60-hour odyssey: Vietnamese family escapes from Ukraine

By Phan Duong   March 8, 2022 | 09:55 pm PT
Nguyen Thi Hong's family fled Kharkiv on March 2, leaving everything that they had worked for 24 years to accumulate.

They only took some clothes and walked out of the apartment where they had lived for 15 years late one night.

"The apartment was dark since electricity was cut off. When we walked down the stairways, we also saw other families heading down to flee," Hong, 50, said.

Over the past week the city of Kharkiv has been subject to shelling and airstrikes, forcing 40,000 people to evacuate.

The couple, originally from the northern Thai Nguyen Province, after spending decades there, never imagined the city would one day be engulfed in bombs and shells.

Nguyen Thi Hong and her husband celebrate 2022 Lunar New Year in their apartment in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Hong

Nguyen Thi Hong and her husband celebrate the 2022 Lunar New Year in their apartment in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Hong

Hong said a week earlier her husband Thang awoke one day at 5 a.m. and yelled, "The war has begun!"

She didn't believe him at first, thinking he'd been watching too much war news recently. When she looked out of the window however she was astounded to see the leaves covered in dust and the walls trembling now and then.

Since 2014 there had been some fighting between government troops and separatists, but it was not too serious, and her family was unconcerned and did not remotely think about evacuating.

In the days that followed the shelling and airstrikes became ferocious.

During the day they and their 20-year-old son remained at home but at night went down to subway stations to sleep. They tried to stay back because they did not want to give up all the things they had worked so hard to acquire. They were advised to flee by family and friends, but hesitated.

Then, on March 1, the city recorded 24 casualties, and this made the mind up for the family: they would go even if it meant leaving everything behind.

When they arrived at the train station she was surprised by the sea of people.

People were jostling and pushing each other around and there was the sound of children screaming and crying.

People quickly clambered aboard the trains and Hong's family was also in that crowd. But they missed out on the first few trains since they were meant for women and small children first. There have also been numerous confirmed accounts from Human Rights Watch and others about discrimination against non-Ukrainians in evacuation, with foreigners not allowed to board trains and told to form separate queues at various places.

"War is not like in the movies," Hong said.

"Reality is much more fierce and chaotic with scenes of children crying, people fainting, husband and wife separating, trains running, and luggage having to be thrown away."

The couple and their son waited for more than 18 hours before they could get on a train to the capital Kyiv.

Refugees crossing the rail tracks as they try to reach trains to Poland following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. Photo by Reuters

Refugees crossing the rail tracks as they try to reach trains to Poland following Russia’s military attack on Ukraine at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. Photo by Reuters

While usually four people would sit in a cabin, now there were 14 people sitting virtually on top of each other. Even the aisles were packed with people.

The lights were turned off during the journey for safety. On board the train, thousands of people had the same worried faces and panic in their eyes.

It was dark inside while there were occasional flashes of light followed by loud explosions outside. Every time that happened the train would sway and shake.

Hong felt bad for her husband since he had to leave everything behind and for her son who needs only a few months more to graduate from university. Then she worried whether the train would reach its destination.

"There was food, but no one could eat it. My family only had a one-liter bottle of water, so we told each other to just wet our lips to keep our strength up."

At around 9 a.m. the train arrived in Kyiv, and had to wait three hours before continuing on to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. Meanwhile the passengers held their breath because of the sound of bombardments.

Seeing how afraid Hong was, a woman approached her and patted her shoulder, saying, "Stop crying, be tough."

The train then began to head out of the conflict zone. On the night of March 3 it arrived in Lviv, from where people were fleeing in large numbers to neighboring countries like Poland and Hungary.

But Hong's family decided to go to Slovakia, where a close childhood friend of hers waited for them.

Since Russia begun an attack on Ukraine her friend and her husband had been in contact urging them to flee Ukraine and come to Slovakia, promising to take care of them.

A bus operator who knew his family gave Hong's family a ride of more than 400 km to Uzhgorod, a city close to the Slovakia border.

As soon as they crossed the border, Hong's family was welcomed by the Vietnamese Association in Košice.

Meeting compatriots after more than 60 hours of running away from bombs and bullets, the family felt alive again.

Hong said with tears in her eyes: "The temperature was below zero, but the Vietnamese compatriots in Slovakia crossed more than 100 kilometers to the border and waited for three hours to pick us up. They gave my family warm water, food and new sim cards."

According to the latest update from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as of 6 p.m. on March 7 around 2,200 Vietnamese arriving from Ukraine had been picked up by the Vietnamese representative office in Poland.

The numbers were 830 in Romania, 310 in Hungary, more than 100 in Slovakia and around 20 in Russia.

The Vietnamese Association in Slovakia said it has received 60 Vietnamese so far. On the night of March 4 alone 22 had come from Ukraine, including Hong's family.

"Many people in Ukraine don't know there is a border with Slovakia and that our group is here waiting to pick them up," Than Trung Son, one of the members of the association, said.

Vietnamese Association in Košice in Slovakia picks up Hong and her son (L)  March 4, 2022. Photo courtesy of Than Trung Son

Vietnamese Association in Košice in Slovakia picks up Hong and her son (L) March 4, 2022. Photo courtesy of Than Trung Son

Hong's family went to Son's home to rest. After feeding them a Vietnamese meal, he told her, "If you want to stay here or go to another country, or return to Vietnam, we can help."

Her family said their destination was the town of Komárno where her friend's family lived, and Son took them to the railway station to go to Budapest, the capital of Hungary, and then head to Komárno.

At the final destination they were welcomed by her friend's family with hugs and tears.

Hong said: "At first, my husband and I were worried because we had little contact with them for more than 30 years. Only when facing such a difficult situation did we know we had such a good friend."

Since they left everything behind, they have little money. In the past few days they have been helped by their friends and other Vietnamese in Slovakia to make ends meet.

They plan to apply for asylum in Slovakia and work as laborers while their son could find a job.

On the evening of March 7, when she called one of her old neighbors in Ukraine, Hong received news that 50 houses in their neighborhood had collapsed and there were mourning everywhere.

This neighbor lives alone far away from her children, and Hong told her to go to her house and get food from the fridge to eat.

But the woman said, "I left the dry food behind so your family will have something to eat when you come back in the next few days."

Her words made Hong choke, but she did not dare say the family had fled 3,000 km from Kharkiv, and she did not know if they could return home and see her again.

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