Kathy Stickel knew she had to do something as she watched the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfold. The 52-year-old also knew she had lost her sense of fear, which meant she could save lives in a war zone a half a world away.
More than 20 years earlier, Stickel had been serving in the Army Reserves doing a rappel exercise when she slipped from the rope and fell, cracking her helmet-covered head on the ground. She has no memory of the accident itself, but afterward she experienced hallucinations and an inability to focus. And while Stickel feels like she lost years of her life to the injury, it also made her brave enough to make a difference in Ukraine. “No, I’m not scared. I have brain damage!” Stickel says, laughing, the thick lenses of her glasses making her eyes look cartoonishly huge as we drive across the Polish-Ukrainian border in April. “I can’t respond to fear or desire now. I’m scared that people are going to be scared, sure,” she tells me. “But am I scared that the Russians are going to get me and I’ll be raped and murdered and all that? No, I guess I don’t have a sense of self anymore. To me, I died two decades ago and everything else is just extra.”
When the war started on February 23, Stickel was in California taking the grueling bar exam to become an attorney. That evening, she was resting in her hotel room outside Los Angeles before the four-hour drive home the next morning when she swiped open her phone to see the first reports of Russia’s attack. Scrolling through Twitter, she was able to follow the news in English and Russian, thanks to her yearlong stay in Moscow as a Mormon missionary in 1995. Almost immediately, Stickel realized she’d be putting her law career on hold. “I just knew that I was going,” she says.
A few days later, Stickel was on a flight to Romania with $1,000 collected from friends and family in her pocket. Her first stop was the main train station in Bucharest, where she would translate for refugees, her Russian-language skills rusty but intact. After quickly realizing that the fleeing Ukrainians were inundated with help, she posted a message on Facebook soliciting donations to travel to Poland, where, she says she thought, she’d be of more help to the wave of Ukrainian refugees flowing over the border. That’s when an old friend reached out to say that she and her partner had traveled there from the U.S. to check on the birth family of their sons, whom they had adopted from Ukraine.
On March 13, the couple and Stickel took off from Krakow and headed to a village in central Ukraine to drop off medicine, food, and clothes for the birth family of their sons. On the way home, they picked up 11 women and children in villages just south of Kyiv and drove through the night to avoid having to stay in Ukraine longer than necessary. “There was one instance when all the children were sleeping and I saw a missile strike in the distance. One of the mothers in the van even commented on the weird cloud, and thank God the sun wasn’t all the way up because I was able to just laugh it off so they wouldn’t get scared,” Stickel says.
Back in Poland, the couple told Stickel they were going to head home to the States — would she like their van? “You bet!” she told them. Inspired by the success of pulling nearly a dozen people out of Ukraine and now outfitted with the couple’s large blue Opel Vivaro van, she decided this is how she would help refugees: by rescuing them herself.
Two weeks later, after tweeting out offers to evacuate Ukranians, she headed to Lviv and a smattering of villages to pick up eight people. Riding shotgun was her “logistics guy” whom she met in Poland, a 21-year-old Russian-born Swiss national called Leonid who favors the kind of large black sunglasses sported by early-aughts Hollywood starlets. (Leonid declines to give his full name, fearing for his safety.) Despite being Russian, he wanted to help Ukrainians when the invasion started. “I couldn’t just sit in Switzerland and do nothing,” he tells me at a gas station just over the Ukrainian border, cigarette dangling between his fingers. “People were suffering and dying, and I knew that I could be helpful in some way.” He arranged for the group to meet outside a cheap hostel early in the morning, and they made their way to a church in Lubien, Poland, where Stickel had found them rooms.
By the beginning of April, Moscow’s hopes for a quick victory had been dashed and Russian forces were razing Mariupol and Kharkiv and cutting off humanitarian corridors out of territory it occupied, such as Kherson, a critical port on the Black Sea. Then came the footage from Bucha showing the bodies of unarmed civilians who were shot dead by Russian forces and left to rot in the streets. Stickel knew she had to go further, and fast, if she wanted to help more people, and she was growing confident after the success of her first two missions. “You don’t pick up people from the good places,” she tells me.
Stickel decided to go to Kherson behind Russian lines. Zainish Hussain had been living there with his wife and young daughter when the invasion started, but they managed to escape. He told her through Twitter she might be able to get into the city because Russian checkpoints would block military-age men but not an American woman. Still, it would not be easy: Russian soldiers checked drivers’ hands to see if they had the calluses common to people who have spent a good deal of time holding a weapon. Sometimes, he told her, they would force people to strip in order to look for the telltale bruises of recoiling rifles and the grooves left by their slings.
Using Twitter, Stickel ended up connecting with four people from villages near Kherson, all behind Russian lines, and mapped out a plan for their rescue. One was an American who had waited as long as he could with his Ukrainian wife and her parents. The other three were women: an American citizen and a young Ukrainian woman in Kakhovka and a Twitter user’s mother-in-law in the nearby village of Dar’ivka.
Stickel left Krakow on April 12, eating dried apricots as she drove past one small Polish village after another on the way into Ukraine. Leonid rode shotgun again. After more than 12 hours on the road and more than one poor rendition of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” by Ukrainian checkpoint guards when they learned Stickel was American, the duo made it to Odesa with barely 20 minutes to spare before curfew. The next morning, after sleeping in the apartment of a woman she linked up with via Twitter, Stickel climbed back into the van alone — the Russians wouldn’t let Leonid through anyway — wearing a slate-gray vest and an olive-colored wide-brimmed fedora that made her look like Indiana Jones. “It will all be okay,” she said repeatedly to calm her nerves.
But it wouldn’t be. Navigating on her own for the first time without Leonid or her American friends, Stickel, who had put the wrong location in her GPS, headed north to Darivka instead of east to the smaller village of Dar’ivka. After three hours of driving and not passing the mountains she’d sought as a reference point, she realized her mistake and turned around. It was too late to head to Kherson, so she backtracked and stayed overnight in Mykolaiv.
The next morning, when she tried again, she encountered the unmistakable signs that she was headed in the right direction: abandoned Ukrainian checkpoints littered with spent artillery rounds. “You could tell you were headed to no-man’s-land,” she says. Over the next few hours, Stickel was stopped by Ukranians soldiers at the few occupied checkpoints. “The Russians are that way,” they told her incredulously after learning of her plans. Stickel pleaded with them to allow her passage anyway. “I’m trying to get people out. Let me,” she told them. “We all want the same thing. We just are measuring risk differently.”
By the time she reached the final checkpoint, she’d honed her reply. “I’m an American and a female, and there’s a chance I can get in there,” she told one. The soldier gestured toward one of the few remaining bridges leading to Kherson that had not been blown up. Across the bridge was the final Ukrainian post, then the first of many Russian checkpoints. After being repeatedly warned that it was impossible and “not a good day” to travel by the Ukrainians, she told them point-blank: “Look, where do we rescue people from? Safe places?”
The soldier in charge bent down to speak to her through the drivers’ side window and told her what lay ahead. “When you get to that bridge, you have to go really fast. You have to race across the bridge,” he told her. “Not just because it’s a war but because it’s kind of a dare for them, like, ‘Can you hit this person going across the bridge?’” He straightened to tell her one last thing: “The Russians will give you a response if you will be allowed to cross. You’ll know it.”
Stickel rolled her shoulders back and thought to herself, “I was born for this.” She put U2’s “Ultra Violent” on the stereo, gripped the steering wheel tightly at 10 and 2, and hit the gas. The van hurtled through a few hundred meters of bombed-out vehicles, and she swerved to avoid huge craters left by artillery strikes. The van climbed the bridge and had just reached the other side when Stickel heard an artillery round split the air to her left. The Russians had responded with a warning shot. A direct hit would have obliterated her.
Stickel drove the remaining hundred meters back to the checkpoint, defeated. He shook his head before sending her back across the bridge, telling her to go just as quickly as she had the first time. When she reached a soldier who allowed her to pass, she was holding back tears. “It isn’t a good day,” he said, and waved her on.
“I can’t have done all of this for nothing,” Stickel thought as she headed away from Kherson, head heavy. Praying as she drove, Stickel says she told God, “Come on, I’m here and I know you let me be here for a reason.” Shortly after her plea, she came upon two cars pulled over, bags and children’s jackets in the back windows, anxious mothers standing at the roadside. They were a group of eight family, friends, and neighbors from Kherson who had hired drivers for 5,000 hryvnia per head to get them to Odesa. They had stopped just before Mykolaiv to take a cigarette break when a passing vehicle struck the open door of one of their cars, tearing it clean off and stranding them. The mothers had been forced to leave their husbands behind, knowing they wouldn’t have made it past the Russian checkpoints, let alone been allowed to exit Ukraine by the government’s order to keep military-age men at home to fight. “We were just standing there for about 20 or 30 minutes when Katy drove up,” says a smiling 17-year-old German Prykhodko, who uses Stickel’s nickname. After giving the members of the group a short period to decide whether they wanted to get into a stranger’s van, they decided to trust her and piled in. “It was like fate. They were nervous, but they knew I was their best, if not only, option,” Stickel says. From there, they began the four-hour trip to Odesa, making it in just before curfew. Stickel pulled up to the beachfront Hotel Arkadia and triumphantly hopped out. She booked them rooms, where they stayed through a night of air-raid sirens that signaled they were not yet free of Russian attack.
Over breakfast the following morning, Stickel promised them that she would get them out of Ukraine and take each of them wherever they needed to go. They set off for Moldova, the nearest bordering nation, and German helped her navigate. His mother, Jura Prykhodko, owned a clothing store in Kherson — “Nothing special; just like all of the others,” she said. But now that is all gone. They were headed to the airport in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, for a flight that Stickel bought for them to Anyatola, Turkey, where they would stay with family.
After dropping them off, the van continued to Poland. Still inside were Lena Negoda and her daughter Nastya, 6, who squealed with excitement at every horse the van passed, asking over and over “Is that horse real?” and charming even the hardest of Ukrainian guards near separatist Transnistria as she chirped up that “Da,” she is Ukrainian. In the middle row was Liza, 13, a long-limbed dancer who kept Nastya entertained, her big green eyes shyly looking away whenever asked a direct question or offered a snack. Her mother, Sveta Kostymina, said they didn’t know where they were going when they made the decision to leave Ukraine but had just known they needed to get out of Kherson before it got any worse. Tetiana Tatochenko and her daughter, Anna, 10, were planning on going to Leipzig, Germany, to be with her sister.
Driving through the Romanian countryside, the van pulled up to a small patch of construction with one car after another being waved through a single lane. Everyone fell silent — it felt like they were back in Ukraine at another checkpoint. Then Kostymina and Negoda suddenly started laughing until everyone joined in, happy tears in their eyes. “It’s like having the same nightmare we all woke up from,” says Kostymina.
After driving in an enormous half-circle through Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and southern Poland, Stickel and the refugees made it to Krakow just after midnight on Easter, five days after Stickel began her rescue mission. They stayed with her in a Krakow apartment she rents for refugees until she can find them permanent lodging elsewhere. Tetiana and Anna headed for Germany within a few days, and Sveta, Lena, and their daughters settled in Poland.
While they had made it out of Ukraine, Stickel soon headed back. By the time the war stretched into its third month, she had helped deliver 33 people to safety in Poland and other countries. As an increasingly frustrated Russia seems to be determined to grind Ukraine into brutal submission, her self-appointed mission continues. “I’m not going to be done,” she says, “until this is.”