What will you do when this is over? We asked Ukrainians from different corners of the country

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May 5, 2023

What will you do when this is over? We asked Ukrainians from different corners of the country

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war
Photo by Kyiv City State Administration

MAJA HORELKINA, 39 years old, IT specialist, Przemyśl (Poland)

If the war ended today, I would go to Kyiv. My family and friends are there. I would hug them all. I wouldn’t be afraid to let my daughter, Yevheniya, go there either, who, despite the war, has not given up her dream of opening a café in Kyiv.

A backpack has been accompanying Maja since 2014. That’s when war broke out in Donbas between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. Donetsk quickly fell into the hands of the latter, and the quiet housing estate where Maja lived became a firing position for their artillery. With each bang, the then 5-year-old Yevheniya would shout “Thunder!” and run to the hallway like her parents had taught her.

That’s when Maja packed her backpack. She put money, documents, toothbrushes, a change of underwear and warm clothes inside it. The fighting escalated and the family decided to leave. Maja thought she was going for a week or two. Together with her daughter, she went to Kyiv, where she spent most of the last eight years. She went to Donetsk only once, by a roundabout route, to pick up some things. She saw that the city she knew had become a façade. “It has no soul anymore,” she says. In Kyiv, she worked in the same company as in Donetsk, engaged in equipping offices with servers and networking.

On February 24, 2022, sirens wailed in Kyiv. Maja and 14-year-old Yevheniya went down to the basement, from which they practically never left. Her daughter couldn’t sleep out of fear. At the beginning of March, when Kyiv was a little calmer, they left. First to Lviv, then to Łańcut (Poland), and from there to Przemyśl. She treated each place as temporary and constantly held out hope that in a week or two she would return to Ukraine. But she gradually lost it.

She found a job in Przemyśl and sent her daughter to school. Maja helps out at the Ukrainian House [ Translator’s note: Dom Ukraiński, a cultural center in Przemyśl ], among other places. She’s counting on her contribution bringing an end to the war faster.

HALYNA TANAJ, 32, Operations Director, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv

A Nick Cave concert was supposed to be held in Kyiv in August. I had tickets. It didn’t take place. I really cared about it because he is old and I have never seen him live. I could go to a concert in another country, but since the full-scale war began, I have no desire to leave. When it’s over and if Cave’s still up and running, I’ll go see him in concert.

Halyna and her 4-year-old son, Luka, went to visit her parents in Kryvyi Rih in the south of the country where she is from. They were supposed to return after February 20, but Halyna got sick. The invasion found her there. Although rockets fell on the airport, the city was relatively quiet during the first few days. In a way, Halyna felt better because everything became clear. “Speculations, understatements, and wondering what will happen disappeared,” she says.

Soon the Russians began to approach the city and were able to cut off the main outbound route. In order to not fall into the trap, she set off toward western Ukraine with her son and parents. They had no plan. Halyna, who works in marketing, was calling her friends and finally asked a question on Facebook. A friend approached her with a proposition: she had an apartment and a job for her. The family settled in Ivano-Frankivsk. Halyna commutes to Lviv, where she has become the operational director of the Lviv Media Forum [ https://lvivmediaforum.com/en/ ].

Like almost all of Ukraine, Halyna emotionally followed the fate of the defenders of Azovstal, surrounded by the Russians in Mariupol. Therefore, when she saw bracelets made from the last batch of metal smelted in this factory, she wanted to buy one at all costs. The bracelets were so popular that the website selling them crashed.

Halyna wears hers on her right hand. In moments of weakness, this piece of metal reminds her that no challenge she faces is difficult compared to what the defenders of Azovstal endured.

HALYNA LEHKOVA, 74, retired professor of physics, Irpin

I’m waiting for my daughter and grandson to come back from Germany. I miss them terribly. We’ll get the whole family together. I’ll make them their favorite food, I’ll bake a napoleon cake for sure. We will rejoice like never before.

In March, in Irpin near Kyiv, the situation deteriorated day by day. The Russians pushing from the north tried to take this city of 65,000. Shelling was an everyday occurrence. Halyna doesn’t even know when all her neighbors left. She was left alone in the area. Sometimes she peeked out from behind her curtains. She saw Russians patrolling the streets. When a shell hit a nearby university one day, her house shook. She couldn’t call anyone, there was no reception. She lived off supplies and from her garden. “I have a stove with a chimney and it saved me. That’s where I baked potatoes and cooked food in a metal pot,” she says. She also used it to heat a house where shock waves from explosions had shattered some of the windows.

Her children had no contact with her. They expected the worst. Her son set off on foot through streets that were under fire. Volunteers instructed him on which way to go so that the snipers wouldn’t get him. His right arm is paralyzed and he hoped that his disability would protect him if he was apprehended by the Russians. It is difficult to say who was more shocked—Halyna at the sight of her son or him when he saw that his mother was alive and well.

Until now, Halyna had not thought about leaving, but she could not make her son go alone. They spent the night at her house. It was terrible. The fighting would not stop. Her home was between the warring sides. Shells fell close, a neighbor’s house was destroyed, but hers survived with only minor damage. She believes it is thanks to her fervent prayers to the Mother of God. The next day, mother and son set out and, despite the fighting ongoing around them, reached the blown up bridge [translator’s note: an early evacuation choke point into Kyiv]. There, Halyna saw the bodies of civilians who had fled in cars and died.

When the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv region, she returned home. She tidied up the yard. She picked up shrapnel. And kept it. She has it to this day.

YURI KUZMIN, 39, architect, Kyiv

I want to see my daughter. To hug. We will go together to the restaurant at the Andriyivsky Congress and eat borscht.

After rockets fell on Kyiv, Yuri went to work. He didn’t take all this seriously. He had a lot of work on the Mariupol campus, which he managed. Soon, however, security told him to leave the office. “I thought that our side would beat them up quickly, because Kyiv is a fortress,” he admits.

His daughter, 7-year-old Uliana, lives with his ex-wife. From their apartment you can see Hostomel, where fierce fighting took place. Yuri came to board up their windows the following day. They stared at the clouds of smoke outside the window and decided that this didn’t look good. They got in the car and went to Yuri’s ex-wife’s parents, whom the war found in a hotel on a skiing trip in the Carpathians. Yuri drove towards Kyiv as Uliana and her mother crossed the border and then went to Turkey.

He did not return to Kyiv, but looked after his grandfather’s house. He wanted to help somehow. So when the opportunity arose, he volunteered to dig trenches. He was convinced that Kyiv was a fortress because he knew its fortifications. The defensive line built during World War II was a place where he played as a child. Now the defense of the capital depended on it. “It reminded me of my childhood, playing in the same trenches, only now I’m an adult, so everything is serious,” he says.

A wooden shovel was not quite up to the task. Yuri wondered whether to buy a better one, and if so, which one. He found a metal one that was advertised as making digging faster. But he only used it once, because the military no longer needed diggers. He doesn’t like to waste money, so he was constantly looking for an opportunity to use it. Finally, he began to ask his friends whether they needed him to dig something on their property.

OLENA ALCHANOWA, 33 years old, content marketing specialist, Kyiv

After the war, I want to fly to visit friends somewhere in Europe. It doesn’t matter where, because it’s not the journey that matters, but the return. I miss that feeling of coming back homesick. The plane is approaching Boryspil airport and you can see Kyiv from above. Then I feel at home.

She thought it was another bad dream. Ever since alarming news began to dominate the media, the war haunted her even at night. She slept with earplugs because her cat meowed loudly at dawn. Therefore, on February 24, the muffled bangs seemed like a dream to her. She closed her eyes again. She awoke to her alarm clock, set for seven. She couldn’t understand why so many friends were asking if she was okay. Only a message from a friend: “The war has begun” explained where this sudden interest in her person had come from.

Olena only smokes occasionally now, but she had to calm her nerves that day. Her hands were shaking so badly she could barely roll her cigarettes. She didn’t know what to do with herself. Finally, her neighbors took her to the basement of a neighboring building. She took her documents and a few things, mostly for the cat.

An American who looked to be about thirty lived in the basement and did not want to talk to anyone, but clearly did not like the presence of the new arrivals. Posters of David Bowie, Metallica and Patrick Swayze hung on the walls. There was also a router and a shower–on the fourth day Olena washed her hair there with dishwashing liquid.

On the first day, she laid down on pallets with her clothes on because she didn’t bring blankets. Her cat warmed her by laying on top of her. She was suffering from a lack of coffee–she didn’t realize she was so addicted to it. It wasn’t until the next twenty-four hours that she gathered the courage to go home, which was about three minutes away.

In addition to a blanket and pillow, she grabbed a drip coffee maker and a pack of filters to make coffee. Already in the basement, she realized that she had not taken any coffee. Luckily, a neighbor brought some. Olena made coffee for everyone. Its flavor and caffeine were mood-enhancing. “It wasn’t so much the coffee itself, it was the habit. The brain registered something familiar. The day has begun. We’re alive and it doesn’t matter that we’re sitting in a basement,” she says.

PAVLO KOVTONIUK, 38, former Deputy Minister of Health, Kyiv

I will one hundred percent go back to politics. This thought has been bothering me since February. I’ve been working all my life to get our country out of this shitty “homo sovieticus” and put it back where it belongs, which is Europe. This war has shown that we cannot let up.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Pavlo studied health care management. He thought that when he grew up, the system would be different, no longer post-Soviet, and that Ukraine would be part of the European Union. At some point, he was terrified that maybe he was wrong and nothing would change, that the inefficient, corrupt system would exist forever.

He became the deputy of the Minister of Health Ulana Suprun, in whom hope was placed that this part of the system would be reformed. However, when Volodymyr Zelensky came to power, he bet on people from his faction and political novices. Pavlo resented that they were not allowed to complete their reforms. He decided to take a break from politics. He became one of the founders of a think tank that works for changes in the healthcare system.

On the second day of the invasion, he left with his wife and 6-year-old daughter for Lviv. They packed quickly. Pavlo remembered what a colleague from work who left her home in 2015 said. She claimed that the best thing she had done in her life was to take photos from her home. The couple also took photos with them. And Paul always has some with him.

He was the one who insisted on leaving. It was not clear whether the Russians would take Kyiv. As a public figure, he could become a victim of purges. A day after the withdrawal of the Russians from the Kyiv region, they were home again.

Together with the team of the think tank, they began to document war crimes against healthcare facilities. Since February, they have recorded 259 destroyed or damaged locations.

OLEH MAKOVIYCHUK, 28, theater actor, Kharkiv

The war took the freedom that civilians enjoy away from me. When it’s over, I want it back. Be true to yourself, not to responsibilities or leaders. If it’s warm, the first thing I’ll do is get on a motorbike and ride around Ukraine.

It was only in May [2022] that the draft commission accepted Oleh. It had been a long time since he took his former partner and their 3-year-old son Kostya to Lviv, from where they went on to Germany. He returned to Kharkiv.

He was sent for training. Instructors taught him how to use a compass, correct fire using it, and shoot various types of weapons. He joined a mortar crew, quickly adapting to the new role. He performed in theaters until February 24 and claims that thanks to this experience it is easy for him to adapt to any situation.

He was soon deployed. Two mortar crews sat in the woods. It was terrible at first. Every sound roused them. Over time, Oleh became one with the forest. He could now distinguish when a hedgehog ran by and when it was a squirrel. He often thought about his son there. He would take a balloon out of his backpack and a plastic eyelet from a toy that Kostya liked to play with. Then the memories became more vivid. The son liked it when Oleh blew the balloon up and then let it fly around the room. Kostya would run around and try to catch it.

When he visited his parents on leave for the first time, he stood in the shower for a long time, enjoying the hot water. He was so used to the forest that at first it was difficult for him to sleep in a bed. All the soldiers had their foxholes. Oleh poured sawdust into his. He hid in a warm waterproof sleeping bag. He didn’t take off his bulletproof vest so as not to fumble with it in the dark. That’s how he spent his nights, except when he was on duty.

At first he thought he’d stay in the army, but now he’s not so sure. The last time he rested his eyes for 10 minutes, he woke up terrified, feeling he’d overslept. He needs a break.

OKSANA MALCEVA, 42, post office head, Ruski Tyszky

When they declare victory, I’ll probably cry tears of joy. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. My children would come back, I would hug them all and make them skewers.

Three days before the invasion, Oksana’s son Mykyta called. The 19-year-old was an artilleryman for a year. “Mom, there will be a war. We are waiting for the order,” he said. Oksana cried and thought about what to do. She has six children, all except Mykyta were at home. It’s a big family, so it’s hard to go somewhere with it and then feed it. Plus, she had a job where she was responsible for cash transfers and pensions. She couldn’t just abandon it because her son said there would be a war. Lost in thought, she couldn’t sleep until the morning. At work and at home, everyone laughed at her when she talked about the war. Nobody believed her.

Ruski Tyszky, located 20 km north-east of Kharkiv, was occupied in the first hours of the attack. Hearing firing, they would hide in the basement. Then they got used to it. Oksana’s son had taught her how to judge the distances from which Russian artillery was firing. During the shelling, Oksana counted the seconds from flash to bang and multiplied by 330—that’s how she computed kilometers. She passed information to the military through the messaging app Signal. She kept all this secret from her family.

One day, the Russians came to her house because they saw that she was hanging around on a hill where she was catching internet access. Fortunately, she had previously deleted all apps from her phone. She explained to them that she worked at the post office and had to contact other departments, and only got reception on the hill. They let her go.

The shells gradually leveled Ruski Tyszky to the ground. They fell near her house several times. They first pierced holes in the metal roof. The family joked that they could strain pasta through it. It became less fun later. Cluster munitions killed her dog and injured her 20-year-old daughter Zoya. Oksana was a nurse in the past, witnessing operations. Now she had to conduct one herself. She disinfected the wound and tweezers, pulled out the shrapnel, and applied sutures. Only then did her nerves let go and she began to sob, because she realized that she was one step away from losing her daughter. She put the shrapnel in her wallet and still carries it to this day.

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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