To Olena, it feels like Vladimir Putin has been chasing her for years.
Fed up with Putin’s government, the Russian citizen left her native country six years ago and moved to Ukraine, where she helped raise funds for women and children whose homes had been destroyed in years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region.
Then, this week, she was on the move again — fleeing her adopted home of Kyiv ahead of Putin’s invaders.
“It looks like I’m a double refugee now because first I fled from Russia because I was against Putin,” said Olena, who spoke on condition that she be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals against her or her family. “I fled from Russia, and then Russia came to Ukraine.”
Olena and five colleagues left Kyiv after three nights in a bomb shelter, the thuds of reverberating explosions. They arrived in Hungary on Thursday after a harrowing, three-day flight.
Seated on a train in the Hungarian border town of Zahony before departing for the capital of Budapest, Olena said she had participated in anti-Putin protests in Russia, but came to realize that “Putin will just rule for as long as he lives. So I chose to vote with my legs and leave.”
She moved to Ukraine, she said, because she was inspired by the Maidan revolution of 2014, when sustained protests forced the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych.
“As long as Putin is in power, I will never go back,” she said.
But now, Ukraine was no longer an option, either — for her or for the hundreds of other refugees who boarded the train for the five-hour journey from the border to Budapest. Dozens of volunteers greeted them, offering food, transportation and accommodation.
Olena was grateful to be in friendly territory, but the future looked uncertain. “I have no home, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I just have to hope,” she said.
She lost access to her money after Ukraine blocked the bank accounts of Russian citizens, fearing they would be used to finance Russia’s assault on the country.
“I understand their reasons, because they are afraid that Russians will use this money to fight. But I’m just a civilian. I just lost all my income, I lost all my source of money, and I lost my bank account, just because of this Russian passport,” she said.
That passport, she said, caused her problems on the journey from Kyiv. Some Ukrainians expressed hostility, associating her with the enemy.
But she stressed that many Russians, at home and abroad, oppose the war, and she hopes “people would separate the government from common people that don’t want to fight.”
“Ukrainians are like a brother people,” she said. “We can’t fight amongst each other. Putin is the real enemy. When Putin came to power, I did not like him but I did not realize the whole scale of his insanity.
On Thursday, Olena and her colleagues were given a place to stay in a leafy suburb of Budapest. It is a welcome breath.
“We don’t hear explosions anymore. We don’t hear sirens every two hours, when we have to pack our things and rush to the bomb shelter,” she said. “When we crossed the border it was such a relief that we are alive and we are safe.”
Balazs Kaufmann in Zahony, Hungary, contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.