A man who walked for more than 43 miles with thousands of refugees to the Polish border from the Ukrainian city of Lviv has described the “brutal” and “harrowing” 20-hour journey.
Manny Marotta, 25, was part of a group determined to reach the Polish border from Lviv in western Ukraine – a 43-mile walk on which he saw children “dragged out of bed” and families separated as Ukrainian men were conscripted to fight “on the spot”.
Usually working as a tour guide in an art museum, Mr Marotta, from Pittsburgh, told the PA news agency he had been in Ukraine for a week and a half working as an independent journalist when Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday – and decided to flee Lviv when rumours spread about an incoming Russian bombing.
He described feeling part of a “humanitarian nightmare” as he watched men, women and children rush to Poland, where he arrived the next day at 7am local time.
Mr Marotta told PA: “You had elderly people walking alone on the side of the road with these sticks, hobbling along.
“There was one grandmother that told me she was going to Poland – Poland was far away, it’s amazing, the resolve of these people (trying) to escape.”
He also described the “heartbreaking” moment he saw Ukrainian men being plucked out of the group and off buses heading for the border to be conscripted into the Ukrainian army.
“It was about 10, 15 kilometres from the border and Ukrainian army soldiers started coming out on to the streets with speakers, announcing ‘no Ukrainian man aged 18 to 60 is allowed to leave the country – you must go east and fight’,” he said.
“They were saying, ‘say goodbye to your girlfriend, to your wife, say goodbye to your mothers and daughters, you’re going east’.
“I started seeing these surreal scenes of fathers saying, ‘I don’t want to leave my family’, and Ukrainian soldiers yanking them away. Mothers were protesting, they were screaming, ‘Why are you doing this?’
“There was this guy standing up on a box saying, ‘forget your wives, forget about your girlfriends – you need to defend your country. Don’t be a coward’.”
Mr Marotta added he will “never forget” meeting a 24-year-old pulled away by soldiers with “AK-style weapons” to be conscripted.
“He had no choice, he gave me this look that I’ll never forget, it was a sad sort of smile … I hope he’s OK,” he said.
“It was just tragic – fathers being torn from their kids to go fight in the war.
“When I got to the border, I made friends with this 18-year-old Ukrainian kid … they conscripted him on the spot, it was just very brutal to see the terror in his eyes knowing he was going to go east and fight the Russians.
“It was harrowing to watch.”
Mr Marotta saw children on his journey who had been “dragged out of bed” by their parents.
“The toddlers were cold, they were hungry, they were tired,” he said.
“They were crying, asking, ‘where are we going? What is going on?’ Nobody could answer.”
Mr Marotta began his journey at 4pm local time in Lviv.
“I woke up in Lviv to air raid sirens,” he said.
“I went out to the centre of the city to see what was going on, there was a voiceover, a loudspeaker urging everybody to stay calm and seek shelter.
“People seemed panicked, everybody was calling their relatives … Nobody knew what was going on.”
Mr Marotta said it was a “terrifying moment” and decided to leave the city immediately, only to be met with fully booked trains, no cars to hire and no buses running.
“I was getting a little desperate at this point, the country was under attack – so on a fight or flight impulse, I began walking west along one of the main roads that leads directly from Lviv,” he said.
“I just started walking, it was about four in the afternoon and I was just walking along the road with my backpack.
“Soon, I come upon a long line of cars – a gridlock, it was a strange sight … every petrol station I pass, there are signs that (they) have no gas.”
Mr Marotta said many were abandoning their vehicles and fled “carrying anything they could” as an “exodus” of people formed three or four hours into the journey.
By the time he reached the border, he was sandwiched among tens of thousands of Ukrainians – many of whom were in a “car pile-up” still waiting at the border, while those on foot were “cold and hungry”.
Having reached Poland and been offered tea by a welcoming committee at the border, he said he was “inconsolably happy” after the “longest and worst night” of his life.
He is now staying in one of the last available hotel rooms in Przemysl, south-east Poland, with other Ukrainian refugees and plans to sleep before locating an American presence.
“The Western world should be should be aware of how terrifying this is for the Ukrainian people,” he said.
“They should turn their eyes right now to the fullest possible humanitarian aid for those on the road right now.
“Those on the road right now are suffering dismally.”