"I STILL don’t think anything can happen. But tonight I’ll pack a bag just in case and then will try to record a new mix.”

On February 20, my friend Alisa Mullen, a DJ and press officer from Kyiv, was in relaxed mood. A couple of days later, in the wake of an unhinged rant from Vladimir Putin in which he denied Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, she sounded more nervous but by the following evening she had regained her cool. “We were thinking of packing up and driving west but fuck it, I’m going to sleep.”

A few hours later Alisa, her 10-year-old son Danny, their cat Bershka and three other friends were on a 20-hour drive through the back roads of central Ukraine towards Kolomyya, in the far west. Videos she sent me along the way could have been dispatches from a normal road trip except for the Ukrainian tanks passing in the opposite direction as her friend honked his horn in appreciation.

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Fast forward a week and Alisa (above) and Danny were getting into a car with me in a town in northern Romania. They had left Ukraine the previous day, Alisa bringing with her a very small backpack of clothes and a very large record bag, and we were heading for Vienna, from where they would take a train to Berlin to begin a new life of uncertain form and duration without their beloved cat, who had to be left with friends in Lviv, at least for now.

Alisa has always struck a rare balance of extreme coolness and extreme friendliness, and it was clear Danny had developed in his mother’s image in the three or four years since I’d last seen him. The ultimate test came at the Hungarian border, where the bonhomie of the car only grew in the four-hour queue for Ukrainians. Alisa too was the embodiment of the strength and good humour I saw from refugees throughout the month, running her Ukrainian-news Telegram channel (www.t.me/s/livenewsua_eng) from the passenger seat and casually cracking jokes of this calibre:

Alisa: “Can you open this beer for me?”

Me: “Sure, do you have a key?”

Alisa (with a dramatically wrought imploring look): “No, I don’t have a key, Kit. I don’t have a home…”

At a service station in Hungary close to midnight every car apart from ours had Ukrainian plates, and a small strip of grass resembled a tiny dog park as women and children gave their pets a few moments of exercise. We arrived at the apartment of a friend in Vienna at 3am and I relaxed with live updates on Russian shelling of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant before finally falling asleep.

At Vienna’s central station the next morning I saw Alisa and Danny onto their train to Berlin as hundreds of other Ukrainians around us checked travel documents, attended to children, pets and luggage, and tapped messages on their phones. The insanity of the situation hit me and I walked back to the car in tears as everyone else calmly took care of business.

After a couple of days’ rest I drove back to northern Romania and took a train south to Bucharest. I intended to travel on to one of the border regions to volunteer but soon realised I could stay in Bucharest and help at the city’s train and bus stations instead. I began volunteering at Gara Filaret, a bus station south of the city centre that was receiving refugees from Kherson and Mykolaiv, Russian-speaking cities in the south of Ukraine. As a non-Russian speaker my job was to give out food and drinks, medicines and hygiene products, and generally help as best I could using English when the person spoke it and mime when they didn’t. The iPhone SIM card pin I suddenly remembered I had on my keyring came to rival Kinder Eggs and coffee in the popularity stakes.

Russian-speaking translators were always on hand, and all had stories of their own to tell. Irina had worked in Phoenix for a decade and only recently returned home to Odesa where renovations on her new apartment had been completed the day before the war began. Ana and her partner, also from Odesa, were hoping to return in time to enjoy the summer. Bodgan, a local, spoke Russian because he had studied theatre in Moscow; Ira, another Romanian, learned the language while living in Russian-occupied Tiraspol, in Moldova.

As March wore on the flood of refugees seemed to thin out slightly, and I left on the last day of March thinking the stand at Filaret may not be needed for much longer. Then came Putin’s decision to prepare a fresh assault on the eastern Donbas region.

“There is a big new wave of refugees,” a friend texted. “They were thinking of closing the Filaret stand but then seven buses arrived all at once from the Donbas. And there will be more.”