My fiancée and I tried to flee Ukraine — but we were turned back at the border

Up until a couple of weeks ago, everything in my life was going great. I was living with my high school sweetheart in Kyiv, planning my wedding, and I’d just landed my dream job. Now I’m unable to leave the country and I’ve been told to prepare to go to the front lines in a few days

Alex Filipas
Tuesday 15 March 2022 14:57 GMT
(Alex Filipas)

My girlfriend and I were awakened at 4 a.m. by the sound of distant rumbling. By the time we were fully awake and dressed, the explosions had become noticeably louder. We were under attack.

After weeks of fear, warnings, preparation, and hoping against hope, bombs and missiles were raining down; soldiers and tanks were on the move. Putin had unleashed his minions, who were now intent on destroying my homeland, my heritage, my family.

My name is Alex. I’m 34 years old and up until a couple of weeks ago, everything in my life was going great. For the last three years I have been living with the love of my life, my high school sweetheart, in an apartment in Kyiv. I landed my dream job — head of design for a non-profit arts publisher. We were putting as much money aside as we could from our jobs to finish paying off our apartment, make some renovations, and then splurge on a lavish wedding.

Then everything changed.

In the days leading up to the unprovoked attack on our country, we watched Russian troops amassing at the border. We heard NATO’s assessment that Vladimir Putin was just waiting for the right time to hoist his false flag and set his war machine in motion under the guise of a “rescue” or “liberation” mission. But you don’t want to believe such a nightmare is possible. Not on your own soil. Not so near your own home. Not when your fantasies are so close to coming true.

You cannot fathom that another human being would unleash death and destruction on innocent civilians, that real bombs would explode in your home town, and your neighbors will die. You hope it is a case of brinkmanship gone too far. A mistake. Cooler heads will prevail and the order to attack will be countermanded. But, it turns out, that was just an exercise in magical thinking.

Another explosion from outside our apartment at 4 a.m. shook me from my reverie. My fiancée told me we needed to fill our bags with whatever we could and leave.

We packed up our little car and headed west. The person dearest to me was shaking uncontrollably in the passenger seat. “Just go!” she wailed, as I drove. “Go until we get away from the bombs.”

I drove from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. while the love of my life slept fitfully next to me. I chose the longest route, the one most toward the center of the country, farthest from the encroaching invaders. It was a 22-hour ordeal. After driving for 12 hours, I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but we had miles to go before we can rest. My fiancée took the wheel and continued our journey for another eight hours.

We approach the Slovakian border at 3 a.m. My girlfriend’s sister lives in Prague, and she’d promised that she would offer us shelter. But as we approached the border, we were informed by the crowd that border guards weren’t letting any men pass; only women and children.

I prepared to kiss my love goodbye and send her to safety, but she refused to go without me. I am both extremely moved by her decision and racked with fear. I love her with all my heart. I do not want to be separated from her, but I also feel it is my duty to protect her. I may not be able to do that here in Ukraine, where we were now stranded on the wrong side of the border during a war. But we had no other choice. We had to stay.

(Alex Filipas)

On March 3rd, the local army office gave me an order to be ready on to go and fight on the 5th. The next day, I was given a delay until March 10th. The waiting and not knowing is perhaps the hardest part. Not knowing if I will eventually be sent away, if my girlfriend and I will part ways and never see each other again, is something nobody mentally prepares you for. The mind wanders as you contemplate your fate. Many of our friends and loved ones are in the same boat.

I’ve received word that my father has taken up arms and headed to the front lines to resist the invasion. His patriotism moves me, but the thought that he could be mowed down in the face of overwhelming firepower is too much to bear. We have too much to discuss. I need his advice for the future, and I want him to be there for my wedding and the birth of his grandchildren.

While I feel no pressure to prioritize my work, I find solace in occupying my mind with something familiar, so I have been doing what I can while I wait. I know I am not as productive as I was before Putin unleashed his hell. Nevertheless, I find that doing my job not only focuses my thoughts but also reminds me that there is good in the world.

But then my thoughts wander to the atrocities my friends and fellow Ukrainians are suffering. I see on my university friend’s social media that her town in northern Ukraine has been overrun. She says that Russian soldiers are committing war crimes.

As I write this, we are hidden in a small place that belongs to my friend’s parents. Though we are not on the front lines, we are trying to draw attention to the situation inside Ukraine in our own way. Russian propaganda attempts to hide the horrors of what’s happening in our country from Russian citizens. This is an information war, and we are fighting back with truth.

Until things change, this is where we will be and this is what we will do. We only hope that one day we can return to the life that we had been building before it was so abruptly torn away from us — and that when we do, we can piece our dreams for our future back together.

Alex Filipas is head of design at the creative nonprofit Arts Help

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