How the World Turned Black and White

This story was also published by DispatchesEurope.com.

My friend posted on Facebook a couple of days ago. She posted a photo of herself with her mom, in black and white. And she wrote:

On February 24, the world lost its colours.

I read the post in my bedroom in Berlin, Germany. My mother-in-law slept in the guest room, my aunt slept in our home office aka gym, and my husband’s niece with her girl friend — on a sofa in our living room.

It wasn’t a family reunion. It was war.

My mother-in-law was the only one we got out two days before the war started. My husband was freaking out, he felt the danger and he tried hard to push her, to get her on a plane and fly her to us. She was resisting. No one believed that something like this would happen, not even after 8 years of the hybrid war, the unacknowledged war. She only very reluctantly agreed after he told her that he already bought her a ticket.

“OK, good, I don’t want to waste your money”, — she said. — “I’ll just come and visit. But it’s all garbage. This won’t happen.”

She flew in the evening of February 22nd. She spent the night and the next day complaining about how my husband was paranoid and frightened her for no reason. She was grumpy.

On February 24, at 5AM, a small military airport not far from her hometown, formerly our hometown too, was bombed, together with four others. I woke up early and was scrolling the news. I woke my husband and said — it started.

On February 24, all flights to Ukraine were stopped.

My aunt wasn’t so lucky. She stayed in Kharkiv long enough to see and hear the bombs and the air raids. For several days during air alerts, she was hiding in a bomb shelter - in the block-of-flats cellar, dirty, barely having some electricity. Then the water pipes in the cellar burst, and there wasn’t even a bomb shelter to hide in anymore. So she started going from her apartment on the 4th floor to the neighbours on the 1st floor, because she thought that it was safer closer to the ground. During air raids they cowered in the corridors, where there were no windows. After a week of this, the situation was becoming even worse. It wasn’t “just” Grads and Smerches and Uragans anymore. The planes started circling the city and dropping bombs.

That’s when my aunt realized she needed to get out.

But it was easier said than done.

Evacuation at the main train station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 2022

What I discovered based on the experience of her and my other relatives is that evacuation and normal travel are two VERY different things. What took hours before, takes days. People spend a week travelling from the east to the west of Ukraine, because there’s checkpoints and huge traffic jams, or nowhere to fill up gas on the road, there’s fuel shortages and cars stand in huge lines to get something, and then might get nothing because the Red Cross or some humanitarian aid train came in and took it all — obviously, they have priority. There’re evacuation trains — a lot — but the demand is still ten times more. So people stand on the platforms for twelve, sixteen, sometimes twenty-four hours just to get into the train — and then they only have standing room, or a seat on the bench holding twice more people than they normally do. My colleagues’ elderly father spent almost a day sitting on the garbage bin in front of the toilet. There was just no other option to sit down.

In addition, it’s COLD, it’s really cold in Ukraine in winter, so standing there for so long already gets one half dead. And then the train that should have taken twelve hours takes eighteen, because it stops during air raids and because (maybe?) some train tracks are already blown up. And then when they get to the west of Ukraine, exhausted, cold, hungry, thirsty and desperate, there’s no accommodation because everything is full and they sleep in schools and churches on the floor, and consider themselves lucky to have some kind of roof over their heads.

A photo my cousin sent me. He wrote: “Thank you for the contact. We’re getting settled in a wonderful church. We’re going to bed now.” — He’s travelling with his wife, his mother, his 8 yo son and a dog. But as you see, they aren’t the only ones there.

Whoever decides to brave the border crossing has another 16 to 24 hours wait in sight — and then more delays, and more looking for any available transportation, and more connections, and people packed into cars in numbers way over what safety rules allow.

And then they end up in a country the language of which they don’t know, with one suitcase and if they’re lucky — with their personal documents, homeless, jobless.

Hopeless.

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Rabenmutter

Rabenmutter

In German, Rabenmutter is a “Raven mother” — a mother, neglecting her children. In short, not a very good mother.