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Ukrainians continue to flee to neighboring countries


People are pouring out of Ukraine as Russia rains missiles down on the country and ground forces push toward Kyiv. The refugees number in the hundreds of thousands and are heading to Poland, Hungary and beyond. Kateryna Babkina is one of them. She is a poet, playwright and fiction writer based in Kyiv, and after the Russian invasion began, she fled to the Polish border like so many others. We spoke with her yesterday as she sat in line at a border crossing, inching slowly along. She said the cars were backed up some 10 miles, and it would be many more hours before she could cross into Poland.

KATERYNA BABKINA: I'm in the car with my mom, who is 60-something, and my daughter, who is 1 year old. And that's the reason why I decided to go, not to stay, because I'm kind of useless and helpless with a small child on my hands. And for now, I've been driving for 29 hours and still have to wait to cross the border. But it's all right. You know, nobody's bombing me right now. I'm not dead. My house is not burning. I mean, my house probably is burnt already in Kyiv. I have no information on that. I did not check. But I feel safe, at least, so that's already a lot.

MCCAMMON: So it's just - you're just crawling there, waiting to - waiting for your chance to cross.

BABKINA: Yes. And, you know, it's so cute. Local people come and bring hot drinks and some food and offer, you know, if you need some, some boiled water to prepare the food for the babies. They bring the boiled water. Or they can bring you pretty much everything you need because me and alongside with all the other people, we have very random sets of belongings on us because I was not picking up stuff to leave the country, you know? I was just taking something to go to the bomb shelter for the night or two. And then, under bombs, we realized it's probably better to drive away. And we tried, and we managed to.

MCCAMMON: How did you make the decision about leaving? I mean, you said you were in a shelter for a while, and then you decided to go. How did you make that decision?

BABKINA: Very difficult to describe, you know, because everybody was talking, like, for two weeks that something going to happen, or it's not going to happen, or it's going to happen. I didn't believe. Nobody believed. Like, still, it sounds impossible for me. And then at 6 o'clock in the morning, my friend called me and told me, OK, it has started. And I opened my phone, and I saw the rockets all over the Kyiv sky and everything.

So we just took whatever we had and had driven to the place where a friend of mine recommended me. Another woman I don't even know, but she reads my books, so she invited us over to her bomb shelter. That's a new politeness. You know, invite your favorite writer to your bomb shelter. We spend the night there and in the morning, because she has two grown-up sons and they were staying for - signing up for the military, and she took their girlfriends and the mother of one of the girlfriends, and she told - they're going to take them to the border. Are you joining with a second car? And they were like, well, yeah. OK, let's go.

And the moment we decided to go, they started bombing again, so we were living, like, literally under bombs. You act like an animal, you know? I have no idea how do you decide something in this situation. You just do. You close your eyes, and you do. And you try to help other people on the way, and that's it.

MCCAMMON: You said like an animal. You mean like instinct?

BABKINA: Yes, probably. The tricky thing is that I don't even have the proper vocabulary to talk about these things, and I just realized that it's not about my English. It's rather that I just don't have the vocabulary to talk about these things in any language.

MCCAMMON: Do you know what you're going to do once you get to Poland, where you're going to go?

BABKINA: Yes. I'm the lucky one. I have lots of organizations ready to help me and host my family. And also, the last year, I got the Angelus Central European Award, which comes alongside with a residentship in Literature House of Warsaw. It's in Poland as well. And you stay there for three months. You get the salary, the apartment and you're supposed to sit there and write. So I was planning to come in August, but when we started moving from Kyiv, I wrote to the chief of the Literature House of Warsaw asking him, what if I arrive a little bit earlier? And he told me that, yeah, I'm welcome to start my residentship just any second I arrive. And then I have no idea because it's not really clear how long the war going to last.

MCCAMMON: I don't know what kind of a head space you're in, but do you feel like you'll be able to write?

BABKINA: Yes. But I suppose I'm going to write a lot for medias, like essays and the columns and chronicling what is going on and what was going on before. But, yeah, I'm going to be able to write, of course. This is something that needs to be written about.

MCCAMMON: Well, I hope you make it safely across the border soon, and I just hope that you stay safe. And there are no words, like you said. Thank you so much for talking with us again.

BABKINA: Thank you very much, too. Thank you.

MCCAMMON: That's writer Kateryna Babkina from Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM MISCH AND TOBI TRIPP'S "DAY 5: FOR CAROL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.