The Longest Day of My Life

"We will stay until we see smoke over the pass," my colleague in Transcarpathia, Ukraine, says resolutely into the phone. This is the story of a thirty-five year old Hungarian reformed family father, who recounts the day the war broke out in Ukraine.

6am: I look at my sleeping pregnant wife and think, how can I wake her up with "my love, they are shooting, the war has started"? It is so absurd. I quickly grab my clothes and head off to work.

7.30am: I'm in a heap of meetings with all my colleagues, everyone is confused, we don't know what to do.

8am: The radio announces also in Hungarian: there are bombings in Ukraine, war has broken out. They ask us to keep the peace and believe in God. My father's stories from the 1950s come to mind, but this horror is happening to us. Here and now, in 2022.

10am: At the end we agree at work that we all do what we think is right. Half of the colleagues decides to head off with their families to the Hungarian border, in the hope they'll make it. The women tearfully pack a few things into their suitcases, hold their children's hands and head for Hungary.

11am: It's a miracle of God that we get paid. I run to the gas station to get fuel. I'm glad there were only seventy people in line ahead of me, I could have done a lot worse. I get more gas. On the street, desperate, sad people dragging pieces of their lives behind them in suitcases. Fear shines from their eyes. Many people know me, I pull myself together and greet everyone with a huge smile. Even now I can say with faith: God is with us!

12 o'clock: a state of emergency is declared, we don't want to believe it... Everything will be all right, won't it?

1pm: We buy flour, sugar, canned goods, but the shelves are almost empty. Thousands are heading for the border, nobody really knows anything. What should we do? Should we go or stay? What will become of us? How could this have happened? Could this just be a brutal nightmare? I want to wake up!

3 pm: We go to the border. There are whispers that they will close it. Everyone is there... And who stays? Us. We stay.

4 pm: Within a few hours, the worst scenario of the state of war might be introduced that all Ukrainians and Hungarians fear: general mobilization and closure of the border. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine. We never thought this would happen. It did.

5 pm: Calls and messages from Hungary continue to pour in. Long-lost friends and family members tell us that they will take us in, and encourage us to leave. They offer us a room, a bed, a house, a plot of land, whatever they have. My heart is filled with gratitude that we can count on our brothers and sisters in Hungary and Transylvania (Romania).

6 pm: My mind is racing. Who has made it across the border? What will happen to them there? What should we do? We have never moved from Transcarpathia because it is our home. We have to stay here. Not all Hungarians can leave Ukraine - I explain to a friend from Hungary on the phone, but I feel that he doesn't understand me.

7pm: I hesitate for a moment about what is right. But the hardest part is not knowing what to say to my family, my children, my friends.

11 pm: After the longest day of my life, I lie in bed in our new home that we recently built in Berehovo. Three hearts beating next to me in the big bed. Listening to their breathing, I wonder if I made the right decision not to leave. They closed the border and we are home. Many people have fled. Did I make the right decision?! Or did I make a huge mistake? I felt I shouldn't go. There's a lot to do here. I know I've been blessed by God for as long as I've been alive. I have always been listened to by those around me; what I said, thought and did was important to them. I wonder if I will have some real task at home, or if I have just got my family into trouble! My fingers are shaking. I am tired. God be with us!

Translated by Anna Derencsényi