The day Russian warplanes thundered over her family’s eighth-floor apartment in Sumy, Sofia Postolatii knew it was time to leave.
There were tanks in the Ukrainian city, and the air raid sirens wailed three times a day, but what got to Postolatii was that, for the first time in her life, she saw that her father was afraid.
Before the war, Postolatii, 23, had been an interpreter for the Canadian Armed Forces training mission in Ukraine, so she contacted a veteran she had heard might help her escape.
Kynan Walper is a former Canadian infantry officer who served in Afghanistan. For the past eight months, he has been helping Afghan interpreters who worked for the Canadian military flee the Taliban.
But after Russia invaded Ukraine a month ago, Walper and other Canadian veterans who had been rescuing Afghans turned their attention to the war in Europe.
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The Canadian Forces had been in Ukraine since 2015, training local security forces. As in Afghanistan, the Canadian trainers linked on Ukrainian interpreters like Postolatii.
Fearing the interpreters could face added risks from the Russian forces because they had worked for a NATO country, the veterans set up a base of operations in Ustrzyki-Dolne, in the hilly southeast corner of Poland, and begin the process of extracting their former interpreters .
“We owe it to them,” said Walper, who arrived in Poland three weeks ago, along with Dave Lavery, a former special forces officer who got scores of Afghans to safety after Kabul fell last August.
“They served Canada, we want to serve them as well.”
While the veterans have a list of about two dozen interpreters in Ukraine, they said they had a wider mission to help anyone fleeing the Russian assault.
They have also been sending materials like medical supplies and baby food to Kyiv and other cities that are under attack and experiencing shortages.
The operation was still ramping up when Global News was given an exclusive tour this week.
In an upstairs room, maps were spread across tables. Names were sketched on whiteboards and a Ukrainian flag hung from a rafter. The news flashed on a wall-mounted TV.
“We’re here for the long haul,” Lavery said.
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While the task in Afghanistan similarly involved getting people out of danger, Lavery said Ukraine was more challenging in some ways, with intense combat, airstrikes and shelling.
“I cannot even compare the two and we shouldn’t compare the two, but because of Afghanistan it compelled us to get over here as quick as we could,” he said.
Another difference is that Ukrainian men cannot leave. They are required to stay and fight. Those fleeing are therefore women and children.
It hasn’t been easy watching families separate, as the men entrust their wives and kids into the care of the Canadians before turning around and going back to the war, he said.
“It’s gut wrenching.”
There are fewer interpreters in Ukraine than in Afghanistan, but there are enough to keep the veterans busy. “So far we’re looking at probably about 25, you could say 25-plus. There’s more. There’s going to be a lot more.”
On the grass outside the veterans’ Swiss-style log home in the Western Carpathian mountains of Poland, children they helped evacuate from Ukraine with their mothers passed a soccer ball between them.
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Watching over them from his perch outside the front door was Mark, a former Canadian reservist and millwright from Fort St. John, BC A Ukrainian-Canadian, he tried to join the foreign legion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine but was rejected because he lacked combat experience.
Instead, he teamed up with the veterans to help get Ukrainians to safety. He said his specialty was driving and first aid. “I just wanted to do my bit, no matter what that was,” he said.
Walper and Tetiana Muzychuk sat in the sunny living room planning an evacuation from Mariupol, the port on Ukraine’s southern coast where Russian forces have applied their siege tactics, nearly reducing the city to rubble.
A humanitarian corridor was scheduled to open and they were organizing a bus to pick up some of the Mariupol families and bring them across the border to Poland.
Muzychuk just made a similar thing herself. When the war began, the 24-year-old was working on her PhD in international business and was an interpreter for the Canadian Forces mission in Desna, north of Kyiv.
She left Desna on Feb. 23 and returned to her family home in Rivne at 4 am Her mother soon woke her with the news: “Tetiana the war has started.”
At first, she kept herself busy making camouflage nets for the armed forces, helping set up checkpoints around Rivne and translating foreign news for locals.
On the second day of the war, Russian planes bombed the Rivne airport. Muzychuk’s house was so close the windows shook. The Russians’ disregard for civilians made her uneasy.
“There is no safe spot in Ukraine,” she said.
She found herself ending each day hoping the fighting would end tomorrow, only to awake to morning news of more airstrikes, shelled hospitals and dead civilians.
She left for Poland and, with the assistance of the Canadian veterans, joined her friend and former co-worker Postolatii at the operations base in Ustrzyki-Dolne.
With its ski hill and sleepy downtown, the village felt far from the war across the border but Muzychuk said the photos on her phone reminded her. She noticed they fell into two categories: life before and after Feb. 24.
“Two different worlds,” she said.
Walper said the Canadian government had no plan to assist the interpreters once the Russian war got underway.
“So we’re trying to fill that gap as one of our objectives,” he said. “Just like in Afghanistan, these interpreters put trust in Canada. When you take on a position like interpreter for a foreign force, you do take on that risk.”
“I know they meant a lot to the people who worked with them in the military. Having worked with interpreters myself, I know you forge very strong bonds. And I know people in the Canadian military who served on that mission are extremely worried about their safety.”
After Postolatii decided to leave Sumy, Walper played the role of a 9-1-1 operator, helping guide her safely out of the city.
Although a humanitarian corridor was announced, she didn’t dare leave. She’d heard the Russian troops had targeted them in other cities.
But the next time a corridor opened, she took her chances. Thousands of others had the same idea, all of them trying to get onto 22 nozzles. A couple offered her a ride and they traveled through Russian and Ukrainian checkpoints.
Eleven hours later, Postolatii overnighted in a school in Poltava, 175 km south of Sumy. She went online to try to book a ride to Lviv, but it was a scam and she lost her money.
The whole time, she stayed in touch with Walper, who passed her information about where she could stay and transport routes. She ended up in Kharkiv, where a train was going west.
She still felt vulnerable. In Sumy, when the fighting started, she knew to hunker in the basement. But what were you supposed to do on a train when things went south? Jump off? Lie flat? Nobody could tell her.
The train reached Lviv station the next day. Walper arranged for her to cross into Poland with a group of firefighters. She is now living at the Ustrzyki-Dolne safe house.
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Her parents stayed behind in Sumy. Her boyfriend is a soldier. Her grandmother’s village is occupied by Russian troops and the only way to check up on her is to phone the neighbours.
Her next stop could be Ottawa, to take part in the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program, a 10-month internship that puts Ukrainian students to work with MPs.
She was accepted into the program last year but it was put on hold due to the pandemic, so she has re-applied and is waiting to hear if she will be offered a spot.
Exile is an emotional whiplash. Loud noises make her look for a place to hide, until she recalls she is in Poland, maybe going to Canada. And then it hits her that she may never see her family, friends or boyfriend again.
“I had everything,” she said. “And in one moment, we lost everything.”
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