CNJ Aid Van: They wondered why they were the only car on the road – then the rockets flew over their heads and it became clear

The CNJ took your donations to Ukrainian refugees – and helped on family, and its dog, on the way back

Friday, 1st April — By Dan Carrier in Poland

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Bohdana Varytsky and her dog, Jack, head to safety

TEARS rolled down the cheeks of the stranger in the passenger seat.

The New Journal aid van had crossed back into Germany on the return leg of our 2,500-mile trip to deliver aid to Ukrainian refugees.

Our drive home had two extra passengers and Bohdana Varytsky, a telecommunications worker from Kyiv, had been silent as she processed how she had managed to escape heavy fighting and was now being given a lift on the final route to safety.

When one of us commented that the van was now a little closer to the UK and what we call home, her eyes welled up, she pointed back down the road behind us, and said simply: “That is where my home is.”

Bohdana was both unsure of what awaits, or when she may go back to her city.

The other passenger? Her dog, Jack.

Among those desperate to escape Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the rest of the Varytsky family left Katowice on a budget flight paid for by donations. They are among the Ukrainians who have relatives in the UK and have a right to come here – but no means of crossing Europe.

So after we had made our donation deliveries at the refugee centres on the border of Poland and Ukraine, we embarked on another mercy mission: helping Bohdana to get away. It ended with a tearful reunion with father Yulian, mother Tetiana, twin sister Yaroslava and aunt Natalia in Kentish Town over the weekend.

They had seen the war up close, having tried to continue to live and work in the Ukrainian capital despite the threat of a possible attack by Russia.

The story of how they even just reached Poland is harrowing – it is the first time any of them have even left Ukraine.

Yulian’s ex-wife, the twins’ mother Tetiana, lives in Lancashire, while his sister Natalia moved to Ipswich in 1991, where she lives with her partner, three children and her Ukrainian mother.

This UK-based family had watched with increasing horror as it became apparent that the Varytskys were in mortal danger.

The dire situation hit home in early February as the Ukrainian government issued air raid advice, the family told the New Journal.

“Everyone was warned to be prepared for air raid drills, and that every district of the city that did not have sirens before were now having them installed,” said Bohdana.

“All the Kyivites were told to pack an emergency bag, so they were ready to leave their homes at short notice. Yet still no one really believed Kyiv would be bombed.”
She added: “We were warned if a war should start, we should find the best way to walk to work from home.

“There was a list of messaging applications we should download in case our smartphones were disrupted. And on the first day of the war, mobile providers did go down and we could not connect with people. It was extremely worrying.”

A reunion in Kentish Town

On February 24, as the invasion began, Yulian, Bohdana and Yaroslava woke up to the sound of loud explosions from the left bank of the river Dnieper, which snakes through the capital.

“I turned on the TV and they said the invasion was coming, but I still could not bring myself to believe it,” Yulian, a car mechanic, said.

“That night, in my sleep, I had heard the sound of distant explosions. I live next to a railway station, I assumed it was something to do with that.”

Yaroslava, a medical records clerk in a Kyiv hospital, continued to go in by foot each day but for Bohdana a three-hour walk to work was not safe nor practical.

Messages from the Kyiv authorities requested people carry on with their jobs, but if they had children, or were in the parts of the city under bombardment, then they should leave.

“We were in a part of Kyiv being hit very regularly,” said Bohdana.

“The left bank districts are closest to Belarus and the shortest route into the city from the north.

“We were right in the line of the Russian advance. It became clear the distant loud noises were getting dangerously close and there were bombs in the districts where we live.”

She added: “Everything intensified to the point of becoming a mortal danger for anyone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Our life was reduced to spending days locked inside the flat without switching the lights on for fear of being bombed, and nights spent in an underground air-raid shelter.”

Back in England, Natalia explained how their fears grew.

“I could see the neighbourhood where my brother lives was being heavily hit.”

The family made the decision to leave the city when they got a phone call from their aunt ­Nadiia, who lives in Stavyshche, a village nearly 100 kilometres west, urging them to join her.

She tends livestock and grows crops.


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Bohdana added: “We loved our jobs, loved our lives. We expected to always stay in Kyiv, enjoy our careers, and grow old in the place we call home.”
“Our aunt said come and wait for this to blow over,” said Yaroslava.

“I packed quickly, and was very spontaneous – I put two dresses in a bag. I could not take a lot.”

Yulian managed to fill his 45-year-old, battered delivery van with diesel and then emptied his fridge.

“The bridges that link the right and left banks of the city were under heavy shelling and gunfire,” said Yulian.

“The river crossings were closed, except one. The single bridge open was extremely congested. We drove on to it and had to go slowly around a huge hole in the middle from a Russian shell.”

Checkpoints at every junction made progress to Stavyshche slow and main roads were off limits, due to Russian planes strafing convoys.

“This is a village my girls have gone to for their holidays, where they spent their childhood summers,” said Yulian. “It is a place of relaxation, of feeling hospitable, a lovely warm place in our hearts. But now Nadiia had to tell the checkpoint guarding the village not to shoot at us.”

To their dismay, Stavyshche was actually becoming one of the hottest points of the conflict.

Yaroslava said: “As we arrived, two rockets whizzed directly above the house, and we knew this was not going to be the safe place we had hoped it would be.

“The next day, Russian military had landed not far in the Makarov forest and a column of 300 tanks had passed the village and had gone to storm Kyiv. Crossfire started, we saw shells flying in the sky above us.

“The bombing was so loud, and so massive, we could not sleep. It was obvious this village was right in the line of the war. None of us wanted to leave, but we knew we had to.”

The only route to safety was a prime target for Russian forces.

“The village is on the Zhytomyr motorway to the north-west of Kyiv – the route that the Russian troops are taking in their attempt to surround Kyiv,” said Yulian.

Despite the danger, they could not persuade their aunt to come with them; to her, this was her quiet country retreat, a world away from global politics.

“Nadiia was defiant. We asked her many times, told her she had to come with us – but she refused,” said Yulian.

“She wanted to stay to look after her animals. She has a cow that had just given birth and other animals to feed and care for.

“We said: what are you waiting for? A nuclear bomb? Hearing the sounds of war – of big metal objects falling all around you. The only thing you feel is you want to curl up and be as hidden as possible.”

The family next headed to Lviv, also heavily bombed but a meeting point for refugees. It meant another treacherous trip across war-torn terrain. “The next few days were spent driving and sheltering from the shelling and gunfire,” said Yulian. “We were lucky not to be hit.”

Natalia, watching the news back in Suffolk, said: “I am sitting at home while my family is driving along the most dangerous road in Ukraine.”

Bohdana noted how they were the only civilian vehicle on the road. It soon became apparent why.

“We saw rockets above us and exploding,” she said. “The road signs had been taken down or twisted to face the wrong way, or had obscenities written in Russian for the invaders to read.”

In Lviv, they spent the night sheltering in a school.

“It was so full there was nowhere to lie down,” added Yaroslava.

“There were blankets on floors and we saw students from around the world who got caught up in the war, thousands of miles from their homes.”

Natalia persuaded the family to head to Poland, and then to the UK.

“The only logical place they could be genuinely secure was here,” she said.

The border crossing caused further distress.

“We left our van on a street of Lviv and waited in line for the bus going to the border, under the incessant sound of an air raid,” said Yaroslava.

“We were separated from our father, since only women and children were allowed on the buses going across the border, and he went on foot.

“For some time we lost contact with him, but by a lucky chance, kind people picked him up after crossing the border and he arrived at the same refugee assistance centre in Polish Przemysl as we did, and there the ­volunteers helped him find us.”

At the refugee camps close to the border, Polish volunteers are arriving to offer their support.

“As we planned the escape, the UK was the only country in Europe still closed to Ukrainians,” adds Natalia. “Not even people with family could come here.”

In mid-March, however, the Homes for Ukrainians scheme was announced and people with relatives here were allowed to travel.

“If they had acted quickly, the worry families in the UK went through would not have been so bad,” added Natalia. “Instead, we had no word. It was absolutely terrifying.”

Natalia started by getting Ukrainian documents verified, and filling out a 50-page form. Then the family had to travel to Warsaw to submit their passports. They waited for two and half weeks for the decision, while Natalia explored how they could get to the UK.

None of them had flown before, and because of their pet dog, Jack, who had all the required papers, they needed to find road transport.

“I looked for groups who could offer advice,” Natalia recalled.

It was then she spotted the New Journal’s aid van project.

We exchanged a flurry of messages and saw arrangements were made: the last stage of Bohdana and Jack’s journey to safety would be made in our van – thankfully free from the sound of bombing in the skies.

On Thursday, we drove to the small town of Bedzin, near Katowice, to collect the family.

Bohdana climbed into the passenger seat of our van, and we set off on a 1,200-mile journey to deliver her safely to her mother, father and aunt.

“We were completely stuck,” adds Bohdana.

“And then the Camden New Journal newspaper showed up. We will never forget how the New Journal cared for us and drove us to safety.

“We are eternally grateful. The support and welcome will always be remembered and cherished forever.”

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