A moment that changed me: I fled Ukraine with my ex’s family as the Russians invaded


it was February 2022. Life was going pretty well. I had an apartment with views across Kyiv and I was sketching out a new project as an illustrator. I had finally ended an unhealthy long-term relationship. Yes, I thought. This will change everything!
My mother and I went on a last-minute holiday to Zanzibar. We left on 15 February, the day the Russians had initially planned to invade. Before we left, there was talk of war, but I didn’t take it seriously. Beautiful Zanzibar made it seem even less likely. We flew back on 23 February. The flight attendant was strict about telling us to wear our face masks. Surely, if everyone was worrying about face masks, then they weren’t thinking about war?
I went back to my flat with its view of the city. It was a bright and sunny day – but that night, the ravens came. I was woken up by explosions. I went out on to my balcony hoping it was just fireworks. It wasn’t. I shut myself in the bathroom, Googling “war”, but there was nothing in the news.
What I did next was instinctive: I took my Zanzibar suitcase, added some entirely impractical things such as incense, crystals and three vintage Laura Ashley dresses. Then my ex-boyfriend picked me up in his car. I am still so touched that he did that, considering how we had parted. It seemed right that we should be together.
Kyiv was the target, and it made sense to get out, but there were traffic jams everywhere and the queues for petrol were ridiculous. We spent the next 24 hours in the car. At Vinnytsia, about 170 miles from Kyiv, we saw bomb sites and destruction. We made it to western Ukraine, where we stayed with my ex-boyfriend’s relatives. It was decided then that all the women, children (and cats) should go abroad. It was forbidden for men to cross the border.
Imagine the company: my almost-mother-in-law (who was still furious with me), her daughter-in-law and my almost-sister-in-law, who pitied me for putting my efforts into drawing instead of starting a family. In other words, we had little in common.
Together with two children and a couple of cats, we crossed the Romanian border on 28 February. It was amazing that we reached our destination at all, given how little driving experience we had between us.
We stayed in a house that had been empty for 20 years. It was extremely cold. We had to heat up an ancient stove with wood that we collected, and the toilet flooded every time it was flushed. I swear the house was haunted.
We changed places and countries. My almost-sister-in-law showed her gratitude to the people who hosted us by cleaning their houses. I did my best to help her. What else could we do?
Eventually, we ended up in a little Austrian town called Marchegg. We didn’t know the people, but they opened their arms to us. Later, they even helped me find a place for my mother and sister to stay. Until then, they had camped in a basement. My almost-sister-in-law continued to clean while I got on with my work. I now see that this was her way of dealing with stress. We haven’t become friends, but we’ve become something like good allies.
My sadness over the breakup dissolved under the weight of war, at least for a couple of months. I was working hard on my new book, trying to embrace the opportunity. Strangely, it helped calm me down. Drawing has always been my therapy.
After a couple of months, my ex was able to leave Ukraine and come to Austria. While I was happy that he was safe, it meant living together under one roof again. Soon, we were locked in the same impossible relationship. I was making the final changes to the illustrations for the book. I finished the project, then mentally crashed and hit rock bottom.
Long story short: a psychologist helped me process everything. I feel more stable than ever. My ex is happy with another woman, and I am finally free to see what the future holds. I haven’t suffered as much as millions of other Ukrainians. The war heightened my inner issues, but escaping it helped me heal.

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