“It was a nightmare”: An Ethiopian family tells of their escape from Ukraine

In less than a month, the war in Ukraine has already forced millions of people to flee their homes. Here is the story of an Ethiopian family from Kharkiv who managed to reach Germany.

It is 4:30 am on February 24, 2022 in Kyiv. Bethlehem Girma, a Ukrainian-born Ethiopian Jew, cannot sleep. His hands are sweaty. She senses that something is wrong. Unfortunately, their intuition will not deceive them.

In the distance his sirens begin to ring, louder and louder. Bethlehem immediately understands what that means. Russian soldiers arrive.

“Luckily I was awake because the first thing I did was call my parents. My family lives very close to the border and the Russian tanks could have reduced their house to rubble,” he said.

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His parents’ house is on the outskirts of Kharkiv, just 35 kilometers from the Russian border. Her father, 60, is a dermatologist. Her mother is a veterinarian. Her two younger sisters have a music group, Fosho, for which Bethlehem, 33, writes songs.

Kharkiv is now one of the most heavily bombed cities since the Russian invasion began on February 24.

Countries bordering Ukraine host the most displaced people |  Photo: Emilio Morenatti/Picture Alliance
Countries bordering Ukraine host the most displaced people | Photo: Emilio Morenatti/Picture Alliance

Around 500 kilometers separate the capital Kyiv from Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city in eastern Ukraine.

On the phone, Bethlehem follows his family’s escape live as they head for the train station. The streets are already crowded. You will arrive at the train station around 6:30 am. Religious and very polite, his parents would likely indulge others, Bethlehem says. Seconds become minutes and minutes become hours. At 4 p.m., the family is still waiting at the train station.

“They couldn’t get on the train while the bombs started raining down and Russian soldiers were shooting,” Bethlehem recalls. “Some people died in front of my parents.”

The hardest part, she stresses, was teaching her parents that they had to stand up to the crowd.

The family eventually boards a train to Lviv in western Ukraine near the Polish border. Like most other passengers, they begin their journey standing. The cars are crowded. “God sent people who gave up their place when they saw that my parents were old. They respected her,” says Bethlehem. The train journey takes 16 hours.

Orthodox Church of St. Sophia in Kyiv, a temple of the Orthodox religion |  Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Orthodox Church of St. Sophia in Kyiv, a temple of the Orthodox religion | Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images


There is a disgusting smell on the train. The toilets are overflowing, the water has run into the cars. But no one seems to care, the only goal is to reach the Polish border.

As the train approaches Kyiv, information circulates about the first bombings near the capital. “It was a nightmare. When they got to Kyiv, I trembled to hear that the Kiev railway station was being bombed by the Russians. I had a panic attack.”

Bethlehem is desperate to reach her family. Nobody answers. Neither his parents nor his sisters. Six hours later she finally gets a call back. All passengers had turned off their phones. Even the train lights had been turned off to be less visible to the Russian army. Instead of 16 hours, the journey to Lemberg finally takes 26 hours.

In Lemberg, friends from Bethlehem picked up the family and brought them to the border with Poland. From there a new long and tiring journey begins, this time on foot and despite the winter cold.

The highway to Odessa

Alone in her apartment in Kyiv, Bethlehem hears the news. His family arrived in Warsaw. It’s been ages since she’s eaten anything. At this point, she cannot imagine that the Russians will stay in Ukraine for long. It will be around ten days before he accepts the new reality. The conflict continues to spread, the war will remain.

Also for reading: Ukraine Take Shelter, a platform that helps Ukrainian refugees find temporary shelter

Bethlehem calls a friend who offers to meet her at her place. She only takes a small bag, two sweaters, two pants and some documents, especially for her sisters. Hardly has a cab pulled her out of her house when Bethlehem learns that Russian soldiers have begun bombing her neighborhood.

The sound of guns also grips her friend’s neighborhood. The two women then decide to set off by car. Their goal is to reach Odessa in southern Ukraine. “It was the longest ten hours of my life. We were on the freeway and didn’t know where the soldiers would strike. We thought these people were only interested in military installations, but in reality they bombed everywhere, without mercy. They hit hospitals, kindergartens, homes,” Bethlehem said. Her friend’s apartment in Kyiv was hit by a rocket.

Residents of Kyiv prepare Molotov cocktails |  Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/Picture Alliance
Residents of Kyiv prepare Molotov cocktails | Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/Picture Alliance

Bethlehem eventually left Ukraine with the aim of joining Stuttgart in southern Germany. “These three days of travel to Stuttgart were so long and stressful. Before leaving we had slept little more than ten days. You can imagine how fragile our health was during those three extra days on the road. I have never seen so many tanks in my life, so many soldiers, so many destroyed places. I have never had to go through such an ordeal in my life.”

Also for reading: War in Ukraine, a German tour operator became a development worker

“They are tearing down my city. I hear that and see the pictures every night. I still have friends there. A lot of people, my teachers, my school, my university, it’s all there – and they’re destroying it.”

Bethlehem has already lost friends who died in that war. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now. It’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen to us. It’s hard to predict the future. I don’t know how the next second will be.”

Author: Tobore Ovuorie

Source: dw.com

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