railway station ukraine
People crowd as they try to get on a train to Lviv at the Kyiv station, Ukraine, Friday, March 4. 2022. Image Credit: AP

When Paul Hodgson and his colleagues at an international school in Kyiv learned last Friday that a bus booked to evacuate them to safety had cancelled the trip at the last minute, they found another option: their school’s minibus.

Hodgson, a 47-year-old math teacher, his fiancee and his co-workers loaded into the 16-seat vehicle, which was normally used to transport students to and from activities and field trips. They then started on a 200km drive southeast to Cherkasy, where the school had booked them hotel rooms. Hodgson and two other colleagues took turns behind the wheel, he said.

But soon after arriving in Cherkasy, the three colleagues decided it wasn’t going to be a one-way trip - they were determined to go back to Kyiv to evacuate more of their co-workers.

“We said, ‘We don’t want to sit here twiddling our thumbs waiting for things to happen. We need to get back up to Kyiv and get this bus back up there to get other people out,’ “Hodgson, who is from northern England, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Since Feb. 24, more than 1 million people have left Ukraine, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which predicts 3 million more Ukrainians could flee in coming weeks if the fighting continues. Most refugees have fled to neighbouring countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Slovakia. But some are then moving further west into cities like Berlin, The Post reported. The European Union has offered “temporary protection” to refugees for up to three years.

Hodgson, meanwhile, has decided to stay in Ukraine with his fiancee for the time being to try to help others get to safety. The efforts began on Friday, as he and his colleagues fled Kyiv and made their way to Cherkasy. As the group trekked through traffic and checkpoints, they tried to keep the mood light, Hodgson said, listening to music and taking the occasional nap.

“There was a lot of good humour and a lot of having a laugh as much as we can and making light of the situation that we’re in,” he said.

There were also heartbreaking moments - the sobering realisations that many more have been left behind, unable to evacuate as Russia fires missiles into their hometowns.

“There’s people all over Ukraine asking how to get out,” Hodgson said. “So we think, ‘How can we help?’”

The group made it back to Kyiv on Saturday, returning to Cherkasy that evening with more co-workers and some hitchhikers they picked up along the way. The situation in Cherkasy grew more dangerous overnight. Air raid sirens wailed, and planes whooshed overhead as the group made several runs down to the hotel’s bomb shelter. By the morning, they decided together to form a new plan.

They loaded back into the minibus and made their way 32km southwest to Smila, where they stopped at a train station and dropped off some colleagues who planned to go west.

It was there that Hodgson’s fiancee, Nadia Ustenko, 36, made the difficult decision to part ways with her mother, who had joined them on the first minibus trip from Kyiv. The couple wanted to continue making trips to help others but Ustenko’s mother, who is not in good physical health, was having a hard time withstanding the long drives. She planned to take a train to Ternopil.

“That was pretty heart wrenching at the station,” Hodgson said. “We chipped in, gave her some money to get the train tickets because she didn’t have anything with her.”

The rest of the group then continued on the long drive toward Moldova, where after hours on the road with only stops to refuel the van, they crossed the border and headed to Chisinau.

The group dispersed from there, with some taking a bus or train to other parts of Europe. But Hodgson and Ustenko had no plans to go further. In fact, they planned to go back into Ukraine, they said.

On Tuesday, the couple made their way to Ternopil to see Ustenko’s mother and drop off their cat, who was traumatised by the long minibus rides, Hodgson said.

Over the next few days, they planned to see Ustenko’s 9-year-old son, who was with his father in Khmelnytskyi. From there, they hoped to transport food and supplies to the outskirts of Kyiv and pick up more people hoping to leave Ukraine.

But the school contacted Hodgson saying they needed him to drive the van about 180km south to Chernivtsi on Wednesday and hand it off to a driver who would take more colleagues across the border. Hodgson said in a message to The Post on Wednesday that he hopes to get the van back soon so he and Ustenko can use it to deliver aid and supplies to communities in need.

Ustenko noted that despite reports of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the country, many are displaying a “spirit and readiness to stay and help each other.”

Hodgson added that throughout the country, they’ve come across citizens armed and setting up checkpoints. It’s these efforts that epitomise the unity among the Ukrainian people, he said.

“The Ukrainian people have pulled together incredibly,” he said. “This is their homeland . . . people feel like they’re defending their homes, they’re defending their land. It’s incredible to see.”