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Escape from Ukraine: Uncertainty looms as EWU’s Chris Hansen and his family begin the complicated journey out of a war zone

UPDATED: Sat., March 5, 2022

The driver shuttling former Eastern Washington University football coach Chris Hansen and his family out of Ukraine is shown driving on the wrong side of the road to get out.  (Contributed photo/Chris Hansen)
The driver shuttling former Eastern Washington University football coach Chris Hansen and his family out of Ukraine is shown driving on the wrong side of the road to get out. (Contributed photo/Chris Hansen)
By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

Chris Hansen and his family are getting out.

The longtime Inland Northwest resident and former player and coach at Eastern Washington University has departed the war-torn city of Kharkiv in Ukraine, and on Saturday began a 20-hour trek to Slovakia by a minibus.

If it all works out, he, his wife, Victoria, and stepdaughter Sonja will end up in the Czech Republic, where Hansen knows someone with a home. But as it has when Russia first invaded the country on Feb. 24, danger and the unknown lurk around every corner.

For well over a week, the trio was isolated in an apartment in Kharkiv as the war’s bombing and fighting raged around them. They were reluctant to leave the homeland of both Victoria and Sonja, but they decided simple survival warranted their departure.

“We just have to get through Kharkiv and get out of town about 40 miles, and then we’ll be free and clear,” Hansen said late Friday before they departed.

The plan for Saturday was to bus all the way across the country, roughly the size of Texas. The cost was reasonable – an equivalent of $67 each in American dollars to go 500 miles. But Hansen was wary after paying one-sixth of the total upfront.

“The bus is supposed to pick us up right in front of the apartment,” he said Friday, after another bus scheduled to depart that day did not work out. “I worry about it being a scam, so we’ll just play it by ear.”

The bus did show, and the trio departed for the west at about 10:15 a.m. his time – just as planned. Hansen and more than 20 others were crammed on a minibus helping them find refuge away from the invaded country.

There were traffic jams at first to get through, and the bus driver used the opposite lanes of the divided highway to avoid them.

If the trip wasn’t hard enough, Hansen reported via text that snow was falling. He reported checkpoints to get through – presumably manned by Ukrainians, not Russians.

Just over an hour into the trip, he reported via a highway marked E40/M03 that they were near the village of Miroshnykivka. That is near a fork in the road at Poltava.

But what Hansen didn’t expect was to be stopped again and stuck in Poltava for the night.

“Surprise to me,” he texted. “Have to make plans in the morning.”

Had the trio been duped by the bus driver, Hansen had a different plan – which in hindsight may have worked out better. The other option he found was a train that went directly to Slovakia. It wasn’t one of the nation’s high-speed trains, but was a good alternate option.

Hansen said he figured if the bus driver didn’t show up or wasn’t communicating prior to their departure Saturday, they would have time to go downtown and try to catch the train.

Both the bus and the train bypass the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Lviv, somewhat of a relief, since the invasion continues to bear down on Kyiv, the capital city. An original escape plan had them go through both cities, but no tickets were available.

Now, the three have to wait until Sunday to complete their cross-country trip, with several choices to make.

From Poltava, they might head northwest on M03 and end up in Kyiv. Instead, they likely will take the south fork on E584 to the southwest, and eventually cross the Dnieper River to E50, which would take them west.

The Russian invasion to the south has included such cities – going east to west – as Mariupol, the overtaken town of Khersin and Odessa. The latter two cities are close to the path the bus is taking.

It’s dangerous, but those trying to leave are counting on the agreement Russia made with Ukraine on Thursday to provide “humanitarian corridors” to allow people to get out safely.

“It should be a real safe corridor,” Hansen said before he left. He departed not knowing what the cell service would be like, nor if he would have the opportunity to charge his devices.

There are three entry points to Slovakia, which has a 60-mile border along Ukraine.

The middle entry – which requires crossing Uzhhorod in Ukraine into Vysne in Slovakia – has been flooded in recent days by tens of thousands of refuges.

If they can successfully get to Slovakia, that’s where his friend comes in. They are colleagues in the fishing industry in Alaska, with Hansen working for Silver Bay Seafoods.

His associate has come to the rescue with transportation and a place to stay.

“He’s in Alaska but lives in the Czech Republic,” Hansen said. “He’s been asking if there was anything he could do for us.”

But getting to the safe haven of Slovakia comes first.

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