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I never thought that war was possible in the XXI century. I was wrong

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Children’s safety is the most important thing in every mother’s life

 

Iryna from Donetsk fled the war twice. In 2014 she fled Donetsk (which has been occupied by the Russians for 10 years) to Odesa, and in 2022 she fled Odesa to Romania. Iryna is of Korean descent, but she feels Ukrainian. She went to school in Donetsk. Lived there for 20 years. Her children were born in Donetsk. Donetsk is her home. But Russia forced her to leave her home.

Iryna realized that the war would one day spread to the whole of Ukraine. It was bound to happen sooner or later. But the scale of the Russian invasion in 2022 was astonishing. It was awful. Despite this, Iryna stayed in Odesa. She hoped it would end soon. She bought water and food, prepared for the fact that they would have to live in a bomb shelter. But she didn’t want to leave Ukraine. When it was no longer safe even to go out with the children, she realized that they had to leave. The safety of children is the most important thing in every mother’s life.

Iryna didn’t have a plan – where to go, what to do. She just didn’t know. Moldova was the closest safe place. They went there. Iryna, her mother, sister and children. The line at the Ukraine-Moldova border was 10 kilometers long. They decided to cross it on foot, because it was horrible to sit in a car for a whole day with two children. So they walked. It was this crossing that greatly affected the whole family.

It was early March, rain, mud underfoot, very cold. They saw women with small children and suitcases. One woman, two suitcases, a child in her arms. No help or support. They saw men accompanying their families to the border and then leaving. To Odesa. On foot. It was scary to watch. It was especially painful for Iryna to look at her eldest son. He was 12 at that time. He was walking and crying. He looked at all this and said: «I feel so sorry for these people». A 12-year-old child cried from the grief he saw.

Iryna and her family decided to stay in Romania. Iryna didn’t feel any relief. She felt better when she started helping Ukrainians and Romanians who were helping Ukrainians. After a while, Iryna and like-minded people opened a hub for Ukrainians, for those who had to leave Ukraine because of the war.

«I love what I do. I feel like I am in my place. I was meant to be here. It’s for sure. But I really want to go home. To Donetsk. It really hurts me to see what is happening there. Really-really hurts. But even if I have to go back to a city where there will be no city, I will go back. This is my land. I haven’t been able to go there for 9 years. So as soon as we win, I will return to my native Ukraine, to my native Donetsk region».

Three months under occupation

Alina is from Chornobaivka, a village in Kherson region. Chornobaivka has been under occupation for almost 9 months. The Russians left behind about 400 destroyed houses and thousands of crippled human lives.

On February 24, around 6 a.m., Alina heard explosions. It was the airport. She wasn’t afraid, but ran out to take pictures and film. She realized what was happening. It was war. She went to collect tourniquets, bandages, pills and photos. Her childhood photos. They turned out to be the most important thing of all.

The neighbors had a basement. It was a dark, damp, small basement. Alina and her family spent 3 months there. In the first days of the invasion, there were 17 people in the basement, five cats and a dog. Then some of the people went to another place.

Alina was the only one who was physically able to set up their shelter, that is, the basement. She brought in everything that seemed necessary: water, medicine, food. She made improvised beds out of bricks and boards. They also installed a light to warm the room a little bit with a heater. Because it is a basement. And it’s February. Cold, scary, piercing February. The first such February in her life. And the last, I hope.

Problems with water, gas and electricity began almost immediately. As well as with food. There was no bread, problems with flour, small children could not buy formula and milk. It was like that for about 3-4 weeks. Food was not brought to the village, people were not allowed to leave the village. Checkpoints, inspections, shelling. There is a possibility of not returning.

Alina had not washed her hair for 17 days. It was impossible to dry her hair due to constant power cuts. «If the shelling starts, I have to go down to the basement quickly. You can get sick in the basement. There are no medicines. I will die. There is no place to bury me. I don’t want to be buried in the garden. And I cannot die. Mom, grandma, grandpa. What will they do without me?». This was the chain in Alina’s mind. Unwashed hair has a direct impact on life. This is the philosophical conclusion.

Alina learned to distinguish between the sounds of rockets and bombs. For example, when the missile comes at us, it is a deafening sound. When the rocket «Hrad» is coming away from us the sound is like rustling, like peas falling. When a mine is flying, it is a whistle. In this case, there is very little time to hide or just fall to the ground. Being able to distinguish between all these sounds was important if you wanted to survive.

People disappeared in Chornobaivka all the time. They were interrogated, tortured, abused, and killed. Russians used electric shocks, beatings, intimidation with shots to the head, psychological schemes. Why did they do this? Some of them really believe that we are Nazis. They hate Ukrainians. They really hate Ukrainians. These Russians can be called ideological. There are those who came to Ukraine to kill for money. These are the passive ones. And there are those who are simply zombified. They were told to come, and they came. And that’s it.

When you learn about the deaths of people you knew, it’s scary. Alina’s neighbors went out to buy groceries and were killed right in front of their house. Just in broad daylight. There was a story about a group of teenagers who were just standing in the street. Some of them ran away, and some didn’t make it. Two teenagers died on the spot. On the highway near Alina’s village 11 bodies were found, which were simply thrown away like garbage. These people were considered missing. There are many similar cases.

Alina and her parents tried to leave occupied Chornobaivka twice.

The first attempt was unsuccessful. They spent the night in the field. Under «Hrad» rockets, shelling, and flares. The Russians did not let them through. Almost a thousand people from Kherson were unable to leave.

The second attempt was through the occupied Crimea. It costs 500 dollars per person to leave by bus through a private company. There were 4 of them. Of course, they didn’t have that kind of money. They spent 3 months under occupation. They had to borrow money to pay for this trip. But that was not the most difficult thing.

It was extremely difficult for Alina morally. «How can I do this to Ukraine?», she thought at the time. But she had to. It was already too dangerous in Chornobaivka.

Almost everyone was being questioned at the border, except for the elderly. Alina was questioned too. Russians tried to find out if she had any information that was important to them. They checked her phone. She was prepared. She bought a new SIM card and sewed the old one with the information into her bra. They interrogated her for a short time, about an hour. Then they let her go.

Later there was another inspection. Russians checked everything. When Alina entered the room and saw the polygraph, she thought it was the end. But, fortunately, the polygraph was not used. The atmosphere was depressing. Just like in the movies. An empty room, a chair in the middle and a polygraph. The only thing missing was a lamp swinging from the ceiling. The young FSB officer was trying to find out how Alina felt about Russia and whether she wanted the Kherson region to be part of it. She was barely holding on. She was very afraid that they would ask her «Do you love Ukraine?». She would not be able to lie. And then they would have taken her away… Fortunately, there was no such question.

Alina and her family managed to leave. They were on their way for 4 days.

Now they are safe. Alina volunteers and helps the army. She is one of the founders of a non-governmental organization that raises money for the Armed Forces of Ukraine on a regular basis.

Becoming independent in a foreign country at 15 years old

Olena was 15 when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. Olena is from Mykolaiv. She lived there with her family, went to school, and took dance classes.

The morning of February 24, 2022, was a scary one.

From the window, Olena saw flashes, heard explosions, and saw aircraft flying. Then she and her parents decided to leave the city for the country. There was a small house there, without heating and amenities. There was a fireplace. They cut down a tree and warmed themselves by the fireplace. They lived there for 2 weeks. When it became dangerous even there, Olena’s parents decided that their daughter had to be rescued. It was a decision to take her out of dangerous Mykolaiv, or better yet, out of Ukraine. Because there is no safe place in the country. Olena’s mom is a doctor, her dad is conscripted. They could not go abroad. That’s why Olena’s grandmother went with her.

They were on their way for 24 hours. They stood at the border for a long time. It was damp and cold. A piercing wind was blowing through, adding to the feeling of longing. Olena did not want to leave Ukraine. She was scared and sad. Despair. She was afraid of having to leave her home country. She hoped that everything would end soon and she would be able to return home. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way.

Olena and her grandmother have been living in Bucharest for almost 2 years. Almost immediately after their arrival, Olena started looking for volunteer initiatives. She really wanted to be useful. To help Ukrainians. She felt that this way she would find at least some peace for her soul.

Olena was accepted into a hub for Ukrainians. First, to help. Now she is part of the core team. She is officially employed. Pays for her own living expenses. She plans to go to university. In Ukraine. Because she does not see herself in any other country.

In this way Olena became an adult at the age of 15. So did many Ukrainian children. Because they realize that there is no other way out. Such children inspire and give hope. Hope for the future of Ukraine. Free and strong.

Three wars in one life

My name is Kseniya. This is the third war in my life: Moldova in 1990, the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Russia full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. I remember every one of them. I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t do it anymore. It hurts. To think. To breathe. To live.

I am Ukrainian, born in Moldova. I was 6 years old when I heard the first shots and explosions. It was the war in Moldova. Transnistria. Then, as a little girl, I didn’t understand why this was happening. I didn’t understand why we were fleeing from our beautiful, cozy home in Moldova. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t take all my favorite things and toys with me. Why were we leaving so suddenly, so quickly, and for so long. My parents were saving my brother and me from the war. I never returned to my home in Moldova.

My parents were taking us to Ukraine, to my grandmother. On the way, I remember a destroyed bridge, checkpoints, and soldiers with guns. I will never forget this. I was sleeping. I woke up with machine guns pointed at me from both car windows. That was how the military checked whether we were transporting anything prohibited. According to their plan, I had to get scared and tell them everything. I was scared, but I didn’t tell them, because there was nothing to tell. We were not hiding anything. We were just running away from the war. I have been carrying this fear and horror all my life.

Throughout my life, from time to time I have had a dream — an airplane is flying at my house and dropping a bomb. The same airplane. White with a green stripe on the right side. Sometimes I even saw the pilot in it — a handsome, young guy with green eyes and an evil smile. For some reason, he hates me and wants to kill me. I don’t know why, but I feel it very clearly. This hatred. Why does it exist and why am I guilty of something?

On February 24, 2022, I woke up to the sound of an explosion.

The first explosion. 6 am. I lived near a military base that was attacked on the first day of the Russian full-scale invasion. The glass in the house was blown out. The cat hid under the sofa in a panic. My son didn’t understand anything. My first thought was «Is it happening again?». I never thought that war was possible in the XXI century. I was wrong. It is possible. A real, brutal war.

The second explosion. I realized that I have to run away. I quickly threw my things, food bought in advance, documents, photos of my mother and her notebook into my backpacks.

There are certain things in every person’s life that must always be with them. For me, it’s a photo of my mom and her little notebook. A small black notebook in which my mother used to write down something important and interesting. Short recipes, little poems, important dates, numerological formulas. And also my drawings. I remember a long line to the doctor and this little notebook of my mother’s. That’s where I learned to write letters. I was 10 when my mom died. A lot has changed since then, but not the pain. It never stops. Her photos help me keep in touch with her. The black notebook is my talisman that remembers me as a little girl.

The third explosion. My son is dressed, I’m looking for the cat.

The fourth explosion. We leave the house. We will never go back there. The streets of the city have never been so crowded at 6 am. Families with children, suitcases, dogs, cats. They stand on the roads, trying to stop cars, asking for a ride somewhere. And we couldn’t take anyone, unfortunately. There were 6 adults, 3 children, a cat and a dog in our car. People were panicking.

It is so scary to see the frightened eyes of a mother trying to save her child.

I was shaking, the sounds of explosions were in my head. But I understood everything clearly. The war has started. Russia has attacked us. I have to save my child, just like my parents once saved me. This is my first priority. Now I am the savior.

We lived in a bomb shelter for 5 days. It was a warm, but dark and uncomfortable place. It smelled of dampness, food and diapers. The first days we hardly spoke, listening to the explosions, airplanes, tanks, helicopters, any unusual sounds. Even the dogs seemed to bark differently. And then there was silence. A terrible, horrible silence. The air was heavy and full of danger. And I realized, «I can’t be here anymore».

On March 1, my son and I left Ukraine.

The road was hard and long. Many cars, many checkpoints, incredible tension every meter of the way. The sounds of sirens added to the horror. Once we stopped at a gas station. To drink tea and breathe in some fresh air. There were a lot of people, all concerned. Who is from Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia. There is no safe city in Ukraine anymore. Everyone is at risk of attack. We are all running away. From the war. An evening, a trip, a hot tea – it’s so nice to feel something from ordinary life. One could imagine that we are traveling, going on a visit or vacation. But the siren brought us back to reality. And then there was a flash. A bright, big flash somewhere on the horizon. I count the seconds to figure out how far it is from us (my father taught me to calculate the distance from lightning). It’s about 10 kilometers. That’s a long way away. But who knows where it will hit next time. We dropped everything and drove on in a panic.

Those were the most terrifying hours of my life. It was dark outside, a field and a forest around. Sometimes we heard explosions and distant flashes. The windows in the car were open, even though it was cold, but we had to hear what was happening and where. Not a word for almost 5 hours. I think that’s when I got my first 3 gray hairs.

We drove without stopping. 12 hours. The children, dog and cat behaved with great dignity. For some reason, they understood that they couldn’t whine and be naughty. They ate, slept, and asked when we would arrive. We didn’t know what to say. We were just leaving. We were running away from the war. Disturbing news about new explosions and casualties added to the horror. But we behaved with dignity, just like the children. We realized that we had the highest goal – to save our children. 7 hours at the border was the last step (so we thought at the time), and we would be safe.

We left Ukraine. Our beautiful, free, strong Ukraine. With pain in our hearts, with tears in our eyes, with an incredibly heavy feeling of betrayal. But we left Ukraine. When we crossed the border, I burst into tears. It was the stress. An hour later, my temperature rose. It was the stress. The next day I lost my voice. Because of stress.

Is running away from the war abroad a betrayal? To leave your home, to leave behind everything that is important, close and warm: your usual life, your favorite cup, a soft bathrobe, comfortable slippers, a cozy corner on the balcony. I traded my life for the safety of my son. Is the search for safety a betrayal?

We do not live here, not in our own country. Here we are waiting for the time when we can return. I feel anxious all the time. Something fell loudly – danger, airplanes – danger, ambulances – danger. Everything around is scary and dangerous.

Once I had a dream. I was running with a small child in my arms. I was running barefoot on the ground, feeling the clouts of earth under my feet. Among explosions and fire. I hid in the basement and saw another child sleeping there. An adult. And I thought «How can I save two children? I can’t take two at the same time». I woke up. Not realizing that it was a terrible dream, I started waking my son and convincing him that we had to run away. It’s good that he is an adult. He realized what was happening. That it is just a dream. He calmed me down and put me to bed.

When will I stop running away? I don’t know the answer. If it was in my mom’s notebook… But it’s not there. And there is no advice on how to live with it.

«Mom, when are we coming home?», – my son asks me. And now I understand why, as a child, I never received an answer to this question. Now I understand why my mother always suggested singing after this question from me. So as not to burst into tears. Not to lie. Not to upset. To protect. Because this is our highest goal, mom, to save our children. Then you did it with me. Now I am doing it with my son.

How to survive a war? This question has been haunting me since I was 6 years old, since that first war. And I have seen three of them: Moldova in 1990, the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Russia full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. I remember every one of them. I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t do it anymore. It hurts. To think. To breathe. To live.

How did the fighting affect the lives of these Ukrainian women?

The war in Ukraine forced a lot of people to leave their lives, to part with their families and loved ones, to experience the destructive power of hatred. The war changed our lives and us forever. It tore out our souls, pierced huge holes in our hearts.

But it made us strong, independent, capable of anything. And also unbreakable. Just like Ukraine.

Each of these women dreams of returning home. To their native country. A country that is defined by its people. Free and strong. Isn’t this self-determination for Ukraine?

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