I walked 16km to Poland: Dubai mum recounts gruelling journey in war-torn Ukraine

Ukrainian businesswoman braved freezing cold to cross the conflict-hit nation’s border



Happy reunion as Sofia Shamuzzi hugs her daughter after escaping from Ukraine where she had gone for a business trip
Happy reunion as Sofia Shamuzzi hugs her daughter after escaping from Ukraine where she had gone for a business trip
by

Mazhar Farooqui

Published: Tue 1 Mar 2022, 6:40 PM

Last updated: Tue 1 Mar 2022, 7:40 PM

A Ukrainian mother has been reunited with her children in Dubai after walking alone for 16 kilometres (km) amid freezing cold conditions in the dead of night to escape her war-torn homeland.

“The four-hour trek to neighbouring Poland’s border from Lviv in western Ukraine was brutal and fraught with challenges every step of the way,” said Sofya Shamuzzi.

“It was bone-chilling cold, and I didn’t even have proper shoes, but my resolve was firm. I had endured 16 hours on two buses to come this far. A few hours on foot wouldn’t kill me. This thought crossed my mind, as I started to walk. I believed in myself, and everything fell in place,” said Shamuzzi, who returned to Dubai from Poland’s capital, Warsaw, on Monday.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have crossed into Poland and other neighbouring countries in an exodus the United Nation says could grow to four million in the coming days.

Those arriving are mostly women, children and senior citizens after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky barred able-bodied men of military age from 18 to 60 from leaving the country, which is facing unrestrained Russian aggression since February 24.

“The situation on Poland’s border was desperate, and that’s an understatement. Thousands thronged the crossing with children and belongings in tow, while a seemingly immobile line of cars stretched for miles on end. Many had been waiting for over 48 hours to get to the other side of the border. I was lucky and made it safely back to Dubai,” said Shamuzzi as she recounted her gruelling experience in an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times.

The mum of four was on a business trip to Kyiv when Russia launched a pre-dawn attack on the Ukraine capital last Thursday.

“I woke up to the sound of explosions. It was scary,” said Shamuzzi, who was staying at the 11 Mirrors Design Hotel in the heart of Kyiv.

“Every few hours an air raid siren would go on and we were rushed into the hotel basement,” she said.

Shamuzzi reached Kviv on February 23. She was due to return to Dubai two days later but was left stranded when Ukraine closed its airspace amid safety concerns.

“Initially, I tried to drive down to Liev, which is around 550 km from Kyiv, but later gave up after I could travel only two km in two hours. Long queues of cars jammed the roads as people attempted to flee the capital. The fuel stations had also run dry. I couldn’t have reached Liev in my car, so I turned back and returned to the hotel.”

As the war intensified on February 25, Shamuzzi reached out to some friends at the Kazakhstan embassy.

“Though I’m from Ukraine, I grew up in Kazakhstan where I was part of a youth organisation which advised the government. Many of my friends from those days are now high-ranking government officials in Kazakhstan. So, I called one of them and sought help. He readily obliged,” she said.

Shamuzzi was asked to report to the Kazakhstan Embassy at 7.30am the following morning.

Businesswoman Sofia Shamuzzi, who walked for 16 kilometres to cross Ukraine border to escape war torn country, at her house in Dubai
Businesswoman Sofia Shamuzzi, who walked for 16 kilometres to cross Ukraine border to escape war torn country, at her house in Dubai

There was a bus waiting for her when she reached there. An officer matched her name with a list and allowed her to board the vehicle. “There were 45 Kazakh people inside the bus. I was the only Ukrainian. Soon, we were trundling towards Lviv. There was an eerie silence on the streets, which bustled with traffic days earlier. We encountered several armed checkpoints along the route. I saw a bridge that had been destroyed by the Ukrainian army to stall the advance of Russian forces,” she said.

“The atmosphere in the bus was tense. Everybody spoke in hushed tones. It took us 12 hours to reach Lviv as the bus had a fuel allowance of only 20 litres and had to stop at every fuel station to tank up.

“Finally, we reached Lviv after a long, exhausting journey. We completed some paperwork before being packed like sardines in another bus. It had a capacity of 45 passengers but carried over 120. People were squeezed on top of each other. Many struggled to breathe. It took another three-and-a-half-hour to reach Rava Ruska, the land border crossing between Ukraine and Poland.” she said.

Now, only a few km separated the two countries.

But Shamuzzi’s hopes of a smooth crossing were quickly dashed when she saw cars backed up for several km at the border crossing.

“Some motorists told me they had been waiting for 24 hours. That’s when I decided to walk to the border. I walk daily, but this was different. It was 2am and the temperature was sub-zero Celsius, certainly not the perfect condition to go for a long walk, but I backed myself to the hilt,” she said.

Shamuzzi said as she started to walk, she came across an unaccompanied teenage Moldvodan girl sitting between a row of cars. “She was barely 14 years and was taking a break after walking all the way from Lviv. She looked afraid and asked me if she could accompany me as her elder sister was waiting for her on the other side of the border. We struck an instant rapport and hit the road together,” she said.

Shammuzi said it was past 6am when they crossed the border into Poland.

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“There were hundreds of Polish aid workers and volunteers there to greet us with hot coffee, soup, groceries, and medical supplies. Many held up signs saying they could take a certain number of people home or drive them down to another city for free. I was overwhelmed by their gesture,” she added.

Shammuzzi said she hitched a ride to Warsaw and arrived there around midday on Monday.

“On the way I stopped for a coffee and hot dog. It was the best hot dog I have had in my life,” she recalled.

On Monday evening, she took a late evening flight to Dubai. She travelled first class on Emirates.

“My family was very worried about me and were overjoyed to see me back home safely,” said Shamuzzi, who runs Casa Shamuzzi, a Dubai-based furniture company with manufacturing facilities across Asia.

“I’m fortunate to have the resources to make an exit — an option not available to many of my compatriots," she added.

mazhar@khaleejtimes.com


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