It was early morning in Zahony, Hungary, at the train station just a 5 min walk to the Tysa River that separates Hungary from Ukraine. We had a pretty steady influx of refugees coming from eastern Ukraine mostly and I was having my first-morning coffee with my buddy Alex. About 100 people came out of the morning train from Chop. We were relieved that it was going to be a less hectic morning in the tent, where the city of Zahony served hot meals to refugees from the early days of the war.
When I first saw Macan and Svitlana I knew they had come with a difficult story. They were eating their breakfast quickly, obviously heavily traumatized, and still under enormous pressure. I couldn’t just watch so I joined them by wishing them “Dobroho ranku,” (Good Morning) I quickly learned that Macan speaks my language (Croatian) since he has Bosnian roots. That simple greeting led Macan and Viktoria telling me of their horrific 12-day-long story.
When Mariupol was first attacked, they were simply shocked. No one is prepared for such horrible events. Their days and nights were covered by dust; they lived in the basement, and they wandered around the streets of Mariupol to try to find food and water. They decided to leave the city but had second thoughts because they wanted to help their neighbors, who were elderly and in constant need of help and support. Every morning they visited them with some food, cooked them tea or coffee, and spend some time with them under sounds of total destruction. Every day they witnessed their city being wiped away and everything they held most dear being destroyed. Running down the streets of Mariupol they saw dead bodies, children wandering around, and people screaming and crying for help. They decided it was time to save their own lives, so they loaded their car, hoping the roads are still accessible. However, on the morning of their departure, a rocket destroyed their car, and they were forced to start the journey on their foot. They simply packed some food and water for the road and with two backpacks only they left Mariupol.
Then, the real story began.
“In just a couple of days I became homeless, a thief and a beggar”, said Viktoria while squeezing my hand hard.
“I was stealing food whenever possible, clothes too. I feel ashamed for thinking only about our survival”, she added through tears.
Macan’s lips were still shaking while he was trying to explain their route:
“First, we had to cross about 115 km through the occupied territory. We stayed away from the roads and walked about 15-20 km/day. We slept in the forest, under the bridge, in abandoned houses. Dozens of times we thought we are going to get caught; we were scared to death.
We met many other people fleeing Mariupol as well, but everyone was focused on their own survival. We were just focused on the next step and that was the city of Berdyansk, about 115 km from Mariupol. We heard that humanitarian corridors are available from Berdyansk, so this was our only hope at that time – to reach the city on foot.”
After an exhausting journey, Macan and Viktoria finally reached Berdyansk only to learn that buses were not that frequent, and they could be facing a long waiting time. They received the number 61 but since there was no space available on the next bus, they were reluctant to simply stay and wait. No one was able to say if the humanitarian corridors were going to be opened again and when the next bus is leaving.
The next day they made the decision to continue their journey to the border with Hungary on foot (1000 km+), hoping their luck would change.
“From that point, the journey was a bit easier since we were out of the occupied territory. We had no money, and we were often hungry, but along the road, we found some help. We were given several rides and then the UA army drove us quite close to the train. When we took our free train to the border, we were so happy to be alive. We had no money, so we relied on the help of good people, but after an exhausting journey, we were so happy just to have some water and food. The next big problem was how to reach Tallinn in Estonia from the Ukraine/Hungary border, and here we are now, out of Ukraine, going to Budapest by free train,” said Macan almost in one breath.
I listened to their story, and I don’t know how I managed not to cry. Viktoria’s tears were shining bright like the biggest stars in the sky.
I took some money from my pocket, which was simply my gas money. I gave the money to Viktoria while her hand was shaking.
“See, I’m a beggar. I apologize for accepting your help,’’ she said and wiped her tears.
“No, you are not. You are my friend,” I said and I really felt that, deep inside my heart. These are my people, I said to myself. We are Ukraine.
Up to that point Flaming Beacon, a small group of drivers was simply evacuating people without diving deep into their stories. We didn’t ask many questions during the evacuations as most people were quiet and focused on reaching the border. By sitting with Macan and Viktoria for an hour, I realized what kind of hell these people were coming from.
The train for Budapest was about to leave. I accompanied Viktoria and Macan to the train, and we hugged like old friends. In the eyes of those people, I saw the best version of me. Right there, while waving them goodbye, I decided to go deep into Ukraine to share my days with thousands of people who are not able to flee Ukraine. I felt that there are thousands of stories to be told, truths to be revealed, and lives to be saved.
Seven days later I was happy to receive this photo: Macan and Viktoria reunited with their daughter in Tallinn, Estonia:
The story of Macan and Viktora was featured in Espresso.