Ukrainians all over the country queued at gas stations and headed westwards after Russia attacked its neighbour, as refugees started arriving in Moldova, Poland and Romania.
As tanks and troops rolled in across the border and Russian air strikes hit several major cities in Ukraine on Thursday, long traffic lines were seen heading out of the capital, Kiev, and elsewhere across the country.
Jaded by eight years of conflict with Russia in the eastern Donbass region, for weeks Ukrainian citizens had avoided panic, some sceptical that a "full-scale invasion" was really on the cards, others defiant.
For weeks, Ukrainian officials have been calling on their Western allies to take more decisive action against Russia in the form of severe sanctions. For years, they warned that building the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that connects the EU directly with Russia, bypassing Ukraine, would endanger the country’s security.
According to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, Russia carried out more than 203 attacks across the country throughout the day, making dozens of casualties among civilians and soldiers. Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said more than 70 military targets across Ukraine had been destroyed. As the country came under attack from three sides, some headed west amid confusion and uncertainty.
“Everywhere we have seen just lines of people queuing for petrol,” journalist Isobel Koshiw told TRT World from the outskirts of Dnipro, a city south-east of the capital Kiev that was among those to have suffered from heavy shelling on Thursday.
“We have seen people queuing at ATMs. At the gas station people said that they were just fuelling their cars, they didn’t know where they were going to go,” Koshiw, who was headed to the capital, continued.
“A lot of people don’t have anywhere else to go. It’s the whole country that is coming under attack so it’s quite hard to calculate where you should go,” Koshiw said, “even the western part of Ukraine, which nobody thought they would ever attack … has come under fire.”
European leaders promised to announce the “harshest” package of sanctions ever imposed on a country, but on Thursday evening some European leaders appeared reluctant to impose the most damaging of all – excluding Russia from the Swift banking system – prompting criticism from Ukrainian officials.
“There is no safe place in Ukraine,” said Oleksiy Melnik, a security analyst at the Razumkov Centre in Kiev. “What happens next will depend mostly on the Ukrainian forces’ ability to defend an aggression, and the international community’s reaction.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declared martial law across the country, and said the government would issue weapons to any Ukrainian who wanted to take up arms to defend the country.
Ukraine aspires to NATO membership, but the alliance has said it will not intervene militarily in Ukraine, for fear it could spark a wider conflict of a scale Europe hasn’t seen since World War II.
More than 700 people were detained for protesting Russia's Ukraine attacks.
Fleeing to safety
Meanwhile, people had started trickling through the borders on Thursday, some crossing on foot, according to reports.
In Poland, where around 1.5 million Ukrainians already work and live, the government – which erected a wall for Middle East refugees at the border with Belarus earlier this year – said anyone fleeing the conflict in Ukraine would be let in. Polish border authorities said eight reception centres near Ukraine had been opened up to host refugees without a place to stay, but refused to comment further upon being contacted by TRT World on Thursday. As some people made their way to Poland by train, chief of Poland’s border guards, Gen. Tomasz Praga told reporters there was a visible increase in the number of people crossing.
“We have already seen reports of casualties and people starting to flee their homes to seek safety,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, adding that the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) was “working with governments in neighboring countries” and calling on governments to keep their borders open.
The UNHCR estimated that 100,000 had fled their homes by evening, and that several thousands had crossed into neighbouring countries, mainly Moldova and Romania.