'Cities are turning to dust' - one man's story as his family flees Ukraine

Ruslan fled the city of Kharkov as it was bombed by Russian forces

Ruslan fled the city of Kharkov as it was bombed by Russian forces - Credit: Supplied

Herts Ad columnist Mike Joiner tells the story of his friend Ruslan, who left his home in Ukraine to escape the Russian attacks.

I first met Ruslan while he was on vacation with his mother at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh.

She was a lovely lady and he was the polite and respectful 18-year-old son enjoying one last vacation before his national service. He wanted to improve his English and so we soon become friends.  

I've kept in contact with Ruslan over the last six or seven years. He now has a beautiful wife Anastasia and an 18-month-old son Artem. 

When I came up with the idea of telling Ruslan’s story I couldn’t have imagined the ordeals he and his family would endure.

It became evident very soon that questions and answers weren't going to work. He really struggles talking about the horrible things he’s experienced. Its all very fresh and raw. It takes time for the brain to assess all these emotions. For now his only agenda is to take his family somewhere safe.

After chatting with Ruslan it was decided the best way forward was to let him tell his own story. I have added some information that Ruslan had already told me. Apart from that this is his story. 

Ruslan told his friend Mike Joiner of his experiences in Ukraine

Ruslan told his friend Mike Joiner of his experiences in Ukraine - Credit: Supplied

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One country, one pistol and one truth

I’m 26 years old and was born in the town of Mykolaiv about 100 kilometres NE of Odessa. Still my parents' home town. Fortunately they are safe. 

For 10 years I’ve lived in the beautiful city of Kharkov where I met my wife. 

With Kharkov being so close to the Russian border it went through many battles during WWll, ending with it being under Russian control. After independence with the collapse of the iron curtain we believed we’d seen the last of any battles or invasions. 

Families are desperately fleeing Ukraine

Families are desperately fleeing Ukraine - Credit: Supplied

That all changed on February 24. I received a call from a friend at 5am. He lives on the outskirts of the city close to the airport. He’d heard explosions and was in no doubt of the cause. Russian rockets had targeted many strategic sites all across Ukraine.

I searched the internet and found Putin’s appeal to his people about the start of his “special operation”. Russia had invaded our sovereign state.

Cities in Ukraine have been under attack from Russian bombs

Cities in Ukraine have been under attack from Russian bombs - Credit: Supplied

Ukraine’s second city of Kharkov was the first to come under heavy attack with rockets and cluster bombs. It felt like Hitler's Blitzkrieg.  Over 70 innocent people died in that first cluster bomb attack. A rocket attack in Freedom Square killed many more.

Being only two kilometres from home we felt the impact. Being so close to the Russian border we were an easy and quick target. The bombing was non-stop night and day. From day two we heard Russian soldiers in our street during darkness. 

Ruslan and his family are fleeing their home in Kharkov

Ruslan and his family are fleeing their home in Kharkov - Credit: Supplied

We are living in terrible times when millions can die and the world will never be the same again. Why? Because of one psychopath who reminds the world he has nuclear weapons. He has scared the rest of the world to do nothing, only sanctions. For us this is not enough. Every day over 1,000 people die. Children, ordinary citizens and of course our brave military defenders. 

Kharkov has come under attack from Russian forces

Kharkov has come under attack from Russian forces - Credit: Supplied

On Wednesday, March 2 a sad day has come. The time has come to say goodbye to our city and escape the increasing attacks. A group of friends are joining us. A convoy of five vehicles. We must continue our journey. Our very slow journey. The further west we go the slower our journey becomes. More and more vehicles join the exodus. For much of the time our vehicles are at a standstill. Days and nights blur together as our tiredness grows. I’m so glad that my little boy has no understanding of what is really happening. 

Putin in his interviews thinks that Ukraine is not an independent country and wants his territory back to what it was during the Soviet Union. He claims that our country was not free and ruled by neo-Nazis. He is disillusioned and our president and the freedom we have doesn’t suit his plans. 

Kharkov came under attack from Russian bombs

Kharkov came under attack from Russian bombs - Credit: Supplied

As I write this our never ending journey continues. 

Every hour of every day we learn of more rocket attacks. Every day on our journey we hear rockets land. Sometimes in the distance and sometimes very close. Indiscriminate attacks on schools, hospitals and civilian homes. We pass by the destruction daily. Shocking scenes. Many so horrible I could not look.

Putin’s goal is to induce fear. Things are not going to plan. He didn’t take into account what a proud nation we are. What a strong nation we are. Because of this he is willing to pay any price to accomplish his goal. 

There’s also another war going on. The information war. I have many Russian friends and my friends have parents all of whom believe we need liberation. But still the majority have no idea of what is really going on so don’t want the situation to change. It’s not their cities being bombed and it’s not their mothers and children dying. 

Many of my friends went to fight to protect our country. Unfortunately, a week  ago I learnt that two friends had died fighting. Friends I’ve had since childhood. One of them has left a little daughter. My mourning will have to wait. Our journey west continues. 

My friend and I try to support the families of my fallen friends and to our friends who still fight on the front line. Like myself most no longer have jobs. A very difficult situation. There are a few stores that are open but with very little stock. This means what is left is much more expensive. 

Cities are turning to dust. What homes are left have no electricity, no heating and even no water. People are scared and leaving their homes. All this contributing to more traffic on the road. Roads that are becoming more like car parks. The real war has many colours. 

We left Kharkov on March 2. It was far too dangerous and all I had to protect my family is a pistol. I’m so happy we did this when we did. On the evening of the 2nd I received a call from a friend who was still in Kharkov. Her news was devastating. Our street and apartment was caught in an attack. Our windows blown out and the interior wrecked.

The next few days was very difficult. More so for Anastasia. So many episodes of crying. I told her the most important thing is that we are alive and healthy. Even after two weeks we see our city as lovely and beautiful. I believe that one day we will rebuild our cities and make them more beautiful than before. We will do this for all of Ukraine. But to do this we need the skies closed. 

Our long, tedious journey continues. 

As I’m writing I look on news and receive call from my mum who lives in Mykolaiv. Today (Monday) I learn Russian troops attacked and occupied the city. 

I don’t know what will happen next or how we will live. I know that we are strong and we will deal with everything. 

I want one thing. To see my family living happily and in peace in Ukraine. 

Finally we have made it close to the border but I have a worry that makes my whole body ache with fear. If things continue to get worse I will have to send my wife and son over the border to safety. At least then she will get support from international charities. Aid that we have seen nothing of on our very long journey.  I’ve had military training so won’t be able to cross with them. I will stay and fight to save our beautiful country that is Ukraine.

It is sad that in the west you have only seen the destruction caused in larger cities. Our journey across the Ukraine we see smaller towns with even more destruction. Places western journalists haven’t been able to reach. 

I thank my friend Mike for the opportunity to share my story and for all his support. 

If you are in a position to directly help Ruslan and help him help others email Mike Joiner at mjfj1965@me.com