‘The sound of sirens will stay with me’ – Dublin man who fled Ukraine

‘I have never been more happy in my life to have an Irish passport’

"The sound of the sirens will stay with me. It's like the wail of the Banshee. It just puts this fear into you," Dublin man Kevin Flanagan recalls after crossing Ukraine's border to Poland with his wife.

Mr Flanagan never planned to settle in Ukraine. His long term sights were on Prague or Georgia.

After leaving Ireland in 2016, he travelled a lot throughout Eastern Europe for work.

“Along the way, I went to Ukraine for a conference and I met someone there. And the rest is history,” he says, referring to his now wife, Anastasiia Farbun.

"We lived in Georgia for a while. Then the pandemic happened in 2020. We were travelling in Spain and couldn't get back to our apartment in Georgia, because they closed their borders. So we went back to Ukraine, where she's from, and thought – why don't we start to set up our life here?

“We wanted to buy a bit of land. We had it picked out and everything, and we were going to build our house and our family here. But then this happened,” he said.

Mr Flanagan “fell in love with the country and the people” in Ukraine.

“I see a lot of parallels between the Irish struggle for identity and independence and the fight against colonial power. I found that in affinity with the Ukrainian people,” he said.

Neither he nor his friends and family in Ukraine imagined the situation there would escalate to the level it has.

“When Putin recognised the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, we thought maybe that was his plan all along, and that it would stop there,” he said.

“Maybe that was naive. Not long after, in our home in the suburbs just outside Kyiv, we could hear fighter jets flying overhead. I had a moment on a work call where I was trying to maintain some normality and just talk about work, and then an air raid siren went off.

“The sound of the sirens is just surreal and terrifying,” he said.

At a playground outside his window, he could see parents “snatching up their kids to run to shelter”.

The decision to leave was a difficult one, especially because Ms Farbun’s family did not come with them.

“One of the images that really upsets me is saying goodbye to her parents. That was really, really hard.”

The journey to the Polish border was long and arduous, and it was “hard to not feel completely exhausted and dehydrated”.

“There was really dense traffic. The bus was just crawling along, and the whole time, Ukrainian tanks were driving on the side of the road. We were driving along the motorway and could see in the forest out on the edge of the road that there were men literally in trenches with guns. That’s how close we were.

“Then there was this explosion. I didn’t see it, and I’ve never heard an explosion before, but you know straight away what it is. It was so loud that we could feel it under the bus, like the bus had a little impact from it.”

Very few men were on the bus, as those between 18 and 60 are being told to stay and fight for Ukraine.

As the couple approached the border, a soldier boarded the bus to check the men’s IDs.

“I have never been more happy in my life to have an Irish passport,” Mr Flanagan said.

“There was a father and his teenage son who were sitting on the bus with us. The man was telling the soldiers, ‘I don’t want to die here’, and begging them, but they made him get off the bus. The boy was just sobbing for his father,” he recalled.

“He must have paid a bribe or something like that, because he managed to get back on and get to Poland in the end. That was really good news.”

Reaching the Polish border was a relief, and immediately upon arrival the couple were provided with food and water by volunteers, and a Polish sim card “loaded with credit”.

“The Polish have been great because they know very well what’s at stake. If Putin manages to take Ukraine, then why not the other former Soviet countries?” he said.

"When we reached Warsaw, there were Ukrainian flags everywhere."

The couple stayed overnight in Poland’s capital city before moving on to Poznan, where they are staying with friends for a week to “recuperate”.

“Our plan after that is to get back to Ireland. My wife has never been or met my family, so I can’t wait to show her around. But there is kind of a cloud hanging over it all now, because of the people we’ve left behind.”

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