Mar 1 • 13M

Dispatches from Ukraine: Chat from Kyiv

Hollie is back in Ukraine. In this episode, we talk about the journey back to the city and how the country has changed since she was there only two weeks ago.

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Welcome to another dispatch, this time from Ukraine by Hollie McKay.

Holly you were in Ukraine a couple of weeks ago left and came back to the United States and now you're back in in Kyiv. Tell us a little bit about that journey in terms of how you got back there.

Yeah Dennis, so I spent a couple of weeks here. Obviously, doing a lot of reporting, going to Donbass. There was a lot of anticipation that an invasion may happen, but as weeks started to wear on, I think people generally sort of felt that it just really seemed impossible. It seemed like such a draconian thing that that for no reason would happen.

Then, it did last week and we're now in the sixth day of the war. I think it came as a shock for a lot of us who have been studying this particular region. So, with that I knew I needed to come back. It was such an important story. You know, probably one of the most pivotal stories that I have covered, or will cover in my career as a war reporter.

So, I boarded a flight to Budapest and then from Budapest I was able to find somebody there to drive me to a small town where I was able to help a few refugees. 

You know, I didn't know anybody.  I stepped in it. Judged it. It was a little bit uncomfortable. Then, very randomly, just through a friend of a friend, somebody said they could pick me up from the border. It was a journey that should have taken about eight hours. It took me almost twenty hours.

So, I crossed.  I walked across the border in Hungary into Ukraine. You know the opposite way to where all the women and children were fleeing and took this journey over a day without stopping.

Because of the safety situation, we didn't go on main roads because of the chance of those being bombed.

So, we had to really go through these back roads and villages, and we weren't allowed to drive with our lights on because it was curfew and we were driving, so there was a risk that our car could be shot at.

I will say it was one of the few times in my life where it was actually really beneficial to be to be a woman and to be driving with an amazing woman driver, who was sort of just like an angel. She and I and another girl came with us for part of the journey.

We probably crossed around forty or so checkpoints. We were lucky enough to be to be waved through because we weren't seen as a threat.

A lot of these checkpoints through neighborhoods were not official checkpoints. They were just basically people setting up their own little unofficial checkpoint to make sure they knew who was coming into their neighborhood.

As you started to get closer to Kyiv, that's when you could really tell things were getting serious because you started to see a lot more of a of a military buildup and men just hiding behind sandbags.

It was snowing and you really couldn't see in front of you. So, all you'd see was this flash of light and you knew that there was a checkpoint. So, you turned the car lights off and we would just turn our interior light on. Then you follow the instructions in stopping and going.

It was an incredibly weird experience because everybody had to turn all the lights off; so, it was just, you're in absolute darkness the entire way and barely passing anyone on the road.

It was just a dramatically different Kyiv to the one that I was here in a couple of weeks ago.

There you go. From hustle and bustle to desolation. You know, I do have to tell you, this one might top the one where you drove back into Afghanistan a few months ago.

I'm kind of with you on that one Dennis. Walking it again. It's such an important story for me. You know me. As a friend, you know I just feel very obliged to tell these stories to the best of my ability. It was too major of a story for me to have to sit out on this one.

So, it was an absolute logistical challenge. Everybody told me that it was not possible to get back into Kyiv given Kyiv was surrounded. But as you can see, I'm in Kyiv right now, right in the city center.

So, I think the reports about it being absolutely surrounded from every direction and not quite accurate, because if I can get in, other people are coming in and out, so there are corridors.

So, that's just to kind of set things straight. We'll see. Right now, there is a large (Russian) convoy heading very close, so it's a daunting time, absolutely.

Speaking of that, now that you are back in the capital of Ukraine, what's the aura? What is what? What does it feel like? How has it changed since the last time you were there only two weeks ago?  What is the on the ground situation that people are worrying about?

Um, I mean it's a ghost town, It's really hard to explain. There's nothing around. I mean we're on curfew right now. Curfew starts at 5:00 PM and goes to about 8:00 AM I believe. And it's just a ghost city, even when it's not on curfew. There are very few cars in the street. You may see a couple of people kind of looking like they're getting a bit of fresh air, but nobody really moving. It's very quiet.

People are sitting in darkness right now. I've got my windows drawn and just my lamp on to evade light. The mood is, I mean, it's dread, that's what it is. It's dread.

People don't know what's going to happen. Ukrainians are incredibly resilient. They're incredibly proud of what their military is doing, and of their president, Zelensky. He's really standing his ground.

But, you know they're facing a much bigger enemy and whilst they're putting up an incredible fight, you know you're looking at Russia, which has endless resources, and now Belarus has joined the fight.

So it's just a dreadful kind of feeling. It's a very unique feeling because none of us really know what is going to happen in over the next, you know, from hour to hour, really.

You know, as you described that, I have to tell you that the feeling I get from your description is one that I have not heard other than reading historical books on what it's like to be in the middle of a city being besieged. You've walked into a siege craft situation.

From the point of view of the resilience, and the resistance that you see is going on. I mean, you went through checkpoints. How do you think the Ukrainian military is doing? What's your feel for that In terms of how long can they hold out? Can you even conjecture about that at this point?

I can't really conjecture about it. Right? I mean nobody thought that they would hold out this long. You know, a lot of the neighboring countries are donating weapons. Zelenskyy lifted restrictions so that people from other countries that want to join the fight can kind of do that with ease.

I mean, even in somewhere like Great Britain, which is typically, puts people in jail if they go to fight, even for the “good side”. Even they, you know, are allowing their citizens to come to Ukraine to join the side. So it's just something very incredible.

Dennis, I didn't think it was the type of war that I thought I would see, you know?  Especially in Europe. Um, really, in my lifetime. And something that is really unprovoked. That's what I think is baffling people.

Russians will really suffer from this regardless of whatever outcome comes out of this war. Russians will, I mean, you can see their economy absolutely crippling. They know they're being kicked out of every little thing from FIFA to world Rugby Russia. Disney's pulled out. Netflix has pulled out. I mean the costs to the Russian people that you know, I'm sure, didn't want to go to war is extremely high. So, this is a huge story that is just sort of ever evolving and we don't know what exactly is going to happen.

But really, it's changed the dynamic of the West, absolutely, and I think, at the end of the day, it's gone counter to what Putin thought. It's really brought NATO together. It's brought the Wests together. It's brought the European Union together.

I mean, even neutral countries, like Switzerland are taking a stand, so it's something very incredible what is happening, and we're looking at a a very different world than we were looking at a week ago.

Yes indeed. So, there you are in the middle of all of that, preparing to report in the unique way that you do, not just about the global situation which you just went over, but also the individual situation.

In closing, tell me, you drove through the countryside with these incredible women. What have you learned about the human aspect of Ukrainians and from the refugees that you have met? Because, I think people will want to know who these people are, where these people are coming from in this desperate hour of theirs.

Sorry, can you repeat that?

I would like you to tell me what have you found in terms of the people that you've met along the way to get here. Their character, their resilience, their drive, their motivation, their fear. Who are these people that that you drove across the country with to get back into Kyiv.

I mean, they're really, you know, they’re women and children, mostly because the men have to stay behind. And of course, there are some exceptions to that; but mostly women and children who just, a lot of the time, they're in western parts of. the country which really aren't under war. But they're so scared that they don't want to wait for the war to get there so they're leaving now. Just very ordinary people, you know? One day they're going to school, going to work, living very normal lives, and the next thing, they're fleeing to European countries and trying to get out, not knowing if they're going to see their husbands or fathers or brothers again. It's a terrifying time, you know?

Mothers are obviously terrified of their sons being taken off to war, and it just is really an emotional time. It shows you the best of people. It shows you the worst of people.

I just want to leave you with one incredible story. We were driving from the Hungarian border and we were picking up prescriptions for people that were in Kyiv because there are no medicines in Kyiv. We had a list of requests from people. We were waiting at a pharmacy to get something.

And you know, one of the girls was reading it off and a man, sort of an elderly man, said who's that list for? And my friend just looked at him and said Kyiv. He just pulled out his wallet and gave us everything that he had in his wallets and said I wish I could give you more.

So, Ukrainians are really just coming together to support each other. You do see the best in humanity

You know what I've also seen is the generosity of the Hungarian people. I mean, it just never ceases to amaze me. It really gives me faith again in humanity despite this darkness.

It does for me too, because again, you know, looking back historically, I don't think Europeans have felt this kind of pressure and this kind of fear since 1939. And they're having to live this nightmare all over again.

Yeah. We'll stay in touch. We’ll do regular updates.

Yes, we look forward to hearing more about what happens in the coming weeks. Thank you very much Hollie and stay safe.

Alright, thanks Dennis.

For those interested in learning more about the aftermath of war, please pick up a copy of my latest book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.”

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