Defend Truth

WAR IN EUROPE

Fleeing from Kyiv, ‘If only they knew how strong we are’

Fleeing from Kyiv, ‘If only they knew how strong we are’
Dasha, who has just traveled for over twenty hours in a jam-packed train from Ukraine via Poland to be in The Netherlands, continues, “We couldn’t eat in the train, or even move in the train – I didn’t pee for ten hours. I stood up right, non stop, for over twenty hours…there were so many people and there were so many pets, so many cats and dogs…it was horrible…”. (Photo: Supplied by Dasha)

Dutch citizen Jos Dirkx shares the story of Dasha, a friend, who fled the war closing in on the capital and took an inhumane train journey, standing upright for more than 20 hours, from Kyiv to Poland with her cat Tommy. Dasha is now staying with Jos in Maastricht, who relays her friend's story of escape, the train journey and coming to terms with probably never seeing her parents again.

“I think you should get the soup,” I say to Dasha, as we sit down at a restaurant in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Dasha grabs a menu, “Well, I’ve lost five kilos… I am not that hungry lately…”

“I was wondering about that,” I respond, “if you were even able to eat…”

“No, not really,” she admits. “I’d gained some weight when I saw my parents last month”, a smile on her lips as she recalls their time together, “And I even told my mom I would lose it by the time we saw each other again… but I didn’t mean to lose it like this… not because of Putin…”

Dasha and her cat Tommy. (Photo: Supplied)

Dasha, who has just travelled (departed Kyiv 2 March) for more than 20 hours in a jam-packed train from Ukraine via Poland to be in the Netherlands, continues, “We couldn’t eat in the train, or even move in the train – I didn’t pee for 10 hours. I stood upright, nonstop, for over 20 hours… there were so many people and there were so many pets, so many cats and dogs… it was horrible…”

I have known Dasha since 2014, when my family first met her in Kyiv, Ukraine, at the tennis club where my brother played. At the time my  parents were stationed in Kyiv for three years as part of my mother’s diplomatic posting.

On our walk to the restaurant, Dasha told me about the cat shelter in Kyiv where she volunteered: “There are 60 cats there, Jos… I don’t know what will happen to them. They’re trying to evacuate the staff, but the cats… I know I shouldn’t worry about this during a war…” her voice trails.

“And there’s Tommy”, she points to her cat, staring up at her phone’s camera with big anxious eyes. (Photo: Supplied)

She shows me a photo of a toilet stall in the train, “See, I stood cramped in this toilet stall. Not even in the corridor of the train. We were cramped into toilets. And there’s Tommy,” she points to her cat, staring up at her phone’s camera with big anxious eyes. “And above him, someone’s dog in this crate. And look at this,” she continues, now scrolling through her phone, showing me picture after picture of trains full of people. “Look at all these people…” The people depicted in Dasha’s photos looked desperate to get out of Kyiv, yet heartbroken to leave their homes.

I try to rid myself of the black and white images flashing in my mind – of over-cramped trains travelling across Europe not even 80 years ago.

“When I got to Lviv, I could hardly stand…” she says to me. “Your brother told me: ‘Keep going, you have to keep going, keep going, keep going…’ but I couldn’t move anymore.”

She opens the menu in front of her and stares at it. I’m wondering if the words on the page – Sourdough Toast with Avocado, Watercress and Pomegranate and Tarte Tatin with Tomato, Basilico and Burrata – register.

“Before that train trip, I had been sleeping on the bathroom floor in my apartment, because it has a second wall. When there’s a bomb, if you sleep in a room without a second wall, you will get the glass and everything on you. With a second wall, you are protected. So, I had been sleeping on the bathroom floor… by then, I was so tired.”

I sip my water, wondering how to hold space for Dasha during our time together, experiencing what may be an apparent inability to fully manage my emotions. I ask her how and when she decided to leave Ukraine.

Dasha’s cat Tommy and bag waiting for the train at Kyiv. (Photo: Supplied)

“I decided to leave on day three of the war. I was so afraid. And when I heard there was a train leaving for Katowice from my city, I needed to take it. I couldn’t go to Kyiv’s central station because I would need to cross a bridge. That’s too scary. They could bomb a bridge any moment. And then you just die…”

“My friend promised me we would leave together. When I woke up the morning we were due to leave, I saw a message from him: ‘Hey, there’s an earlier train and I am going to take it. I’m sorry. Maybe I will see you later in Lviv…’

“I was so angry, Jos. I felt betrayed. I had told him I needed help with my cat and my bag… and he promised…” Dasha doesn’t finish her sentence.

“Now, he is not allowed to leave Ukraine at all, because he is a man and they need him for the army. Since the second day of the war, only women and children are allowed to leave Ukraine…”

She continues: “He is not prepared, he doesn’t know how to fight. There are prepared-for-army-men, and there are prepared-for-army-women. You cannot say that just because they are men, they are prepared for the army. My friend has never held a gun… it’s horrible. 

Some people say these men are cowards… but how can you fight knowing you will die…?”

I had forgotten where we were when the waiter interrupts my thoughts, “Have you ladies decided what you would like?” 

I look at Dasha, neither of us ready to order, much less eat. “I think we need more time,” I respond.

“This war makes people different,” Dasha says, “We are fighting against lost morals… these people are brainwashed, they’re psychos.”

“There are certain rules in war. But they’re bombing hospitals with kids, kids with cancer… lying there with cancer. And they bomb them purposefully. They take people with mental diseases hostage. Just because they can.”

“There are no rules for them. There are no moral principles. How can you negotiate with people who fight without rules?”

Tears well in my eyes. Hospitals, kids, cancer, bombs… the words form loops in my brain, endless circles and cycles and patterns… hospitals, kids, cancer, bombs…

“My other friend lives on a busy street in the heart of Kyiv. They can’t leave their apartment because Russian soldiers are shooting civilians that try to get out…” Dasha goes on, “And, they believe Putin. They still believe him. They call us fascists. But we had good lives. I loved my life. For the first time I was feeling happy. My parents came to visit me in Kyiv last month. And we planned for them to come back… at the end of March…

“It was my mom’s 60th birthday last week. We bought tickets to go to Italy in April…”

“Dasha”, I stop her, tears in my eyes and my throat so tight I can hardly speak, fearful of what I am about to say and even more afraid of Dasha’s response.

“Dasha, you know this is deeply traumatic, right?”

Up until that point, she’d spoken with minimal emotion. I worry my question will cause us both to plummet.

She nods her head, and slowly says: “Yes… most probably I will never see them again…”

I watch her expression now, slowly surrendering into sadness, defeat… reality.

“My parents are good people, Jos, just like yours…”

We breathe.

“And now, I am just a refugee with a cat.”

“No, Dasha. No, you’re not,” my voice breaking. “You’re a beautiful woman, a smart, talented, beautiful woman. A journalist. And we will remind you of that every day…”

“Thank you”, she whispers. “Thank you…”

In a soft, resolute voice, Dasha continues: “Russians don’t understand one thing, Jos. They don’t understand that we are so united. They thought they would come and take over our cities and that we would just sit there…

“Yesterday there was such a funny story… there was a Russian drone flying… and a woman hit it with a jar of pickles…” Dasha smiles, “You can’t take over land where people hate you so much… even Ukrainian people in wheelchairs are sitting and making Molotov’s cocktails outside… in their yards…”

“Have you made up your minds?” The waiter has returned to our table. 

And just as thoughtfully as she’d articulated her lunch order, Dasha calculates her next words wisely: “I think he might do it. The nukes. I think he might do it. He is crazy. He might do it.”

“What do you think that means?” I ask.

“Well, if he does it, China will respond first because they’ve warned Russia to shut up. Even China knows nuclear weapons are not a joke. Sometimes the USA might be cowards, but China won’t be cowards. It’s a great opportunity for them to take over Russia…”

I say to her, “Yes, but it is ridiculous. Because we will all die…”

“No, not all.”

“Okay, 70% of us…”

“No, 20% of us. But for those of us who survive, we won’t be happy we did…”

“Dasha,” I say, “I am very scared we’re trying to have a conversation with a sociopath. Which is ridiculous and it makes no sense…”

“No,” Dasha says, “It doesn’t make sense. You cannot negotiate with a psycho. And thank God the entire world understands this… But I still feel like we’re in the movie, Don’t Look Up. We are trying to convince people this is a crazy dude and they’re just like: “Let’s wait a little bit longer…”

The waiter returns with our dishes; Dasha’s Thai soup and my Italian carpaccio. Beautiful. Embarrassing.

Earlier we’d popped into a local pharmacy. Dasha had lifted her hand to show me perfectly filed nails, long and elegant. “Some of my nails broke on the train”, she’d said, “I think I need some vitamins to maintain them…”

I had smiled and showed her my short nails: “Well, train or no train, they’re more elegant than mine!” 

As we search for nail care, we pass the menstrual hygiene aisle. “Jos, you can’t even imagine… I had my period on the second day of the war…”

“Actually, I was wondering if you were on your period…” I say, often attuned with the cycles of the women in my life. “I thought how awful it must be to stand straight, unable to move on a train for 20 hours… and on your period with no access to a bathroom, too…”

She cracks a smile: “Oh, you can’t even imagine. Before the journey, I threw all my stuff in a bag, and as I prepared for the trip, I was taking a shower when an air raid went off…”

I laugh at the absurdity of it – how so many women (and the men who’ve shared these moments with a woman in their life) have seen blood dripping down into the shower drain… silently cursing at how far from our reach the towel is…

And, now, how this brave woman standing in front of me experienced this moment of utter vulnerability during an air raid while Russian soldiers bomb her home country to pieces. 

Her eyes giggle at the irony of the memory, straddling the fine line between comedy and despair, “Oh Jos,” she said, as we both hold the connection, “I stood there, trying to find a towel and not get blood everywhere, thinking shit, shit, shit there’s an air raid and I am bleeding into my shower…”

“Jos, if only they knew how strong we are…”

And just like that, she breaks a piece of the bread and takes a sip of her soup. DM/MC

Jos Dirkx is a serial entrepreneur and founder of Meet Anna, LLC and Beenova AI. She is a speaker, author and CEO, who has bootstrapped multiple products and grown an inclusive education business out of Dubai via Cape Town to New York, with a stopover in London. Jos cofounded Girls & Football SA, an award-winning NGO. She colaunched mGirls, providing health information to more than 65,000 girls across South Africa. Jos wrote the 2017 Amazon best seller Tackled! with contributions from Siya Kolisi and Fabio Cannavaro, that launched in London, Dubai and Johannesburg, and 2018’s best book Girls Do Good with forewords from Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee and self-made business mogul Huda Kattan. She has mentored, coached and trained more than 3,000 people in cities as diverse as Luanda, New York, Riyadh and Amsterdam. Jos was selected as a 50 Global Heroes Ending Violence Against Children (alongside others like Hillary Clinton and Maria Eitel), a 2019 Woman To Watch, a Women Deliver Young Leader, a Nike Girl Effect Challenge winner, a Microsoft YouthSpark winner, an Ashoka Changemaker, and has spoken at global events from the TEDx Stage, to Glowork in Saudi Arabia, to the World Economic Forum: Women in Leadership in Dubai. Her work and research have been awarded and featured in publications worldwide.

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