How did I wind up celebrating my birthday eating a lukewarm shawarma in the back of a Red Cross ambulance on the Ukrainian-Romanian border? In retrospect, I can hardly believe the story myself.
Several weeks of indiscriminate bombing of Russian-speaking Ukrainian cities by the Russian air force has precipitated another massive refugee crisis in Europe. Ukraine is one of the largest European countries, and with its airspace having been closed off, about 3 million of its sons and daughters have fled the fighting by car or by foot, according to a conservative U.N. estimate (which does not count the millions who have relocated within the country). Most of them are women and children—military-aged men are not allowed out of the country after the Ukrainian parliament enforced emergency powers—and have left for Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Moldova. Many of these refugees are now also waiting to continue onward to Germany, Spain, or France, as I learned over the weekend when my Air France flight from Bucharest to Paris was almost totally filled with anxious Ukrainians.
Last week, in a concerted campaign matched in its determination only by that of the Ukrainian resistance, my Franco-Ukrainian wife, Regina Maryanovska-Davidzon, successfully convinced a part of her Ukrainian family that it was finally time to go. She was in Odessa as the Russian army started to build up forces to take the picturesque port town. My crusty old sailor of a father-in-law, who was born in the city in the spring of 1945 after the Red Army liberated it but before the war concluded, refused to leave. His own parents had not fled the city during the Romanian occupation of 1941-42, and his grandparents had stayed when the city changed hands almost a dozen times during World War I and the Russian Revolution. Why should he leave now? My wife also has a pair of cherubic blond nieces whom she desperately wanted to get out of the country, along with her sister-in-law and their grandmother. Their father, my relative by marriage, is an IT specialist with a talent for hacking. He stayed behind to pitch in with the Ukrainian cyber front against Russian government websites.
When the war began, I was in Kyiv, living in a safe house owned by a wealthy friend, which I had intended to use as my base when the bombing began. I was supplied with electricity, food, water, and weapons. Having seen my share of conflicts, I felt I could take the bombings, but I wanted to avoid being encircled by Russian troops, due to the combination of my Russian citizenship and my membership in various organizations deemed “undesirable” by Russian law. My elegant, bon vivant pal Yaroslav Trofimov, The Wall Street Journal‘s chief foreign affairs reporter and a Kyiv native, called me to ask if I would be “staying for the fireworks”? Of course I would, how could he even ask? “Well,” he he told me in his affable and unflappable manner, “you are the only Russian citizen I know in the city who is publicly involved in anti-Kremlin politics. I will be staying, but I certainly wouldn’t if I was you.”
Yaroslav’s assessment was confirmed to me by a close group of friends, which included political operatives, think tankers, spies, and other journalists, and so I traveled around the towns surrounding Kyiv and reported from the border of Belarus before staying a few nights in Rivne. When I was informed that the Belarusian army was supposed to invade and take the city that I was in that afternoon (which wound up not happening), I moved onward to Chernowitz. My plan was to cut through Moldova by car on the way back to my familial home of Odessa.
It was a surreal time to be in the south of the country, which like Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca has been a wild locale filled with interesting people who are stuck in limbo and plotting their escape. When I wasn’t reporting, I spent those hours and days working at a manic clip to facilitate the emigration of as many Ukrainians as possible. I was now being bombarded by dozens of calls, emails, and text messages from people who needed to get someone out, including from friends, acquaintances, distant contacts, and others I had never met.
A Georgian friend in Washington, D.C., asked me to help her girlfriend in Chernowitz; an American in San Jose wanted to get the family of a former girlfriend out—should he send $5,000 to such-and-such person who promised to do it? (The answer to this one was obvious.) The relatives of my wife’s colleagues were stuck in a small village, should they just stay put? Did I know about the latest convoy leaving Kyiv or Kharkiv for Chernowitz? Had I heard about the Jehovah’s Witnesses getting their people out of the occupied zone due to Russian religious repression? Or the Jewish organizations getting Jews of military age out through the border? Did I know the rules for bribing Ukrainian border guards at the Uzhgorod border post? Then there were the arrest lists that I had been warned about by a friend in Western intelligence, and in my free time I helped a few men, including gay activists, who needed to get out.
Most of the young men in Chernowitz had joined the territorial defense units (TDUs) and were walking around in mismatched camouflage ensembles. They wore the yellow armbands of their TDU on their sleeves and carried guns. March 8th, International Women’s Day, was a major Soviet holiday, and even in the midst of a war, many of the Ukrainian townspeople carried out the Soviet tradition of bringing flowers to the women in their lives. Several burly men dressed in fatigues could be seen in the city center with a shotgun in one hand and a bouquet of roses in the other.
The previous evening I had organized an impromptu birthday gathering, which included a few Ukrainian journalists as well as my dear friend and comrade, the intrepid American writer-translator Kate Tsurkan. The air raid sirens had begun blaring as I paid the bill for the festivities and the staff of the restaurant locked the doors and ushered us into the basement, where we spent a couple of hours waiting for the sirens to die down. A businessman-publisher and I spent those hours in the basement jocularly discussing his interest in Derrida (he was not entirely a faker), as well as the future of relations between Russian and Ukrainian filmmakers (which is entirely grim).
At that point, my own mission on this International Women’s Day summarily shifted as my wife called to inform me that I would need to ditch the celebration and pick up the women in her family who were fleeing Odessa. I was supposed to rendezvous with the two little nieces and two grown women in Moldova and escort them to Romania. There we would procure papers from the French Embassy before getting them to Paris. These relatives of mine are very nice, middle-class people with very limited experience of traveling abroad—they usually only traveled around Eastern Europe by rail or car and had never been on a plane before. Taking a taxi from Chernowitz, we arrived at the Ukrainian-Romanian border and joined the columns of Ukrainian women, children, and elderly people streaming out of the country.
The convoy of cars waiting to be let through stretched back several miles from the Romanian border crossing. Thousands of people, laden with luggage and heavy plastic bags of the sort that one gets at a Ukrainian supermarket, waited at the border on foot. The Ukrainian border policemen were armed with submachine guns and looked as if they were in no mood for an argument. This group of refugees and internally displaced people was composed of old men, women, and small children, but was very heavily skewed toward young women in particular, which is partly why countries in the European Union have been so welcoming. (The Syrian refugee waves of several years ago had been much more male.) With young Ukrainian men forbidden to leave the country, I was the only man of military age in the queue, so I elicited multiple looks of curiosity and contempt from women whose husbands and brothers were either at the front or were not lucky enough to be there with them.
A Ukrainian border policeman checked my papers and waved me through into a very long line of people packed into a chain-linked corridor lined with 18-wheeler trucks. This corridor was packed with cold and confused-looking people who had spent hours and often up to a day at the border after multiple days on the road. At night, the Ukrainian army and border police would demand that people stay in their cars, with no exceptions even for calls of nature. The snow began falling, and it was truly freezing. Unable to access the facilities for hours at a time, people urinated into bottles and threw them out the window as discreetly as possible along the sides of the road. I had expected to hear the wailing of children, but they seemed to be mostly terrified into silence.
In the morning, the oldest women were pushed through the crowd in wheelchairs by the Ukrainian border guardsmen. Once an hour or so, a small delegation of Romanian activists and volunteers would arrive with carts full of chocolate, waffles, and cardboard-looking, prepackaged grocery store croissants—but sadly no water. The volunteers stuffed these refreshments into the hands of the crowd through small apertures in the chain-link fences. The children would jostle for the packages of waffles and chocolate, but even this was mostly done in a civil manner. The volunteers also brought with them a small supply of blankets. They would throw the blankets at us over the top of the chain-link fence. The few women lucky enough to procure one would wrap the blanket around their smallest and most vulnerable child. None of this was anywhere near enough for the scale of the problem: There were dozens of blankets, but as the snow began falling heavily on our heads in heavy flakes, thousands were needed.
One small Ukrainian boy standing in line behind me was crying much more than the other children around us. He must have been 8 or 9. His grandmother was Georgian, something that was obvious to every native Russian-speaker thanks to her her telltale lilting accent, and the little boy would speak to her in Georgian before switching into Russian to speak with his mother. “Poor kid,” I remarked to the stoic grandmother. She apologetically explained to me that he had only been able to bring along a pair of summer sneakers and that his feet were cold. She profusely apologized in the courtly Georgian manner for his unceasing weeping and causing discomfort to others. Indeed, the little boy continued to cry out over the next hour. Finally, I had had enough of it. I turned to him and raised my voice.
“Khlopchik!” I said, using the Ukrainian diminutive for a boy (“boychick,” roughly). “The fierce blood of a Ukrainian and a Georgian man flows through your veins! How can you cry and make a scene like this?”
Several people surrounding us in line began to laugh and some even clapped. The collective mood lifted for a few moments, and the little boy was so mortified by the public embarrassment that he promptly ceased whimpering. He gave us peace over the next few hours as we approached passport control. At one point, three paunchy, middle-aged men approached us through the crowd speaking American-accented English. Assuming that they were aide workers or former military men who had arrived to help the Ukrainians, I engaged them in conversation only to learn that they were American missionaries and men of faith who were coming to tend to the spiritual needs of the Ukrainians on the border. One of them asked me if I was Ukrainian, and I told him I’m from Brooklyn. “God bless America and Ukraine,” I told him, clasping his shoulder.
Finally, arriving at the border checkpoint after several more bone-chilling hours in line, the border guards stamped my passport and let me into a veritable tent city that European volunteers had set up to help the refugees. It was extraordinarily generous. It was also total chaos, the border sort that one usually sees in large crossings in Central Africa or the Middle East. Every aid organization I’d ever heard of was distributing food, hot beverages, and warm clothes. There were piles of used clothes donated for children, and heaps of medicine and victuals of every sort that one could want from every part of the world. The whirl of activity in a refugee camp is always disorienting. My own years of observing refugee crises as a journalist as well as during my childhood, when we moved from the Soviet Union and from country to country, turned out to be little preparation for the experience itself. We had been refugees when I was a boy, and I had been granted refugee status in America, but that was a far more orderly process that involved consulates, airports, and waiting rooms.
I was surrounded in the dark of night by half a dozen volunteers, who were offering help, drinks, legal services, and directions to one of dozens of the cars, fire trucks, minibuses, and ambulances waiting to take people to various towns. Did I want to go to Germany? No, just Bucharest.
A Romanian volunteer approached me and asked if I wanted to eat something. It was only then I realized I’d been quite hungry, and hadn’t eaten in some time. I accepted the shawarma sandwich that he extended toward me. The volunteer informed me that I must be shocked and traumatized, which was amusing and absurd and a bit embarrassing because, unlike for many of the others in these tents, it wasn’t true. But he wouldn’t hear of it, and generously took me and a few others to a Romanian Red Cross ambulance, and filed us into the back.
For a moment I felt that my presence there, and my participation in this entire mess, was somehow fraudulent. In addition to being a Russian citizen, I am a European and an American citizen, as well as being a resident of both Kyiv and Paris. (I am, however, renouncing my Russian passport.) But as soon as I bit into the shawarma, and nodded to the people around me, who nodded back, I realized that having been in the country since before the bombs began to fall, having done what little I could to help the people I knew, and having stood in the snow and ice with my countrymen, I was now as cold and wet and hungry as anyone, uncertain when I’d be able to return. Was I, too, a refugee?
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.