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Escape from Ukraine: Snow, armed farmers and a ‘tremendous amount of checkpoints’ line the path to freedom for EWU’s Chris Hansen and his family

UPDATED: Wed., March 9, 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

There were plenty of long, arduous bus rides that Chris Hansen endured as a college football player and 13 years as a coach at Eastern Washington University.

But none of them involved escaping and seeking freedom – or farmers with rifles along the roadside.

A more than 16-hour ride through the countryside of Ukraine is how Hansen spent his Tuesday, along with his wife, Victoria, and stepdaughter Sonja as they continued their trek to safety from the Russian invasion.

They were set to arrive in Shehyni, Ukraine, which is the entry point to Poland and the small border town of Medyka. That is the main entry point Ukrainian refugees have used because of its proximity on the main highway connecting the cities of Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv.

That main highway, however, was not what the bus took when it left mid-afternoon Ukraine time, from the town of Poltava. That was where the trio had stayed for two days after departing Saturday from their fourth-floor apartment in Kharkiv, which has been attacked incessantly by Russian forces.

The difference in routes, according to Google maps, was 33 miles and about 2 ½ hours. It would have been 605 miles going through Kyiv, but the safer route ended up being 638.

Via text, Hansen reported that the bus was not overcrowded as he feared, with four seats left. Instead of going a faster route that would have taken them through the besieged capital city of Kyiv, the safer route took them Southwest from Poltava through the town of Kremenchuk and over the Dnieper River.

From there, they turned West to essentially parallel the main highway. Hansen reported that the vast countryside consisted of hills, valleys and farmland, with a few medium-to-large deserted factories. “All I see is farms,” he texted, “and farmers with guns.”

He saw fuel and supply trucks in the hundreds heading in the opposite direction, and the farms turned to trees along “the most bumpiest road I have ever been on.” He said the going was slow, with lots of small villages to pass through, plus a “tremendous amount of checkpoints” he estimated to be 30, just halfway through the trip. Snow, ice on the road and traffic didn’t help.

Seeing the vastness of the countryside once is apparently enough.

While the Dnieper River was massive and he called Kremenchuk “so cool,” he can only imagine what this region will look like if it gets into Russian hands. The river – the fourth-largest in Europe – starts in Russia and goes through Belarus and Ukraine all the way to the Black Sea, so it would be an obvious treasure to control.

“I changed my mind,” Hansen texted mid-way through the trip. “I’m not coming back. I have no idea how Russia is going to win – this country is vast. The topography is going to really mess with the Russians.”

He also learned Tuesday that the apartment he shared in Kharkiv with Victoria and Sonja was spared in a reported bomb blast 40-50 yards from the building on Monday. Whether any of them ever return will depend on the war, but getting into Poland is the task at hand.

They’ll have to navigate the border crossing. Hansen’s family back in the United States was giving him border crossing information, which will no doubt be invaluable early Wednesday morning upon arrival.

He’s been in contact with several United States authorities, including the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. “I emailed them and asked what I needed to know about the Polish border and if I need to do anything special. They said just to have my identification, and I said ‘okay.’ ”

From there, many refugees have ended up temporarily in the town of Przemysl, which, since the war has started, has reportedly doubled in size from its normal population of 60,000. Some have gone on to Warsaw, but Hansen is still hoping for another destination.

Originally, Hansen had hoped to exit Ukraine through the Uzhhorod border crossing into Slovakia, which shares a 60-mile border with Ukraine below Poland. A colleague of Hansen’s in the fishing industry in Alaska, Vojtech Novak, has offered transportation and a place to stay in the Czech Republic near Prague.

“He’s going to have a friend pick me and the girls up at the (Slovakia-Ukraine) border, and he just lives 15 or 20 miles from the Western border of Slovakia and the Czech Republic,” Hansen said last Friday when they thought they had originally secured safe passage to Slovakia. “A car and a house – we couldn’t ask for anything better than that. Slovakia is a small country, so it shouldn’t take us long to get there.”

His hopes to get to the Czech Republic are still in tact, but he’s had to adjust based on his new destination.

“I could ask Vojtech to have the car go there to get me, but I don’t want to do that – it would be way above and beyond. But I might if I can’t figure out how to get South.”

But Hansen was able to look back at a few trips with EWU as a comparison to his long bus ride to freedom. Back then, flights to games were few and far between, and all of the trips he took as a player at Spokane Falls Community College were via bus.

One long trip he had came as a coach in 2001, when Eastern’s game at Idaho State was postponed to late November because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It should have been a nine-hour trip back through Montana, but a snowstorm forced the Eagles to go back through Boise and up Interstate 84 back into Washington. They arrived back in Cheney in the morning as the sun was rising.

“Heck, I loved EWU bus trips,” he said. “I’m actually enjoying this bus ride.”

Editor’s note: This article was changed on March 9, 2022 to correct errors in a quote said by Hansen. Hansen said, “I’m not coming back. I have no idea how Russia is going to win – this country is vast. The topography is going to really mess with the Russians.”

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