Reporter’s Notebook: Confusion, Chaos as Russia Invades Ukraine

Like many people in Ukraine today, we knew about the invasion before we could hear the bombs.

Around 5 a.m. our phones were pinging, with WhatsApp, Signal and Facebook posts: “We heard a blast in Kyiv. Blasts heard in Mariupol … bombs in Kramatorsk,” and so on.

By the time we could hear bombing in the distance from our hotel in Slovyansk, a quiet town about 20 kilometers from the nearest place of military significance, we were not surprised. In fact, we were already planning our departure, thinking someplace farther from the battle zones would be safer.

Within the next hour, our translator told us it was too dangerous for her to work, and several drivers wisely said they would not risk being separated from their families during this crisis.

By 8 a.m. the streets began to fill, with crowds gathered outside grocery stores and pharmacies, and forming long lines near ATMs. Dasha, a young mother who traveled 30 kilometers to a cash machine, said she left her husband and daughter in her rural home early that morning, after the bombing subsided.

“We are preparing,” she said. “But we hope nothing will happen.”

What did happen may not have surprised some world leaders, but it sent shockwaves through Ukraine. In the morning hours after the bombs, Russian forces entered through multiple borders.

By around noon we made it to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, not far from the usually peaceful border with Russia. One of the few hotels still open was fully booked, and most businesses were closed.

As we searched our social media and called friends, colleagues and contacts around the country to find out where we could go, we met Anton, who said he was an oncologist and had a brother traveling a few hours out of the city. Russian forces, he said, were on their way.

“If you stay here,” Anton said, “In two hours you will be in Russia.”

What we saw

After about two hours, videographer Yan Boechat and I were on the road to Kyiv with an enthusiastic young driver, Igor. Along the road we saw a bus on fire, with black smoke billowing into the sky across the street from an abandoned military truck.

A few blocks later, locals gathered around a house that appeared to have been bombed not long before and was now on fire. Some soldiers loitered around other military trucks, appearing uncertain what to do.

The road to Kyiv was not a great option because of reports of early-morning bombings and expected evening clashes. But it was, as far as we could tell, the only option that did not include running headfirst into Russian forces.

Hours later . . .

We’ve now been traveling toward the capital on backroads for many hours without seeing any incidents. We’ve also heard that Russia is pausing hostilities, presumably to renegotiate with a stronger hand. But to be clear, the exact movements and objectives of the Russian forces are not clear at this time. There were videos of Russian tanks entering Ukraine this morning but we didn’t see pictures of the advancing Russian army circulating on social media.

We have seen Ukrainian tanks and heavy artillery moving mostly toward the border, but we’ve also heard that after the chaos of the day, cities and towns bombed early this morning are now quiet. Colleagues who stayed back in Kharkiv hoping to get pictures of Russian soldiers rolling into a Ukranian city are disappointed but relatively safe and comfortable.

About 150 kilometers outside Kyiv we stopped at a gas station and minimart for sandwiches and coffee. The bright room selling snacks, gifts and imported wines and beers was a little crowded and definitely relaxed. Three female soldiers washed their faces in the bathroom sink and Yan, the videographer, commented on the atmosphere after such a tense day.

“This is what I like to see,” he said.

What’s next?

While this evening feels like a respite from weeks of buildup and this terrible day of danger, the war is far from over, and perhaps has only begun. Russian rhetoric has heightened in recent days, with President Vladimir Putin going as far as suggesting Ukraine and Russia are one country by nature.

Even before Putin made this speech, we heard locals speak vehemently against the idea, and some matter-of-factly for it. Activists in Kyiv told us Russians wished to eliminate them, their language and their culture. Families along the border with Russia near Kharkiv told us Russian is their language; their relatives live in Russia, and they do not feel strongly about who controls their area.

Which is not to say any part of Ukraine presents a monolith of ideas. In a village by the border, two women in a store selling clothes, appliances and office supplies talked about Russia as a “brotherly country” and said the only danger the two sides face is further separation. Extended families already are unable to cross to see relatives across the border, and the 30 passenger trains that used to cross daily haven’t operated since 2014.

Outside the shop, Roman, a 48-year-old grandfather, said he would fight for Ukraine against Russia if he could. When he was 9, he fell from a tree and lost one arm, he said, making it impossible to fight.

But Roman said he has two brothers, one who supports Russia and would be happy to see it control their portion of Ukraine. His other brother, like himself, supports Ukraine and its sovereign rights.

“We just can’t get along with our pro-Russian brother,” Roman said.

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