COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State University graduate Ann Merrill grabbed a backpack and her cat, and headed to the basement of her Kyiv apartment. It was Feb. 24 and Russian troops had begun to bomb the city.
Today Merrill smiles at her naivete. She’d been reassuring family in Columbus that Russia wouldn’t deliver on its threats toward Ukraine — until she was awakened at 5 a.m. one morning by an Ohio friend who’d seen Russia’s invasion on the news.
“A friend from Ohio called me and woke me up and was saying: ‘What’s going on? I see something on television. I don’t understand — what’s happening?'” Merrill said. “I’d honestly been telling everyone for weeks: ‘Look, guys, it’s fine. Everything is calm in Kyiv. We’ve been living with this war in Eastern Ukraine for eight years.’ I started to say my usual…and then I heard the sirens go off.”
Merrill moved to Kyiv in 2005 on a one-year contract. She stayed for 17 years. With Europe on her doorstep and an affordable cost of living, Kyiv became home for Merrill and her 13-year-old cat Ziggy.
But Feb. 24 was the last night Ziggy and Merrill would be cuddled up in their Kyiv apartment.
“I was very confused and dazed and still in my sleep, and looked out the window to see what was happening…and then I heard a big explosion,” she said. “I had a backpack with some emergency things prepared, grabbed my cat, threw him in the cat carrier.
“I went down to the basement of my building which was built shortly after World War II, and was built with a bomb shelter,” Merrill said.
A friend who was in an office building with a better basement shelter arranged for Merrill to take a cab across town. “I went to her office building, again just with my backpack and cat.”
A day later, they found spots on a bus arranged by the Israeli consulate for Israeli citizens leaving Kyiv. Fortunately, they made room for American passengers.
That’s when Merrill had to make a difficult decision about Ziggy.
“I realized there was just no way my cat would be able to make this journey,” she said. “He was so stressed, from the night in the bomb shelter and being away from home. And vomiting — I just realized he would probably, it would probably kill him to try and take him.” So she handed Ziggy off to a friend who’d stayed behind in Kyiv and promised to take care of Ziggy.
“I know the cat’s OK. He’s taking good care of the cat. But I’m missing him a lot. I’m missing Kyiv and my friends a lot.”
Crossing the border
The bus journey, which normally takes six or seven hours, took 24. Merrill discovered she’d forgotten the single most important document in her life: Her passport was in her purse, hanging on the back of the apartment door.
“I didn’t get the chance to go back to my apartment. I spent five days in the clothes that I was wearing. I didn’t have a toothbrush. I had some documents, some cat food, phone cords, my computer, some chargers. An extra power block. But it turned out I didn’t have my passport.
“I had been keeping those critical things in the backpack, but I had taken it out the day before. Fortunately I had a copy of my passport and my birth certificate, and was in touch with U.S. consulate officers throughout the trip.”
In turn, the consulate had been in touch with the Polish border guards to smooth her exit.
“The roads were so packed with people trying to leave,” she remembered. “We were on the bus with mainly women and children. We left the Israelis [in Lviv], but they gave us connections with other Israelis and moved mountains to make sure we could get across the border.”
In Poland, ordinary citizens came out to help the refugees.
“There were incredible people all along the way,” Merrill said. “Nearby residents cooking huge pots of soup and potatoes and bringing vats of tea, bringing them out to feed people. Coming round to busses and vehicles with bottles of water, and making sure people were ok.”
Now Merrill is in Weiden, Germany, after being picked up from Poland by friends who volunteer at the USO on the bases there. Merrill’s helping out by volunteering, too.
“I want to thank my many friends and family in the United States who have been contributing and supporting and sending money and other kinds of aid to help with Ukraine. I’m very grateful to the USO for the opportunity to be involved with their great work,” she said.