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More Voices from Ukraine— “Now It Seems This War Will Get Me Everywhere.…”

Submitted by Peter Baird, Higganum

(May 19, 2022) — It’s been a while since I wrote about my friends in Ukraine, but I haven’t stopped conversing with them.

Darya, Sasha and Natalya (their names changed for their protection) all read my previous article (https://hk-now.com/voices-from-ukraine/) about their experiences in Ukraine as the war started, and thanked me and HK-Now/Haddam Killingworth News for publishing it. They said that we gave them a voice in a terrible time. This is their ongoing story to date, since that last article was written.

Natalya

Natalya is a brilliant academic and the single mother of two teenagers.  She escaped her city in early March as it was being bombed, along with two other women and their four children, all in a sedan together. One of the women left her husband behind, and they all left their homes, possessions and loved ones in a hurried effort to get their children to safety.

She drove from Mykolaiv across southern Ukraine, through Odesa, and on to Moldova, where they slept in a tent for refugees at the border and tried to get warm.  They had spent more than 30 hours at the border, in the cold, waiting to get to safety— she sent their picture once across the border, and they covered their faces. They were afraid the Russians would recognize them and come to get them. They were shell-shocked.

From there, over several days, they drove to Romania, then on to Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and to Germany. Only Natalya had a driver’s license, so she drove the whole distance. After a few days in a tent city, the German government put her and her two teen children in a children’s summer camp in the forest in far Eastern Germany. In May, she was moved to an apartment in a former hospital for people with mental illness.  Her neighbors are Ukrainian refugees.

When she first got to safety in Germany, I expected her to be relieved, but instead she was despairing.  A sample of her messages in the first weeks in Germany are below.

“My city is being heavily bombed.”

“My neighbor texted. She said my apartment was destroyed by flying shrapnel. Everything I own is in there.”

“They gave me clothes, as I don’t have much with me, of course. I have lost so much weight they gave me pants made for a 12 year old boy. I felt humiliated.” 

“Did you know I had to leave my cat? I left her out in the street and told her to be brave. I miss her.” 

And often, she writes…. “I really, really want to go home.”

Eventually she settled in, as best she could. A highlight was when her daughter’s boyfriend, who is 15 years old, arrived unexpectedly at their camp in Germany.  They hugged and cried a long time, and she shared a video of it with me.

She is living in proximity to many refugees from Ukraine, and has made friends with a family from Odesa, which is the city where she grew up.  One day, the women in the camp decided to do their nails, but they didn’t have any tools. They searched the camp and found some agricultural devices and spent the day doing theirs and others’ nails.

She also worked with other Ukrainians there (whom she jokingly calls “fellow inmates”) and advocated for more medicine, the right to cook their own meals, school for their children, and job opportunities.

One day she sent a picture of herself in the sun. I hadn’t seen her in a while. She’s a lot thinner—her normally shiny hair is lanker. But she was smiling. She despairs over her homeland and worries for her children, but she keeps telling me “I’m OK.”  And despite her city being badly bombed, her apartment damaged, the loss of friends there– she still really, really wants to go home.

Sasha

Sasha remains in Dnipro, not too far from Donbas, though away from the fighting.  She lost her job, so she moved in with her mother and helps in the salon that she owns.  She also volunteers her time cooking meals for soldiers and bringing the food out to them, and thanking them for their service.  She sometimes writes in the middle of the night, awakened by sirens and afraid. She’s angry and determined and believes there’s no chance Russia will win this war.

I showed her a story from the American media that Russia would adjust its war aims, away from Kyiv and just focus on the south and Donbas. I thought she’d be relieved. Instead, she just got angry. Her response:

“According to this logic, we would just give them everything they’re after. Why would we do that willingly? We haven’t done that. And we won’t. 

We’ve been fighting for Donbas for 8 years… our people died from time to time… it’s pain. This pain will never leave and will never be forgotten.

I’ll tell you more… Our people won’t stop, and we will also take Crimea… there is our land, our sea. I bathed in it every summer as a child. I miss her, we all miss her (meaning Crimea). This is our soul… we just can’t afford to keep any of the Russians on our land! Where is the guarantee that we will not be easily attacked again? 

Those lands that were ours are now evil-ly taken away There will always be battles and destroyed land. But the fact is that it is much easier to kick Russia out of our house now, than if we leave them for a few more years…”

Since the war is near but not in Dnipro, Sasha also gets out to enjoy her city and its environs.  She sends me pictures of herself with her dog and friends walking along the parks and beaches on the Dniepr River, and I send pictures of me with my dog and family along the Connecticut River. We agree our rivers greatly resemble one another, and that they’re lovely. She’s fascinated that the Connecticut River where I live is tidal, impacted by the ocean. She’s seen the Black and Azov Seas, but never the open ocean. We also show each other numerous pictures of our pets, and the food we cook— I learn about the various varieties of borscht and dumplings, and she learns about chowder and shellfish that we have here.  It’s another thing that connects us.

One night, Sasha woke up to bombs and sirens.  She could hear the booms of rockets in the distance, and she believed they were coming from the airport. We discussed NATO and American aid, and that more was to come, and how Ukraine would win. Like all Ukrainians, she’s thankful for the world’s support, and particularly for what America does. She also worries it’s not enough. She then typed this… I literally couldn’t breathe after I read it.

“The problem is this. I see a terrible picture…. poor Ukraine holds on and suffers, no one knows how much it can withstand. It’s like a situation where an elderly, crazy grandfather tries to kill a girl. And the men stand next to her and shove weapons into the girl’s pockets so that she would protect herself. And I watch it myself with excitement. And at the moment when the girl is tortured and after her death, she will be called a hero, a monument will be erected to her, but alas, she will no longer see it. Her family will suffer and curse those men standing aside. And those men will forget about her very quickly.”

Darya

Darya is 25 years old, a university graduate student whom I didn’t know as well before the war started, yet she’s become the person from Ukraine with whom I talk the most. For a few weeks she lived in chaos and fear, running from her apartment in the center of Kharkiv to the basement of her building, as the sirens sounded and bombs fell and shook the ground and buildings around her. Kharkiv has been one of the most heavily bombed cities in Ukraine, is its second largest city and home to its major universities, where she worked.

Eventually she and her girlfriend Nastya found a safe, deep apartment below a commercial building, where she lived with several other families. Soon after moving there, her favorite mall, where her girlfriend Nastya worked, was destroyed. These pictures show the mall just days before the war started, and what it looks like today.

She wrote, “This is devastating of course, this is one of my favorite places, but I feel so bad for Nastya. Now she doesn’t have a job.”

My initial reaction was to say don’t worry about the job, to stay safe… but then I realized, for Ukrainians, this is all part of the significant and lasting trauma they are facing. That it is cumulative, that it hurts, and that it all matters.

Yes, their city is being reduced to rubble. Yes, they’re running out of food and supplies. Friends and loved ones are dying. But she also looks forward, and realizes her job is gone too.

Darya would message me, sometimes on video, always in the dark. She looks young, scared, but determined. She told me that even though very few civilians remained in Kharkiv she wouldn’t leave the city until her girlfriend did– and her girlfriend’s parents were stuck in a suburb outside Kharkiv, behind the Russian lines. Her girlfriend said that Russian soldiers would drive down streets of these suburbs and toss grenades into people’s yards as they drove past. I honestly didn’t believe it.  That this must be an exaggeration. But this was before we knew about Bucha and other atrocities.

Darya, on a video call

She and Nastya spent 66 days in their bomb shelter. She wrote to me nearly daily throughout this time– her horror at the constant artillery and destruction of the city she didn’t grow up in but had adopted as her own– her despair at her girlfriend’s parents–and her hopes for the future. Sometimes she goes out to get food or supplies, but she says it is “all corpses and ruins” and the sirens were constant, so she didn’t linger.

Finally, her girlfriend’s parents got to safety, and they decided to leave Kharkiv and the country. She had a job opportunity, working for a former professor in Bucharest. She sent a picture of her and Nastya days after getting to Bucharest. They were outside. And they were free. I will admit that I wept when I saw it.

Darya with her girlfriend

But when you are living through a war, and see your homeland filled with destruction and corpses, you don’t escape it so easily. At first, she seemed at peace in Bucharest– while it is hardly a beautiful city, she could finally walk outside and enjoy sunshine. She told me she likes to rent scooters and explore. She was free in ways she hadn’t been in months.

But she couldn’t relax. She talks about her survivor’s guilt–that she had abandoned her country and people. She can’t adjust to the new city. She found the heartfelt support of Romanians kind, but surreal. Everything felt foreign. She missed home. And she became silent, or sent terse, one-word messages.

Then two nights ago (at 3:00 a.m. her time) she wrote this.

“An hour ago, there was an explosion outside my window. I got scared and ran away from the room, screaming. Nastya found me in a corner, sobbing. Then we realized that lightning hit somewhere and there was a strong wind. I was very scared.

A terrible injury prevents me from living. Now it seems to me that this war will get me everywhere.”

We end up talking a long time– She sent me pictures of the sun rising from the windows of her apartment. I’m continually struck by how young she is– she is just a bit older than my oldest son. I had hardly noticed this before the war because we were colleagues.

I reminded her that she must love herself, and understand the trauma she goes through, and that time heals–trite things probably, but I suspect they’re also true. She wrote me back this:

“I know, Peter… I understand that, but I’m trapped. It annoys me madly; my own helplessness pisses me off and makes me angry. I’m vulnerable and weak now. And I’m not like that. That’s why I’m so closed now sometimes when we talk.

It’s like I’ve been reduced in the amount of air I am allowed to breathe. I’m angry when trying to inhale that I can’t do it — and I’m helplessly floundering in this vicious circle.”

I don’t even know what to say. I’m just filled with such intense anger and sorrow about what has happened to her, her friends, her city and her country. It’s so wrong, especially because this war is unprovoked, a larger country believing it can control and destroy a neighboring one.

I know many in the West have woken up and wondered “Is Zelensky alive?”— but I’m exhausted by waking up and wondering “Are my friends alive?” Now that they’re all in relative safety (and Sasha believes that Russians will never get to her city) the aftermath of this war becomes more present and of greater concern. And I don’t know what the future holds for them or for their country. But I take a lot of comfort from their strength.

#SlavaUkraini

 

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