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Grief, fear and disbelief: Fleeing Kyiv as the Russians close in

“What is happening is inconceivable. We’ve all been told this is going to happen, but nobody could fathom this would take place,” one Kyiv resident said.

Huddled in the basement of a hotel in the heart of Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, Oksana Parafeniuk and her husband awoke Friday as sirens blared and Russian shells thudded and crunched.

It was time to flee Vladimir Putin’s advancing army.

She and her husband went to their apartment and quickly gathered clothes, cameras, essential documents, water and snacks.

“People are of course very scared. It’s hard to express… It’s hard to put it into words because it’s insane what’s going on,” Parafeniuk, 32, a photographer and journalist who has worked with NBC News, said. “It seemed like fighting would intensify, and it’s scary."

The couple and her sister decided they would stay with a friend, who lives southwest of Kyiv, for one night. Then they would figure out what to so next.

A woman holds her daughter as they sit at a basement used as a bomb shelter in Kyiv.
A woman holds her daughter as they sit at a basement used as a bomb shelter in Kyiv. Emilio Morenatti / AP

It wasn’t only the bombs that convinced Parafeniuk and her husband, who is also a photographer, to leave.

“We don’t know the attitude during a Russian occupation toward journalists,” Parafeniuk said on the way.

She has good reason to worry about a government that Russia might seek to impose on Ukraine: President Putin has overseen a harsh crackdown on dissent at home, targeting independent journalists, among others.

When they first set out, Kyiv's streets were eerily quiet and reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic when few people ventured outdoors, Parafeniuk said.

It was a different story on the outskirts of the capital. The second day of predawn shelling prompted thousands of others to flee, and long lines of traffic snaked to the west and south of the city.

As she sat in the couple’s Ford Fiesta, Parafeniuk noticed other cars filled with luggage. In one, a child sat in the backseat, his pet parrot in a cage.

Reaction in Kyiv as Russia Launches Broad Attack on Ukraine
Residents trying to leave the capital get stuck in traffic on a highway in Kyiv. Ethan Swope / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lines of cars congested roads outside gas stations. Supermarket parking lots thronged with vehicles as people emerged with bags bulging with food.

Helicopters buzzed overhead as they drove south from the capital. In a car next to her, Parafeniuk said, a woman at the wheel burst into tears.

Two military vehicles rumbled by. Later, a military jet flew overhead. By this point, she had been on the road for more than five hours.

Parafeniuk said that many of her friends had chosen to stay in Kyiv.

“I think for most people the answer is just they didn’t think it was going to happen,” she said when asked why.

“I woke up yesterday at 5 a.m. and it was still so hard to believe, we could have left immediately but somehow it felt unreal,” she added.

That disbelief was echoed by others seeking shelter in the capital on Friday.

Russia Starts Large-Scale Attack On Ukraine
People board a bus as they attempt to evacuate Kyiv on Thursday.Pierre Crom / Getty Images

“What is happening is inconceivable. We’ve all been told this is going to happen, but nobody could fathom this would take place,” Hryhorii, who did not want provide a last name, told NBC News from a metro station.

Residents in other Ukrainian cities also face the difficult choice of whether to leave.

An NBC News correspondent in the northeast city of Kharkiv reported that many were leaving or considering whether to flee. In Lviv, in the country's west, another saw crowds with packed bags filling public shelters.

But for some Ukrainians, they have ample reason to stay.

“We will never live under Russia dictatorship. We want freedom like it was before. Russia is like North Korea,” Anastasiia Zlenko, 27, who sought shelter in a subway station, told NBC News.

“We want to be free, that’s why we are fighting. We give our life for this. The worst scenario is that we will be under Russia.”