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Escape from Ukraine: EWU’s Chris Hansen and family inching closer to Slovakia border

UPDATED: Sun., March 6, 2022

People fleeing from Ukraine cross the border in Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia, on Friday. Longtime Inland Northwest resident and coach Chris Hansen and his family hope to make it to the Slovakia border within the next few days.  (Darko Vojinovic)
People fleeing from Ukraine cross the border in Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia, on Friday. Longtime Inland Northwest resident and coach Chris Hansen and his family hope to make it to the Slovakia border within the next few days. (Darko Vojinovic)
By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

For now, the safe haven for Chris Hansen and his family is in an Airbnb in the town of Poltava, Ukraine.

After a discouraging day of travel on Saturday, Hansen, along with his wife Victoria and stepdaughter Sonja, are scurrying to try to secure safe passage through Ukraine to the border of Slovakia in order to escape the Russian invasion of the homeland of Victoria and Sonja.

Potential bus transportation across Ukraine to Lviv can come as early as Tuesday, and they’ll find out more on Monday. A possible, but costly, private car ride may materialize Monday as well, said Hansen, a longtime resident and coach in the Inland Northwest.

The trio was able to leave battle-torn Kharkiv on Sunday via a minibus, but it wasn’t the original transportation they had secured to take them across Ukraine. It was supposed to be a bus headed for Lviv on Friday, but that was postponed to Saturday. A cancellation that day was an enough-is-enough moment for the trio.

“They canceled on us and kept our money,” said Hansen. “We got scammed.”

Instead, they secured passage on a “van,” as Hansen calls it, to Poltava, which so far has been spared any bombings or artillery attacks as the ones they witnessed in Kharkiv from a fourth-floor apartment. The voyage was free, and that particular transportation company was just “trying to get people out and away from the bombing,” Hansen explained.

The trio secured shelter at an Airbnb in Poltava, and on Sunday wandered around the city to find transportation options.

“This city has not seen the war,” Hansen texted on Sunday. “Tranquil and quiet. It’s a brand new apartment and it’s really nice. And no bombs.”

Russian jets overhead in Poltava still make the scene unnerving, as Poltava is only 188 miles from the capital of Kyiv, and just 91 miles from where they started their expected 20-hour trek to ultimate safety.

“I hear jets all the time,” he said. “The sirens in the city go off, and those jets keep going by to Kyiv, and then I hear them coming back.”

Since Hansen only speaks English, it’s fallen on Victoria and Sonja to do the bulk of the fact-finding and talking with locals. He said it’s frustrating to have the language barrier be a detriment to handling communications to make arrangements.

“They don’t know what I’m saying and I don’t know what they are saying at all,” he said of the Ukrainian people.

Hansen even had a Zoom meeting with his family in the United States to brainstorm options to leave Poltava. He said he reached out to the United States embassy, but they are unable to help.

“My family has gone above and beyond,” he said. “My brothers Aaron and Eric, my daughters, nieces and nephews and others keep trying to find solutions – cars, buses, trains, whatever.”

Scenes in the media of men not being able to leave Ukraine with their families were not a concern to Hansen since he’s an American – until now. Ukrainian men up to age 60 – the exact age of Hansen – are expected to stay and fight against the Russians.

That wasn’t an issue until they tried to board a train to Kyiv, a main terminal for the government-run train system.

“Armed guards would only let females and children aboard,” he said. “Even American men were not let on.

“I really do not want to go to Kyiv anyway,” he added of the war-torn Ukrainian capital. “It does not seem like a good idea. I have been to that rail station. No, thank you.”

So instead, they will seek bus transportation west to Lviv, and they have their names on waiting lists.

“It might be a 48-passenger bus I’m guessing that they are going to put 60-70 people into,” Hansen predicted. “But it seems to be a reputable company.”

Lviv is nearly 550 miles away along the main highway through Ukraine. They would still have to travel southwest to get to Slovakia, preferably to the border crossing from Uzhhorod in Ukraine into Vysne in Slovakia.

At this point, beggars can’t be choosers, and just getting out of the country is the overall quest for Hansen’s family.

Slovakia is where a colleague in the Alaska fishing industry has helped arrange transportation for them to his home in the Czech Republic.

“Uzhhorod is the goal,” Hansen texted on Sunday. “Our getaway car will be there.”

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