Indian chess player Anwesh Upadhyaya and fiancée Viktoriia Ivanova were in the midst of narrowing down their search on apartment sale listings in Kyiv when they heard the first rumblings of a Russian invasion. On Wednesday, two weeks after their lives were flipped on the back - surviving in a city under siege, waking up every morning to hostile forces closing in and eventually being forced to flee, leaving behind family and everything they own, they arrived in India.
The nightmare is finally over, they've made it out alive, but scars and fears remain.
"It was traumatic," Anwesh, an International Master, tells ESPN, "For a while I couldn't believe that I was actually living through a full-scale war. I had to leave behind everything I built over the past ten years. But whatever pain I'm carrying, I know it's many times worse for my fiancée. She's been forcibly driven out of her home, her country and separated from her parents. There's no worse feeling."
Viktoriia's father is in the north-central Ukrainian city of Pryluky and her mother and brother remain in Koryukivka, a border town just miles from Russia. "We tried our best, but there was just no way to get them out. The bridge connecting these places was blown and it's been completely cut off since. We're in touch over the phone. So far, they're safe," he says.
Little more than a week ago, fearing things could take an even darker turn, Anwesh and Viktoriia decided to flee Kyiv. The ordeal of waiting for a train for close to six hours and then squeezing themselves into one, packed to the rafters with just enough standing space, turned out to be physically exhausting. They arrived in Lviv, a Polish frontier town, after a 14 hour journey. To cross over to the relative safety of a neighboring country, Anwesh pored over possible border exit routes.
He reached out to friends and acquaintances with a good understanding of the region for information on lesser-known exit points. Two of them, chess players of Polish origin, but presently living in the UK and Germany respectively, had sound advice. One asked him to avoid the main jammed-up border - with its gridlocked traffic and lines of fleeing families snaking miles - at Shehyni-Medyka. The other sent him a list of alternate border exit options and satellite images of the relatively less crowded crossing near the Ukrainian village of Uhryniv. It was 90 kilometers away from Lviv, where they were, and immediate concern was how they'd manage to reach that far. Anwesh's proficiency in Russian came to the rescue. The 30-year-old struck up conversation with a local while in Lviv and managed to persuade him to drive them to Uhryniv, so they could cross over to Poland. "Thankfully he agreed, or the only other option may have been for us to walk all the way," he says.
The 15-odd checkpoints manned by armed guards that they had to cross to reach the border felt like an eternity. "The guards were relatively nice to us. We were stopped by a patrolling car once because the guy who was driving our vehicle was sort of uncontrolled. Otherwise it was a fairly smooth check of documents and being allowed to proceed."
A huge part of getting out of a war zone can be about staying alert through countless sleepless nights in a row and thinking on one's feet. Usually one doesn't bode well for the other. A saving grace was they were sufficiently stocked up on supplies that lasted their stay and didn't need to risk going out to buy essentials. Many others weren't in a similar position. Some Indian students put out SOS videos from bunkers saying they'd spent days there without food, water and proper ventilation. A week ago, a fourth year Indian medical student was killed in the east Ukrainian city of Kharkhiv outside a grocery store. Another Indian student was shot at a few days ago, in Kyiv, he luckily managed to survive.
"While in Kyiv, we tried to keep our ears pricked to sounds - shelling, street fights, approaching army columns - chatting with locals and having a couple of contingency options handy," he said, "In war the situation can be very fluid and there can be no concrete guidelines. You have to assess and act on your own. In certain cases, like say getting on to a transport, we obviously had to stay with the crowd. But in some others, like border crossings, it wasn't advisable to take a clogged route."
Initially, Viktoriia's family wanted her to stay back in the Ukrainian capital and Anwesh was supposed to follow Indian embassy orders and leave the country by himself. But given the deteriorating situation, Anwesh realized it probably wasn't the best idea. "We decided that no matter what happens, we'll stick together." Formerly a full-time chef, the pandemic took a knock on Viktoriia's job. She went on to take up work as a logistical manager in a women's clothing e-commerce platform.
Anwesh had left India a decade ago to study medicine on the advice of his Ukrainian chess coach Georgy Timoschenko, and recalls feeling aghast at some of the comments made about Indian students taking up courses abroad.
"It's just sad...the lack of empathy," the 2017 national rapid champion said, "I saw memes being shared with people saying why leave India and then ask the government for help. We can't overlook the fact that medical seats are very limited in India and not everyone can afford crores in donation for admission. It's why many choose to study in Ukraine. A war, though, is really no time to be talking about any of this."
Apart from Viktoriia's family, Anwesh long-time coach Grand Master Timoschenko too remains in Ukraine. He joined the civilian numbers in combat while his wife and younger daughter have crossed over to Moldova and are attempting to seek refuge in Israel. Timoschenko's elder daughter continues to stay put in Kyiv with her grandfather. "We're in touch with the families. Honestly we're constantly worrying because things can go from bad to horrific at any point."
Prior to the pandemic, Anwesh had planned to take a year's sabbatical while in Kyiv to hunt for GM norms. COVID-19 put paid to his ambitious plan. To stay in touch with the game in the absence of tournaments, he then started coaching younger kids online. "It was impossible to stay off work (as a doctor) for more than five consecutive days so I started training younger players. I realized it was a good way to share knowledge and stay connected with the sport." He has over 60 students logging in from different parts of the world for training, he says. He hasn't been able to conduct classes for two weeks now. "My students have been asking me for lessons. It's the first thing I want to re-start, once I'm physically and mentally in a better shape. I'll also have to look for options to further my career in medicine.
As the couple prepares to start life over in India, Kyiv continues to consume their thoughts, waking hours and phone notifications. For Anwesh, the montages and wistful flashbacks - his parents' visit to the city on his graduation five years ago, the smug feeling on winning his first tournament in Kyiv since he'd grown up reading about chess-superpower Soviet Union, missing a GM norm by half a point while straddling Pediatric exams with a tournament - are an endless stream.
"Of course we're glad to have escaped," says Anwesh. "But Ukraine isn't a place we can cut off from our minds. We have family, memories and a huge part of our lives tied to it. We're constantly refreshing our news feeds and worrying when we'll get to see our loved ones again."