The crossing of a Montreal journalist in Ukraine
Caption: Soldiers inspect a shipment including infant formula, diapers and various foods.
This article is a translation of a text originally published on The Rover website by Montreal freelance journalist Christopher Curtis, who recently traveled to Ukraine to see the situation since the Russian invasion. To read all of Mr. Curtis' reporting on the subject, visit The Rover's website.
The Ukraine’s border is both beautiful and fascinating. It bears witness to the misery and determination of a people.
It took my breath away.
No hyperventilation or heart palpitations. No dizziness or cold sweats. Not the slightest warning sign.
I started limping. I tried to regain my balance by holding on to the car, but I missed it by at least a foot. My hand brushed the mirror and I fell to my knees.
When you do this work long enough, you learn that when you really need it, you can silence the feeling part of you. But in the face of the misery of a refugee crisis on a cold winter night, dissociating is useless. Imagine children bundled up in their clothes, crying amid the sounds of diesel engines as they flee from an advancing army in their country.
Their mothers can't wear them anymore because they've been walking for days . Their fathers were all mobilized or killed. You can’t understand until you’re among them… Close enough that one of the children notices you and smiles, showing gums instead of front teeth.
It causes pain in you that you never knew existed.
“This is Europe, this is the future for us,” Andrij said, shaking his head . “What did they do to deserve this?”
I met Andrij at the border, after being turned away by guards who didn't want me to drive a rental car in the middle of the war. It’s normal. Desperate to get to Lviv before the start of the army-imposed curfew, I parked my car at a truck stop and asked strangers to drive me.
After a hour of courteous refusal, I was ready for Andrij to reject me. Still, I did everything I could to convince him.
“My friend, I have American money, some food, as much fuel as I can squeeze out of my tank, and two cases of beer. German. Can you get me across the border?”
The sale of alcohol was banned by order of President Volodymyr Zelensky when the invasion began. So I stupidly thought German beer might be a plus. Andrij shook his head and smiled.
“I don’t need your money man, just show me your papers,” he said. “You have uh… a license? A journalist's license?”
We loaded my gear onto the boxes of water bottles and headed for the border.
More than a million people have left Ukraine to flee the airstrikes. And their numbers keep growing.
Every day, thousands more people flock to Lviv from kyiv and the cities bordering the Black Sea. It’s no surprise, then, that the queue to exit the country can last for days.
But the queue to enter Ukraine was surprisingly long on Sunday.
Two volunteer soldiers sat in a Volkswagen in front of me. They wore uniforms made from army surplus. A man in an ill-fitting fatigues and black boots stood next to another, who in brown boots and tight camouflage jeans. Some trucks carried so many cans that their frames practically crashed into the road. The Diaspora also came from all over Western Europe to search for their loved ones and bring them to safety in their adopted countries.
I met a man, Max, in a van with the logo of his Tae Kwon Do school printed on the side. When I tried to ask him if I could climb on the roof to take a photo of the line, he agreed but gently tugged my arm.
“Are you a journalist?”
“He crossed his forearms, making an X.”
“More sky. Clear the sky. You have to say it.”
If it was just a ground war, Putin’s army would have been stopped in its tracks. Ukrainian forces defeated Russian tanks in the initial clashes. They trapped them with rocket launchers powerful enough to kill all the passengers of the armored vehicles.
The Russian tank offensive has run out of steam in the vast Ukrainian grasslands. The sleet and rain turned the ground into an ocean of mud.
Soldiers doing their compulsory military service seemed to have no idea why they were in Ukraine. Are they liberating the country from the Nazis, as their president claims? Is this a peacekeeping mission? Why aren't they welcomed as saviors?
Airstrikes keep Putin's forces in Ukraine. They are depopulating cities, killing civilians and destroying the country's infrastructure.
“My city’s airport, it's gone,” Max says, mimicking an explosion with his hands. “Clear the sky.”
I heard people chanting these words the night before, during a demonstration in the streets of Krakow. Putin’s bombing of Ukrainian civilians has been condemned by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but there is no indication that he will engage in armed war with Europe’s largest military.
Eight rocket attacks destroyed Vinnytsia airport, 270 km southwest of kyiv. If they conquer the city, Putin's forces will almost split the country in two.
We try to communicate using Google Translate as Max calmly leads me on his way home. He left his wife and children in Dresden, Germany. He now crosses the border with “something tactical”. Before the invasion, he was a coach and ran a school. Children could live and study there while practicing martial arts.
He took out his phone and scrolled through the encrypted Telegram app. Two photos stand out. In one, a man points what appears to be a Soviet-era Kalashnikov at two teenagers with their palms pressed against a steel fence.
“They are trying to blow up my school.”
It sounds crazy, but he swipes his screen and brings up a second photo showing what he says is an improvised explosive device.
Subterfuge and surprise attacks are Putin's own tactics, according to former Ukrainian diplomat Olexander Scherba.
In his book published in 2021, Ukraine vs Darkness, Mr. Scherba recounts how men with Muscovite accents posing as Ukrainian “separatists” took over a police station in the city of Kramatorsk eight years ago.
In a video filmed by local journalists, one of the separatists asks someone to back up to the porebrik (a Moscow slang term for a sidewalk). Armed men wearing green military uniforms then storm a building. Within days, the area was overrun by Russian special forces, marking the start of the 2014 invasion of Crimea and Donbas.
A video of the incident has gone viral. Max says it created a climate of paranoia. Before coming to Ukraine, I was warned to always have my press card handy and not to go out after curfew so as not to be taken for a “provocateur”.
“Be careful at checkpoints,” warned my fixer, Anna. “Their job is to ask you for your papers, yours is to be polite and not make any sudden movements.”
A day and a half of waiting
It hurts to see that.
Andrij and I waited a few meters from the customs officers.
“Look!” he said, pointing to the long line of refugees. “They waited a day and a half to get here.”
“Where are they sleeping?”, I asked.
“They are not sleeping.”
Andrij’s mother and sister fled Crimea and headed west two days earlier. They had tried to emigrate at the start of the war in 2014, staying with relatives in the Netherlands. Their application for refugee status was refused. The Dutch sent them back to the war zone.
“See? Only women and children, no men,” Andrij said.
“Men all have to fight?”
“Fight or volunteer.”
It’s a heartbreaking sight.
A child stands at arm's length from her mother, who hurries to board a bus for Poland. The girl’s other hand is holding a doll. A baby was taken to a portable toilet for a diaper change as temperatures dipped below freezing. The kids wore cute little outfits: beanies with cub ears, pink leggings with puppies drawn on them, and scarves so long they trailed on the sidewalk.
I can't imagine how anyone could explain this to them. Some looked terrified. Others smiled as if it was all just an adventure. They may never return home. Or if they do, it may be as visitors, rediscovering the country of their youth, speaking Ukrainian with an accent because they will have had only their parents to practice it for years.
Andrij lives in Lviv with his wife and two sons. They are eight and twelve years old. He is part of a team of four volunteers who travel back and forth between Poland and Ukraine. I ask him what Ukrainians need the most right now.
“Food? Water? Medical supplies?”
“Peace. We need peace.”
After going through a series of checkpoints, he dropped me off at a gas station on the other side.
I owed him so much, but he didn’t want me to pay him one any way. So I gave him a brooch with the Canadian and Ukrainian flags intertwined. We hugged and he handed me over to his associate Nazar.
Nazar and I are about the same age and our daughters are almost born the same day.
Marta was born on September 26 and mine on September 25. Of course, my daughter is only five months old, while hers is in primary school.
“How is she?” , I asked. “Does she like sports? Books? What kind of child is she?”
“One week is drawing, drawing, drawing and the next one might- be the dance for a few months,” he said. “She got a ukulele for her birthday. She likes it but I think it will pass. She's a good kid.”
We drove to the villages bordering the border. We passed a convoy of refugees that stretched for miles.
“This war, we are losing a lot of people,” he said. “Not just soldiers, but our people. Our future. They're there.”
He pointed to the window.
With the convoy behind us, the van from Nazar took to the winding roads of rural Ukraine. Villages with no lights on, gas stations and mini-markets with pallets of building materials out front, sandbag fortifications stacked on every bridge.
The western part of Ukraine is still relatively safe. The center of Putin’s offensive is along the Black Sea to the south, and loops around kyiv, about 540 kilometers east of Lviv.
On the second day of the invasion, Nazar's office in kyiv was destroyed by rocket fire. He sells German-made trucks to Ukrainian companies. He spends weeks in Kyiv before reuniting with his wife and Marta on the weekends.
“It’s not like I can sell trucks right now, so I have to help,” said- he declared. “I don't think I would make a good soldier. But I have a lot of experience in terms of organization, logistics.”
Although he has a kind face, Nazar is short with strong shoulders and thick legs. Whether he is a good soldier or not, I would hate to fight him.
Every day since his office exploded, Nazar has been coordinating supplies to Poland and back. He leaves before Marta wakes up for school and comes back long after she's gone to bed.
“I kiss her while she sleeps,” he says. “Last night Andrij and I slept for four hours. I might arrive at six o'clock if I'm too tired, but I have to help.”
War is thought to be something that gunmen fight against each other. Something that is won or lost on a distant battlefield. In reality, it takes an army of workers to supply the front with food, water and equipment, and another group to keep the roads intact. In reality, war is children shivering near a border post.
Why else would the Russians try to surround kyiv, if not to starve it? As brutal as the bombs are, starvation is no picnic.
Nazar, 39, spent the first eight years of his life under Soviet occupation. He was a kid, so he has a lot of happy memories. But like all Ukrainian children during the communist years, all of his classes were in Russian.
“Did you speak Russian with your parents?”
< p>He explains that after the Holodomor (when Stalin's forced collection policies starved millions of Ukrainians), the Soviets brought in workers from across the empire to fill the best jobs in the industrial regions of Ukraine. As well as being Russia’s breadbasket, Ukraine was also its manufacturing hub.
In his book, Mr. Scherba says he was taught that Ukrainian was a peasant language and that speaking Russian was the only way to have a future in the Soviet Union. But when Ukrainians began to assert themselves in the 1980s, he proudly rediscovered his mother tongue.
“We should be proud to speak Ukrainian,” Nazar said. “It’s our language, it’s something we have to appreciate. That’s who we are.
We arrived at the first real checkpoint, outside Lviv.
Five men stood around a barrel fire, surrounded by Czech hedgehogs [steel anti-tank obstacles], concrete barriers, portable toilets and a matte green command center. Due to martial law, journalists are prohibited from photographing checkpoints or soldiers without military permission.
A mustachioed man in his fifties checked our documents and let us through. As we exited, we passed a statue of the Virgin Mary wearing a neon green halo. Ukraine is the cradle of the Russian Orthodox faith. Unlike Western Europe, most of its inhabitants are still practicing Christians.
Nazar and Andrij stepped up for me, a foreigner who only knows two Ukrainian words: yes (tak) and thank you (which I can’t spell but is pronounced DIAK-yu).
Because I was in a hurry to get to my hotel, I hadn’t noticed what Nazar was carrying in the back of his van. When I picked up my luggage from his truck, I saw sleeping bags, cardboard boxes and a doll wearing pink overalls.
It took my breath away.
Christopher Curtis spoke to Metro upon his return to Montreal. To see what he had to say, click here or watch the video below.