Ukrainian recounts harrowing escape to Poland
Local man helps refugees flee war-torn cities
Sofiia Postolatii never thought she would wonder what it would feel like to die.
But when bombs rained down on the city of Sumy in northeastern Ukraine, she and her family had only seconds to take shelter in their bathroom.
“My hands were shaking; I had thoughts in my mind like, ‘Oh my gosh, is it painful to die?’” Postolatii told the Low Down during a video interview from Poland on April 1.
“I’ve never felt that way before. Usually, you think about your future, you are worried about your job, your career, but in that moment, you are just worried about how it feels to die.”
Twenty-two people were killed during that March 7 Russian airstrike. Postolatii’s neighbourhood was left in ruin, with nearby homes, schools and playgrounds reduced to rubble.
It was this attack that led the 23-year-old interpreter for the Canadian Forces to escape the war-torn city, and with the help of former Canadian Forces infantry captain and Edelweiss resident Kynan Walper, she made it safely to Poland. Walper has been helping with evacuations out of Ukraine with Canaid and non-profit evacuation organization Aman Lara, and has helped close to 30 Ukrainians flee dangerous cities like Kyiv, Sumy and Mariupol.
But even the evacuations themselves can be dangerous. Postolatii recounted her harrowing experience crossing through checkpoints along the Ukrainian border with thousands of others desperately seeking refuge.
“There were 7,000 people in Sumy gathering and trying to get on 22 buses — just 22,” Postolatii said. After waiting seven hours, Postolatii never made it on any of the buses, but she joined a small convoy of cars heading out of the city. When she got to Poltava in central Ukraine, she boarded a train that was packed with refugees. As they passed through Bucha, passengers could hear explosions and gunfire getting closer and they feared Russians would target the train.
“Every time we heard loud noises, we were really scared because we didn’t know what to do if Russians attacked this train. There is no escape,” she said. “This train was occupied with people. In my room, there was 10 or 11 people, and we had just four beds.”
After an intense 11-hour trip, Postolatii made it safely to Poland, where she is staying now, but her parents, grandparents and other family are still stranded in the Sumy region. Her father is too young to leave the country, as it’s illegal for men under 60 to leave Ukraine. He’s 59. Her mother won’t leave her father’s side, and her grandmother was stranded in a Russian-occupied village just outside the big city.
“My grandma, she was in the occupied village with my uncle, and we lost connection with them because there was no mobile network there and Russian pilots dropped four rockets on the village,” added Postolatii. “They destroyed the centre of the village completely, so there are no shops there. There is school, but it’s damaged as well.”
She’s since reconnected with her family, everyone is safe and picking up the pieces of their lives after Russian troops began retreating east.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 1,232 Ukrainian civilians have been killed and 1,935 have been injured since the war began on Feb. 24. Of the civilians killed, the UN confirmed that 250 were men, 176 were women, 18 were girls, and 36 were boys. Another 58 children and 694 adults have also been confirmed dead by the UN, but the agency has been unable to determine their sex.
During the interview, Postolatii was remarkably stoic and collected. But she broke down in tears when recounting the death of her close friend Roman Kerzun. The Ukrainian military commander was recently killed by a Russian mine. Postolatii was Kerzun’s personal interpreter and spent nearly every day with him.
“That’s really the hardest part because it’s the first person I lost from the people I know the closest,” she said. “I worked with him every day for six months. I was translating for him. He was such a good guy. He was always joking; he was always positive.”
“His name is Roman,” she added. “I just can’t believe he is not with us.”
Walper said he’s met with scores of families who have been torn apart by the war. Walper, who has fought in Afghanistan and spent extensive time in a Toronto Police uniform, says nothing compares to the horror he’s witnessed in Ukraine.
“This is not a regular conflict. This is the brink of World War III,” Walper said. He’s seen cities destroyed by airstrikes; air raid sirens are constantly blasting; young groups of men are being scooped off the street and given AK-47s to join the fight. He said the conflict in Ukraine is the worst situation he’s ever witnessed.
“It’s highly exigent, which is not the case in Afghanistan,” said Walper. “They are not killing people in the street; they are not doing all the things we feared.”
Tetiana Muzychuk, who also escaped her city in Ukraine, has been assisting Walper with the evacuations. She said it has been difficult to convince residents to leave their towns, especially the elderly. But she added that, once they reach safety, she sees an immediate positive shift in their headspace.
“People don’t want to leave their houses and go to the uncertainty,” said Muzychuk. “When people arrive to a safe place, people have glass eyes; they don’t notice anything; they are just looking for safety. But in a few days, they start to feel some emotions; they start to smile.”
Postolatii will head to Ottawa soon, as she was recently accepted into the Canada Ukraine Parliamentary Program. She says she may even live in Wakefield when she arrives and hopes to support her family while in Canada. “For now, I don't have plans to go back to Sumy. There's no job there and I need to help my parents financially.”
As for Walper, he’s on his way back to the Ukraine-Poland border to help more evacuees.
Donate to help the ongoing evacuation efforts through Aman Lara at amanlara.org or through the Red Cross at https://bit.ly/3LHoR6S.