Nguyen Thu Trang is still trying to come to terms with the suddenness with which her family – husband and two children – was uprooted by war.
Where they lived in Odessa, Ukraine, was not the most dangerous place as the war broke out, but the sounds of gunfire, engines and screams were too much.
“Everything happened so quickly. Just two weeks ago I was discussing with my husband if we should use all our money to purchase goods to sell. Summer was supposed to be a peak time for business, but now it’s all gone.”
Trang, 40, said that as soon as her family got the evacuation notice, they gathered up their passports, the kids’ birth certificates and some cash and left the house immediately.
There was not enough time for many Vietnamese families like Trang’s to bring along their most precious belongings as they left Ukraine after Russia launched its attack two weeks ago.
For a week after they left Odessa, the family spent all day and night on the road from Ukraine to Moldova and then to Romania. There were times when they had to drive for two days straight, only stopping a while for food and rest. It was simply not safe out in the open.
Doan Van Tra, 42, frantically called his wife and kids Tuesday noon to pack their bags and get out of Odessa. It was a snap decision to leave the beloved city where they’d spent the last 15 years, just half an hour after the Vietnamese community in the city announced that a vehicle was ready for evacuation.
On the road, Tra constantly checked his mailbox, messages and social media to get updates from the embassy and his loved ones. Around 3,000 Vietnamese had evacuated from Odessa to evade the war, moving mostly towards Poland, Modolva and Romania.
Like Trang, Tra said his family was lucky to be able to catch the first repatriation flight back to Vietnam on Tuesday.
“We have small children; a life spent running from war would be too much for us. There was no other choice but to leave. We can build our life back eventually. There was no guarantee if we stayed there,” he said, adding that his primary concern was the family’s belongings being damaged or stolen amidst the chaos.
“I wonder if the life we’ve built here for decades will survive this,” Tra said, sighing.
An evacuation is far from a Sunday field trip, Tra said. It does not accommodate people’s demands to eat and sleep; everyone had to move quickly and constantly.
“Seeing children as young as five or six months old on the car cry because they were sick or tired, I wept as well,” he said.
Their car covered hundreds of kilometers from Odessa before reaching the borders of Moldova and Romania. They spent another day to complete procedures and lined up to cross the border.
At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, around 300 Vietnamese from Ukraine landed at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport on the first repatriation flight for citizens caught up in the war between Russia and Ukraine.
Nguyen Van Duc, deputy chairman of the Vietnamese community in Odessa, is among those who’ve decided to stay. He said the goal was to get all Vietnamese out of the city and get them to neighboring countries to ensure their safety.
Duc said there were only around 150 Vietnamese left in Odessa right now. He and some members of the community decided to stay back and watch over people’s homes, making sure they stay intact until everyone returns.
“If we don’t watch things carefully, all the belongings of over 300 families could easily disappear,” said Duc, adding that the group was also watching over a parking lot with hundreds of cars belonging to the Vietnamese community.
When the sirens blare, Duc instructs everyone to get into bomb shelters.
“When the city requests everyone to leave, or when the warzones become too hostile, we will find a location to evacuate to. But for now, we will stay here for as long as we can,” he said.
Out of danger
Last Friday, four days before the flight, Vietnamese citizens like Trang and Tra were able to breathe sighs of relief as they managed to get out of the most dangerous areas.
In Romania, with the help of the local embassy and other Vietnamese groups, the refuges got food, clothes and accommodation. But most importantly, they were assisted to complete procedures for their flight back home.
“Several families with small children who had neither passports nor birth certificates were able to get on the plane anyway,” Tra said.
Trang’s most precious memory of the chaotic time is seeing the eyes of both her daughters brighten as they saw a dish of roast chicken. Hundreds of other families like hers were also able to get to the shelter in Romania safely.
Under yellow lights, everyone gathered together to eat, drink, share their experiences and discuss the days ahead of them, she said.
Duong Van Hong, 59, was among the first to get off the plane after landing in Noi Bai. The Odessa resident profusely thanked the community and foreign affairs officials for helping them return safely.
Hong, whose family has spent nearly three decades in Ukraine, said the war came too quickly for them to bring anything back to Vietnam.
Van Anh, 38, who has spent 20 years studying and working in Odessa, said that while she felt safe and peaceful in Hanoi, she was still worried as she received updates about what was happening in Ukraine, her second home.
It’s been 12 days since Russia’s “special military operation” began in Ukraine. As of 6 p.m. Monday, around 2,200 Vietnamese fleeing from Ukraine have been received by Vietnamese representatives in Poland, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 830 others were received in Romania, 310 in Hungary, 100 in Slovakia and 20 in Russia, it added.
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