On the road from Kharkiv to Dnipro: Checkpoints, guns and a resolve to fight Russians

Road signs removed by Ukrainians in attempts to confuse Russian troops near Dnipro, Ukraine, on Feb. 28, 2022.
Road signs removed by Ukrainians in attempts to confuse Russian troops near Dnipro, Ukraine, on Feb. 28, 2022. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

KHARKIV, Ukraine — As we were about to pull out of our Kharkiv hotel, an eruption sounded so close that we all sprinted back inside the lobby. It seemed that our opportunity to drive out of the city had closed. But after a minute of calm Monday, we got back into the car and headed southwest.

Russian troops on Sunday breached the city, the second-largest in Ukraine and 25 miles from the Russian border. And then the Ukrainian military successfully repelled them. A second, more forceful Russian push seemed likely. Few foreign journalists remained.

Mapping the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Though we had been deeply invested in Kharkiv’s story, as we had been based in the city since before the start of Russia’s invasion, we decided there was safety in numbers and linked up with another group of journalists to drive together in two cars to Dnipro, about 140 miles to the southwest. Google Maps said it would be about a three-hour drive.

The Washington Post's Whitney Leaming describes what it was like to travel from Kharkiv to Dnipro on Feb. 28 on roads now marked by checkpoints and armed men. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Ukrainians across the country have had to consider a similar choice: stay put and risk a Russian assault, or hit the road and face unpredictable and potentially even more unsafe conditions while driving. We were fortunate to have the resources to make an exit — an option not available to all in Kharkiv.

City streets were deserted as we left Kharkiv. They had been bustling with rush-hour traffic just five days earlier. One car frantically drove around us. The driver yelled out his window that we were going too slow. Artillery strikes could still be heard in the distance. But we had grown used to that sound after four days of enduring shelling here.

Apparently locals had, too. As we drove, we saw a line of more than 100 people outside a grocery store. Sheltering in basements and underground metro platforms for four days had left people desperate to restock on supplies. The booming thuds, then still seemingly far away, didn’t prompt them to abandon their positions in line.

We knew we should expect armed checkpoints on our journey to Dnipro, and we encountered our first one at the edge of the city center. Men dressed in military-style uniforms had set up barricades along the road and directed us to pull over. Everyone in our car was wearing a protective vest as a precaution. I was driving, so I tried to cover my vest with a scarf so as to not alarm the soldiers, who were already on edge at these checkpoints.

There were four people in our car, but he asked to see just one passport. Satisfied that it was American, he let us pass. At the next one, we were all asked to show our passports and also open the trunk.

It was unclear if these checkpoints were manned by members of the armed forces or civilian militia volunteers. We saw plenty of the latter walking around Kharkiv and along highways on our trip. They were dressed in street clothes while carrying firearms.

Babruysk

Klintsy

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Voronezh

Area held

by Russia-

backed

separatists

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Valuyki

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Poltava

Cherkasy

Kramatorsk

UKRAINE

Luhansk

Dnipro

Uman

Donetsk

Zaporizhzhya

Rostov-

on-Don

Nikopol

Mariupol

Melitopol

Mykolayiv

Yeysk

MOL.

Odessa

Kherson

RUSSIA

Kerch

Crimea

Krasnodar

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

ROM.

Novorossiysk

Sevastapol

100 MILES

Black Sea

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Klintsy

Voronezh

Area held

by Russia-

backed

separatists

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Poltava

Cherkasy

Kramatorsk

UKRAINE

Dnipro

Uman

Zaporizhzhya

Rostov-

on-Don

Mariupol

Melitopol

Mykolayiv

Kherson

RUSSIA

Odessa

Crimea

Krasnodar

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Novorossiysk

Sevastapol

100 MILES

RUSSIA

BEL.

Klintsy

Voronezh

Area held

by Russia-

backed

separatists

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Poltava

Cherkasy

Kramatorsk

UKRAINE

Dnipro

Zaporizhzhya

Rostov-

on-Don

Mariupol

Melitopol

Mykolayiv

Kherson

RUS.

Odessa

Crimea

Novorossiysk

Sevastapol

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

Black Sea

We pulled off at one gas station about 90 minutes into the journey, but it was out. We were about to continue on when I noticed more than 10 men with their rifles raised crossing the street to surround our two cars.

Our colleague in the other vehicle opened his door to get out, and I heard one of the men yell in Russian: “Get in the car!”

I told the people in my car to stay still and silent. These members of a Ukrainian militia had seen one of our colleagues take a photo of a gas station sign and thought he might be documenting their movements to pass on to the Russians. Our colleagues kept their hands up while explaining the misunderstanding.

What it looks like on Ukraine's borders as people try to flee

When the militia members came to my car, I showed them my passport and assured them we wouldn’t be photographing anything. They let us leave.

The next checkpoint we encountered was friendlier. Soldiers asked our two cars to pull over to make way for a Ukrainian military vehicle passing behind us. At the center of the checkpoint, a gunman peered through his scope to ensure the truck passed through safely. Then when they saw our passports, they cheered that we were from a country that has supported Ukraine with more than $2.7 billion in military aid.

One soldier raised his fist and said he was ready to “kill Russians.” The drive continued.

Many road signs had been taken down or were covered in paint — an attempt to confuse Russian forces. On one sign, someone drew a U-turn arrow and labeled it “Moscow.”

We were able to refuel in Novomuskovsk, where life seemed surprisingly normal. Along the way, we had seen a crater left from an artillery shell. But here, just 15 miles north of Dnipro, the traffic lights still worked. There was no wait for gas or at any of the grocery stores.

During this brief break in driving, I saw the updates on my phone about what had transpired in Kharkiv just after we departed. Civilian areas were devastated by Russian artillery strikes — possibly cluster munitions, which disperse submunitions or bomblets. At least 11 people were confirmed dead, with many more injured.

I then thought of all of those people who had left safety because they needed groceries.

We continued to scan the reports out of Kharkiv while stuck in more than two hours of traffic for our last checkpoint. My colleagues — one a photographer and other a video journalist — tried to capture the scene of the road congestion to get to Dnipro. But when we finally made it to the checkpoint, the soldier asked our car to pull over. He had our license plate written down on a piece of paper.

“We heard your car was taking pictures,” he said.

I assured him that we were journalists. He asked for all of us to get out of the car so he could search it. But after a quick glance into the trunk, he let his pass, ushering us forward into Dnipro. The normally three-hour trip had taken six hours.

Loading...
Loading...