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‘I Didn’t Want to Leave My Dad, But I Had To’

Mariia and Elina, sisters from Kyiv, documented their family’s journey from Ukraine to Germany in photos.

The evening before we left home we took this photo. Photo: Mariia and Elina Savchenko
The evening before we left home we took this photo. Photo: Mariia and Elina Savchenko
The evening before we left home we took this photo. Photo: Mariia and Elina Savchenko

For the first five days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Mariia, who is 15, and her sister Elina, who is 10, stayed with their parents in a makeshift bomb shelter beneath their Kyiv apartment building. Russia had begun bombing Kyiv early in the morning on February 24, and the United States predicted the city would fall within days. Each night, there were airstrikes and gunfire. The family discussed fleeing the violence, but were uncertain, since it would mean splitting up: Men between the ages of 18 and 60 were unable to leave the country, in case they were eventually required to join the army. But on March 4, when the Russians bombed the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, Mariia and Elina’s parents made the decision that the girls would leave with their mother and join the 3.6 million people who have fled Ukraine since the invasion. On March 5, they got into a van with their parents and some family friends and drove west. Over the next four days they traveled to the border with Poland, where their father left to return home, while they continued on to Munich with their mother. They documented the trip in photos of the things they saw, and of one another.

Mariia: Two nights before we left, when my mom turned on her phone to read the news, some nuclear station was being — something had hit it, a shell. Mom said that if that blows up, that’s the end, that’s a nightmare. They hadn’t been sure whether to leave or not, and this convinced them 100 percent that we had to go. And then our mother started packing suddenly. We asked her what she was packing for, and she said we were leaving.

Elina: At first I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t want to leave, of course, because I didn’t want to leave my dad, but I had to.

Mariia: Before going to sleep there were a lot of thoughts, sad thoughts. All of it came over me … and then both of us drank valerian drops and were able to go to sleep.

Mariia: For the first five days [after the invasion] we were in the cellar. For two nights I didn’t sleep at all because of our loudly snoring neighbor. After that, we spent two weeks drinking valerian drops, you could almost say. So when we slept we slept like the dead, and didn’t hear any explosions. We were totally exhausted.

The next three or four days we stayed in the apartment, because we thought, if you look at it objectively, if [a building is going to collapse] it’ll happen in both places. But in the cellar there are these pipes with boiling water that are connected to the heaters, so if there’s a collapse it’s more dangerous to be in the cellar.

Mariia: We’ve lived in Kyiv since we were born. Before this we just studied. We both do rowing, so we trained for that. And then all of it ended abruptly on the 24th.

Mariia: My mom supervised the packing. The bags we’d taken to the bomb shelter, we optimized them for a trip to another country. What we brought with us: one pair of pants, thermal pants, socks, underwear, shirts. Warm jackets, we’re wearing them. Comfortable shoes, toothbrushes, water, medicine, candles, some food. That kind of thing. Our documents, money —

Elina: Chargers.

Mariia: Right, yes, power banks. But nothing special. Well, our dog! Its name is Barty. We took stuffed animals. Elia took her seal; I took a bear. But I left it with my dad in Ukraine, because there was no room in our baggage.

Mariia: It was a little sad to leave, but there was a hope for something better, that all of this would be over soon. And there’s still that hope.

Mariia: We drove with our parents, and our friends were with us too — the family of our godfather. We were told that someone would meet us at the border and drive us somewhere near Warsaw. And from there we would take a train that goes to Munich. And our friends would go their own way to Prague.

On the road, Elia and our godfather’s son played with the dog in the back seat. They’d pass the dog up to our seat, and we’d send it back.

Mariia: Our parents mostly talked about what’s going on now. They were trying to figure out what to do, how to get on the trains from Poland to Germany. They were nervous, of course, because my parents — well, my father and my godfather had to stay, while we were going to leave. So of course they’re all worried because men aren’t allowed to leave, and also because they left the apartment and it’s not clear what’s happening in Kyiv now.

Along the way, while I was talking with my mother and my godfather’s wife, I turned around to see what Elia was doing. I saw her sleeping so cutely, so I thought I should take a picture.

Mariia: The first day, we did not have time to get to Lviv. There was a huge traffic jam as we were leaving Kyiv. It extended in all directions. We tried to go around the jam — if you didn’t try to go around you could be in it for three or four hours. Later, we drove on country roads, because there are places where the highway is completely ruined.

There was one city, I don’t remember which, and you could see a building that was half-destroyed. The neighboring buildings in a radius of about 100 meters, their windows were broken, and parts of the building had fallen, the cornices.

Elina: I remember a very pretty church and a lot of different animals in the villages.

Mariia: There were cows, sheep, there were lambs, one little one kept running around. Then roosters, hens.

We drove until right before dark. We were planning to go further, but because of the wartime curfew we only had time to reach Rivne, and half an hour before the curfew started we just managed to check into a hotel.

Mariia: We crossed the border with Poland on March 7. Afterward they brought us to Przemyśl, the city with a volunteer center where people who cross the border from Ukraine go. This photo was taken in a line for registration. Once they made sure you were really Ukrainian, they gave you a blue bracelet that worked like an entry pass into the volunteer center. People could see your bracelet, which meant you had crossed the border, which meant you could get a SIM card, you could get water, food, dog food, some clothes. And people were walking around with big boxes, there were sandwiches and things in the boxes, and Ellie brought two packs of Skittles.

The volunteers were great at helping everyone. We didn’t expect so much support. They’d understand what you meant with barely a word. All you had to do was ask and they’ll feed you and give you water and take you where you need to go.

Mariia: My mom took this photograph on the bus from Przemyśl to Warsaw. She was writing to my dad, and he asked how we were doing and she sent him this picture.

Mariia: We didn’t have time to take a picture when we arrived in Munich, so we took a picture the morning we arrived, and then we walked the dog. We’re staying with our aunt and uncle in their apartment.

After our two train trips it was great to finally arrive and get some sleep. Before the first train, the one from Warsaw, we only slept for five hours. Then between trains in Berlin there was fifteen minutes. We’d just gotten off the train from Warsaw, and volunteers picked us up and walked us over to the ticket kiosk. My mom said we needed to go to Munich. They asked us, when? In a day, right now? My mom said, as soon as possible. It was 3:10, and they told us at 3:30 there’s a train. So we ran down to the platform and just managed to get on. Because of the mad rush and the stress it was very nice to just arrive. And we hadn’t seen our aunt and uncle in a long time, we missed them. We also wanted to see her dog, because we’d never seen it. It’s a corgi.

Translations by Elina Alter.

‘I Didn’t Want to Leave My Dad, But I Had To’