The world watched in shock as Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. The military attack is the largest that has been staged against a European state since World War II. While we don’t know how many people have died, estimates put the number in the thousands.
The war has caused Ukrainians and foreign nationals alike to flee the country, with the United Nations reporting that millions of Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes. Also forced to leave the country were many Filipino nationals who were working there when fighting broke out.
Dominic Mapa Aranas, a seafarer from Makati, Philippines, arrived at the Port of Chornomorsk on the MV Key Knight on February 19. Five days later, Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law. Aranas, 31, described the day as “filled with silence” as “all port operations were stopped.” The ship turned off its navigational lights, and lighthouses and buoys also shut off to avoid detection by Russian troops. “Evening came and darkness engulfed the vicinity,” Aranas told Samahan.
The ship shook as missiles went off nearby. Smoke from a vessel that had been bombed filled the air. Ukrainian troops barricaded the port to prevent Russian ships from entering the Black Sea, but this also left ships stranded in a war zone. To leave Ukraine, Aranas and the crew of the Key Knight would have to cross the border by land.
A harrowing journey was ahead of them. After several days of being trapped on the ship, the crew made contact with Honorary Consul Victor Gaina, of the Philippine Honorary Consulate in Chisinau, Moldova, who made arrangements to evacuate the crew to the neighboring country via van. On March 5, Aranas, along with 12 members of the crew, left the ship on foot; the other eight crew members stayed behind to wait for another van. They disembarked with few supplies as they had been advised that space was limited. “Some of our luggage was left on the ship,” said Aranas. “Life is more important.”
As they headed to the gate exit of the Port of Chornomorsk, Aranas saw a member of his crew being shouted at by a Ukrainian soldier pointing a sniper rifle at him. Within moments, a gun was aimed at his own head. Unable to understand what the soldiers were saying to them, Aranas said he followed his “instinct [to] raise my hands, kneel down on the ground, and show him I am harmless.”
The guns remained pointed at them, but the soldiers eventually realized that Aranas and the others with him were seafarers and let them pass. They then walked three kilometers to exit the port, where they were met by a van that would take them and others fleeing the country to Moldova.
The van ride brought them directly through the ravaged war zone. The air was heavy with smoke from recent bombings. “There were flipped over cars [and] burned surfaces of land,” said Aranas. Aranas saw many people fleeing the country on foot. “Some are giving us signs asking for a ride,” he said. “We wanted to help but there's nothing we can do since we were also compacted inside the van." Taking photographs of the devastation they drove past was forbidden, he added, as any released photos could have jeopardized Ukraine’s “resistance tactics for the incoming enemies.” He was, however, able to maintain contact with his family throughout the journey, although he was careful “not to post anything that will add worry to them.”
After a six-hour drive in the packed vehicle, they made it to Moldova where they were processed through immigration, and then went on to a sports complex that had been converted into a makeshift refugee camp. Aranas and the other men were there for two days before they embarked on the next leg of their journey home, riding in a crowded bus from Molodova to Romania for approximately eight hours. They remained in that country for nearly two days, being assisted by the Philippine ambassador to Hungary, Frank R. Cimafranca; Romania does not have its own Philippine embassy, so it falls under the jurisdiction of the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines in Hungary.
Finally, after testing negative for COVID, Aranas and the other members of the crew boarded a flight to Dubai and then another flight there that brought them home to the Philippines.
Aranas made it home on March 10, after weeks of uncertainty and fear. The remaining members of the crew who stayed on the ship when Aranas evacuated also made it home. “I am grateful to be alive and safe,” Aranas told Samahan. “Live to tell that life is beautiful. Appreciate simple blessings which nowadays are taken for granted. Love and peace.”
When asked what he plans to do now that he is safely home, Aranas said that he has goals to pursue but that he also wants to spend as much time with his loved ones as he can.
“It’s a chance not everyone has,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ros Delos Reyes