Diary of Ukraine: Waterville area native Scott Ewing shares experience of evacuating to Poland with family as Russia begins its invasion of Ukraine

(Editor’s Note: The following information was shared from a diary of events written by Waterville area native Scott Ewing, a 1980 graduate of Waukon High School and the son of Jerry and Anna Marie Ewing of rural Waterville. The sharing of the diary excerpts was made possible by Kevin Welsh of Waukon, who is a former neighbor, long-time friend and is in consistent contact with Ewing during the current historic experience of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the evacuation of Ewing and his family to Poland.)

My name is Scott Ewing. My wife, Natasha, and I have been living and working in Ukraine for the past year.We recently were forced to evacuate.Below I have written a diary outlining some of the details of our lives over the past couple of weeks in Ukraine. I am giving you this information in hopes that our experiences will bring the war going on in Ukraine closer to home for U.S. citizens and make it more personal to everyone.

Saturday, February 12Today, my wife, Natasha, and I decided to move to the village of Tsentralne, Ukraine. Tsentralne is a village where Natasha and her siblings grew up, and we felt we would be safe in the countryside. We had been living in Kyiv since early January after spending several months in the port city of Odessa, and we wanted to move closer to family located south of Kyiv.

So, we packed our belongings - eight suitcases, backpacks, food - and organized a taxi service to move us 120 kilometers south. We unpacked our belongings in the bedroom at Natasha’s sister’s home and planned to wait until diplomacy worked in deescalating the threatening situation building between Ukraine and Russia.

All month the U.S. embassy has been sending out warnings of imminent attacks on Ukraine, and highly recommended that all U.S. citizens evacuate Ukraine immediately. Most embassy staff and family members have already evacuated Ukraine, but several continued to work in Kyiv.

Sunday, February 13News came from the U.S. embassy this morning that all remaining embassy staff were being ordered to relocate to the western city of Lviv due to the ever-increasing threat of an imminent invasion from Russia.We were already getting nervous about the situation, thus the move to the countryside, and now out of caution we made the decision to move west to Lviv.

We discussed with all our family members that we decided to move to Lviv, and asked them to go with us, but at that time they all kept telling us they did not believe anything was going to happen, and that we were silly to even think about going.

Our niece, Liyla, who is six months pregnant, agreed with us and said she wanted go. We bought train tickets for the three of us, organized an apartment in Lviv, packed three suitcases of essential clothing, some food for the train ride and organized a taxi to take us to the train station in Myronivka, Ukraine, which was scheduled to depart at 6:00 a.m. Sunday.

Monday, February 14Lilya, Natasha and I arrived in Lviv this morning and took a taxi to our apartment. The plan is to wait out the diplomacy going on with Russia and Ukraine. We hope that we will be able to return to our Kyiv apartment soon. Today is the second time we have moved in as many days.Apartments here in Lviv have doubled in price as more and more people move from the capital to Lviv. Ours consists of two bedrooms and a kitchen. It is really great to have Lilya with us, but we wish the rest of our family had listened to us and joined us here. We certainly are nervous, but we continue to work, take our daily walk and try to enjoy the beauty of Lviv.

Thursday, February 24About two weeks ago we moved from Kyiv to the village my wife is from, which is situated about 120 kilometers south of Kyiv in a place near Myronivka, Ukraine, in a village called Tsentralne. The U.S. government has long been advising U.S. citizens to get out of the country, but Natasha and I decided that we are not leaving until it is absolutely necessary. We moved Saturday, February 12, 2022 and that day the U.S. embassy in Kyiv moved to Lviv, Ukraine.

This morning we were woken at 5:00 a.m. by a phone call from Tanya, Natasha’s sister. Tanya informed us that Kyiv was being bombed and that the war had started. The adrenaline immediately shot through our bodies, we jumped out of bed and started throwing our belongings into suitcases. We gave Lilya the job of locating a taxi, Natasha packed our clothes, and I tore down my office equipment. Within an hour we were walking out the front door to wait for the taxi, which Lilya had organized via one of the many apps available.

As we walked out the front door of the apartment, the air raid sirens were going off and there was a lot of activity in the city. Directly across the street the line at the ATM machine already had 50 to 75 people waiting to draw money. A Japanese news crew on the corner was videoing all the activity going on.

Our taxi finally showed up and we loaded all our belongings - three big suitcases, two backpacks and a grocery bag of leftovers and water - into the taxi and we prepared to leave. The app Lilya used to order the taxi required a destination to where we wanted to go. Our plan was to go to Krakovets, Ukraine at one of the five or six border crossings between Ukraine and Poland, and that is where Lilya indicated on the app.

But, when the taxi driver asked us where we wanted to go, the feeling of shock was obvious on our faces.We told the driver we needed to go to Krakovets, but he informed us that his company does not allow him to leave Lviv. We tried to convince him to take us, but he told us he would lose his job if he left the city.

Down the street another taxi driver stood on the road smoking a cigarette.Natasha approached him to ask if he would be willing to take us to Krakovets. He had been working all night long and was waiting for his wife, who had also been working all night. Natasha finally was able to convince the couple, Igor and Ruslana, to take us to the border.Igor’s car was a very old soviet, two door Lada and we were only able to put one suitcase in the trunk. So, Natsha, Lilya and I sat in the back seat with two suitcases, backpacks and food laid across our laps.

Igor and Ruslana live in a small town somewhere between Lviv and Krakovets.Igor called his father, instructing him to bring their minivan to the village center. His plan was to move everything from the car to the van, so that we had more room to sit. We met Igor’s father about 30 minuets into our journey to the border. Traffic was already very busy and difficult to get around. Military vehicles were moving east already, and by this time we were all very nervous.

We took off for the border, but Igor said that we needed to find diesel fuel as he would not make it with the amount of fuel in his tank. All the gas stations we came to had very long lines already. By this time it was about 8:30 a.m., and the situation on the street was that of panic. We were finally forced to stop at a station for fuel, but the line was about two or three kilometers long.We knew it would be hours before we would be able to get fuel.

Natasha and Lilya had to go to the bathroom so they decided to walk to the station. While at the station, they asked two boys attending the pumps if there was any diesel fuel to buy. They informed that diesel fuel was almost gone and Natasha told them that we desperately needed diesel fuel.The two boys went to the cashier and argued that they needed to sell us fuel to get a pregnant woman out of the country.

Igor, Ruslana and I had been waiting for Natasha and Lilya, and we were relieved when we saw them walking back with 12 liters of diesel fuel. We dumped it in the tank and were off for the border. Only four hours into our evacuation we had already met four people who absolutely went out of their way to help us.

We arrived at the Ukraine/Polish border around 10:30/11:00 a.m. The line of vehicles was about three kilometers long. Igor told us that he was unable to wait to get us up to the border crossing as he and his wife were tired from working all night and they had to get some sleep. So, we unpacked our belongings from the van and decided that we would walk to the border.

At this point we truly felt like refugees. Suitcases, backpacks and food in hand, we started down the road with our pregnant niece, Lilya, zigzagging between cars, trucks and people, which seemed to be everywhere. We walked about halfway to the border crossing and decided to take a rest.

Natasha and I were standing there talking in English, discussing what we would do if the border guards would not let Lilya pass through. We were concerned because Lilya had no passport and only had her Ukrainian ID with her. All of a sudden, a man approached us and began speaking to us in English. He asked us if we spoke English and if we needed his help.

Reiner Schwarzenbach, a retired university teacher, had been in Ukraine during the previous two weeks.He was in Ukraine attending an intensive Russian language course and now on his way home to Berlin.We told Reiner what we were attempting to do, and he generously offered that we put our bags in his van and he would take us across the border.

Diary of Ukraine: Waterville area native Scott Ewing shares experience of evacuating to Poland with family as Russia begins its invasion of Ukraine

At this point, I contacted the U.S. consular informing them where we were, and that we were planning on crossing the border at Krakovets. The consular officer informed me that the U.S. government had a welcome center set up in the town of Medyka about 40 kilometers south of Krakovets.Our plan was to go there to spend the night in a hotel set up by the U.S. government.

Several hours passed by the time we reached the Ukrainian side of the border crossing. The border guard approached our vehicle and we gave him our passports along with Lilya’s Ukrainian ID card. Upon seeing Lilya’s ID card, the border guard informed us that she would not be allowed to leave the country as she did not have a passport.

The look in Lilya’s face was that of complete horror. She was convulsing with fear, but I told her not to worry, we were not going anywhere without her.

We argued with the border guard asking if he expected us to send her back to Kyiv with the bombing going on. This went on for 15 minutes or so and finally the guard said that he would call his superiors. After several minutes the guard came back to us and told us that they were contacting the Polish border guards to confirm if they were accepting refugees without passports, and that if a positive response came back from the Polish side they would allow Lilya across. To our relief, the Polish side indeed agreed and we quickly jumped back in Reiner’s vehicle and moved closer to the border crossing.

We slowly moved to the Polish border crossing, finally arrived and started the documentation process of allowing Lilya to enter Poland. Reiner had not realized that Lilya was without a passport, but even once he realized what was going on, his only comment was that this is just an “adventure” for him and that he was in no hurry to get home. After two or three more hours we finally got across the border, and Lilya just broke down in tears as she realized she was free.

During the processing of Lilya’s documentation for refugee entrance to Poland, we were informed that she would be required to obtain a Ukrainian passport within 15 days of entrance. Hearing this news I realized that our plan to go to Medyka and the U.S. welcome center would need to change.We would have to get to a Ukrainian embassy right away, so I knew we would have to get to Warsaw as soon as possible. So, upon crossing the Polish border, I asked our newfound friend Reiner if he could take us to Warsaw. His only reply was, “why not, as I said, this is just an adventure for me”.

Off we went heading for Warsaw. Along the way I made hotel arrangements at a hotel Natasha and I stayed during a vacation we took to Poland. We arrived at Hotel Reytan late in the night, Reiner, Natasha and I had a beer to try to relax a bit.We bid Reiner a good night and that was the last we saw of him, but before going to bed we let him know that we will be forever indebted to him and that some day we will drink a beer together in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Friday, February 25Today, part of our family in Ukraine has decided to evacuate Ukraine. Natasha’s sister Zina, her pregnant daughter Julia, Julia’s daughter Polina, Julia’s sister-in-law Vita and her son Timofe will leave this morning. Julia and Vita’s husbands, Roman and Vitaly, are bringing them to the Medyka border crossing. Roman and Vitaly will return to Tsentralne to join the Territorial Defense of Ukraine.

We are very worried about the travels, and what will meet them at the border. Yesterday, we crossed the border at Krakovets, and already a line of cars several kilometers long was present.We heard that today the line is around 34 kilometers.

Saturday, February 26Today we packed our belongings to move from Hotel Reytan in Warsaw, Poland, to Hotel Anton in Pruszkov, Poland in anticipation of meeting up with Zina, Julia, Polina, Vita and Timofe, who will arrive tonight. They have been at the Ukrainian/Polish border at Medyka for over 30 hours and will be met by Julia’s father-in-law to bring them to Pruszkov.

Sunday, February 27Zina, Lilya, Natasha and I continue to look for an apartment in hopes of getting out of the expensive hotel living. We try to maintain a positive attitude but with loved ones so far away this is proving difficult to maintain. We try to think of happier times, but this only brings more tears. The feeling of helplessness is everywhere, and at this point we really don’t know where to turn.

The hotel staff are trying to assist as best they can. Tonight we had our first meal as a reunited family. Ten of us in a one room apartment, and although very cramped quarters, we are all so grateful to be together.

Monday, February 28Emotions and anxiety are running high as we continue to search for housing. We have friends here in Poland looking, as well as one of the hotel staff - Ukrainian woman - who has been working and living in the hotel for eight years! She recently brought her children here from Ukraine to be with her.

Our family and friends in Kyiv and Odessa are holed up in basements as the war begins to surround them.One of Lilya’s friends is in a basement with her husband and infant child with very little food and water. We were able to send them some money from our Ukrainian debit card so that they could attempt to go out on the streets and find food and water.

Tuesday, March 1Today we left Hotel Anton in Pruszkov, Poland. If I remember correctly, this is the fourth or fifth time since February 12 we have packed our belongings and moved to a new location. Certainly not the last, I am sure. Emotions are running very high.The humanitarian help in Poland has found an apartment we can move in to in the suburbs of Warsaw. We are excited to get ourselves in to an apartment.

Wednesday, March 2Today was the first day since February 24, 2022 that our family here in Warsaw, Poland felt some relief from the stress over the past week’s events. Julia and Lilya started to organize all the infant clothes and goods given to them in preparation to give birth in Poland.

We stay in constant contact with our family in Ukraine. Each night in the village the lights must be turned off. We are relieved that all our relatives in the village have plenty of food and water. Zina’s work last year gardening and canning is paying off now for all the family. The Ukrainian volunteers here in Warsaw continue writing to Lilya asking if there is anything we need.Last night we celebrated Zina’s birthday. Julia, Polina, Vita, Timofe, Glya and Peter came over and we had borsch, some salad and a birthday cake. It was a pleasant evening with the family here.

Thursday, March 3Today our Polish friends have organized for a mid-wife and a translator to come to our apartment tonight to talk with us about Lilya’s pregnancy and how the process of helping with this will take place.

We are very grateful for all the assistance Poland has provided for Ukraine’s refugees. Zina, Natasha and Lilya are starting a general cleaning of the apartment and preparing for a long stay in Poland. Lilya is planning to never leave Poland and will wait until her husband Anton can join her someday.

Over the coming days, we will be looking for employment for Zina and her husband Sasha, who will be joining in the nearest days.He has been working in Czech Republic for the past several months but will now be looking for employment in Poland.

Natasha and I continue looking for our own apartment to free up space here for Zina, Lilya, Sasha and soon to be born, Dasha.This is proving to be difficult given the number of refugees coming to Poland, which is currently estimated at over 600,000. Overall, it is estimated 1,000,000 have fled Ukraine to date.

Today is one week since we evacuated Lviv. The stress continues to mount but we are making some progress.

The other half of our family here in Poland - six people - are currently living in a one-room apartment. The space they live in is about four yards by four yards, with two foldable beds, kitchen and toilet. Tensions here are running high and we desperately need to correct this situation in the nearest future.

Friday, March 4Today we received news that in the morning we can look at three apartments. We hope to be successful so that we can free up space for others to move into this apartment. Refugee population now stands at 1,200,000 and the EU is expecting up to 10,000,000 within months.

The war is really starting to get out of hand, and Odessa is bracing for an onslaught in the coming days. Everyone is very worried.