Kyiv Civilians Flee as Russian Ground Forces Draw Near

February 25, 2022Nolan Peterson
Kyiv civilians flee

Kyiv civilians flee the city as Russian bombing nears. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

KYIV, Ukraine — They bore the burden of the bags into which they’d packed all they could. They held children’s hands. They emerged from the city’s shadows and formed on the sidewalks and seemed to swell in number as they neared the rail station. They were the thousands upon thousands of Kyiv’s civilians who were looking for a way out of their hometown as a Russian invasion force neared on Thursday.

The dark, early hours of that morning were like a nightmare come true. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine in a televised address, and minutes later the air thundered with the sounds of missile strikes. We looked into each other’s eyes and asked, “Is this really happening?”

Yes, said the war.

Kyiv civilians flee
Kyiv civilians flee the city as Russian bombing nears. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The air raid sirens sounded and the explosions thundered into the first of the sun. When the explosions relented at last, this city’s millions faced a choice — stay or flee?

Many chose to go. By noon the city felt ghostly quiet. Shevchenko Park in the city center, a popular place for walkers and outdoor chess players, was empty. Kyiv’s roads were also eerily still. Roadways out of the city, on the other hand, quickly clogged with traffic. By 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 24, a westbound road artery out of the city remained at a standstill while the sounds of explosions rumbled in the background. Due to the impasse, city officials urged citizens to leave by train.

Kyiv civilians flee
Kyiv civilians flee the city as Russian bombing nears. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

And then by the thousands Kyiv’s civilians emerged from the city’s woodworks. Laden with luggage and the emotional weight of the lives they were leaving, they marched en masse toward Kyiv’s central train station. 

A police line guarded the station’s doors. Inside the cavernous main hall, you immediately ran into the tail end of a long line of people queuing up to buy tickets. They were all here for the same reason — escape.

Kyiv civilians flee
Kyiv civilians flee the city as Russian bombing nears. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

You snaked through the crowds and tried your best to register the humanity, but it was too much. A mountain of burden shaped each face. As if each person was trying to decide if they should truly believe in this absurd day — or try to wake up from it.

The crowd overwhelmed you. You registered each individual’s presence. You couldn’t simply see them as a group. You felt the anxiety and uncertainty. The injustice. And then it hit you hard and you couldn’t stop it. Your eyes teared up with sadness and aimless rage. 

You saw a couple holding hands, their fingers actively intertwined. A mother tried her best to keep her daughter entertained — obviously with much bigger things on her mind. 

Kyiv civilians flee
Kyiv civilians flee the city as Russian bombing nears. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

An old woman stared ahead. What a sad coda to her life. 

“I have to leave. I don’t feel safe here,” said the woman, whose name was Olena. “I can’t believe this is happening.”  

And there were so many others, all bound by their common plight. The population of a European capital in the year 2022, fleeing their homes under the threat of bombing and advancing Russian tanks.

What else can you say?

Read Next: ‘Take These Seeds and Put Them in Your Pockets’: Ukrainian Woman Stuns Russian Soldier

Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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