Alexander Topal's family is one of hundreds of thousands who have been wrenched apart by the war in Ukraine. After the Russians attacked, the 51-year-old scientist, his 84-year-old mother Bronislava, wife Olya (41) and daughter Tetiana (11) endured a harrowing journey across the country to take refuge with a distant relative in Lviv.
But Alexander could not sleep worrying about his daughter's safety. He picked at the skin around his fingernails until it bled. On March 3rd, Olya, Tetiana, and Toma, the 10-year-old daughter of a friend, joined the flow of refugees to Slovakia. "I am calm now, knowing they are safe," he says.
Until the war, the family lived in a three-bedroom apartment in a high-rise on the east bank of the Dnieper river in Kyiv. Alexander and Olya's elder daughter, Anastasia (19), had flown back to university in Poland two days before the war started.
Alexander had prepared meticulously for the war. He packed two emergency tote bags for each family member, containing documents, money, medicine, dried fruit and warm clothing.
The family were awoken before dawn by a half dozen explosions on February 24th. There was an underground storage space which the neighbourhood used as a shelter when air raid sirens sounded, 300m from their building. Old age and arthritis prevented Bronislava from moving quickly. By the time she reached the shelter, the alerts were over.
Survival instinct dictates that one leave one's ageing parents in a war
Bronislava remembers crying as an infant when sirens sounded during the second World War. “I never thought there would be another war in Ukraine,” she says. “I cannot comprehend it.”
Survival instinct dictates that one leave one’s ageing parents in a war, Alexander says. But he is Bronislava’s only child and could not contemplate it. Their apartment is on the seventh floor of a nine-storey concrete building. “It would collapse like a house of cards if it was hit in a bombardment,” Alexander says.
Fear that bridges across the Dnieper would be destroyed, cutting off all escape routes, also incited Alexander to take his family and flee. He finally convinced Bronislava to leave with the rest of the family, and they set out for Lviv in their car.
The flight was further complicated because Toma had no passport and there wasn’t time to obtain written permission from her divorced parents for her to leave the country.
Alexander plotted the trajectory in advance and downloaded maps. The government set a 20-litre limit on petrol purchases, so it was essential that he chose a route with sufficient numbers of petrol stations.
Squads of Russian saboteurs had been sent to mark targets on the highways, the government warned. The family had to drive through Hostomel, a small town that is home to an airbase where Russian paratroopers landed. “We didn’t see them; we’d probably be dead if we had. Fortunately, the Ukrainians killed them all,” Alexander says.
Olya did the driving, pausing only once for a half-hour break during the 19-hour journey. They got lost several times in the dark and spent another five hours in massive traffic jams on the approach to Lviv.
The family reached the home of Maria Kozymka, a 74-year-old retired television factory technician, at 3am on February 26th. Kozymka is the sister of Olya Topal’s late grandfather. Alexander and Olya had met Kozymka only once, nearly 20 years earlier.
I didn't want to slow them down. I didn't want to die at the border
The family waited five days for Toma’s documents to arrive. The child’s father obtained a passport and form signed by both her parents so that she could leave Ukraine. “Toma’s father went to Kyiv train station on foot and found a stranger to bring her papers to us, just like in the movies,” Alexander laughs.
Olya, her daughter Tetiana and Toma set out for Bratislava in the family car, leaving Alexander and Bronislava in Lviv. Bronislava refused to travel with them. “I didn’t want to slow them down. I didn’t want to die at the border,” she says. “I raised my granddaughter while her parents were working. She cried when she hugged me goodbye.”
Alexander could not even escort his wife and daughter to the Slovak border. “As a man between the ages of 18 and 60, I am not allowed to move from one region to another,” he explains. “I would not leave, even if I could. I think this rule is fair. I hear no one complaining.”
Ukraine is calling up conscripts in four waves: men with combat experience in the 2014-2015 Donbas war; 100,000 men who have completed military service and stayed in the reserves; those who received training through university scholarships, and finally those without military experience. Alexander regrets that he falls into that last, fourth wave, because his training in aircraft detection occurred 30 years ago, too long ago to be of use.
“No one wants to fight, but I need to fight,” he says. “It’s my duty.”
Alexander tracked Olya’s journey “like a military operation”, using the Map Me app. Each time the three stopped en route, he telephoned to make sure everything was all right. Polish and Slovak border guards are letting refugees through quickly, but for reasons that no one can understand, there are huge bottlenecks at Ukrainian exit posts.
We try not to traumatise our daughter. We tell her it will just be a month until we are all back together
Olya and the girls slept in a tent on the Slovak side of the border. Kozymka’s daughter Irena, who lives in Paris, had found a rental flat through friends in Bratislava. “The owner cooked for them. Everything was ready,” Alexander says.
Alexander talks to Olya and Tetiana every day. “We try not to traumatise our daughter. We tell her it will just be a month until we are all back together,” he says.
This impeccably organised, rational man, a member of the Ukrainian Academy of Science, covers his hands with his eyes until he regains his composure, then rubs tears away with the ball of his hands, like a child. I shift our conversation to the fighting in the east, to Vladimir Putin, to anything but the pain of indefinite separation.