When Eliezer Sherbatov arrived back in Canada Tuesday from the calamity in Ukraine, he embraced his wife, slept beside his two-year-old daughter and met his three-month-old son for the first time. Five days earlier, he had feared he would never see his family again.
Last Thursday, the Israeli-Canadian professional ice hockey player was with his team, HC Mariupol of the Ukrainian Hockey League, in a hotel in Druzhkivka for a game when he was awoken at 5 am by the sound of a bomb exploding.
“Then you hear a second and when things start shaking around you … you understand that war is within our grasp,” said the 30-year-old.
Russian forces this week intensified their attacks on major urban areas, including the capital, Kyiv, and the strategic port cities of Odesa and Mariupol in the south, where Sherbatov’s team lives. Amid the fighting, the humanitarian situation worsened and the international outcry against the invasion grew. More than one million people have fled Ukraine following the invasion, in the swiftest refugee exodus this century, the United Nations said Thursday, as Russian forces continued their push for control of key cities.
Long lines of cars and buses have for days been backed up at checkpoints at the borders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and non-EU member Moldova. Others crossed the borders on foot, dragging their possessions away from the war.
Sherbatov says he knew he needed to leave the country and return home to his wife and kids in Laval, Que. He just didn’t know how.
“There’s nowhere to go,” he said. “You’re right in the middle of nowhere in the Donetsk Oblast (province) where thousands of Russian military are on the east side … and the west side are Ukrainian military.”
‘A 50/50% chance that you will survive’
Sherbatov says the first thing he did after calling his wife to reassure her was turn to Canada for help. He received only an automatic reply from Global Affairs Canada telling him to get to the nearest bomb shelter.
“If I had listened to a copy paste email from the government … I would still be there with my teammates under a bomb shelter waiting to die,” he said.
Being also of Israeli nationality, he contacted its embassy which told him to “do everything, no questions asked, to get to Lviv” in western Ukraine, around 70 kilometers from the border with Poland.
Securing the very last ticket that day, Sherbatov waited with two teammates for the train from Druzhkivka to Liev. Before it arrived, however, he was informed by a communications worker for the military at Mariupol that the trains were being targeted.
“There’s a 50/50 per cent chance that you will survive,” Sherbatov recalls hearing.
When it arrived, one of his teammates chose not to board out of fear. But Sherbatov said he put trust in God following a call with his father and boarded the train — beginning “the most difficult and stressing 24 hours [I] ever lived.”
The train, which Sherbatov dubbed “the train of death,” traveled through Kramatorsk and Kharkiv then through Kyiv, all of which are under heavy attack by the Russian military. Sherbatov says he didn’t sleep a wink the entire ride.
“You’re scared you’re not going to wake up,” he said. “It was very difficult, you cannot explain it if you don’t live it … It was difficult just to breathe.”
‘A jungle’ at Polish border
Sherbatov was grateful to survive the ride, but then faced the hurdle of crossing the border into Poland. After arriving in Lviv, he was helped by a team of Israeli volunteers, who he says put him in charge of a bus of 17 people, mostly children and the elderly, who were also leaving for Poland.
Traffic at the border was “a complete jungle,” according to Sherbatov, describing thousands of people waiting to cross and vehicles stretching 20 to 30 kilometers. The group eventually had to cross by foot. After “hours and hours,” out in the cold, they made their way into Poland, hugging each other and crying. They were then transported to Warsaw to the Israeli embassy.
Sherbatov praised the Israeli volunteers, calling them “beautiful people” and applauded the structure of the embassy in a time of crisis. He says it’s what Canada should be offering.
“You cannot have an automatic reply. You cannot have a copy paste. You need help now,” he said.
He also denounced the Canadian government for still enforcing proof of a negative and costly PCR test when he tried to fly back into Montreal without one. “I tried to explain I just came back from a war,” he said, noting he’d left behind everything but his passport.
Ultimately, a person from the bus into Poland paid for his test.
Fears for his teammates left behind
Despite all his personal belonging remaining in Mariupol, Sherbatov says all that matters is that he’s back home in Sainte-Dorothée with his family.
“I met my baby boy and it’s something special — I cried like a baby,” he said. “It’s a surreal and special moment.”
His wife, Somaly Sherbatov, says waiting to hear news about her husband’s dangerous travels was a “nightmare,” and she’s grateful to have him home.
“If it wasn’t for the help from his friends, the Israelis that were with him and his father, I was going to be a single mom of two kids here,” she said.
While Sherbatov recognizes how lucky he is to have escaped Ukraine, he worries about the thousands of others who remain stranded in the country as the war rages on, including the teammates he left behind. He says he’s staying in touch with them and praying.
“I’m trying to be happy but it’s very difficult knowing that they are still there,” said Sherbatov through tears.