“So Much Tragedy”: One family’s story of fleeing Russia’s war in Ukraine

Tatiana Poladko recounts her family's journey from Kyiv to Warsaw after Russia invades Ukraine

Tatiana Poladko (left), her husband Atnre Alleyne, and their three children outside St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv, not long before they left the west Ukrainian city to seek safety in Poland. Photo provided by the family.

The Russian war in Ukraine has caused millions to flee, sparking one of the worst refugee crises since WWII. More than half have arrived into neighboring Poland. KPFA reporter Jehlen Herdman spoke to one woman who fled with her family from Ukraine and into Warsaw.

Tatiana Poladko is a mother of three, who grew up in Ukraine. I first met her in 2015 in Delaware, when I babysat for her first child, Zoryana. Then, less than a year ago, she and her family moved back to Ukraine. 

The Russian army launched an attack against Ukraine on February 24th, which included missile attacks on major cities. At that time, Tatiana and her family were living about 20 minutes away from downtown Kyiv.

I called Tatiana up by phone on March 7 to find out how she was doing. By then, she and her family had fled to Krakow, Poland, where they were staying in a hotel. 

“Literally overnight everything changed.” – Tatiana Poladko, Ukrainian refugee

“So Thursday, February 24th, when I jumped out of bed because of an explosion that I heard and that shook the house – I mean, I’ll never forget that feeling.

“It happened like next to our house. Apparently it happened in Kyiv, which is a few kilometers away.

“It was just like a moment of sheer, sheer fear. You know the fear I had experienced over the past twelve days is the fear I never knew existed.”

Tatiana and her husband, Atnre, gave up their car shortly after arriving in Ukraine. And now they needed to get out of an active war zone with a family of six: Tatiana, her husband Atnre, their three kids, ages 2, 3 and 7, and Tatiana’s 81 year old father, who was recovering from a severe case of COVID-19. At that time, right after the Russian invasion, transportation in Kyiv was quickly overrun by people trying to flee the violence. Finally, Tatiana arranged a ride with a fellow parent from her children’s daycare. Two families piled into one car. 

The road was empty at first, which was great, but also eerie. She was speeding very, very fast. At different times would hear explosions. At different times we heard just like a gun, you know, a bunch of gun shootings, and she was not stopping at traffic lights. And we’re like, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.

“At one point we turned on the road, and there were two cars in front of us and everybody kind of pulled over. She couldn’t see yet what was going on, but she kind of hit the brakes. And there was a tank right ahead. 

“All three of these cars, including us, we were sitting there. That’s the road we have to take right where we are at. Do we drive towards the tank? Is that an Ukrainian tank? Is it a Russian tank? What is going to happen?”

“There was a tank right ahead.”

“But then to our greatest, greatest, greatest happiness, the tank turned into the woods… And so she sped through there.”

Traveling by car and then by train, the family eventually made their way to Lviv, a city in Eastern Ukraine. From there, they found a group of volunteers at the train station who were driving people to the Polish border. One agreed to take Tatiana’s family.

“He tried his very, very best to get us as close as possible to where the pedestrian crossing could be. We couldn’t really even tell like how far it was, where we ended. But a certain point, it was just like bumper to bumper and not moving for an hour. And so we were like, all right, we’re going to go.

“And little did I realize that we were nowhere even close to the pedestrian crossing. And I was like, Jesus, we will have to walk for miles. And so all of these people start walking. Some elderly woman fell, you know. Other people are picking her up. Older folks with their canes, kids, mommies with newborns.

“It was just a really painful sight to see mostly women, women and children. But there were some families where their husbands were still there. But we saw… people not knowing if they’re going to see each other again. Just so much tragedy, so much, so much tragedy.

“I cry easy these days, you know, cried there the whole time. Just people packing a suitcase, a small suitcase their entire life, and just like left.”

So the family, Tatiana carrying her two-year old child with her husband and father carrying the family’s luggage, and their two other children, walked for hours… through the border and into Poland. They made their way to Krakow and checked into a hotel. That’s where they were when I spoke to Tatiana. I asked her how her family’s doing now.

“We are much better than we were. But we are in a hotel right now and cannot be in a hotel forever. So, you know, decisions, decisions, decisions, figuring out what to do next. 

“Yesterday I was looking for schools for the kids, thinking we’ll ride out the rest of the school year here, but was not getting much luck finding apartments, you know, any type of suitable housing. I’m in Warsaw, which has such a high number of Ukrainians now. Today, I was thinking like maybe we should keep moving. So I’m still kind of giving Warsaw another try, but might need to, to keep it moving to get somewhere where we can settle for for at least a few months.”

Tatiana is one of 3 million refugees who fled Ukraine into other countries in the last 3 weeks. And who are now waiting to see what comes next. The mayor of Warsaw warned recently that the city is struggling to accommodate the number of refugees. The UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimated that the number of Ukrainian refugees could reach 4 million.

Reported by Jehlen Herdman

First aired on UpFront on March 17, 2022

Tatiana is currently raising funds to support local aid efforts via Cash App ($UkraineLeadersFund) or Venmo (@Tatiana-Poladko).