'Like a bad dream': A Toronto woman's harrowing escape from Ukraine

Last Thursday morning, Tatiana Sunak awoke to the sound of explosions. That's when she decided it was time to leave. Hers is one of countless harrowing stories of the exodus from Ukraine, which has shown no signs of stopping amid Russia's burgeoning war.

Last Thursday, Tatiana Sunak awoke to the sound of explosions. What followed was a days-long journey to safety

People arrive at the train station as they try to leave Kyiv, Ukraine on Tuesday, March 1. More than a million people have already fled amid the Russian invasion, the United Nations estimates. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

The cold air of a Canadian winter never felt warmer for Tatiana Sunak than when she touched down in Toronto after fleeing the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Last Thursday morning, Sunak awoke to the sound of explosions. That's when she decided it was time to leave.

There had been many warnings to do so in the preceding weeks, she says, but almost no one believed war would truly arrive at their doorstep, Sunak included.

"I still cannot believe it. It's like a bad dream," Sunak told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Tuesday.

More than one million people have fled Ukraine following Russia's invasion, and the UN says they will be followed by millions more unless the fighting stops immediately. However, there appeared to be no sign of that, as Russian forces continue to try to take control of Ukrainian cities. In the souththe port of Mariupol is surrounded by Russian troops, according to Ukrainian officials. Near the capital Kyiv, a large Russian convoy continues to threaten the city but has moved little in recent days.

Born in Ukraine, Sunak had been living in Canada since 1993 before returning to her country of birth in January of last year, where she worked as a private school principal. That all changed last Thursday when Sunak was forced to grab the suitcases she'd packed just in case, and flee with her partner, not reaching Canada until Sunday.

Tatiana Sunak is one of more than 874,000 people who have fled Ukraine in search of safety as Russia continues to attack the country. (Submitted Tatiana Sunak)

Hers is one of countless harrowing stories of the exodus from Ukraine, which has shown no signs of stopping amid Russia's burgeoning war. 

Long lines of cars and buses have for days been backed up at checkpoints at the borders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and non-EU member Moldova. Some have crossed the borders on foot, while reports have also emerged of racism being faced by some at the borders, including African students being kept from boarding trains out of Ukraine to make space for Ukrainians.

'I never wish anyone to experience something like this'

Sunak's first move was to try the nearest airport. It was closed. Luckily, a friend arranged for she and her partner to pack into a car with a student and his family. It would be 17 hours before they could get to the western Ukrainian city Boryslav. The next morning, they would head for Poland.

Traffic to the Polish border was at a standstill, with cars waiting 30-50 hours to get to the crossing. The only real movement, she says, was the tanks rolling in from the other direction.

Eventually Sunak decided to make her way to border on foot, walking a gruelling 23 kilometres. It was cold, raining, and sitting or going to the bathroom were out of the question. When she finally arrived, thousands of people were waiting including women with babies as young as two months old, all packed into a crowd where some were panicking and pushing one another.

People leaving Ukraine crowd a border crossing into Poland late last week. Sunak says she walked 23 kilometres to the crossing, where thousands were trying to leave the country. (Submitted by Tatiana Sunak)

"It was heartbreaking to see kids crying that they want to go home, mothers freaking out because they are leaving their sons and husbands behind," Sunak wrote in a Facebook post recounting her experience. "I never wish anyone to experience something like this."

LISTEN | Sunak's chaotic journey from Kyiv:
A four-day odyssey out of Ukraine took Tatiana Sunak, a Ukrainian-Canadian from Kyiv on a 23-kilometer trek to the border and finally home to Toronto.

'This is his destiny'

Svitlana, a Toronto woman whose parents and grandmother have stayed in Ukraine, is among those who knows that heartbreak all too well. CBC News has agreed to identify her only by her first name over concerns for her family's safety.

On Friday, Svitlana's sister and her friend made it out of the country, crossing into Poland on foot. Her sister has a Canadian visa, but the friend doesn't.

Svitlana is a Toronto woman whose parents and grandmother have stayed in Ukraine. CBC News has agreed to identify her only by her first name because of concerns for her family's safety. (CBC)

"She said she will not leave her behind and that is why they're still together," Svitlana told CBC News. "She's my personal hero, because nobody at the age of 20 or 21 should ever have to go through something like that."

Svitlana's parents decided early on that they would stay. Her father has been volunteering with the fight and her mother has chosen to remain with him.

"With his entire soul, he's dedicated to the Ukrainian foreign military forces. So this is his destiny, and he knows he is going to stay up until the end. That was something that, yes, psychologically, it's really hard for us to accept because you think about your father, who you wanted to be safe and run for safety," she said.

"But then you have to find the strength to respect his decision... We just have to support him."

WATCH | Thousands turn out at Canadian rallies for Ukraine:

Canadians hold solidarity rallies for Ukraine

7 months ago
Duration 2:00
Thousands of Canadians turned up at Ukraine solidarity rallies across the country to show their support and share concerns after Russia’s invasion.

Moved to help 'even if it's a drop in the ocean'

Though the experience was "a nightmare" to Sunak, there have been bright spots along the way, she says. The kindness of strangers, people comforting children and mothers, the volunteers in Poland who came ready with hot tea, soup, blankets and warm clothes, for example.

Watching from afar, Svitlana is grateful that internet connectivity seems to be in working order, for the ability to video call her parents and know that at least for now, they are safe.

"I am shocked by the level of attention that has increased over the past five days because people are listening and people care," she said.

Both are now focusing their efforts on doing as much as possible from the safety of Canada to help Ukraine.

"We're operating on very odd emotions and physical state where yes, we're tired, but there's enough adrenaline to keep us going... We cannot just sit there watching the news worried," Svitlana said.

"We have a very strong urge to do something, even if it's a drop in the ocean."

With files from Shanifa Nasser, Metro Morning, Ali Chiasson and The Associated Press