I had made egg salad. Paraska and Olya found it amusing. Submitted photo

My friend Lyuba, her husband and son, raking & loading hay. It will be stored loose in the barn. Submitted photo

Olya washing dishes at the masonry stove that sees nearly daily use. To the right is the food fired oven. The barrel on top contains the makings of a batch of vodka. Submitted photo

A light meal at the end of a long day, butchering and processing a hog. Paraska is on the right and her mother, Maria, on the left. Around the table are Paraska’s two sisters, Alena and Anna, her daughter Olya and granddaughter Maria. Fresh liver is the highlight of the menu. Submitted photo

An April evening meal. If the weather was pleasant, we were likely to be eating outside. Left to right, back row, Yuri, a cousin, Olya, Paraska’s husband Petro. At the table, Paraska, Petro’s mother Maria, Petro’s brother Vasyl. Submitted photo

Olya and her grandmother walking to church on Easter Sunday. Maria is carrying a basket of traditional early spring foods to be blessed by the priest. Submitted photo

One of the smaller Kosmach villages, spread out in a long narrow valley. Submitted photo

In one week’s time, the Peace Corp returned 7,300 Volunteers to the US from their posts all over the world. I was among the 240 Volunteers (plus a dog and two cats) who returned from Ukraine on March 21st.

We had a full-day Ecology Workshop scheduled with the Stavnik School on Thursday, March 12, twenty children, grade 3 through 9. On my way to the office on Wednesday morning I stopped at the shop owned by the brother of my host and friend, Paraska, to buy food for the next day’s lunches and snacks.

Three loaves of sliced bread, sausage, cheese, mayonnaise, two kilos of cookies, six liters of juice, three bottles of flavored sparkling water. Chips, which are called crisps. Fruit. All provided by Dmetro at about a 50% discount. Across the street to another, larger shop for tomatoes and cucumbers to slice for the sandwiches, and carrots to cut into sticks. Carrot sticks are not a “thing” in Ukraine, but the kids gobble them up.

Arrangements were made to have Paraska’s son, Yuri, pick up the big tote bag on his way home from the hospital where he runs the outpatient clinic. Added to the food was a bag of t-shirts for the kids who would attend the workshop.

Then, at suppertime, we received word that as of tomorrow, March 12, all schools in Ukraine would be closed for at least two weeks. Rats! Not only for the Stavnik program, but also for a two-day program for older students at the Kosmach Central School during that time period. Getting the workshops scheduled has been hard enough and this is an annoying setback.

Over the next two days, there was a lot of talk among Peace Corps-Ukraine Volunteers (we stay in touch via Facebook) about a possible evacuation. Pure conjecture, but with bits of important fact, time to time. The Peace Corps office in Kyiv stayed in close contact with us, and we were advised to stay alert for more information and to report to our district wardens. Shortly after the Ukrainian government announced that it would be closing it borders on at the first minute of Tuesday morning, we received an evacuation order from Peace Corps Ukraine.

At 5:30 on Saturday evening, we were told to pack up our essentials, let our landlords know were were leaving and give everything else away. We were to report to the Kyiv office by 11:00 Sunday night. The problem was that the last bus out of Kosmach had already left at 5:00. There would be no bus to get me to the train in Ivano-Frankivsk until morning, and then the earliest train I’d be able to get would put me in Kyiv with two big suitcases at about four in the morning. The thought of dragging suitcases through the city at four in the morning was not comforting.

After talking with a supervisor in the PC office, I decided to take a Sunday afternoon bus, catch the midnight train, and arrive in the city about 9:00 Monday morning. By this time, we also expected that we’d be on an afternoon flight to Washington, DC. Or so we thought.

Having the extra day with my Ukrainian family was a bittersweet joy. It gave me time to pack thoughtfully and to leave my room tidy. I was able to give some English language children’s books to Paraska’s granddaughter, got to see the new calf that was born just that morning, said goodbye via telephone to the great grandmothers, helped to fold dumplings one last time. I also promised everyone I would come back.

At lunch I learned that Paraska’s son, Yuri, had made arrangements for me to go by car to Ivano-Frankivsk. While it cost more, it was a relief to avoid schlepping my bags on and off two buses which would no doubt be horribly crowded. It also meant that I now had an extra four hours in Kosmach.

Given that it was Saturday evening when we got the evacuation order, what I was not able to do was say goodbye personally to any of my coworkers or the school children I had worked with. The best I could do was send a Facebook message to let them know. One of my favorite people, Vasya, immediately asked “Is this a joke?” My very good friend, Lyuba, who is an English teacher in the next village, came with her husband to spend some time with me and she gave me a small religious icon to assure safe travels. Paraska gave me some sausage and cheese sandwiches to take along on the trip, and then her daughter, Olya, gave me more sandwiches, some shortbread cookies, and homemade vodka in a soda bottle. With a straw.

The World Health Organization (WHO) had declared the virus outbreak a pandemic on March 11, just 8 days after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Ukraine. On March 12, the day the schools closed, there were two more cases. March 16, the day we were to fly out, there were seven cases. By March 21, our actual leave date, suddenly there were 47 cases. As of today, July 8, there are 50,414 cases of COVID with a death toll of 1,306, in a country of 4.2 million people. Now on Day 108 of the outbreak in Ukraine, there are 16.9 cases per million residents, compared to 19.9 cases per million in Maine (these numbers are the average number of cases during the previous week).

I did arrive in Kyiv on Monday morning and the long ordeal of trying to get back to the US had only begun.

This column does not reflect the opinions of the US government or the Peace Corps but is based entirely my own observations and experiences.– Жанін

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