Ukraine invasion: what it was like to flee Ukraine and become a refugee

It was 5.30am on February 25 when Godwin Kiwinda and his wife Oskana were woken by a sound that Godwin said sounded like a ‘bass woofer’.
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“I have never been in a war but every now and again I would hear a low woo, woo type sound,” he explained. “I then went out onto our balcony and the horizon was just red with flashes of light.”

Russian invaded Ukraine on February 25 launching an attack on the northern front from Belarus towards Kyiv, a north-eastern front towards Kharkiv, a southern front from the Crimea and a south-eastern front from Luhansk and Donetsk.

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Godwin, 38 who lived in Kharkiv, admits they had heard of tension brewing between the two countries but never expected a war.

Godwin and OskanaGodwin and Oskana
Godwin and Oskana

“We decided we needed to leave so we grabbed our suitcases and started packing. I have only ever seen this type of thing in films people running about throwing things into a bag and when you are in it you have no idea what to pack.”

Godwin’s eldest son Daniel was in another part of the Ukraine and the family made the decision they would meet in Kyiv believing the capital would be safe.

Their youngest son Markus, six, was in the UK. He had visited Godwin’s mother, who lives in Chichester, over Christmas and was still there.

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Unsure as to how long the bombing was going to go on for they went to a friend’s bunker. After four days of little food and no sleep Godwin decided that the family had to be together and after hearing Kyiv’s airspace had closed decided to leave the country.

Oskana, Daniel, Godwin and MarkusOskana, Daniel, Godwin and Markus
Oskana, Daniel, Godwin and Markus

At first Godwin’s wife Oskana, who is Ukrainian, was not initially keen.

“She did have friends ask why she had abandoned their country,” explained Godwin. “They couldn't understand why she would leave, but I wanted the family to be together.

“I am originally from Kenya, but I see the Ukraine as my home, it is where I launched my music career and where I raised my children.

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“When I moved here to study I knew little of the language but the Ukrainian people are kind and calm and love to share a piece of themselves with you be it their culture, or their food.”

Godwin and Oskana made their way to the railway station, along with 10,000 other people, all looking for a way out.

Many of the trains were cancelled, but Godwin and Oskana managed to get on a carriage with 26 other people, sitting wherever they could with little room to move.

The train was on its way to Lviv, a journey that would usually take 13 hours took 27 hours due pieces of track being blown up.

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At their final destination they got a taxi, which ended with a road block.

“We got out the taxi and was told that the border was a 32 kilometre walk, we heard from others that you could reach the border so we walked,” said Godwin.

“You feel every step in your body, it was snowing and raining, we were cold, you feel it in the soles of your feet. We hadn’t slept for days. My wife and I, and the rest of the group stopped talking just to conserve energy.

“I remember checking my suitcase at one stage because it was so heavy and all I had packed was boxers, socks and a towel. We just didn’t know what we were doing in that moment.

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“Every town or light on the horizon you see you hope will be the border. The walk was on a road, and there were elderly Ukrainian women handing out sandwiches and tea just to get us through.”

After nine hours they arrived at the Polish border at 4am. Here they joined queues. Women, children and Ukrainians were taken one way and ‘foreigners’ in another.

Although Oskana decided to stay with Godwin, after nine hours and more cold weather he encouraged her to go to the other side and wait in the warmth.

“The foreigners were put onto small buses, they would pick in the line who would go through, the buses came every 24 hours and you learnt what they were looking for to get on,” he remembered.

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“I was the next on the bus one time and there were two spaces but then a woman and child joined the queue so I knew I was going to have to wait until another day.”

Eventually Godwin did make it on a bus and through the border to his wife. Here he says he was met with so much kindness from volunteers offering food, clothing, and hot drinks.

From here someone they knew was able to arrange the pair to stay in a five star hotel in Warsaw, Poland.

“I remember sitting in the shower, laughing and crying. Not quite believing what I had been through and now I was sitting in this beautiful hotel,” he said.

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In Poland the couple heard that the UK was offering places to those with family in the UK. Godwin’s mother was in Chichester and his sister was in Petworth, both were British citizens.

Godwin and Oskana made it in the UK on March 16 and reunited with Markus and Daniel, who had been driven to the border by friends in the Ukraine and still had his visa from visiting his grandmother at Christmas.

“The MP Gillian Keegan was an enormous help with us getting visas and we have had so much support from people in the local area.

“My youngest Markus has settled into school and has friends, but he does keep asking when he will go home. I have tried explaining to him that there is a war and we don’t know if we will go home. He just wants his things and to see his friends.”

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Godwin and Oskana have found a home in Midhurst and both are working, as he says they want to ‘give back and earn their own way’.

He said: “I have decided to not take anything for granted.

“I don’t want to spread hate but want to spread joy, I have seen the worse but I have seen the best in humanity. I have seen incredible kindness both in Poland, Ukraine and here in the UK. There are so many who have helped us in our journey.”

Godwin’s son Daniel, 18, is a promising footballer who was due to play in Portugal before an injury saw him out for the season, with no new club to help with his treatment he has had to return to the Ukraine, something which Godwin says ‘keeps him and his wife up at night’.

Musician Godwin had stopped writing music due to the trauma he went through but has recently started to write new music and hopes to release his EP called ‘I love you’ to spread his message of love.

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