Torture and relief

Good Samaritan helps Jamaican businessman and family stuck in Ukraine

( Jamaica Observer )A total stranger on Saturday prevented Jamaican William Massias and his family from spending a second night outdoors in freezing temperature after their attempt to get into Poland from war-torn Ukraine failed at the overcrowded border.

Massias told the Jamaica Observer in a phone interview at 1:47 pm Jamaica time Saturday (8:47 pm Ukraine time) that the good Samaritan, a woman named Leda, was at the border earlier at the same time as his family and, like them, had retreated about 20 miles to a bus station.

“We went to the bus station because we could not get any hotel. Every hotel was booked, so we decided that we would just spend the night in the bus station,” said Massias who, along with his wife Victoria and five children, endured a tortuous, agonising 43-mile journey — most of it on foot — from Lviv in western Ukraine for more than 24 hours.

“We saw a family with some children getting ready to go to the border and I said to Vicky, ‘The best thing to do is save somebody the aggravation, so let’s go and tell them that they shouldn’t go because they’re going to go through the same thing that we went through.’

He said that his wife, who is Ukranian, was talking to the family for about 10 minutes. The woman who came to their rescue overheard the conversation and started talking with his wife, explaining that she, too, had been at the border.

She asked where they were planning to stay and they told her that, because they could not find a hotel, they would sleep at the bus station.

“She said, ‘No, you don’t need a hotel, come and stay with us at our house.’ Vicky even said to her ‘It might be a few days,’ but she said ‘Don’t worry, come and stay at my house,’” Massias related.

“She took us there and fed us and set up beds for us. We never knew this lady from anywhere. She has what looks like a brand new restaurant here and set up beds for the kids in the big room. She also invited another woman and her two children to stay here,” said Massias.

“After we ate, I went to the kitchen and started washing the dishes and she said ‘What?! You washing dishes? You can’t wash dishes’. But I told her, I believe that wherever you go you must always do unto others as they have to you, and I thought you did really good and I want to pay you back,” he told the Sunday Observer, explaining that his wife acts as translator as Leda doesn’t speak English.

Last Thursday the Observer broke the story of Massias’s plight, reporting that he, his wife, and their children — Alexia, 15; Leigha, 11; Liam, 8; Maya, 6; and Timothy, 3 — have been living in Ukraine since January 2021 because his wife needed to deal with a health issue that was proving difficult to treat in Jamaica.

On realising that Russian President Vladimir Putin was slowly making a case for invading the Eastern European country Massias moved his family from Dnipro in central Ukraine to Lviv.

Massias had told the Observer last Wednesday that his children’s US passports had expired; therefore, he had spoken to the US State Department, which told him that it could send him “a letter of travel” so the children wouldn’t need to acquire new passports.

His family holds US and Jamaican citizenship.

After Russian forces invaded early last Thursday morning (Wednesday night Jamaica time), Massias made arrangements to get to the Polish border on advice from the US Embassy in Poland.

That journey to the border began Friday morning and, in a WhatsApp communication to the Sunday Observer, Massias, the CEO of Brawta Living, described it as “horrible” and “sad”.

“We began with our taxi driver, who drives careful[ly], but worse than any Kingston taxi man, breaking all lines of traffic. I have never seen such lines in my life as it appears that all Ukrainians [are] heading for the border,” he shared.

He said about 20 kilometres from the border they were stopped by a policeman who told them that they could go no further. They got out of the taxi and bid the driver, Uri, goodbye and started walking, joining thousands of Ukrainians pulling their suitcases on the highway.

“After a while we checked with some soldiers and they told us that a bus could bring us closer. We sat waiting in a long line,” he said, and watched as people in despair broke the line to get onto a bus.

When another bus arrived, and it was their turn to board, people crowded the entrance.

“I had to throw away all I knew about being a gentleman, and with Vicky in tow with five kids, two large 100-pound suitcases and six carry-on [bags] we pushed, pulled, elbowed all who got in the way, pushing Vicky and the kids on first and me barely being able to pull these two heavy grips and getting them on,” he shared.

The bus, he said, was allowed to drive on the opposite side of the road to the border. The driver took the bus onto the soft, muddy grass to avoid oncoming vehicles, but as he tried returning to the road “I heard the tyres spinning, resulting in us being stuck”.

“We all started to walk and heard it was seven kilometres left, so I encouraged the team and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We found out later it was not seven kilometres but about 15 kilometres left. We walked and walked and walked. I had Timothy strapped to one of the 100-pound suitcases pulling along” on the road that “was not level”.

As they struggled along the road, “a big guy with a big cargo van shouted out to us in Ukrainian ‘Come and let me take you,’” the Jamaican shared.

That drive took them another five kilometres before they were forced to stop as “all roads were now gridlocked”.

“We started to walk again and came in a line with thousands of people waiting to go across.”

While waiting in line they observed wives with children crying and saying goodbye to their husbands, as all men aged 18 to 60 were not allowed to leave the country because they were needed to fight.

“I felt it hard for them; I cried for them,” Massias told the Sunday Observer.

As they inched closer to the gate at the border the crowd started pushing and shoving.

“Soldiers were coming in and removing all males without children as this was not the line for them,” he explained.

“Just as I reached back to get my suitcase a young girl holding a one-year-old baby just could not hold the baby any longer and the baby fell from her tired arms. I let go of my two heavy suitcases and caught the baby. She looked at me and said ‘Help me’ as she fell on the ground. So I am holding this stranger’s baby while looking up and can’t see my family,” Massias shared.

“I am now 15 people deep and 100 across, pushing and shoving to get past a four-foot-wide gate with four soldiers with guns sticking into faces of unruly people. Lots of fights breaking out in our sardine-type accommodations.

“By the grace of God I made eye contact with the soldier in the middle who had his gun pointed in the air. I put up five fingers and said as loud and polite as I could, ‘Sir, I have five children who about an hour ago went over without me,’”

His wife and children, he said, were looking on from a distance, crying hysterically to the same soldier to whom Massias had spoken.

“He beckoned me to come forward. I could not move, as both suitcases were being trampled on, and mothers were holding me back so that they could go through. At this point I am praying earnestly, asking God to give me strength. I pulled with all that I had and one suitcase came with me and I through the gate. But now the other one was there and mi nah leave it. I saw the handle and grabbed it and I was pulling and pulling when I felt Leigha hug me from behind, pulling me, and together we were able to get past gate number one. Vicky and all kids came running, crying hysterically and we all hugged for what seemed like an eternity as the soldiers turned and told us to hurry and leave the area,” he said.

After getting through the first gate, the family encountered another line.

This was now Friday night.

Acting on the instructions of the US Embassy, they spoke to soldiers at the front of the line, but they told Massias that there were no special arrangements at this next step.

They joined the line at the back and waited all night in the freezing cold.

He said that at sunrise, with his children cold, tired, and unable to withstand any more, “and after numerous trampling incidents and fights” they heard someone say that a special line had been set up for children three years old and under.

They decided to go look for the children’s line, but what they saw there was worse than what was happening in the line from which they came.

“The line was not moving and people were putting their luggage and kids over barbed wire fences into another waiting area as the gate was not being manned properly,” Massias said.

“The Government here was just not prepared for this mass amount of desperate people,” he reasoned.

“I looked at Vicky and said, as much as we need to get out of Ukraine I will not be putting our kids and luggage over that high barbed wire fence. I can’t even lift up the two 100 pound suitcases. Fortunately, to the right of us we saw soldiers escorting families out of the cage to formally enter back into western Ukraine.

“We joined the line and followed them out as I can’t begin to share the extended horror that we would have to endure with five children and all our luggage. It was total disorder, dangerous, and this massive migration is not, at the moment, set up for families despite so-called priority lines which I see as death traps.”

He recalled that earlier in the day when they were walking towards the border they saw many Ukrainians walking back into Ukraine. He wondered if they had been rejected, but after his experience he realised what had happened to them.

Reflecting on the experience, Massias said, “I could not make this type of story up, even if I had the help of Steven Spielberg.”

Since then, he has spoken to Jamaican officials and is hoping that soon he and his family will make it out of the country, even as he asks Jamaicans to pray for Ukraine.

“I feel very safe where I am now. Where Leda put us up is a nice, little village. I just feel so sorry for the families here. It’s terrible, it’s sad,” Massias said. “When I sat down at the border last night [Friday] and looked at how many families have been displaced and saw them crying, it touch mi heart, it hurt mi bad, bad, bad, and I said to myself, if Putin just experienced something like this him wouldn’t create this war.”

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