LA MESA, Calif. (KGTV) - Among those escaping the violence in Ukraine is a former San Diegan and current freelancer with the La Mesa Landscape Design Company.
On the outside, Yura Lotonenko and his girlfriend Marianna Kordun were all smiles in a photo taken two days before the Russian invasion. Inside, they were all nerves.
Amid rising tensions, they had traveled from Kyiv to central Ukraine. After 10 days there, they made another journey.
"Marianna just said, ‘I feel like we need to leave right now,’” Lotonenko said.
They traveled to a town near the western border. The next morning, the invasion would begin.
“We basically had 30 minutes to leave,” he said.
“We thought it was time because we knew this was just the beginning,” Kordun said.
Lotonenko said he and Kordun with a few pieces of luggage got to a bus station amid a scramble for tickets.
“There was a panic. People were trying to get money out of ATMs, and there was no money," he said. "We just got the first ticket available, any direction, just to get out of there,” said Lotonenko."
They got two of the last tickets for a 15-minute bus ride into Slovakia. On the way there, there was gridlock. They saw families abandoning their cars for a several-mile trek to the border.
“Moms with their kids walking … beyond imagination,” Lotonenko said.
Hours after they crossed the border, Ukraine banned men ages 16 to 60 from leaving.
As the two were making their escape, in La Mesa, Lotonenko's boss, John Beaudry, was waiting.
“Way overwhelmed. Moments of breaking down in tears,” Beaudry owner of Beaudry Garden Design said.
Lotonenko, a landscape architect, had worked in the San Diego area and owned his own company. He's currently working as a contractor for Beaudry’s company from 2018 to 2019 before returning to Ukraine.
After letting Beaudry know they were safe, the two made their way to Amsterdam. They will likely be applying for a visa in the next few days to head to San Diego.
“We are lucky to be out and be safe," he said. "From another point of people, it’s terrifying to see
Ukrainian people stay inside the country and fight for independence, and you're not there," Lotonenko said. "I do not know how to shoot, but I am out, and I will do most best to help my people."
The couple have started a fundraiser to help impacted Ukrainians with medical and other expenses.
A Gofundme campaign has been set up to help the couple with their own expenses.