DNIPRO, Ukraine — The air-raid sirens in Anya’s Kharkiv neighborhood didn’t work. So the blasts from Russian shells came without warning. And then they got closer and louder. They didn’t stop.
Anya, an 18-year-old artist, packed clothing, her laptop and a sketch pad. She had to leave behind her ukulele and her parents, who evacuated on Wednesday. She and her girlfriend called around for a taxi for about an hour, offering the driver a bribe to take them to the train station despite the ongoing bombardment.
Anya’s destination was Dnipro, a city about 120 miles southwest of Kharkiv that has yet to see any shelling.
Volunteers in Dnipro are expecting to welcome hundreds more people from Kharkiv alone on Thursday morning. They have readied schools, cultural centers, empty dormitories and an abandoned hotel as refuges for people fleeing Kharkiv and other nearby eastern Ukrainian cities under siege.
“I feel like I’ve gone through every stage of stress,” said Anya, who declined to reveal her surname for security reasons. “At first, you’re afraid. You cry. You don’t accept it. Many of my friends have said it feels like we’re inside a video game or a simulation — as if you can take off the virtual-reality goggles and then everything will be fine.
“Then I was just angry,” she said. “And now I’ve accepted it.”
Dnipro is not the final destination for most of these refugees, who are hoping to use this as a jumping-off point to eventually get to western Ukraine, Poland or another neighboring country.
It reflects a merciless question for the hundreds of thousands of people on the run: Where in Ukraine is safe?
Dnipro is considered safe for now. But Russian soldiers have already advanced on Zaporizhia, about 50 miles south, and could head to Dnipro next. This area also borders the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been pushing into Ukrainian-controlled territory. And if Kharkiv falls to Russian forces, those units could then head to Dnipro.
Just leaving Kharkiv — enduring some of the most intense Russian barrages so far in this war — has been especially dire. There have been very few breaks in the assault on the city. Almost no cabs are running, causing people to try hitchhiking. Evacuation trains and buses are filling up.
Then on Wednesday, unverified video shared on social media showed people ducking inside a train car as shells landed on the station platform.
When Anya and her girlfriend arrived in Dnipro on Monday night, it was already past the city’s 8 p.m. curfew. They spent the night in the train station until her uncle, Evgeny, could pick them up at 6 a.m. They’re now staying with him at his small two-room apartment along with three other people and a cat.
Evgeny, who also declined to reveal his surname for security reasons, planned to welcome three more refugees on Thursday. The hallway has been converted into a sort of living room with a couch wedged into it. That’s also where everyone shelters during air-raid sirens.
In 2014, Evgeny was the refugee. He lived in the eastern Donbas region when war broke out there between Ukraine’s government forces and Russian-backed separatists. Now he’s joining the wave of individuals and organizations opening up their homes to refugees fleeing a new, more devastating attack.
“I’m motivated to stay here no matter what and help my people who have done nothing wrong to anyone in their life,” Evgeny said. “Because they need help and there’s a lot of them.”
Kust, a Dnipro cultural organization that typical organizes music festivals, has now become a refugee resource. The second floor of a local brewery has room to accommodate 100 refugees. Therapists are on hand. On Wednesday, two young girls, sitting on mats on the floor, covered their hands in green paint and plastered them onto sheets of paper as a volunteer tried to teach them how to meditate.
Just down the street, a hotel that was abandoned even before the invasion has been reopened to accept the influx of expected refugees. Its maximum capacity is 600. There was no working plumbing, heat or power here just days ago.
“I have the keys to my friends’ apartment. They left town. And they’ve allowed me to move some refugees into there,” said Masha Skvortsova, a director with Kust. “I moved in with a friend of mine so that I could put people into my personal apartment. We’re trying to make everything as comfortable as possible.”
Most displaced people in Ukraine are heading toward western Ukrainian cities, such as Lviv. But it’s a challenging journey because a route through Kyiv is now dangerous while the city is facing heavy bombardment. That makes Dnipro a logical transition point for people in the eastern part of the country.
Dnipro hasn’t faced any shelling yet, but it has taken steps to fortify itself while watching nearby cities come under attack.
There are thorough checkpoints entering the city. Store windows and cultural landmarks are surrounded with sandbags — protection against blasts. Grocery stores and ATMs don’t have any long lines, but the local gun shops do. There is also a waiting list to join the Territorial Defense Forces.
Anya feels safe here for now, but she has family in Lviv if she needs to evacuate further west. She used to spend her days working on her art and debating her next hair color — it’s currently bright orange.
Now it’s hard to pull herself away from the updates of what’s happening to her beloved Kharkiv, where much of the downtown area has been destroyed. She tries to set aside time to play mah-jongg to relax.
That’s when she envisions what it would be like to return to Kharkiv.
“Right now, the chances don’t look good,” she said. “But what can you do? I’ll just be here then.”