It was a direct and desperate message from his mother-in-law in Ukraine that convinced Alberto, 58, that he needed to act fast.
“I’m already dead,” she told him over the phone from Kharkiv. “I don’t understand why you insist on calling me. Don’t call me again.”
Alberto, an Italian living in Vienna with his Ukrainian wife Svetlana, said that from then on she stopped picking up the phone.
“I went to save my wife’s family from a grave,” the former police officer told Euronews. “I said [myself] that if we don’t go there to look for them, we will never see them again.
“The bomb shelter was more like a cellar”
Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine and near the border with Russia, was one of the first areas to be bombed.
It is also one of the hardest hit cities.
The regional emergency service said Wednesday that at least 500 city residents have been killed since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
Within days of the start of the conflict, civilian areas were already being targeted.
Its inhabitants spent whole days trapped in bunkers, without immediate access to food, water and medical care.
“The bomb shelter was not really a bunker, but like a cellar,” Svetlana’s cousin Alina told Euronews. “There were 50 to 70 people inside and we had no power or signal. Shops were closed most of the day so getting bread was a problem. We could feel the walls shaking.
The situation left Alberto and Svetlana deeply disturbed, especially as their loved ones’ phone signals became more patchy.
Then, on March 2, after his mother-in-law’s harsh message, communications ceased and Alberto felt pressured to intervene.
Alberto, assembled a team of around 100 friends and colleagues, who helped him carefully plan his trip from Vienna to Ukraine.
“People who rush into things like that, who do it on their own, put themselves in danger,” Alberto said. “I didn’t want to do a hero’s journey or something spontaneous.”
Alex, a Ukrainian living in Poland, agreed to join him on his trip and discovered his mother was stuck at home sleeping in her bathtub.
Loading up on provisions and an extra 160 liters of gasoline, the pair left Vienna in the early hours of March 5, crossed Hungary and Slovakia and arrived at the Ukrainian border town of Uzhhorod at 9 a.m. morning the next day.
Dodge bombs and defy curfews
Once inside Ukraine, Alberto said he was quickly confronted with the harsh reality of war: destruction everywhere, lines at gas stations that lasted for hours, and the burden of the conflict visibly imprinted on the faces of the inhabitants.
“The human tragedy is simply indescribable,” he said. “You see the terror in people’s eyes, the panic, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. It’s just not a normal world.
Alberto spent his first night in the western town of Ternopil, where he slept with around 80 other people in a refugee center, crammed into the most uncomfortable conditions.
They then traveled to spend the night in Vinnytsia, which had been spared heavy shelling and was considered a better option than kyiv or Kharkiv.
But shortly after arriving, a missile strike hit Vinnytsia International Airport.
“The airport was not far from where I lived,” says Alberto. “At the time, it almost felt like an earthquake. You’re scared, you see smoke, you don’t know if there’s another group of missiles on the way… I spent the whole night awake in fear, even after it was all over.
It was so terrifying that Alberto’s octogenarian host, Natalia, begged to go with him.
Svetlana’s relatives drove up to meet Alberto in Vinnitsa on March 8, “overwhelmed with emotion” at the prospect of making it out unharmed. Natalia joined them,
The convoy now consisted of two stray dogs and more than 40 people in six vehicles.
On the way to the border, a small hiccup almost jeopardized their whole plan.
One of their cars broke down and by the time it was fixed they were over half an hour past curfew.
“You have young men, mostly conscripts, hiding in the bushes, waiting to shoot,” Alberto said. “Honestly, we could have been killed then. I thank God we made it through.
“I still can’t contain my tears”
Arriving at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, a painful realization dawned on the group: while they had managed to get to safety, some of their relatives had to stay in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has told people between the ages of 18 and 60 they must stay and fight.
Alina is one of those who had to leave their husbands. His partner, a construction worker, is still in Kharkiv.
“I can talk to my husband once every few days,” she told Euronews. “He’s calm, but the anxiety is 24/7.”
Yet perhaps the most poignant story is that of 17-year-old Illia. One of Svetlana’s nephews, he had recently started studying computer science at Kharkiv University.
After the invasion, he found himself living at his uncle’s house with no internet or electricity and realized he had to leave as soon as possible.
Illia’s mother accompanied him to the border. But not wanting to leave her husband alone, she returned leaving her son to a new life.
“I had to sign papers saying that I would be [Illia’s] legal guardian”, recounted Alberto, choked. “I still can’t hold back my tears when I think about it.”
But the hour of farewell had arrived. The remaining group crossed the Romanian border, to be greeted by Alberto and Alex’s teammates. They spent two nights there before finally returning to Austria.
“He’s a hero”
Born and raised in the Tuscan city of Florence, Alberto had previously worked in a mix of high- and low-risk environments in countries around the world: first, in his hometown, tackling organized crime and human trafficking as a member of the flying police then in the UN peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, in countries such as Cambodia and Russia for the International Organization for Migration, and finally in the Austrian capital as an OSCE officer.
Alberto initially believed that his experience in law enforcement and post-conflict theaters would have equipped him to deal with dangerous situations.
Yet, as he himself admits, little could have prepared him for the challenge of rescuing loved ones from war-torn Ukraine.
Safe and sound and settled back into life in Vienna, Alberto and his wife Svetlana have used their 90 square meter home to host something akin to a family reunion and makeshift refugee center.
The couple is now busy day and night in the middle of the mattresses and suitcases that litter their apartment.
Alberto’s efforts came to a halt after leaving Ukraine – he now helps his rescued relatives with all sorts of tasks, especially the paperwork of living in Austria.
“To me, he’s a hero,” said Svetlana, from Kharkiv, beaming with a pride not shared by her husband, who is quick to push back any elation.
Alina, Svetlana’s cousin, nods.
“Please, please, I’m not a hero,” Alberto said. “I’m just a person who got tired of watching the news on TV and feeling helpless.”
As Alberto resists being placed on a pedestal, there are parallels to Roberto Benigni’s 2005 film The Tiger and the Snow, which tells the fictional story of a divorced poetry professor who rushes to Iraq at the most strong from the war to save his ex-wife.
“There are no heroes here,” he insisted. “There are only people working to save whoever they can.”
Among those Alberto saved, Illia, 17, is particularly keen to express her gratitude.
“I really like it here in Vienna. There are a lot of universities, I started learning German,” he told Euronews, listing the different things he liked about the Austrian capital. “Three years ago, I came to stay [with Alberto and Svetlana] for my birthday and it was unforgettable.”
Illia’s good humor and wide-eyed ambition—with a maturity far beyond that of someone his age—stands in stark contrast to the hardships he faced. On the phone, he can’t help but enthusiastically discuss the various projects and goals he has in mind. But the scars of leaving his parents behind eventually resurface.
“The worst part of the war is not the bombardments,” he confessed. “The most difficult thing is the separation from your family, from your loved ones. It makes my heart sad. It teaches you to value each person in your life.
Stories like Illia’s are a stark reminder of the inconceivable human cost of wars, whose victims are scarred in more ways than meets the eye.
And for Alberto, this is the most crucial part missing from this war.
“A conflict is between soldiers. But here you see old people, sick people, left to fend for themselves, left for dead. It is genocide. »
In a final plea, Alberto urged: “I ask, who can: please help these people.”