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Sports >  EWU football

Adjusting to life in a war zone: Former Eastern Washington coach living in Ukraine looks for defense strategy, but also hope

UPDATED: Thu., March 3, 2022

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

Relentless bombing, jets overhead and tank battles. But, fortunately, also some boredom.

That described Wednesday for Chris Hansen, as he continued to find refuge in a fourth-floor apartment during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He and his wife and stepdaughter are now a full week into coping with the war and constant attacks on their city of Kharkiv.

“It was a pretty boring day as far as wars are concerned,” said Hansen, a former Eastern Washington University football player and coach.

Hansen said bombing was continuous through the day, and some of the loudest explosions came between 10 and 11 p.m. his time. Russian jets would fly overhead, and shortly thereafter he could hear resulting carpet bombing of targets. Tank skirmishes could also be heard.

Up through Wednesday, at least, he hadn’t had to face the fear of seeing any Russian tanks or troops on the street below him.

“There is some trepidation – a lot of it,” he said of the relentlessness of the attacks and the psychological toll they’re taking on the three of them. “More than I thought.”

Hansen said he heard blasts to the north, south and east, and the closest he thinks were just 2 miles away. He said it seemed as if the Russians were content at “softening up” Kharkiv for an eventual takeover.

“I don’t know what their strategy is,” Hansen said. “As good a guess as I could imagine is that they would stay on the outskirts of the city and take out everything they target. They’ve been taking out government buildings – maybe soften us up before they invade us.”

Kharkiv’s deputy governor, Roman Semenukha, said on Ukrainian TV the Russians can’t enter the city because of his country’s stiff defense and that their opponent has been trying to “sow panic with missile strikes, hitting critical infrastructure and residential areas, trying to demoralize us.”

Hansen listed off eight buildings reportedly to have been damaged or destroyed on Wednesday – a school, an old church, a supermarket, the city council building, the police department, the Palace of Labor and two buildings at the Kharkiv National University.

Now without Wi-Fi and internet in the apartment – but still with other services such as power and cellphone – Hansen said his inability to see what’s happening in the city is a frustration.

“I wish I was in a taller building because I have really limited vision. I couldn’t even see the tank that was on fire on Monday, and that was only three-quarters of a mile from me.”

He can see a 3-mile wide valley behind him to the west, but where apartments end, homes begin. Thankfully, it hasn’t been a target at all.

“I’ve gone back there to look numerous times, and there is nothing going on,” he said. “Directly west there has not been one shot fired that I know of.”

At this point in the ordeal, with no end in sight or easy way for him and his family to leave the country, Hansen looks for signs of hope.

“The most encouraging thing is hearing that the 40-mile-long Russian convoy is being held up outside of Kyiv,” he said. “They are being held up by the Ukrainians. If that capitol goes down, we’re done as a nation, as far as this war is concerned right now. But this thing is going to go on for years – even if Russia takes this country, it’s not over.”

“The other thing popping up in the news – and I’ve been getting text messages too – is that even though the Russians have 100,000 troops inside Ukraine, they are running out of fuel and food. It’s a supply link problem in epic proportions, if what is reported is true.

And at this point, Hansen doesn’t know what to do besides wait it out. He continues to have contact with the State Department and has previously been in touch with the American Embassy in Ukraine. On Wednesday, he made contact with the office of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers after an inquiry from her office in Spokane.

He is totally unsure what the United States is doing for other citizens stuck in Ukraine, but he does know he hasn’t met any fellow Yankees in his limited time in country.

“I have never met an American here – not once. I think there are quite a few Americans here, but I have no idea how many.”

Now, more than ever, he regrets not being more forceful in trying to get the three of them out of the country before the war began. He was willing to go, but his wife, Victoria – who is in the process of seeking U.S. citizenship – was not.

“Now it’s too late,” Hansen said. “That’s my most discouraging moment, that I didn’t get them out of here when I had the chance. I should have just put my foot down.”

Hansen and Victoria were scheduled to depart Thursday for a trip to Egypt. On Wednesday, instead of packing for that trip, the trio created a space where they could ride out a possible attack on their apartment complex. The location is fortified by cement walls on two sides, but still provides the flexibility to flee for a nearby bomb shelter.

“We have an immediate exit if we need it,” he said. “We can get to the bunker in 30 seconds, or we can just hang out in the stairwell.”

If he loses cell service, Hansen also has a backup way to communicate, thanks to his job working in Alaska in the summer months for Silver Bay Seafoods. He has a device called a Garmin inReach, which sends cellular signals via satellite.

“I don’t need a cell tower for it,” he said. “I fired it up and it works, and service is paid for. It takes a long time to send and receive – it’s not very immediate – but it does get to people.

“There are a couple of places I go in Alaska where there is no cell service,” he added. “I’ll be in the middle of nowhere or out on a boat in the water, and I’ll use that to communicate with the plant.”

And if he has to defend himself face-to-face with a Russian soldier? He and his boss, Silver Bay Seafoods founder Richard Riggs, have had that conversation already.

“He asked me once if I had a weapon, and I said, ‘I do,’ ” Hansen said. “I have a dull Victorinox knife and one with a pink handle. It’s the most dangerous kind of knife I’ve been around. It’s a serrated knife, and you don’t want a new one because if you just nick yourself it’s a bad cut. We carry them in Alaska for working on fishing lines.”

Riggs remembers laughing about it then, but not now.

“He’d joke around that all he had for protection was two Vicky knives, which is common on a boat,” Riggs said of the pre-war conversation. “That became our running joke, and I’d send him pictures of a couple of knives.

“All of the sudden it became sadly real – too real too fast.”

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