When Russia first attacked Ukraine in the early morning of February 24, most people were still asleep in their beds. They awoke unprepared for the journey ahead of them.
Some families grabbed whatever possessions they could fit in their cars and fled immediately.
Others tried to stay put, reluctant to walk away from the only homes they’d ever known. But they were eventually forced to run for their lives days or weeks later when their towns turned to ash and rubble.
Insider spoke to more than 100 Ukrainian refugees in multiple cities and at Ukrainian border crossings across Eastern Europe about what they lived through, how they fled, and their plans for starting over. Some shared only their first names to protect the safety of loved ones still in Ukraine.
Here are some of their stories.
Viktoriia Storozhenko and her sister Svitlana Gordiienko woke in their Kyiv homes to air raid sirens and explosions on February 24.
Gordiienko picked up their father and they joined the rest of their family at Storozhenko’s house in a village outside the city.
When they arrived, they set up mattresses in a hallway and tried to get back to sleep, but the noise of explosions wouldn’t allow it.
With every blast, Gordiienko said her daughter threw herself over her 3-year-old son, just in case the windows blew in.
“There is nothing more frightening than hearing a three-year-old ask if they are shooting again, or whether we will always live here on the floor in the hallway,” Gordiienko said.
At 9 a.m., the sisters got a call that their mother, who was in a hospital, had died. It wasn’t until four days later that the hospital released her body to be buried.
“So on the fifth day, we went into Kyiv, and that experience shook us up very badly,” Gordiienko said. “There were shot-up buses. There were men’s bodies on the ground, covered up.”
The sisters were driven into the city in a speeding hearse.
The driver apologized, but said he couldn’t slow down because he feared they’d be a target.
Kyiv, the sisters said, was unrecognizable. Cars and a bus had bullet holes. Buildings were damaged and surrounded by debris. A body of a man laid in the street, covered with a black bag.
At the cemetery, they said staff and church employees buried their mother in 10 minutes, and left.
“They all did their job, but just did it quickly, and would then run away,” Gordiienko said. “So it was just about 10 minutes that we were burying my mom, and then we, too, jumped in the car and drove away, only dreaming to reach the children again.”
“This is a story about when you don’t have the luxury of crying for your mom, because you are worried that your children and grandchildren are somewhere else away from you,” she added.
Two days later, Gordiienko’s older daughter fled to Amsterdam, where she’s looking for work to help support her family.
On the 10th day of the war, the sisters said they fled with two of their daughters and several grandchildren. First they took a train from Kyiv to Lviv, then traveled the remainder of the way to Transcarpathia.
They took shelter at a resort that had been modified to house refugees.
Vladimir Pekov got a call from his friend in the early morning of February 24, letting him know that Russia was bombing the city of Sumy, and he expected their village to be next.
Pekov said he immediately called his eldest daughter, who works in Kyiv, and told her she needed to get out of the city because it would be a target.
His daughter, he said, didn’t understand and said she was going to go to work.
The family attempted to stay put. For a week, they lived in their cellar — without heat or electricity for the last five days.
“In homes without access to electricity, it becomes very cold, which effected us very negatively,” Pekov said. “And a very large panic set in, because the explosions would come in closer and closer … And when the firing was right next to the house, the decision was made.”
On March 7, the family woke up early and made white flags out of towels in the house. Then they left in two cars, hoping that the flags would keep the Russians from firing at them.
“My daughter was in the back holding it up from the back seat. In the second automobile my wife was driving, and my younger child was also holding another flag out of a window,” he said. “And our neighbors were in a third car, with a small girl, whose eardrums burst from the mortar fire, who is still suffering from hearing loss.”
On their way out of their neighborhood, he said they saw residential buildings with holes the size of cars blown out of them. The forest where the family would go on walks was burned to the ground.
When we reached our Ukrainian security checkpoint, many of us, we and the neighbors, got out of our cars, got on our knees, and started praying, thankful that we got lucky to get out of this occupied area.Vladimir Pekov
Victoria fled her home in Hostomel, Ukraine on March 3 with her children and dog, Stacia, when Russian tanks and planes arrived in the city.
They took a train to Budapest, Hungary, and planned to continue their journey to Portugal, where Victoria could find work as a teacher.
She begged her mother to leave with her, but she refused. Soon after they left, they learned the apartment building they lived in had been occupied by Russian troops. She said her mother was barricaded in the building’s basement for eight days until the troops ransacked the apartments and moved on.
Victoria’s apartment was used as a place to treat injured soldiers. She said the home was destroyed when they left.
“Luckily after eight days we connected with her through other volunteers. She is alive, but our flat is destroyed,” Victoria said. “There are no windows, no doors. There are no walls inside. Everything is crashed.”
Ludlila and her two daughters — 9 and 12 — left their home in the Odessa region soon after the war began, when air raid sirens became constant.
They traveled through Moldova, Romania, and Hungary on their way to Poland where her older children live.
Volunteers in Romania and Hungary have given them food, shelter, and tours of the cities, she said.
This reality, she said, is unimaginable.
“We left everything. We have only what we have on us and some underpants, tights, and documents,” she said, while her children stood next two teddy bears stuffed inside a plastic bag. “Everything is left there — everything that we have collected in all our lives.”
They leave behind their home, an apartment in Kyiv, a vacation house, and some property their family owns.
Her only wish, she said, is for the war to end quickly so she can go home to her husband, who had to remain in the country.
I love Ukraine very much. I am 42-years-old and I never was abroad. We have a saying, ‘It is very nice to be guests, but it is better at home.’Ludlila
Victoriya Vladimirovna was living in an apartment with her mother in the Alekseevka neighborhood of Kharkhiv when bombs began dropping.
She knew they should leave right away, but her daughter-in-law was 9 months pregnant and she didn’t want to leave without them.
“She spent seven days in a bomb shelter with my son and my grandson who is six years old,” Vladimirovna said. “I can’t even tell you what they lived through.”
The family stayed in the city for several days, but the fighter jets flying above their apartment shook the walls.
Eventually an acquaintance and her son drove them out of the city. Vladimirovna said they spent four days in the car, stopping at night and sleeping at homes around the country. Then they found temporary housing at a resort in the mountains that turned its common spaces into a refugee shelter.
“When I was driving through the city to leave Kharkiv, I saw this horror with my own eyes,” she said. “I saw military security checkpoints, ruined buildings, busted up cars, dead bodies.”
Kira, 16, lost her father when she was 5 years old. A year later, her mom died.
Until early March, she was living with her friend’s mother in Kharkiv.
When bombs began dropping on the city, the windows in her home began to shake.
She ran for her life.
She said she ran from neighbor to neighbor, but each house was just as vulnerable as the last.
Finally, she and a friend found a home with a hallway that appeared to be safe, so they took shelter there.
As soon as I sat down, there was a blast, an explosion. Debris started to fall on me and the doors flew out. I was barefoot and running outside, but turned back to put my clothes on.Kira
Kira and her friend then went on the run again, looking for another building they could take shelter in. She said Russian military “bombing planes” flew low overhead as they ran.
They found another building, but then a missile fell very close “and the windows and doors fell out,” she said.
“Then we waited for those neighbors so we didn’t go alone and ran again,” she said. “We didn’t know what direction to run.”
Eventually, she got in contact with other students from the circus academy where she studied, and 18 children fled the city together.
Now they live in three units of a Budapest nursing home until they figure out more permanent plans. They’ve already been enrolled in a Budapest circus academy so they can continue their studies.
Luliia Sergeieva, a lawyer and human rights activist, awoke on the morning of February 24 to the sounds of explosions. She got her 6-year-old son out of bed and left the city.
When she arrived at her mother’s house in the suburbs, her son Simon was still in his pajamas, and she quickly realized it was even less safe there. They spent the night in a bomb shelter, but got no sleep.
Sergeieva said she planned how she could shield her son with her body if debris started falling.
The next day, she and Simon left the country.
When she arrived in Budapest, volunteers put her in touch with a local woman who let them stay in a family apartment with another Ukrainian family of refugees. Her mother and grandmother, who were reluctant to leave Ukraine, joined them later.
Now they’re trying to figure out their next move, while they try to save as much money as possible — even if it means eating meals volunteers provide at train stations.
“My son asked me, ‘Is this food for homeless people? Are we homeless now? Do I have to eat it?” she said. “I said, ‘Honey, yes. We’ll be ok, but we have to save. I need your support, be my little man.”
Sergeieva said she’s teaching her son to be humble, and he does his best to stay positive.
“I love Kyiv. It’s my hometown,” she said. “Our lives are there — what we were building all this time — so it was a very hard decision to cross the border, but I did it because I am a mother and his safety, his life, is the first job that I have to do.”
Irina had never left Ukraine before her village north of Kyiv turned into a warzone in early March.
She said tanks bearing the letter “V” drove up and down the streets as explosions destroyed the homes and buildings that flanked hers.
When the barn on her land was destroyed, she knew it was time to go.
She, her husband, and their three children grabbed bags they had already packed and ran for their lives — leaving their dog and farm animals behind.
For 48 hours, they were on foot trying to find people who could help. Eventually two cars picked their family up and took them to the Hungarian border.
At a refugee camp in the rural town of Beregsurany, hours after they arrived, Irina told Insider that they had no plan for where to go next.
Then, three Italian firefighters walked over to the group and offered to take them to Rimini, where they’d find the couple work and get their children into the local school.
They were hesitant at first, but ultimately left with the firefighters to the seaside village where they will start a new life.
Elena Farkas was 14 years old in 2008 when Russia invaded her village in Georgia.
She remembers when the shelling began and the homes in her neighborhood were destroyed.
Fast forward to February 24, Elena was a married mother of two living in the Transcarpathia region of western Ukraine when Russia invaded again.
After about three days waiting for the conflict to end, she and her family decided to cross the border into Hungary.
A volunteer offered up a floor of her home to her family and mother-in-law. He brings her husband, Jozsef, to a construction site each morning to work.
Elena told Insider that she left Ukraine before the bombings spread to their village.
She didn’t want her children to live through the same wartime trauma that she did. Joszef, an ethnic Hungarian, told Insider he’s begging government officials to assist refugees because he doesn’t know how he’ll be able to provide for his family without support.
Davit Astvatsaturyan and Margo Kumanova got married on February 16, and were preparing to move into an apartment they bought together in Odessa.
Those plans — like the plans of millions of Ukrainian families — were disrupted when Russia invaded a week later.
“The first four days, we didn’t even think about leaving. We were convinced that after a couple days this conflict will be settled,” Astvatsaturyan told Insider in Budapest. “In 2008, we saw very similar events in Georgia — Russia attacked Georgia. The whole conflict took five days, and we thought it would be the same.”
But the situation in Ukraine turned out to be very different. The couple lived less than a mile from an airport, which was the target of several bombings.
“Psychologically it was very difficult,” Kumanova said. “We slept in turns because we were afraid to miss something, and that we wouldn’t have time to go to the shelter.”
On the fifth day, the couple made a run for it. They crossed the border into Moldova, then traveled to Romania where they spent three days. On the fourth day, they took the train to Budapest. Kumanova’s cousin and her son joined them.
They reached out on social media to a couple who was volunteering to help refugees. The couple let them stay in their home, and then helped them secure free plane tickets to Spain, where they hoped to become legal residents.
Katerie, who lived in Odessa, had no plans on leaving the city when the first bombs dropped.
Her two adult children couldn’t leave, and without them she wasn’t going anywhere.
But her adult son, who remains in Odessa, was adamant that she and his 17-year-old brother got out while they could.
Nearby Snake Island was already under attack.
Katerie resisted at first, but about a week later, they met with a family friend and fled Ukraine together with their sons.
“My other son said on the first day, ‘You will do me a favor if you leave the country. I will know you are safe and for me, as a man, it will be easier’,” Katerie told Insider.
The two families said they spent all the money they had to flee Ukraine — first to Moldova and then Romania. From there, they acquired a ticket voucher to Budapest.
When they arrived at the train station in the city, they had no plan. At first they thought an acquaintance of the family, who lived in the region might be able to help.
When that plan fell through, they connected with volunteers in the building’s atrium. A volunteer allowed them to move into a family home until they continue their journey to Germany.
Olga, an attorney practicing international law, lived with her 93-year-old mother in the suburbs of Kyiv. In the early morning of February 24, her daughter Iuliia showed up with her grandson in his pajamas. She informed her that the war had begun.
Olga said the family went down to a cellar the first night, when air raid sirens were activated, but her mother fell. From then on, she refused to go to the cellar.
Iuliia and her son left the country the next day, but Olga and her mother hoped that conflict would end quickly.
They’re ethnic Russians and had always loved Russia. They believed in their hearts that civilians would be spared from any military operation.
A week later, they realized that wasn’t the case and they had to get out while they could. They joined Iuliia in Budapest.
Now Olga blames Putin for “destroying our lives completely.”
I’m trying to keep myself away from hatred of the Russian nation. It’s very hard and I don’t know how long I can keep it up.Olga
On March 12, Marina said a bomb fragment struck her home in Kyiv, breaking all of the windows, while her family was inside.
They grabbed a few things — including their dog and cat — and ran to the train station, where they boarded a train to Slovakia and then to Budapest.
“If we go, we take everybody,” Marina told Insider at the Keleti Train Station. “We don’t leave behind anyone.”
Adult men, though, were barred from leaving the country, so Marina’s husband and son remained in Kyiv.
They called Marina when they could, but it became clear that the situation there is dangerous.
“They try not to talk about it,” Marina said.
The family planned on continuing their trip to Munich, Germany, where they hoped to find peace.
Viktor Seliuk and Anastasiia Chervotochenko, of Kharkiv, were students at a medical school, living together in a dorm.
While some students left the first day Russia declared war, they decided to stay because Viktor’s hometown in Kherson had already been occupied.
When they heard explosions in the distance, they would go to the basement.
“The turning point was the night of March 6 to 7. Exactly at midnight, they began to bomb our campus, where our dorm is, and the campuses of other universities,” Seliuk said. “In our dorm, glass flew out.”
The explosions left craters in the dorm building, and the building next door caught on fire, the couple said.
“We were all in the basement where we went down. And the shell fragment hit this very basement wall, and a piece of the wall flew out,” he said. “That is, all the dust fell on us, someone’s jacket caught fire.”
They said the dorm building lost power and walls were taken down, so it became freezing cold. The couple decided they would leave in the morning.
They went to Kharkiv South Station and boarded the first train that arrived.
It was a decommissioned train that had been brought back into use to evacuate civilians, Seliuk said.
For 31 hours they traveled in the packed car, which had no heat.
When they arrived in Transcarpathia, they connected with the owner of a resort who had converted communal space to shelter refugees.
They planned to stay there until they could come up with a plan for their next move. Finishing their studies seems out of the cards for now.
Iryna Petryk got a call on February 24 and was told that “a war has begun.”
Petryk said she knew she had to get out of Kyiv with her son, but she was not at all prepared.
She had the coronavirus, and was bedridden for the week leading up to the war.
After packing as quickly as possible, she brought the car to get gas and then drove her and her son to her parents’ dacha (a summer home) in the nearby riverside village of Zazimye.
That’s where they stayed until March 6, but then she said they learned that village was surrounded by 120 tanks. So they fled again.
“The authorities announced that everyone who was leaving needed to leave, and everyone staying needed to stay, because they were closing the roads and there was nobody to be coming in or out,” she said. “Given that I had my son with me and his friend, we decided to just leave and go anywhere. We just got our things together, in bags, not even suitcases, we didn’t have anything else.”
The group took a bus to a train station. A train took them to Transcarpathia.
Petryk said her son was stoic, but his nerves are now getting to him. When they were at the dacha, he was convinced that they’d be able to return to Kyiv quickly.
When they arrived at the resort, he had a high fever.
He asks me, ‘Mom, mom, are you okay? Are we okay? Mom, I don’t want to go to the army, I don’t want to be killed.’Iryna Petryk
Katerina Kompaniets, 34, said she was traveling with seven other family members from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, to Lublin, Poland, when an air raid alarm went off. She was on a train, packed in a car with 250 people. The train stopped and the power shut off.
When asked what was going through her mind during those tense moments, Kompaniets said, “Fear.”
Zenaida Matsnieva, 37, was among the relatives traveling with Kompaniets. She said the hardest part of fleeing Ukraine were the people they left behind.
“We don’t know what will be next, or if we will see them again,” Zenaida said.
Zaporizhzhia, their hometown, is where the largest nuclear power plant in Europe is located. Russia attacked the plant, raising fears of a nuclear disaster. Kompaniets said that during the Russian assault she remembered the experience of the Chernobyl meltdown, praying that Zaporizhzhia wouldn’t face a similar fate.
But in spite of all they’d been through, and the uncertainty surrounding them, they were optimistic about Ukraine’s chances in the war. “We believe we will win,” Kompaniets said.
“It’s very hard to leave,” Alyona, 33, from Kyiv, said of fleeing Ukraine just moments after entering Poland at the Medyka border crossing.
Her 87-year-old grandmother had been left behind because she was stuck in an area near Sumy, which was besieged by Russian forces at the time.
“That’s why we should and we want to come back because we left her there,” Alyona said while drinking a cup of steaming hot tea a volunteer handed her. She said she hoped to return to Ukraine in roughly two months.
Viktoria Lisianska, 36, fled her hometown of Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second largest city — with her daughter and niece.
“They’re bombing schools … They’re bombing everywhere, just everywhere,” Lisianska said of the Russian military. She said her daughter’s kindergarten was destroyed and the windows of her home were shattered as Russia attacked.
Speaking from a refugee transit center in Korczowa, Poland, in what was once a shopping mall, Lisianka was overcome with emotion as she spoke about leaving her parents behind. They didn’t want to leave Ukraine.
“I just had to leave because I had to save the life of my child,” she said.
Aleksandra Borodina, 34, fled Kyiv on February 25 — a day after the first bombing occurred.
From the comfort of her sister’s home, where she found refuge in Düsseldorf, Germany, the Ukrainian tech worker told Insider about the journey she embarked on, and how she is trying to financially support her partner, who is in Lviv, Ukraine.
She spent most of the first day of the war at home. Fleeing was not viable then. “It just looked like a panicked and senseless option at the time,” she said. “Looking back, however, I would have done the same as others and left on the first day. We would have had time to cross the border on the first day and Vlad would be with me.”
She has submitted documents to German authorities about her rights, legal status, and health insurance. “Everything changes every day,” she said, but added that she couldn’t help but feel grateful for the support she has received.
As soon as the war is over, Borodina wants to return to Ukraine and specifically to her “dear Kyiv.”
She added: “It is my home, which I love with all my heart. I really want to help Ukraine to get back on its feet. To implement this plan, it is important for me to continue working and temporarily settle down here, in Germany.”
Anna Zavertailo owns several restaurants in Kyiv, but said she wasted no time in fleeing, despite the impact it could have on her successful business.
Within an hour of the first bombing, Zavertailo set off for Western Ukraine with her husband and three children. They found safety in a friend’s country house. “We had packed all the necessities on Wednesday. So, we picked up our bags and drove away.”
Even our kids don’t understand. They wonder why our neighboring country would attack us.Anne Zavertailo
But her children’s fear was evident: “They are scared for our future.”
Despite the escalating situation, Zavertailo insisted that they would not emigrate unless they were given no other choice. “We want to save our business, we want to be there for our people, our family,” she said, referring to both civilians and her employees.
Still, the sense of uncertainty was growing stronger day by day. Nearing the end of the phone call, just before the line cut off, Zavertailo said, simply: “We have no future right now.”
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz reported from Hungary. John Haltiwanger reported from Poland. Marina Shafit provided translation services in Hungary. Marta Yatsenko provided translation services in Poland. Iana Shchubelka contributed to this report in Transcarpathia, Ukraine.