Iliana Monárrez opens her eyes as wide as she can and explains that something turned on inside of her. It’s hard for her to put it into words, but it was as if a switch had been flipped. And from there, she entered a mental state that allowed her to get out alive from the war in Ukraine and tell this story.
Monárrez is seated in the café of a gas station in northern Bucharest, the capital of Romania. It’s Saturday night and a few miles away there’s a stadium show with more than 50 invited artists benefiting the victims of the war in Ukraine. The nation’s main radio stations and television channels are broadcasting the event, and people enter and exit the cafe in a state of nervousness that’s shared nationwide. The conflict is still far away, but it’s ever present. There are many cars with Ukrainian license plates, it’s common to hear a lot of people speaking Russian and Ukrainian in recent days, and luggage and backpacks appear and disappear.
During the past two weeks, Romanian soil has become a place to pass through for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing westward, towards a new life. And their stories are hidden behind small details: in the pets that accompany their owners during the trip, in the millions and millions of hryvnias being changed for new currency, in the rooms of a hotel. Iliana Monárrez has a story too.
Last February 24, early in the morning, Monárrez and her Ukrainian husband, Nikolai Berekstok, were excited. They were going to travel from Kharkiv, the city where they lived, to Kyiv, the capital of the country, to get their passports in the Mexican embassy. It’s a train trip that until about three weeks ago lasted five hours, and the plan was to go and come back via train in the same day.
They left home at five in the morning and took the metro to arrive to the station. When they arrived, they began to hear strange noises coming from far away. “When we went on the train we heard the first explosions,” says Monárrez, 47, of Mexico. They didn’t know it then, but their route covered two critical places for the Russian invasion strategy: the country’s two most important cities. Neither did they know that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had declared war that same day – practically that same hour. But when the noises got more and more frequent and the first news alerts arrived to their cellphones, they realized the magnitude of the situation.
“What should we do? If you want, perhaps it’s best that we leave,” said her husband.
“No, better to not, because I don’t have a passport. Better to go and come back,” she answered.
“That was the last day that we could be there,” says Olga García Guillén, the Mexican ambassador to Ukraine. “[Monárrez] picked up the passport and then I told her, ‘Hey, stay here,’” she recalls.
But Monárrez and her husband couldn’t stay. Her son Tadeo, 20, and mother-in-law, 62, had remained in Kharkiv, and leaving them behind wasn’t an option.
“When we returned, there were already no taxis and it was a total fluke that we were able to get one. The power was out and everything was quiet,” she remembers. “I was terrified, extremely worried for my son and my mother-in-law, but fortunately they were fine,” she adds.
It was hard to believe that something like this could be happening in Kharkiv. Monárrez moved there in 2019 after getting married. She met her husband at a seminar in Cancún and it was love at first sight, but when he offered to move them to Ukraine she wasn’t sure what to expect. The city surprised her. “Ukrainians are serious at first, but later they are very like Mexicans, they are very family-oriented, loving, and direct,” she says.
Kharkiv is a city of students, with universities that are both cheap and high-quality, and that made it a multicultural center, open to the world, but without the bustle of a grand metropolis. Altogether, it’s the second-largest city in the country, with 1.4 million residents. It’s very close to Russia. Many people have dual citizenship or work on both sides of the border. Russian and Ukrainian are both spoken. And that’s why when her son Tadeo was accepted to study Pedagogy and arrived last December, Monárrez could have burst with happiness. “I’ve passed the best years of my life in Kharkiv,” she affirms.
The war turned things dramatically inside-out. “It’s terrible because night and day there’s the bombing and you can hear it so close that you don’t know if your building will be next,” Monárrez laments. Her family lived in Saltivka, a housing complex that would be the equivalent to Tlatelolco in Mexico City, and which has suffered air attacks from bombs and missiles. The basement became a bunker and filled with children playing and elderly people arguing about politics, although little by little some of them decided to take refuge in the apartments of friends and acquaintances with lower-level apartments. A rumor spread that the Russians were marking which buildings they were going to bomb and some seventy-somethings climbed to the roof to make sure there was no paint.
The family also made their own bunker in a long corridor that had walls and ran the length of their apartment. “The heavy bombardment began in the city. First, bombing the monuments and the government buildings and later the residential buildings,” she says. That marked a before and after that even changed the soundscape of the conflict. “Fiu, fiu, fiu!” Monárrez imitates the sound of the missiles: “They hit the building and later you hear the roar. Papapapapa! Papapapapaa! Fuaaaa, fuaaaaa, fuaaaa! It escalated to the point where they began to send missiles that threw small bombs,” Monárrez explains. “That was indeed very terrifying,” she adds.
They had wanted to escape since the second day of the war, but there was no way to leave. Suddenly, an acquaintance of her husband’s told him that he had been able to cross to the western edge of the country and that his car was available in the city’s center. The keys, however, were in the possession of a third person, near the metro station Akademika Pavlova. It was about 20 minutes’ walk away, but the risk was too great and they didn’t feel ready to go until another friend could bring them there. “There was no other way: we could stay there and die or we could attempt to get out,” she says with a steadfast look. “So we left.”
They got the keys, seeing various people waiting in long lines to buy necessities, and they went to where the car was. Ten minutes later, the local news reported a bombing in Akademika Pavlova. “We knew immediately that they were bombing exactly where we had just been,” she affirms.
When they finally arrived to where the car was, a Chrysler Cruze, Monárrez had to take the wheel because her husband doesn’t know how to drive. “All my life I’d considered myself a very cowardly person, but in that moment I felt like a badass,” she says. “In that critical moment of life or death, I entered into that mental state that I was describing, of absolute control.”
Monárrez took the road home to Saltivka to pick up her son and mother-in-law. Just in that moment, there was an attack on the neighboring house and they had to evacuate. Her husband’s mother grabbed Buddy, her dog, and left running as fast as she could. Tadeo also ran down the stairs at full speed and lost his passport escaping the fire. Finally they climbed into the car and took the highway last March 2 to pick up Victor, another Mexican trapped in Kharkiv, and left the city.
“I asked if she could come by for me, but I couldn’t hear anything and after that the call was dropped,” Victor says. “I was standing there for 30 or 40 minutes without knowing what would happen and suddenly I saw them, they picked me up at the southwestern edge of the city.” It was the first time that they had met in person. “We saw him running with his backpack and literally behind him you could see all the smoke from the bombings, we shouted to him and he got in the car,” Monárrez remembers. “I know that it sounds like a Rambo movie, but that’s our story,” she says, still excited.
Monárrez drove the car through the bombs with just the gasoline that was left in the tank. “I don’t know if it was an act of God or what, but I drove like three hours until we made it to a gas station and the car didn’t die,” she remembers. After the gas station, Victor took the wheel. They weren’t able to buy even six gallons of gas, but it was enough to make it to Dnipro, about 125 miles south of Kharkiv.
During that leg of the trip, the only thing the five travelers had to eat was one cookie a piece. But in Dnipro they were received by Martín Corona and his wife, Cynthia Juárez, two Mexican evangelical missionaries that had been in Ukraine for seven years and knew the little towns and farms of the region like the palm of their hand. “We had already helped other people leave Kharkiv and we had traced the route according to where the Russians had been attacking,” Corona says. “When they arrived, we noted their nerves and we tried to make them the most Mexican meal possible: we put a chicken in the oven and opened a can of chiles,” the missionary remembers.
The next day, as early in the morning as they could. They had a reservation for a hotel in Haisin, a small town of about 26,000 residents in the center of the country, but they weren’t able to get there before the 9 p.m. curfew. “What do we do?” They arrived just before the car ran out of gas to Novoarjangelsk, a village of 30,000 residents. The owner of a restaurant offered them a place to pass the night, although she felt very bad because she didn’t have either beds or blankets to give them. There also was no heat, but to sleep together on the floor was better than sleeping outside, where it was even colder. “If we had stayed in the car, who knows what would have happened?” Monárrez says.
The route that Corona had traced was agreed upon with Miguel Ángel Uribe, an official of the Mexican embassy in Kyiv, and it arrived to a Catholic seminary in Kamenets-Podolski, where there was a Mexican priest that could receive them and give them shelter only two hours from the Romanian border. Every step they took was monitored in real time by Whatsapp and meanwhile, there were multiple diplomatic negotiations underway to get Tadeo out without a passport. “We always did everything we could do, despite the adversities of a war like this one,” Uribe says.
“They never let us fall. It’s very different when they just say ‘you can do it,’ compared to when they really take you by the hand and tell you ‘we’re with you, we’re not going to leave you alone.’ They did a great job with us,” Monárrez explains, moved. The seminarian received them on March 6 and the following morning, five people and a dachshund arrived to the Romanian border. That’s where Nicolai, who could not leave the country due to martial law, and Iliana said goodbye: “He gave me a hug, a kiss, and turned away.”
“It’s really messed up, everything you leave, your husband, your house, your life: you leave it all behind,” she says before taking a pause. Behind a photograph of four people who flee the war, there’s a husband who had to take refuge in a western Ukrainian seminary to help his compatriots and who says that if you are okay, he’s going to be okay. An evangelical missionary and a Catholic priest that helped you think up a practically miraculous plan so that you could escape. The house and the friends that you left behind without knowing if they’re still standing after the bombings. And the hardships that you probably won’t be able to forget.
“We were saved by a miracle,” Monárrez says in the gas station, as night falls. About three blocks away is the refugee shelter where she’s staying in Bucharest, the last stop before she flies to Mexico this Tuesday, and a beauty salon where she got a haircut. It’s probably been the one luxury that she’s permitted herself since they arrived to the Romanian capital a week ago. “Before I had my hair long and curly, but now with all this it got really messy,” she confesses as as she flips through her phone’s photo gallery, comparing the photos from recent months with ones from recent days. “Cutting my hair is my way of saying that I want to adapt, reintegrate to live,” she says, as if to reconnect with that switch that saved her life and which she must turn on again to continue forward.