Antonov Aircraft Company’s An-124 Ruslans and its recently destroyed An-225 Mriya. The airport and nearby suburbs including Irpin were the subject of intense fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces since the invasion began on February 24 until just last week.
Anna and I have been in touch regularly since the war began. I visited her in Gdańsk, Poland, not long after she arrived, where she graciously agreed to share the story of her escape from fighting in her neighbourhood to a new life – ironically, a life she began a week earlier than planned due to the invasion.
Gdańsk is a quiet town of nearly 600,000 on the Baltic Sea. Although it was only a couple of weeks into Russia’s war with Ukraine, I saw few indications of the refugee influx that has overwhelmed so many other cities in Poland. However, there were numerous signs of support for Ukraine, including appeals on business doors for supplies ranging from canned food to clothing to small electronics.
Irpin before the invasion
Anna moved from central Kyiv and purchased an apartment in the leafy, family-filled suburb in 2018. “I remember how I felt when I first came to Irpin,” she said. “And I just fell in love. It was a beautiful place with many parks, cozy streets and fresh air.”
Many Irpin residents worked in Kyiv, and they chose to live in Irpin because it was just 18 miles (30 km) away, with commute times often under one hour. “Everything you needed was really close,” said Anna.
Despite her happy life in Irpin, Anna was eager for professional growth, so she applied for and was offered a role in Bayer’s corporate service center in Gdańsk. “I’ve been with [Bayer] for more than five years,” she said. “I’ve always had a drive to explore new things, including a desire to work internationally and gain different perspectives.
“I did not plan to leave Ukraine because something was wrong. I wasn’t dissatisfied with my life or my salary. I had been working for Bayer in Ukraine for a long time, and I wanted to gain international experience that would eventually benefit my country.”
Anna started working with her new team remotely in August 2021 and originally planned to relocate to Gdańsk in mid-March. Before her escape from Ukraine, she had never met her manager or colleagues in person.
Growing tensions in the days leading up to war
Anna was aware of the Russian military presence along Ukraine’s borders. However, like many Ukrainians, she was unconvinced of Russia’s intentions. “I definitely had anxiety about the situation, but I never imagined this kind of assault or invasion. I thought this was for demonstration, for show.
“We’ve had a difficult relationship with Russia for many years,” said Anna, who has family in both countries. “Between the situation with Crimea and the previous escalations in the east, it’s been quite complicated.”
Ukraine’s government advised citizens early this year to prepare what Anna described as “alarm bags” and other precautions in case of war. But neither she nor anyone in her professional or personal circles heeded such advice. “We never thought [the conflict] would go in this direction.”
The first hours of Russia’s invasion
She woke at 7:30 AM on February 24 to start her normal daily routine, just a couple of hours after Russia announced the start of its “special military operation” in Ukraine. “I didn’t realize anything had happened until I saw the panic outside. There was a big traffic jam, and all the shops were closed.”
Anna, who was scheduled to depart on a weekend trip the following day, checked her phone and saw more than 100 messages and calls from friends around Ukraine and from abroad. “I didn’t believe until noon that this was really happening. I was confident that my flight would go ahead. I was just too naïve. This is the twenty-first century; how is this possible?”
“I needed to cancel all my calls, my business meetings,” she said. “I sent a message to my colleagues: ‘My apologies, I’m not available today. I need to take care of my safety.’ There was no time for a handover of my work activities; I just shut down my computer and left [the apartment].”
Anna found a nearby shopping center that was still open for buying essentials and looked for the nearest bomb shelter. It turned out to be the underground garage in her apartment building. “I didn’t check any of this before, because I just never believed this would be my reality.”
The first explosions near Irpin happened early that evening. “I heard the first explosions; it was a very loud bang. And then my building began to shake. I was very scared, I burst into tears. I called my mother and said: ‘Mom, explosions have begun.’ She told me what to do.”
Life in an underground bomb shelter
Anna gathered supplies and vital documents and scrambled down to the bomb shelter, where she spent half the night. “I slept maybe one hour that first night. Around 3 AM, I heard a lot of noise out my window. I looked down and saw Ukrainian tanks and other military equipment on the street. That’s when I realized it wasn’t simply an escalation; it was war.”
She spent most of the next seven days in the shelter. “I would go upstairs to my apartment whenever there was a break in the fighting, for lunch or dinner or even coffee.” Remarkably, electricity and water were still flowing more than a week into the fighting.
“There were so many of us in the shelter, even two-month-old babies. Some were calm, while others were quite emotional. It was so cold. I can still feel the cold even now.”
The building’s residents shared their feelings. “Everybody tried to describe their own pain, their worries, how they were struggling. I heard many different stories.”
Connecting with family, making new friends
Mobile service was still available in Irpin, so Anna texted and had calls with her family, some of whom live in Russia. “My brother and sister in-law called me and said they completely disagree with [the invasion],” she said. “They knew it wasn’t fair and they did their best to support me.”
Anna’s brother asked her to, after she got to safety, help him find a vyshyvanka, an embroidered shirt widely recognized as a Ukrainian national costume. “He was already thinking about leaving Russia, because he knows there is no future for a country that treats its neighbors so roughly. I know it’s not easy for them either.”
During her stay in the bomb shelter, Anna bonded with a neighbour, Daria. “I met this nice girl who sat in my chair [in the shelter] while I went back to my apartment. When I came back, she said, ‘is this your chair?’ and we just started talking. It was a really nice conversation, and we quickly became friends. When you meet a person in such a situation, it makes a big difference and a deeper level of connection beyond just living in the same building.”
Friends in Kyiv who kept in touch with Anna knew she was terrified and offered to arrange transportation out of Irpin. They put her in touch with Ukrainian volunteer militia, who gave her a time and instructions for pick-up. Anna was able to take just a small suitcase and her company laptop.
Before leaving, Anna gave the keys to her apartment to Daria, who chose to stay. Together, they purchased enough food and supplies for Daria to stay in the apartment for a couple of weeks. “We spent only one week together, but it was important to me that [Daria] prepare herself so she would have everything that she needed.”
The militia drove Anna to a destroyed bridge seen in numerous Western media outlets, which was demolished by Ukrainian forces to keep Russian tanks out of the town. She walked across on a makeshift footbridge created for evacuees. Another volunteer waited for her on the other side and drove her in his personal vehicle to central Kyiv.
“Leaving Irpin was very painful, because I was being forced to go,” Anna recalled. “It wasn’t the same. Usually, at this time people go for a run or walk in the park with their pets, stores are open. Irpin looked so strange, like a ghost town. Time had stopped.”
“[That drive] was like being in a scary movie. It was the most dangerous place I’ve ever been, because of the shelling, and also explosions really close to us because of the missiles. You didn’t know what would happen next. I was really scared because so many destroyed cars were along the road. But it was worth trying just to get out of Irpin.”
Anna’s next stop was a friend’s restaurant in central Kyiv, which had converted its underground food storage into a bomb shelter. She spent one night there before starting her journey to the border.
“There were still air raid sirens, and I could hear explosions, but this time they were far away. It was a safe place with nice people and pets. I finally felt like a normal person.”
Journey to the border
The next morning, another friend connected Anna with others who were leaving Kyiv for the western border. Anna recalled her saying, “I will take care of you. I will find you a way to leave the country safely.”
A total of fifteen people traveled in a convoy of three cars. “I didn’t know these people, but they were friends of friends. Everyone had their own story.”
Their journey lasted nearly 48 hours, with just a couple of stops for fuel. The driver in Anna’s car, who was transporting his wife and two children to the border, stayed behind the wheel the entire way. They finally crossed into Slovakia through the Ukrainian town of Uzhhorod.
They crossed the border at about 1:30 in the morning. Slovakian volunteers were waiting with water, tea, food, and clothes. But Anna was mainly interested in sleep. “There was no excitement, just exhaustion. I just wanted to reach the Polish border and sleep in a bed.”
Other friends of Anna’s friends were waiting for them in Slovakia. One of them drove her to Nowy Sącz, about 90 minutes away and just inside Poland. “I was very grateful and amazed that people were so willing to help even those they did not know.”
In Nowy Sącz, Anna found a hotel and was finally able to sleep while a Bayer colleague came to collect her.
“We had a very supportive conversation about the situation in Ukraine,” she said. “My colleague even offered me help in case I need to move my parents out of the country. They did not ask sensitive questions, because they just wanted to let me talk and relax.”
Anna was driven to Kraków, where she boarded a train to Gdańsk.
At the end of her journey, her manager was waiting on the platform with hugs and tears. “When the invasion happened, my manager told me, ‘We are waiting for you in Gdańsk. Please come.’
“When I saw her, I was tired but very grateful for the support. I finally began to have a sense of safety.”
It took nearly two weeks for Anna’s sense of danger to subside.
The future for Russia and Ukraine
Like many Ukrainians, Anna has struggled with her feelings toward Russia.
“Russia invaded the territory of my country, ruthlessly destroying civilian buildings, killing people and children. In Irpin, a mother and child were buried in the courtyard of their house. It’s hard for me to imagine when I return to Irpin; it will never be the same.”
“This is the blood and death that the Russian army brought to my city. This is a shame, and I believe that Putin and his entourage who committed these acts of terror and genocide in Ukraine must be held accountable to the greatest extent of international law.”
Anna still checks the news from Ukraine several times each day and has daily calls with her family and close friends. “Today, they bombed a school very near my apartment [in Irpin]. And they shelled a hospital which is also nearby.”
“Even in this safe place, I can’t fully enjoy my new life, because the news from Ukraine is the same. It hurts, and it’s an open wound that bleeds every day. My day started at 7:30 am on February 24 and has never ended.”
“I want victory in Ukraine. I want a peaceful sky in my country.”
Irpin has been in and out of Russian hands over the past five weeks, with Ukrainian forces now in control – but artillery and missile attacks continue. The town has become a symbol of the destruction inflicted across Ukraine, with dozens of residential and commercial buildings burned out and bombed.
Anna lost contact with Daria after electricity and mobile service failed in Irpin, but she still receives periodic updates via Daria’s mother, who lives in another city. She still has no information on the condition of her apartment building or neighbors.