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Friday, May 27, 2022

‘He literally had 30 seconds’: an Australian couple’s desperate fight to flee Ukraine | Ukraine

Four days ago Tasmanians Rachel Lehmann Ware and her husband, Duncan, received the call.

They had spent the past few nights in the basement of the school they worked in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital at the heart of the Russian invasion.

The couple and another teacher had 30 minutes to get to the other side of the city. It was their only hope to get out.

“I don’t know what the CEO did to get them, but he got us seats on the train and it’s almost impossible. We had 30 minutes to get there,” Lehmann Ware said.

“We got there with literally 30 seconds to go. The driver, he was screeching down the streets of Kyiv.”

The couple is now safely in Chernivtsi, a city in western Ukraine that is acting as a short-term haven for people trying to cross the border to Romania or Moldova.

Lehmann Ware and her husband are from Huonville in Tasmania. They have spent the past five years teaching in different countries – in July last year, they moved to Kyiv and fell in love with the vibrant city.

As war rumours swirled, they were reluctant to leave their school community. Just as the Russians were about to advance on the country, the couple caught Covid.

“Dfat called us, they asked when were you diagnosed. [We told them] and they went ‘oh shit’. We didn’t have an option. We could not get out because we had Covid.”

With their two cats, the pair bunkered down in the school basement with other members of the staff. They planned to leave by car before it became too unsafe.

Each night was interrupted with the sound of explosions as Russian missiles were shot down. Some made it through. No one slept.

Rachel Lehmann Ware and her husband Duncan.
Rachel Lehmann Ware and her husband Duncan. Photograph: Rachel Lehmann Ware

A 64km convoy of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles had just been spotted advancing up the road to the capital. Military analysts said it was poised to attack.

They weren’t sure when they would leave the basement, or what state their city would be in when they did. Then the phone rang.

“One of our security guards got us out, I can’t even remember what day it was. He’s now in the militia,” Lehmann Ware said.

Although the station was packed with people – many of them trying desperately to get out of the city – there was still a sense of community, she said. People wanted to help each other.

“I was going through the front door, I had lost my party, I was holding my massive cat, Dexter, and a young man from nowhere came up to me, he could see I was panicked, he said ‘Everything is OK, you’re going to be OK’,” she said.

Lehmann Ware found her husband but, at the top of the stairs, they got separated in the crowd. There were people everywhere. He yelled at her to go, so she ran to the train. She got on, and out of the blue, their security guard arrived, almost carrying her husband with him.

“He literally had about 30 seconds to get on the train, that was it,” she said.

On the train, the windows were blacked out for security. Through a crack she watched as they passed bombed villages. The carriage was filled with women and children who had had to leave their husbands behind.

A photo of Chernivtsi near where the couple are staying
Chernivtsi, near where the couple are staying in Ukraine. Photograph: Chernivtsi – taken by Rachel Lehmann Ware

“No Ukrainian men, no men, they have to stay. You have little kids and their mothers travelling alone and getting to a border,” she said.

“It ended up being an 18-hour train journey on a very, very, very old train. One of the really old Soviet trains. Eighteen hours and the train is just overloaded, people in the hallways with kids, dogs, cats, most people got out Lviv – that’s a major transport hub.”

The pair and their two cats are now safe in a hotel. There’s fresh coffee and stable wifi. Back home her parents and 21-year-old daughter are finally sleeping with their phones on silent. Everyone is in shock.

“My God I’m exhausted. At the moment, to be honest, I think those of us who are here are suffering from survivors’ guilt. You’re happy you’re here and safe but terrified for the people you’ve left behind.

“One of my assistant teachers, I haven’t heard from her since Friday. I feel bad for not being there with them.”

In the first seven days of the war, one million people fled Ukraine. UN high commissioner for refugees Filippo Grandi said that in 40 years of working in refugee emergencies, he had rarely seen an exodus as quick as this one.

“Hour by hour, minute by minute, more people are fleeing the terrifying reality of violence. Countless have been displaced inside the country,” he said.

The borders are busy and the west of the country is covered in snow – making lining up to get over the border a hard task.

“It’s snowing and cold. We’ve got these children lining up for five to 20 hours, however long it’s taking. It’s horrendous,” she said.

“Dfat and Australian crisis support group have been amazing. They’re in constant contact and all of them have said they’ll be there ready for us. Lehmann Ware and her husband are still working out what to do – how to get home.

“We make a plan it doesn’t work, we just don’t know, we are hoping to get across tomorrow but we just don’t know.

“It’s so important the world knows what’s happening here.”

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