Ukraine shrugged off predictions of war. Now it’s a mad dash to leave.

Ukraine shrugged off predictions of war. Now it’s a mad dash to leave.

“We fear it’s Russian,” said Ludmila, 56.

“We hope it’s Ukrainian,” said Larisa, 42.

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In an instant, millions of Ukrainian lives were upended Thursday by the sudden entry of Russian troops by land and sea, pushing through several borders, lobbing shells and firing missiles at cities and villages.

It was an attack few Ukrainians anticipated would happen, certainly not on this scale. For weeks, their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and his advisers downplayed the possibilities of a Russian assault, even chastising the United States and European countries for constantly warning that an attack would happen. There were no evacuation plans or other elements of a comprehensive strategy to keep Ukrainians safe and secure in the event Russian tanks rolled in.

Residents of Ukraine were stuck at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Central Railway Station on Feb. 24, as Russia began its attack. (Whitney Shefte, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)On Wednesday night, restaurants and bars had been crowded with well-dressed people hours before the attack. Many residents attended the opera or strolled with their families past Kyiv’s centuries-old cathedrals. Airplanes arriving in Ukraine were full.

“We never expected this at all,” said Ludmila, referring to the Russian assault. She and her colleagues withheld their family names out of concern for their security.

By Thursday, the fears of a nation could be seen in the long queues at ATMs, gas stations and grocery stores to stock up on food and necessities. The fears could be seen in the massive traffic jams of cars filled with families desperately trying to leave the city. And they could be seen at the bus station, where passengers — carrying what little they could stuff in small suitcases — waited in snaking lines.

In the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest and a mere 25 miles from the Russian border, hundreds of residents huddled together in underground metro stations. Russian artillery sporadically thundered above.

Kharkiv was long considered a likely target for the Russians because of the city’s proximity to the border and its majority Russian-speaking population. But some people were still confused by the sound of blasts in the morning.

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Inside one subway station, people lined the walls and sat along the stairwell. Trains sat on both sides of the platform with the doors open. People unrolled yoga mats and blankets on the floor. Children played games on phones while adults refreshed the latest news. Some people had strollers, suitcases and pets with them. Others had very few belongings.

Oksana Nipogodneyeva, 46, said it was if she “woke up in another reality.” She expected to spend the night on the metro station floor with her mother and two daughters.

“The people who call us a brotherly country are committing these actions,” she added. “It’s some kind of betrayal and you just can’t understand it.”

The pounding of shelling continued after nightfall. The sound of a fighter jet overhead rang through the downtown area.

Hundreds of miles away, at the border crossing with Poland, fleeing Ukrainians carried children on their shoulders and dragged suitcases. Many had walked for miles in search of safety. Some who had set out in vehicles grew frustrated by traffic that stretched for five miles back into Ukraine and abandoned them to continue on foot.

Some said they woke up to the sound of rockets and decided it was finally time to flee.

“We didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” said Khrystyna Spilnyk, 22, who was walking to the border with her mother after leaving their car at the side of the road. “We are stressed, confused.”

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Officials in Poland have said that authorities are preparing for as many as 1 million Ukrainians fleeing into the country, already home to some 2 million Ukrainians.

Ivan Yurochko, 24, an engineer, was leaving Ukraine on foot with nothing but a small backpack.

“I didn’t have time to pack,” he said. He planned to stay with colleagues in a town on the border. But his mother and other family members had chosen to remain behind. Many people don’t have the financial means to leave, he explained.

“Sometimes I just have this emotional breakdown, just crying,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll come back to Ukraine.”

At the train station in Kyiv, dozens of foreigners were frantically trying to purchase tickets.

Many were students, including 15 Nepalis gathered near the main door who worried they would be stranded in Kyiv. South African Tony Desmond, 25, was trying to reach the city of Lviv in hopes of getting assistance from the U.S. Embassy, which had relocated to that city in the west of the country.

“This is not just ordinary war,” said Desmond, a computer engineering student. “This is Russia, it’s the biggest military power in the East and West. My biggest fear is I don’t want to die. I want to find somewhere safe.”

Moroccan university students Ayman Elharchi, 21, and Hamza Mrita, 19, arrived in Kyiv early Thursday morning from Kharkiv. They hoped to continue on to Lviv, where they thought they might be safer from Russian aggression. But with very few tickets available and a mad rush at local stations, the pair was unsure how to depart Kyiv.

They said they’re willing to take “any option” to leave the city and head west. “Of course, our parents are very worried,” Mrita said.

“If leaving is best for security, then we leave,” he added. “If staying is better, security is the priority. Security is wherever there’s no war.”

By the time Kristina Masina arrived at the train station, she had already encountered the war. She had flow in from Germany in the early morning. That’s when Kyiv’s airport was attacked. She and her 5-year-old daughter raced out of the airport, along with hundreds of other passengers, she said.

“We were running at the speed of light,” she said. “Then we heard some explosions, some shelling. We were trying to run as far away from the airport as we could. It was really scary. I’m talking about it now and I’m all shaking.”

Now, they were at the station, trying to reach their home in the central town of Kirovograd. But there were no tickets, and so she was traveling to another town an hour away, then taking a bus or taxi, she hoped.

A few steps away, Galina Nedopriadko was picking up her granddaughter. The 66-year-old had made up her mind: She would not flee the city.

She had received military training when she was younger in Russia — and now she wanted to help repel the Russians from her country. “I can dress wounds, cook, I’m ready for anything,” said Nedopriadko, adding there was a military unit based near her home.

“To be honest, I don’t have any weapons with me, I haven’t bought any yet,” she added with a smile. “Well, it’s okay, I’ll strangle them with my bare hands! I’ll rip them apart!”

By dusk, an eerie quiet had fallen over central parts of the capital.

At a four-way traffic stop outside the historical Kyiv opera house, lanes typically crammed with cars were empty and silent. Only a handful of pedestrians passed by. Most appeared to be in a hurry.

In the hip Podil neighborhood, a gas station was one of the few businesses open. It was rationing fuel, barely five gallons per customer.

Employees handed out Ukrainian flags to the customers waiting in the long line.

Khurshudyan reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and Morris from Shehyni, Ukraine. Whitney Shefte and Kostiantyn Khudov contributed to this report.

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