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Escape from Ukraine

Fleeing the Russian invasion, one Twitch streamer stopped at the border to help remaining Ukrainians

(Washington Post illustration; Battle State GamesiStock)
10 min

The moment that Bobi learned Russia had begun invading Ukraine was captured live on Twitch. On Feb. 24 at around 5:50 a.m. local time, he was streaming his favorite video game, “Escape From Tarkov,” when he felt the ground move. Ordinance had struck near Hvardiiske, the military base in eastern Ukraine that housed the bunker where he live-streamed.

“I will go to my family,” Bobi said to his 40 or so viewers, tearing up. “I just hope that I’ll be able to see you again.”

Approximately 30 minutes after he fled the base, he says he saw an explosion from the base’s direction.

In a way, Bobi had spent years preparing for this moment. In 2014, a war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces broke out in Ukraine’s Donbas region, about 75 miles from Bobi’s family’s home in Dnipro. Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Donbas conflict had resulted in over 14,000 deaths.

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The violence and ensuing economic turmoil hurt his company and filled Bobi with dread. To clear his head, he began sinking his free time into “Escape From Tarkov,” a multiplayer first-person shooter game. From the industrial architecture of the in-game buildings in Tarkov, a fictional war-torn Russian city set in an alternate universe around our present time, to the backstory of a war between militant factions, Bobi saw striking similarities between the game and real-life Donbas.

“Escape From Tarkov” rewards slow, methodical gameplay. The game’s selling point is hardcore realism; a single death can wipe out hours of progress. Bobi loved the game’s brutal challenge and the resulting heightened sense of agency.

“In real life, you are only controlling so much, and the majority of things are usually taken away from your hands, whether you like it or not,” Bobi said. “But, in ‘Tarkov,’ the majority of your outcome depends on you.”

Some days, he played for 20 hours, racking up 18,000 hours of total game time over five years.

“I was a zombie, using ‘Tarkov’ as my only drug to keep from having any contact with reality,” Bobi said.

Before becoming a Twitch streamer, Bobi, whose real name is Pavel, moved from Poland, where he was born, to eastern Ukraine to start a business. (He requested that The Washington Post not publish his full name due to threats made against his life.) But when the pandemic hit, his company collapsed and Bobi went bankrupt. He contemplated taking his own life as he searched for direction. His friends from “Tarkov” implored him to consider gaming as a career.

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With their help, he began streaming on Twitch under the username “Bobuubi” and set up a free “Tarkov” coaching service, which brought in a trickle of devoted fans. He rented a cheap storage unit 30 feet under the Hvardiiske base where he could stream throughout the night without disturbing his family. Twitch ads and donations from viewers brought in about $500 a month — a meager amount, but stable enough for his two young daughters and their respective mothers.

In “Tarkov,” Bobi could be a practitioner of tough love. In one video from Bobi’s Twitch channel, he can be seen berating a fellow gamer for making a mistake in the game. He told The Post these intense outbursts were a deliberate strategy — what he called a “drill sergeant” approach — to prepare his students.

“Many people were saying I was taking ‘Tarkov’ too seriously, but they didn’t understand it,” he said. “For them it was just a game. For me, it was a source of feeding my family.”

‘Tarkov’ in real life

The first time Keith Bodinnar, a 41-year-old operations manager based in the U.K., watched Bobi’s live stream in November 2020, he was confused by Bobi’s occasionally aggressive antics. “I honestly thought this guy’s crazy,” Bodinnar said. But in a few months’ time, he began spending 50 hours a week moderating Bobi’s Twitch chat after getting to know the streamer’s softer side. He was charmed by Bobi’s affectionate rapport with his viewers, as well as his heartfelt excitement when he saw his students improving at the game.

“You fall in love with Bobi,” Bodinnar said. “Everybody says the same.”

When Bobi fled his bunker the morning the invasion began, Bodinnar was one of the first people he called. As explosions sent shock waves through his Volvo hatchback, Bobi began dictating his will over the phone.

“I had to be brutal to calm him down. I couldn't reach across the phone and slap him across the face,” Bodinnar said. He told Bobi that his family needed him, that he needed to remain focused.

“For the first few years of ‘Tarkov,’ I was laughing that I played ‘Tarkov’ in real life,” Bobi said. “And now it's no longer a joke.”

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In a recent episode of On the Media, a nationally syndicated public radio show from WNYC Studios, Bobi described how his imagination, shaped by years of playing “Escape From Tarkov,” helped him process the trauma of navigating a war zone. Over the next four days, Bobi and his family drove hundreds of miles west toward the Ukraine-Poland border.

The first night after leaving his bunker, Bobi stayed with his family in Dnipro. As they fled, Bobi treated them like his students in “Tarkov,” barking orders at them to keep them from panicking. They spent their second night outside the city, after a bombardment forced them to seek shelter in a building on the side of the road. Huddled in the basement with three other families, Bobi saw that his fans were checking in on him on Discord.

“We spent some time explaining, ‘You’re not alone, you’re never going to be alone,’” said Charlotte Wallans, another of his Twitch moderators, who is based in Canada. “We will be with you every step of the way, and we will watch over you guys over the Internet while you’re sleeping.”

They woke up to missile strikes the next morning around 4:30 a.m. By counting the seconds between when he saw the impact on the horizon and when he heard it, he could approximate its distance from him, a technique he attributed to “Tarkov.” He told his family that the explosions were about a mile away. They had to leave.

From there, they drove northwest to Bila Tserkva to stay with his wife’s relatives in a small town outside the city. They witnessed combat spilling over from nearby Vasylkiv, and decided to move west toward the Polish border the next morning.

After reading rumors on social media that Russians were using traffic data from Google Maps to track Ukrainians (Google later disabled the sharing of this information) Bobi’s moderators advised him not to use popular GPS apps on his journey. This meant he was driving without access to any kind of map on unfamiliar roads — many of which had been stripped of their signs in an effort to confuse Russian troops. So Bobi relied on directions from Wallans and Boddinar, who tracked his live location on WhatsApp and told him over the phone when and where to turn.

That evening, the family sought refuge at a hotel off the highway connecting Kyiv and Rivne. It was closed, so he bribed the owner with a family heirloom, his grandmother’s gold ring, in exchange for food, water and a room for the night. About 30 minutes after they arrived there, Bobi said a Russian convoy rolled by the hotel without stopping.

Staying in Ukraine

Distracted by the immediate dangers of their journey, it took several days for Bobi to learn that the emotional clip of him saying goodbye from his bunker had gone viral on Reddit. New fans were pouring into his Discord server, calling him a hero.

“And I was saying, ‘No, I’m not. I’m just someone running away from his life,’ ” he said. The attention brought in over $1,000 in donations sent to a PayPal account listed on his Twitch profile.

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As they approached Poland, Bobi’s moderators identified a safe town for the family to wait out the severe backups reported at the border. (Because he was born in Poland, Bobi is free to leave Ukraine without serving in the military.) On Feb. 28, Bobi and his family arrived at a small village near Lviv, home to an elderly population tasked with taking care of children whose parents had been drafted. Bobi witnessed food shortages and poverty; one woman told him that her social security checks weren’t arriving on time due to postal service disruptions.

“I said to my wife, ‘Honey, we can use this momentum we have, even if this will go away in a month or two,’ ” he said, beginning to cry as he recounted the conversation. “ ‘Let’s stay here and help those who are really forgotten in this whole conflict.’

“If I run to Poland and I watch news from Ukraine to hear [my wife’s] grandma, who is blind, suffering, going through it on her own, I will feel like a coward.”

Over the past few weeks, he and his moderators have raised over $7,500 in donations through a new humanitarian nonprofit, Gamers4Ukraine, which was registered in Canada by Wallans in honor of Bobi’s story. The nonprofit is still seeking charity status.

Wallans says she uses the funds to cover the cost of food and supplies that Bobi gives to families passing through the town — some of whom he then drives to train stations and bus stops to continue their journeys. She reimburses Bobi, who purchases the items locally to support the Ukrainian economy, after he sends her photos of his receipts. He said he’s also begun renovations on a building in the town that will serve as a free hostel for refugees traveling west to the Polish border.

“Actively helping families to move on, to run to safety, it changed my life forever,” he said, “because the mental and moral reward for help with no interest cannot be replaced by any other action or activity in life.”

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Some nights, Bobi volunteers in a watchtower looking out for Russian troops. While no Russian convoys have reached his location, rumors of undercover “saboteurs” have kept Bobi’s community on high alert. Save for a small hole that gives him a sightline toward the main road into the town, Ukrainian soldiers plastered the tower’s windows with newspaper to block the light from his flashlight.

Bobi can be seen streaming from the tower on Twitch, chatting about his journey, shifting his gaze between his tablet — on which he monitors chat and browser windows with maps of the conflict — and the road. “Thanks to you, I don’t feel lonely or worried,” he said to his viewers one night. “Thank you for talking to me, reminding me what normality is.”

But life won’t feel close to normal again, he says, until he can resume playing “Escape From Tarkov.”

“I do miss it. I wish to be there.”

Micah Loewinger is a reporter for WNYC’s On the Media, where he covers Internet culture, politics, and the far right. He can be found on Twitter at @MicahLoewinger.