HALEYVILLE - Haleyville native Mark Posey can truly say he has faced death, recalling both horrific and heartwarming details of his recent mission to Ukraine that came to a sudden halt when Russia invaded.
Posey, who was in the Ukraine doing church missionary work, something he has done the past 30 years, faced some intense situations trying to flee the country for the Polish border after the invasion, he noted that everyone is a part of humanity, no matter where they live. This is the message he brought to the student body of Haleyville Middle School Tuesday, May 10. Principal Bo Wilcoxson urged all students to listen carefully to Posey’s unique story.
“It’s not something he read about or saw on television,” Wilcoxson told students. “He actually lived it.”
Posey, a 1983 Haleyville High School graduate, noted he felt at home as he returned to the campus near his alma mater to talk about his experiences.
“If you’ve been watching things on television or the internet, it’s very likely you know a little bit about what’s going on in the Ukraine,” Posey began.
Ukraine, which is one of the largest countries in eastern Europe, is just a little larger than Texas, he told students.
“The people are absolutely wonderful,” Posey said. “They are kind, humble and loving. Some of my best friends in the whole wide world live in the Ukraine.”
The invasion has affected about 45 million people who live in Ukraine. “And they are suffering terribly,” Posey told students. “They have done nothing to deserve what is happening to them.”
However, the Ukrainian people are trying to stay positive and stand strong amid great difficulties, he pointed out.
Posey told student he figures he has made 50 trips to eastern Europe over the past three decades for mission work. He also has traveled across the world, visiting all seven continents, he said.
“Never have I found as good and as kind of people as the Ukrainian people,” Posey noted. “I love to be with them. We spend a lot of time talking, and we study together. We enjoy going out to eat. In fact, one of our favorite things is pizza. Nothing is as good as Ukrainian pizza. It is fantastic.”
Posey then transitioned to the darker days of his last visit.
“What happened to me as I was trying to get out of Ukraine is still happening to the Ukrainian people,” Posey reminded students. “How I suffered is how they are still suffering.
Posey told students he hoped his stories would help them understand more of what truly is going on in the world.
“We’re all a part of humanity, regardless of where we live, regardless of our culture, our country, our language, our skin color. We are all part of humanity, and everyone is precious,” Posey stressed.
Posey then began describing the vivid details that led him to desperately seek safety, all the while giving where he could to the suffering Ukrainian people.
While doing mission work in Ukraine, Posey stayed in a three-room apartment on the second floor of a building, he said. At 5 a.m. one fateful Friday, Posey was awakened to the sound of exploding bombs.
“There were bombs hitting...a city... not far from my apartment,” he said. “The airport was being bombed. There was a factory nearby that was also being bombed.
“Our building was shaking. The windows were rattling. Needless to say, I was scared,” he said.
At this point, his cell phone rang. The call was from two of Posey’s close friends in the Ukraine, who had reached out to take care of Posey during his visits. The call simply said they were coming to pick him up in 20 minutes and for him to be ready. Their mission was to get him out of the country because, “the war was getting bad.”
Posey gathered his things and 20 minutes later, a small mini-van full of people arrived in front of his apartment.
“They were taking all they could from that area to the other end of the country, the west end of the country,” he said.
For the next 22 hours, they traveled west across Ukraine, only stopping for occupants to show passports or to cross checkpoints along the way. Along the way, families would allow them to stay in their apartments or offer a cup of tea or piece of bread, Posey told students.
“One lady said, ‘Just lie down on the sofa and sleep for about 30 minutes, then you can be along your way,” he continued, noting how thankful he was for their hospitality.
Once they made it to the western part of the country, trouble began.
“I bought the last ticket on a German bus line. (I)paid five times what it was worth, but I was proud to pay that,” Posey said.
While waiting on the bus, sirens were sounding and the military were herding people into basements of buildings.
“Here I am right out in the middle of the city. I am just standing there waiting on the bus to arrive,” Posey said.
When the bus arrived, Posey boarded. “There were about 60 of us on the bus. I was the only American. There was one Polish guy, and he was in the seat right next to me,” he continued.
The remainder of those on the bus were Ukrainians trying to flee the country, he noted.
The Polish man asked Posey if he had water or food, to which he responded no. When the bus stopped for those onboard to show passports, Posey went to a convenience store to get what he could,
“I bought all of the bottled water they had,” Posey said, adding he bought some food items, too.
As the bus later reached the Polish/Ukrainian border, Posey looked out the windows to see thousands and thousands of Ukrainians walking after their vehicles had run out of gas, attempting to flee the country.
When Posey asked the Polish man where these migrants would sleep, he was told they would probably gather for warmth in an open field or huddle along the roadsides, due to the cold temperatures that came at nightfall.
When Posey was informed these people did not have food or water, he advised the bus driver he wanted off the bus, to which the bus driver at first strongly refused. After repeatedly pressuring the bus driver, Posey was allowed to get off the bus.
“I couldn’t keep that water and food with me,” Posey said. “There were mothers with their children, and they were pushing strollers. There were elderly people. They were trying to walk to safety.
“Like I said, we’re a part of humanity. When we know someone is in need, what do we do? We help them,” Posey told students. “I hope you do that.”
The refugees not only thanked Posey for giving them his water and food, but also urged him to stay with them, he said. Posey pointed to the bus that he needed to reboard, which he did. However, the bus was only five kilometers from the Ukrainian border when Ukrainian military stopped the bus and surrounded it.
“They had their AK-47s,” Posey recalled. Posey was advised to take his passport but leave everything else on the bus.
All of the men were ordered to get off the bus in response to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy decreeing that all males between the ages of 18 and 60 could not leave the country. Posey and 12 other men exited the bus, including 11 Ukrainians and the one Polish man. Once they left the bus, they were surrounded by the military, whose members began to rough them up, Posey recalled.
“(When) the butt end of an AK-47 hits you, it hurts and leaves a mark,” Posey said. “Fortunately, all the bruises I sustained healed. I didn’t suffer any broken bones, thank God.”
Posey, being the only American, was separated from the other men then placed into a holding cage with others in the group.
“When they saw my American passport, they grabbed me and took me into a neighboring building,” said Posey. “For the next five hours, they interrogated me.”
The military asked him repeatedly who he was, why he was there, what was he doing, where was he going and what he was going to do when we got there. They finally brought him a bottle of water and returned him to the group. The military was angry that their country was being attacked, so they took out their hostility on the men, he said.
“I didn’t realize the danger I had been in,” he noted.
His Polish friend informed him, after they got back onto the bus, that once Posey had been separated from them, they never expected to see him again.
“When a foreigner is separated from the group and taken out of sight, typically we never see that person again,” Posey was informed.
Once the bus reached the Ukrainian side of the border, the men were still treated angrily and abused yet again, Posey said. They had to walk roughly one kilometer (just less than a mile) from the Ukrainian side to the Polish side of the border.
“When I was walking with the group, it seemed like 1,000 miles,” Posey recalled.
Despite what Posey thought--that the Polish would welcome them with ease--they, too, were angry because so many migrants were pouring into their country and they didn’t know what to do with them. The group made it to Warsaw, Poland, where Posey checked into a decent hotel that had two things--a shower and a bed.
“I was proud to have both of those,” Posey said with relief.
After a short night’s sleep, Posey was able to board a plane and fly to Miami, Fla. then on to Birmingham. When Posey arrived home, he was greeted by friendly faces from the church where he preached in Winfield, along with a group of reporters eager for interviews.
“There was one person I was delighted to see, my precious and beautiful wife,” Posey recalled. “I was back home, back safe.
“And yet what I experienced, the Ukrainian people are still going through that today, with greater severity,” Posey reminded. “So, when you think about the Ukrainian people, hope for the best for them because they need it. They are in desperate need.”
Posey challenged the students that when the end of the war with Russia finally comes, and peace arrives, that they rejoice.
“Be thankful (when) that horrible war is over and the people can begin to heal rebuild their lives,” Posey concluded.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.