Serhii, a surgeon from Ukraine, holds a photo of his twin daughters as they appear on his mobile phone. The family fled to Poland from Bucha, a town that saw some of the worst destruction caused by invading Russian forces. (Photo by Christopher Briscoe)
Ashland photographer documents the struggles of fleeing refugees
Editor’s note: Ashland photojournalist Christopher Briscoe has been on the Ukraine-Poland border for the past few weeks, helping refugees while recording stories of their journeys outside their war-torn homeland.
Originally scheduled to return home this week, Briscoe decided to stay longer as more people escape the Russian invasion.
“With so many heartbreaking yet inspiring stories to listen to, I can’t leave,” Briscoe said in an email. “It occurred to me that your Rogue Valley readers might want to read something about the war that is more personal than what they saw on the news.”
What follows are two such stories.
Hands of a Surgeon – Heart of a Father
This morning I sat down for breakfast with Serhii, a rugged Ukrainian surgeon.
“On February 24 at 5 am, I woke up to the sound of explosions. The bombs were falling from the sky,” he said.
“In two weeks, 80% of my beloved city, Bucha, would be destroyed. We lived near the crossroads where the tanks were. A targeted air base was also nearby. It was therefore impossible to escape. It seemed safer to stay in the house.
I listened to his heartbreaking story of hiding with his family and friends – nine in total – in his small root cellar, with two guns, a small generator and some provisions. From time to time, we sneaked in to find firewood and draw water from the family well.
When her son turned 17 and had no way to bake a birthday cake, his 6-year-old twin daughters drew pictures of cakes on paper instead.
As a rite of passage to manhood, Serhii and her son rushed to a local hospital to donate blood.
On the ninth day, they planned their escape in three cars. Serhii drove with his wife and daughters – who were in the back seat, alongside a few jerrycans filled with needed petrol – watching Russian bullets riddle some of the vehicles lined up just three cars ahead of them.
Passing them, he turned to see the bloodied corpses. He also noticed visual markers that Russian soldiers had put on some wrecked cars to ensure the bombing would be more accurate.
With some luck and knowledge of the area, Serhii chose an alternate route that bypassed blocked traffic lines and ran to the Polish border.
At the end of her story, Serhii took a last sip of coffee, looked at me and said, “At night, I dream of my past life. I miss it.”
Ksenia and her daughter Julia find respite with their pet dogs in an artist’s apartment in Poland, after their harrowing escape from Lviv in Ukraine. (Photo by Christopher Briscoe)
There is no place for your snails in our car
“We fell asleep in a peaceful country and woke up at 5 a.m. to the sound of explosions,” recalls Julia, 12, speaking slowly in English. “It was so scary. I walked down the steps to our basement with my mom. No one knew what to do.
Mother and daughter are finally safe thanks to the kindness of a Polish artist in Przemyśl. They huddle together on the polished wooden floor, holding their two little dogs who growl a continuous throaty growl at me, protective and wary of everyone.
Ksenia, a 37-year-old computer programmer, has an expressive face that changes from a warm smile to deep despair and back again at the sight of her daughter’s shining eyes. When I first met Ksenia she told me that Julia was very shy, but within minutes her daughter is showing me how good she can play the piano.
I sit down and listen to the Ukrainian national anthem for the first time. Julia concentrates on the keys as the notes bounce off the brick walls of the basement, and I soon feel patriotic enough to join the resistance.
Ksenia describes their nightly escape from Lviv. Five were stuck in the car, along with two dogs. When they joined the continuous line of cars pointing towards the Polish border, it was 20 kilometers long, soon 30.
“We couldn’t turn on the car headlights at night because we were afraid of being spotted and attacked. We often had to turn off the engine to save fuel, but at least we were inside.
As gas tanks dried up, many abandoned their cars, joining others walking for hours in the falling snow. Soon the children were too tired to go any further and had to be transported with their pets. To lighten their burdens, many let go of their belongings. The roadside was soon littered with abandoned suitcases, clothes blowing in the icy wind.
At the border, a group of almost 100 desperate African migrants were not allowed to cross the Shehini/Medyka border into Poland. Their only hope was to attempt another crossing. The snow continued to pile up. An African, looking half-frozen, picked up rubbish, trying to start a fire to keep warm.
Before they fled, Ksenia mentioned that many friends were in denial, saying war wasn’t going to happen, but mom was prepared, making sure she had enough money, food, and most importantly, a full tank of gas. Long before the bombings, young Julia was scared and wanted to leave.
“My imagination was already drawing frightening images. I dreamed of battles and war. I told my mother it was time to leave.
Ksenia looks out the window at the gray day, lost in thought.
Mother and daughter smile at each other and hug each other even more.
“It is impossible for us to make plans for the future. We react just in time. The situation changes every hour. My best friend, Maria, lost her mind from being so nervous. His whole family is in Mariupol.
“When something happens to a friend, it affects us all. I have close friends who fight for our freedom, protecting our homes. They need money to buy helmets and walkie-talkies, even clothes .
“What I am certain of is that we will come back and rebuild – as soon as the children are safe to get out.”
And I hope to find more snails.