“A state of fear”: Minnesota man shares story of family fleeing the Russian attack on Ukraine

Gunshots in a packed Kyiv train station.

Massive traffic jams.  

Thousands fleeing the fighting across Ukraine.  

“Many people are just in a state which would be natural, in a state of fear,” declares Paul Gavrilyuk.  “A state of just complete outrage and horror at what is happening to a completely peaceful country, that had absolutely no plans of invading anybody.”

For Gavrilyuk, a University of St. Thomas theology professor, the fear and desperation are personal.

He showed 5 Eyewitness News photos of his parents, in their 70s, and other family members driving west.  

“A road trip that would typically take ten hours give or take, is likely to take three days,” Gavrilyuk explains. “As we speak, they’re also being evacuated from that area south of Kyiv in the direction of the western border, the border of Poland.”

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He says he left Ukraine in 1993, to pursue graduate studies in the U.S.

Now, from halfway around the world, Gavrilyuk is just trying to keep his family alive.

“My brother and I literally have to guide the drivers through the areas in which we do not have information in terms of potential missile strikes,” he says quietly.

It’s not just missiles.

Airstrikes and shelling have left buildings in Kyiv and other cities in ruins.

A man walks past a building damaged following a rocket attack the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The sounds of gunfire heard in the streets.

“It seems as though the military forces are in the process of taking over key spots, including city governments, not just military spots, but cities,” notes Thomas Wolfe, an associate professor of history and global studies at the University of Minnesota.“ The most troubling phrase that Putin was using was this phrase of ‘absorbing Ukraine into the Russian territorial space, and that means Russian administrators, Russian rulers.”

ABC News is reporting about a third of the 150,000 Russian fighters have entered Ukraine, and that the remaining troops, now resupplied, will likely cross the border all at once.

Wolfe says those troops could face a costly insurgency from Ukraine forces.

“It’s an uneven fight, but on the other hand, they’re fighting on their own turf,” he says. “And that always counts for a great deal, to know your own streets, your own countryside.”

Gavrilyuk says Ukrainians are being pulled in two directions: concern for the vulnerable and defiance against the Russians.

Gavrilyuk says several family members have seen the impact of the invasion up-close.

He says a Russian tank came within ten yards of his brother’s apartment building in Kyiv, but did not fire, and that his aunt lives in the same Kyiv suburbs where a bridge was blown up.

Meanwhile all of this is being watched closely by Minnesota’s Ukrainian community, about 17,000 people.

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“We are dealing with an unprecedented act of aggression in terms of its size,” Gavrilyuk says. “There is a martial law imposed, and people from time to time are effectively asked to shelter in place.”

Wolfe says Ukrainians have been fighting to stabilize their country and their society for decades.

And now, he says, once again, the future is uncertain.

“The real tragedy is that Ukrainians have been trying to build this state for thirty years, and with all sorts of pressure and interference from the Russians and all sorts of teases from the West, and they’re being set back again,” Wolfe says.

RELATED: KSTP’s full coverage on the attack on Ukraine