It’s 9:15 a.m. and Bryan Stern is waiting outside a hospital in Kiev. The sound of shelling in the distance forces him and his team to hurry. They have to get two premature babies into an ambulance and out of the besieged capital.
It’s “Operation Gemini”, named after the American twins he was tasked with evacuating.
Across the Polish border, their father Alex Spektor is waiting to meet his surrogate babies. His voice is charged with emotion and fatigue as he relays the latest news over the phone.
“They’ve been on the road for about six hours and they have five more hours left,” he said.
“They will be immediately placed in the NICU, we don’t want to slow down this process.”
Her twin sons, Moishe and Lenny, were born prematurely 10 days earlier in Kiev, just after Russia began their attack on Ukraine.
They were too small to move in the days following their birth in a war zone. But as they grew stronger, Kiev weakened. Now they head to the border with Stern and his specialized evacuation team of US Army veterans.
It’s a perilous journey that will include Russian bombardments, complex border crossings and a snowstorm.
A desperate search for help
Spektor and his partner Irma Nuñez live in Chicago, but for weeks have watched the growing tension between Ukraine and Russia as their surrogate, Katya, approaches her due date.
Spektor was born in Kiev when it was part of the Soviet Union, and his family came to the United States as refugees.
When her sons arrived early in Kiev and needed life-saving care to survive, there was hope that they could be moved to a town further away from the fighting. But transporting such fragile cargo would be a delicate move and would require special medical care, so the babies remained in the capital.
Then the situation became more desperate, as did Spektor and Nuñez. Spektor flew to Poland and relayed messages back home. They contacted anyone who could help them.
Stern intervened. The Army and Navy veteran leads a Florida nonprofit specialized extraction team called Project Dynamo that travels to war zones and rescues those who try to escape.
Stern has exfiltrated people, many of them American citizens, from some of Ukraine’s most beleaguered cities since the war began.
As Operation Gemini begins Monday morning, Stern begins relaying updates to Spektor and NPR.
The team also includes two doctors, two neonatology specialists, a nurse and a team of Ukrainian paramedics.
“We got baby Lenny and baby Moishe back,” Stern says.
The clock starts ticking and the dash for the border begins. It is impossible to avoid conflict.
“[The Russians] were bombing something else, but it was close enough that the ground shook,” Stern says. “I mean, the artillery doesn’t care what it is, it’s gonna land where it lands. The artillery doesn’t say, ‘Oh, well, there are babies here, so we’ll go somewhere else.’ »
Stops are rare and short. Just enough to fill up on fuel, or to feed and watch babies in the back.
Stern is only too aware of the dangers ahead, the cargo he carries, and the risks he has wrested them from.
“If dust gets into the room, they are in trouble. If there’s a power outage in the room, they’re in trouble. If there’s a whole bunch of downed soldiers and the medics scatter, then they’re going to be in trouble. So the main thing is to leave Kyiv,” he says.
Stern navigates checkpoints in the three-vehicle convoy. They are touch-and-go because some of the men on their team are serving-age Ukrainians who could have been drafted into combat.
Hours into the trip inside Ukraine, he relays another message to NPR.
He says the surrogate, Katya, is with them and Spektor is waiting at the border. Then the line falls.
It’s almost 11pm – more than 1pm since they left hospital in Kiev – before another update finally arrives.
“We’re on the border,” Stern said. “My blood pressure will finally be able to return to normal once we get rid of this precious cargo.”
“The war did not want to let them go”
On the Polish side of the border, Spektor joins the convoy and finally meets his tiny twins. From there it is another one hour drive to the hospital in the Polish town of Rzeszow. An off-season snowstorm has just hit, blanketing the roads in white and making it difficult to see at night.
“The war wouldn’t let them go. But we took them out,” Spektor says of the storm.
The streets are quiet and dark as emergency vehicle flashing lights illuminate the surrounding hospital buildings just after midnight. A procession arrives, led by a Polish police car, an ambulance and two large black vans.
The ambulance pulls up to a loading dock where nurses in pink dresses rush with tiny beds to take the babies away.
Spektor steps out, his eyes smiling behind his mask.
“The twins are already there. They are just tiny, but amazing. Because in the pictures they look so big. Oh my God. Crazy,” he says.
Stern is also released from the hospital. Now he smiles.
“This is our 13th operation in 12 days of war,” he said.
On his company’s website, Ukrainians filled out forms asking for evacuations.
“It’s like we’re the worst travel agency in the world, isn’t it? It’s like the worst all-inclusive vacation,” Stern says.
Case managers in the United States review requests, prioritizing requests that seem both urgent and viable. The database now has more than 14,000 people. Moishe and Lenny weren’t even on the list.
“We didn’t even breach today,” Stern said. “That’s why I have to go back. We have to make a dent tomorrow. It was a special case. A very very special case. »
Once Lenny and Moishe are safely inside the NICU, everyone meets at the hotel for something to eat. It’s 2 a.m. and everyone’s been up since before dawn. Spektor says he’s in shock.
“Emotions come later. Because it’s just, it’s too huge,” he says. “The twins, I just had to look at them and be saturated with their presence.”
Spektor can’t stop talking about all the people who have helped out over the past two weeks.
“My whole family is from Kyiv. And we have very deep roots there. We still have family there. And lots of friends,” he says. “And, you know, my aunt has a friend from childhood who was one of the people who brought food. But right now I just think that for the first time I feel Ukrainian.
Everyone gathers – Spektor, Stern, Katya and all the helpers. They open two bottles of champagne.
“It’s for Lenny and Moishe and all the wonderful people who helped bring them here,” says Spektor.
They clink glasses and applaud. It’s a moment to be savored in a war that seems to be just beginning.
Fadel reported from Lviv, Ukraine.