I knew from the first day of the war that this would happen sooner or later. I knew there was no way I could prevent it. Nevertheless, after the first conversation about this with my parents, I went into my room and stayed there for a moment gasping for air like a fish thrown ashore. I tried to tell them that I do not want to. They said it was stupid. I knew it was stupid. Not in our situation. Not in our circumstances. On the seventh day of the war, I left my family and fled abroad alone.
Article is provided by representatives of Kyiv-Mohyla University who have made their services available to provide accurate, timely, on-the-ground reporting about the war in Ukraine, including nuanced localized ongoing updates on what is happening across the country, as well as commentary and analysis.
The First Day and the First Night
That day I woke up early to prepare for the seminar. Unlike many others, I did not have a bad feeling. I had a good rest because the day before for the first time in several months I went for a walk in my village and calmed myself down with the thought “Who on Earth would think of starting a war in the spring?”. For a whole month, I have been reassuring people dear to my heart that no one would unleash a stupid war in the middle of Europe.
I will remember this moment for the rest of my life, just like millions of other Ukrainians will remember theirs. I heard my mother talking on the phone to someone in the hallway. I have not opened my laptop yet, have not read the news yet. She came into my room and the first thing she said was “Don’t you know yet? The war has begun.”
It is difficult to describe my feelings at that moment. I would like to highlight the disappointment. The first thing I thought about was:
“Who was carrying out these criminal orders?”
One phrase was spinning in my head the whole first day of the war. Later I heard it in a video where Russian soldiers were firing at a crowd of civilians who were protesting against the occupation.
The first night, I was more afraid than ever in my life. I was afraid to step away from the news feed even for one second because otherwise, all that would be left for me to do was to sit without the slightest rustle and listen.
We were not bombed. Nothing nearby was bombed as well. Though, I fell asleep only in the morning. The next day, waking up after a few hours of sleep, I felt as if in one night full of horror, I had aged many, many years. The person whom I was previously dispersed into the air like ashes.
On the second day, I was no longer afraid because my mind began to adapt. I did not care about the bombs but there was something that had been slowly breaking my heart.
I knew from the first day of the war that this would happen sooner or later. Nevertheless, after the first conversation about this with my parents, I went into my room and stayed there for a moment gasping for air like a fish thrown ashore. I tried to tell them that I do not want to. They said it was stupid. I knew it was stupid. Not in our situation. Not in our circumstances.
I was hoping it would not work. That I would not find transport, the volunteers would not agree, everything would be too complicated, and I would have to stay. On the third morning of the war, I woke up early to the deafening whistle of missiles flying over us. They were heading to the cities, probably to Cherkasy or Uman. They pulled me out of sleep brusquely, I jumped up and listened. I was not scared, even though I heard it for the first time and it was genuinely the scariest sound in my life. I did not feel anything. I already knew that something else is more terrible for me than any missile. I went back to sleep.
On the fifth day of the war, a family friend from Chernihiv called us. He had already transported his wife and preschool child across the Polish border. Now he was going to come to us to pick up my family. For one magnificent moment, there was hope that now we would collect all the most important things, take the cat and go to Poland together. This hope crumbled to dust when we discovered how carefully documents are inspected at the guarded checkpoints. My father had problems with paperwork due to the pre-war bureaucratic turmoil. He had no chance of crossing even the first checkpoint at the exit of our village. Mother decided to stay with him. The question of me fleeing alone was not even discussed.
Unlike other families, we did not have the slightest savings. At the beginning of the war, my parents immediately lost their jobs. When they were packing me up for the road, we put all the money we had left on the table. It was several thousand hryvnias, that is no more than three hundred euros. They gave me most of it for the journey and kept a smaller part for themselves.
I fled so that later I could be able to bring them out of poverty. In May, I was going to start a prestigious research fellowship in Canada, which I won with great effort. My parents were afraid that the bridges across the Dnipro would be soon blown up, and I would not be able to cross the river and get to the right bank. I had to go immediately.
The family friend arrived on the evening of the sixth day of the war. He had not slept for several days. Together, we sat in the room and talked, as we had been doing before when we had still lived in Chernihiv before we moved to the village. We were happy to see him alive. He pretended that he was all right. Though by then we already knew that the surroundings of Chernihiv are mined, it is impossible to enter and civilians are being bombed in their houses. His parents, relatives, friends stayed there. While he laughed, in his eyes I saw something terrible, bordering on insanity. My mother quietly told me personally that I should be careful with him because on the way he might become unwell. “He has PTSD,” she said.
It was the most painful evening of my life. Mom was scrolling the news feed. We saw a video showing how in Kharkiv, the city where my parents spent their youth, there was an explosion so strong that it spread in the air like a mushroom. The video ended and started again, and so on in circles. Father stood in the center of the room and watched this video again and again. He had a scary face. Then, he went to the computer and scrolled down so that the video would disappear from view.
I packed my things. It was a bit of clothing, a laptop, and a heavy anthology of Ukrainian poetry, which I bought in the center of Kharkiv when I was 17. I patted the cat and let him go outside for a walk. He does not sleep at home. I was waiting for him to come on the morning of my departure to see him for the last time. He did not come. Still, in the evening I affectionately said goodbye to him just in case.
Looking back and recollecting those few days, I see them as if they were covered with a black veil. When on the morning of the seventh day of the war we were preparing to say goodbyes, my father went to another room, and there he had a panic attack. My mother was reassuring him saying that it was nice that I was leaving because I would be safe. When he came out, for the first time in my life I saw my father crying.
I sat on the couch and finished my breakfast. Mom came over. I joked about something. She looked at me and said that I should not hide my feelings. I said nothing.
Going out into the street to go to the car, I looked at our farm. The pain was sharp. I felt like thousands of eyes were looking at me waiting for me to cry. I wanted to cry so badly that in order not to do this I had to strain every cell of my body.
I hugged my parents. They were crying. I was not. The family friend and I were seated in the car. I smiled at my parents through the window. We passed through the gate, drove out into the street, and headed towards the exit from the village.
I thought that now I would finally cry when my parents could not see me but I did not. Something seemed to break in me, and this breakdown gave me the opportunity to feel a saving numbness. What worried me least of all at that moment was my future fate.
The road was hard. Terrible traffic jams began in the west of Ukraine. Thousands of cars sought to drive as far as possible from the cities that were being bombed. Inside, every car had children, women, and a male driver with bags under his eyes.
It was impossible to drive at night because of the curfew, so I had to find somewhere to sleep. We spent the first night at my groupmate’s in Vinnytsia. I can never express enough gratitude to her and her family for their support. They helped not only us but also many other people. If I had the power to bless them for the rest of their lives, I would.
When we were leaving after having picked a few more women and children, I felt that I was once again parting with something dear. I wished my groupmate’s father good luck. He said that he did not need it because he was at home. In his eyes, I saw compassion.
The second night we spent in Ternopil in the center for refugees. We stopped at the distribution center, which was in the station building. I was left alone in the car, everyone else got out.
And then, for the first time in my life, I heard an air raid siren live.
I tried to get out of the car because it would be dangerous to stay in it. The exits were blocked. I dialed the family friend but his phone rang on the empty seat next to me.
The siren chilled the blood. Then it stopped. This meant that the missile was shot down by an anti-aircraft defense. Maybe it was not aimed at Ternopil at all but the siren warned everyone about the possible danger.
The guys from the territorial defense were having dinner in the reception room of the sports center. We spent the night in a large room with dozens of mattresses on the floor. It used to be a gym. Now the floor was littered with the bodies of women, children, and the elderly. I slept for a couple of hours. At six in the morning, a family friend woke me up with the words that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was on fire.
On this day, we reached the border.
The Border and Poland
Saying goodbye to a family friend, in my head, I wished that grief would bypass him. With each day of our exhausting travel, his thoughts were becoming more and more chaotic from fatigue and worries. He often checked his phone to read what was happening in Chernihiv. While we were driving through the west of the country, he kept saying that it messed up with his mind that people here seemed to be calm as if no war was happening.
I understood what he meant when I joined the queue at the border. Children were laughing, women were discussing the war as if it could be discussed just like that — while standing in the queue in the middle of the laughter. They were sharing plans for the future with each other. Almost everyone had money and relatives in Europe to whom they could go. I felt aggression so strong that at that moment I could hit someone. I was imbued with hatred for everyone who stood in this line. How could you talk about peace if there is a war somewhere? How could you talk about the war and not fall to your knees, sob, and beat your forehead on the floor?
Imperceptibly, since we were in tents, we slowly crossed the border between the two states.
The Poles were very kind to us. From the border, I got in a volunteer car to the refugee center.
When we arrived at the refugee center, I was found almost immediately by a volunteer who agreed to take me to Warsaw. The volunteers were smiling, I smiled back at them. For the journey, they gave me a lot of snacks, although I did not want to take anything. It seemed to me that someone would need all these free goods more.
When we reached Warsaw six hours later, the volunteer who drove us — me and other young girls with their children — put a hundred zlotys into my hand as a farewell. I did not see him again.
All these days, while I was preparing for the road and was driving, the thought did not leave me that it would be better if they bombed me. Not my family and me, but me apart from my family. It would have been better if I alone had sat under the bombs somewhere while my parents were safe. There is simply no worse feeling than sitting thousands of miles away from the people closest to your heart, knowing that if something happened to them, I could neither help nor lower their eyelids.
My heart aches for my homeland, too. It seemed to expand as we were driving. At first, my homeland was my parents’ house, then my village, my district, the left bank of the Dnipro, my region, and finally my state when I crossed the border.
On my card, there were about 100 euros since I spent part of it paying the family friend for a solarium. My kind friends from Europe sent me more money. Now I have 300 euros. I will need to borrow to pay for a ticket to Canada, where my scientific internship will be happening. There I will have to try my best. To get through. To be able to help my parents. It is difficult because ever since I left my family, there is a weight on my shoulders that I cannot get rid of. All emotions are muted. The front line is getting closer to my parents. I can only watch.
I am afraid to remain a victim of war for the rest of my life but this burden cannot be thrown off my shoulders. The person I once was before the war is dead. However, if it were not for the people who have been kind to me all this time, everything would have turned out much worse. My heart aches for every Ukrainian who did not manage to get help on time, who is still waiting for it, or has lost hope.
When we win, that day will be my second birth. When I can no longer worry about my family, I will appreciate every minute of the blissful peace.
Glory to Ukraine.