Ukrainian man drives 3,700km to be reunited with parents and fiancee – who live just 10km away
It is a 10-minute drive from Serhi Belyaev’s house in the village of Tsyrkuny to his fiancee’s home in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. A quick spin west on Soborna Street, over the E40 motorway on to the Lesia Serduika highway, and you are there. That was, until the war came.
It took just hours for Russian forces to sweep into Belyaev’s village on 24 February, as they advanced on Kharkiv, the closest major Ukrainian city to the Russian border.
Lives across Ukraine were changed that morning. For Belyaev, the frontline of the largest conflict in Europe since the second world war now lay between him and both his girlfriend, Nataliy Drozd, 28, and his parents.
No longer the familiar road into town, Lesia Serduika was now an impassable no man’s land. Belyaev was cut off, worried for his sick mother, Galina, 66, and determined to be with his terrified girlfriend.
Then Belyaev, 32, a professional poker player, had an idea. A gamble. He mused on it, initially rejected it and then settled on it. He would replace the 10km drive with a 3,700km odyssey.
“To the Russian border, through Russia to Latvia, on to Lithuania and Poland and then back into western Ukraine to come at Kharkiv from the west,” he says. “It was a bit crazy, yes.” But it was possible.
What followed was an extraordinary adventure that brought Belyaev to the attention of the Kremlin’s secret police, the FSB, who rightly suspected him of giving away Russian positions to the Ukrainian army. He traversed cities under fire, driving in against the flow of refugees, and there were, he admits, moments of doubt. “But only briefly: I had to get to my fiancee.”
In the first days of the war, Belyaev and his brother Yuri, 45, fled Tsyrkuny, which was in flames, for Strilecha, a village a short way north that was occupied but not under fire.
Belyaev started talking to families who wanted to get to Poland. He decided he would join a convoy of four cars in his black Honda Accord. “The car needed repairs to the brakes and the transmission,” he recalls. “It made terrible noises, but there was no other option.”
Yuri, who has a heart condition, chose to stay behind to look after their dog. His place in the car was taken by two strangers: Emil, 28, and Emil’s fiancee, Katya, 22. On 4 April at 1pm they set off. It was a jittery start.
“We had been told by Russian soldiers the border, a kilometre away, would be open. But it wasn’t,” Belyaev recalls. The only viable option was to drive 70km through occupied land to a second border crossing. “That 70km was the hardest,” says Belyaev. “There were lots of checkpoints and, halfway there, we came to some Russian soldiers who wouldn’t let us through.”
The convoy was turned round. They were directed by the soldiers towards what they would soon discover was a filtration camp in a local administrative building. Their lives were on the line. “We were all interrogated. They were very suspicious of Emil, who was from Luhansk in the east and didn’t have a passport as it had been burned at the start of the war. His phone was also broken because of the humidity in the cellar where he had hidden from the bombardments.”
Emil was undressed to his underwear so they could search for tattoos that might offer evidence of a military affiliation. Then they went through Belyaev’s phone. “I had deleted everything,” he says. “If I hadn’t, I would be dead. I didn’t sit with my hands in my pockets when the war began. I sent locations of Russian military convoys to friends in the territorial defence.”
But the group were finally handed the documents they needed at 4pm on the first day of the journey. A 5pm Russian curfew was looming. Those breaking it were liable to be shot.
Belyaev put his foot down, unsure whether he was on the right road as there was no data coverage, no road signs and they were on dirt tracks. “We had to cross a bridge at the village of Rubizhne. I saw it being built when I was 10 when my brother took me fishing,” Belyaev says. Now it was in ruins. “I saw its birth and I saw its death,” he adds. There was just one lane still standing. “It wouldn’t take much weight,” Belyaev says. “I was terrified at that point. It was a 20-metre drop to the river below.”
But they made it – and at the next checkpoint, the convoy of cars was waved through. The mood of the group lifted. But disaster struck. One of the drivers had got overexcited. “He was driving a bit faster – and he hit a pot hole hard.” The car’s front wheels were badly damaged and there was no way it could complete the journey. They drove to the closest city, Vovchansk, with a heavy heart. “But again pure luck,” says Belyaev. “The first person I asked about where a garage might be said he was a mechanic. He repaired the car so quickly that we could get going immediately.”
It was now 7pm and the border was due to close at 8pm. But the mechanic was confident they would get through. “We went but there was no electricity, so it was pitch black,” Belyaev recalls. “I was the lead car. Then, out of nowhere, right in front of me, was a soldier with a machine gun. We were at the border.”
It took five hours to get across after a thorough questioning. “And then we decided to turn right – I don’t know why because it was the wrong way,” says Belyaev. The soldiers blinked the lights on their military vehicles. They had their machine guns out and were now suspicious and aggressive.
“We explained that we didn’t know the way.” The soldiers conferred. “But they accepted it and waved us on.”
As the convoy went on its way, Emil joked, “What do we need to do to get shot?” But now, at 3am on the second day, they were in Putin’s Russia. “I sent a text to Nataliy telling her where I was, just saying that it was safer there,” says Belyaev. “She was actually angry because I had left the dog behind. I didn’t tell her about my plan to come back in. I was worried my communications would be intercepted.”
The convoy drove on, heading to Belgorod, the closest big Russian city. Almost immediately they were waved down again. It was the FSB, the successor to the Soviet KGB. “Every single one of us was interrogated again,” says Belyaev. “But I knew my phone was clean. They asked me about my job. We must have spent 20 minutes talking about poker.”
They reached Belgorod around 5am, where they slept in their cars outside a supermarket. “But this was enemy territory. We knew we had to sleep less and drive more.” They were up again two hours later. Belyaev played music on his phone. The soundtrack, Belyaev laughs, was Gwen Stefani, Jay-Z and Limp Bizkit.
Their trip then took them through Kursk, Roslavl, Smolensk and Velikiye Luki, where they arrived at 5am on the second day, to snatch some sleep. Exhausted, they finally reached the Ubylinka border crossing into Latvia at 10am the following day, 6 April.
It took 16 hours to get through border control. “But it was such a relief,” recalls Belyaev. “I felt I was a man with rights again. I called Nataliy and my parents and told her about my real plans. Nataliy said, ‘You have a chance to stay in safety. You should stay there because men between 18 and 60 aren’t allowed to leave Ukraine. We can be together when the war ends’.”
Belyaev had no time to think. It was 2am and they were facing a 1,000km journey to Poland via Latvia. At midday they stopped at Kaunas in southern Lithuania. “This was the first wifi – in McDonald’s. I called my friends and parents. ‘I am eating McDonald’s. How about you?’,” he laughs.
The convoy headed off again, this time to Warsaw, arriving at 7pm. His fellow travellers had reached their destination: a large expo hall turned into a refugee centre. Belyaev had to make a decision. He pondered during a seven-day stay in Warsaw. The risks seemed grave. He was also sick with Covid symptoms and getting worse. But he felt he had to go on. “I told Nataliy that I wanted to come back. I said, ‘Wait for me, baby’.”
On 14 April, at 2pm, Belyaev left Warsaw for the Rava-Ruska border, joining a humanitarian convoy. They reached Lviv, Ukraine’s most westerly city, at midnight, loaded up some supplies, and set off. This was wartime Ukraine: every road posed a risk.
“A lot of roads were closed – it added probably 100km to our 550km journey. But it is nothing when you are driving 3,700km rather than 10km to get home,” laughs Belyaev.
He reached Kyiv at noon on 15 April and slept at a friend’s – in a bed for the first time in 11 days. On the morning of 18 April, he left Kyiv for Poltava, a city halfway to his destination, where his younger brother lived. “It was the first time I had driven alone,” says Belyaev. “I found it hard.” In Poltava, he picked up medicines for his parents and he was now en route to the very frontline of the war in Ukraine, where his village remained cut off and the battle of Kharkiv raged. But Belyaev had no doubts. It was perhaps even time for a little surprise.
“I rang my dad and told him a volunteer was near with supplies, so he should come down,” Belyaev smiles. “And he found me.” The men hugged. With his mum, tears flowed. Then, just 50 metres from Nataliy’s house, he was stopped by police. “They were suspicious of the blankets and the state of my car. They asked if I had been sleeping in it, and why. It was only my passport stamps that persuaded them of my story.”
Finally he was, however, back with the woman he loved. Had Belyaev made the right decision to head back? Nataliy smiles: “Home is home.”