10 DAYS IN HELL
[ Cont. from 37] a successful businessman who was also one of the founders of the Tea Party. Gaitens informed the office of Sen. Marco Rubio. Todd’s sister Cindy contacted the office of Sen. Ted Cruz.
Others were engaged through their own channels. Charlie Mount, who runs the catamaran chartercruise service Lena works for, met with one of his friends. His friend phoned someone — he never told Charlie who it was — but when he put the phone down, he said, “Something is in motion. Don’t ask me what, but things are happening.”
Two days later, two soldiers we had never seen before appeared in our room and told us we were leaving. We were again blindfolded, then brought to the surface for the first time in 10 days. Supposedly we were going to be taken from the airport to another location, but it almost became the trip that never happened.
When we were halfway between the bunker and the truck to transport us, Gostomel was hit with a mortar attack. Our escorts scampered for cover and left us out in the open, blindfolded, exposed to furious shelling, and with a good chance of being killed. How we managed to avoid being hit I do not know, but when the firing subsided, our escorts shoved us into a truck that was piled inside with assorted junk and our two carry-on bags.
We were taken to a nearby village and put into a small building being used by the Russians as a command post. Inside, they stuck us in a shower room with the shower heads removed, almost like in the movies about Nazi death camps during World War II. We were fed a small hot meal — the first one in two weeks — and then told we had to sleep sitting up on cold, metal chairs.
The next morning, March 15, we were driven for hours toward the north. The trip wound through the radiation zone of Chernobyl. The road was littered with cars shot to pieces like ours. There were burned-out military vehicles, endless signs of explosions, and the tracks of heavy vehicles that had chewed up the road. Ukraine’s infrastructure will take decades to be repaired.
Several hours later, we were dropped in the middle of nowhere. The driver of our vehicle gave us back our passports and said, “Back the way you came is Ukraine, and that way is Belarus.” Pointing toward Belarus, he said, “You should start walking.” We could see nothing but empty fields and forests off in the distance. It was 5 p.m. and less than two hours from nightfall, so we started walking.
We finally reached a Belarus border checkpoint some time later and explained that we were refugees. They let us cross after a series of questions from their immigration, customs, and security personnel. Then came the greatest moment of our lives. A Red Cross worker had a tablet, and we were able to call Antonio on Telegram and tell him we were alive. I was never so happy to hear my son’s voice.
The next day we boarded a night train that took us to the Polish border at Brest, and the great nightmare was over. Several hours later, we were in Warsaw. First Iryna, and then I, some days later, flew to the U.S. The following month, Antonio had his Easter break and flew from London to America. We were reunited.
“Welcome home, Papa,” he said as I hugged him, my body shaking with emotion. “I will always be here waiting for you.”