War in Ukraine: “My family and I prepared some Molotov cocktails just in case”

“I was born and raised in Kharkiv, one of the largest cities in Ukraine. Unfortunately, according to the Civil Damage Map maintained by Bellingcat (an independent international group of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists), my city is one of the hardest hit. This beautiful place where I have spent most of my life now looks like a pile of rubble in places. I don’t even know if my apartment still exists.

I’ve seen things you wouldn’t expect on the way to school

Until 2014, the words “war”, “aggressor” and “occupier” were just echoes of the past for me. I only heard them from my grandparents. I remember walking past the central square of Kharkiv one day in early March 2014. Pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters began clashing. I saw people fighting, a man smashing someone’s head in with a baseball bat, smoke bombs being thrown and many other things you wouldn’t expect on the way to school. It was the first time I understood that Russia (a country where I had many friends and relatives) was much more to us than just a neighbor.

But we were lucky. After the first protest movements, the city returned to normal life. Nothing happened to me at the time, apart from the emotional shock.

I know today that I could not understand the real consequences of these events – neither politically nor economically. The “most significant” change for me was that my parents and their Russian friends could no longer see each other. And that our favorite summer vacation spot – Crimea – had been erased from the map of Ukraine.

From then on, most of my new friends introduce themselves with these words: “I am a refugee”. They come from Donetsk or Lugansk regions. And each time those words are pounding in my heart so much that I feel their pain. What I never imagined is that very soon I will be the one who also introduces himself as a refugee.

The war grew louder

War has become a reality in Ukraine, well before 2022. I also realize that I have been blinded by an illusion of “security”. Kharkiv was 300 km away from the “temporarily occupied areas”. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that the Russian border was much closer – only 40 km away.

On February 24, I was woken up at 6 am by a phone call from my mother. To calm her trembling voice, she ordered me to leave town immediately. She said that the war had come to Kharkiv and was spreading throughout the country. She asked me to come to them (a small suburban village). I couldn’t quite believe her until I heard the first explosions in the distance.

I stayed with my parents for the next eight days, locked inside. We hoped that being out of town and not having “military targets” around would be enough to protect us.

A fighter plane right over our heads

Most local shops, ATMs and pharmacies were almost empty. I was desperately trying to get everything my family needed (groceries, medicines, cash, etc.).

I remember the hours of waiting, hearing the sound of explosions. This sound is actually trivialized very quickly. So the war grew louder and louder every day and the news more and more unbearable.

By the end of the first week we knew how to distinguish the sounds of different types of bombing raids. We prepared a few Molotov cocktails just in case, boarded all our windows and heard a fighter jet fly overhead for the first time. He dropped grenades nearby. We heard them, but above all we felt them: the whole house began to tremble. On the morning news we discovered that these shells had been dropped on (civilian) houses 8 km from our house.



What would have happened if the pilot had pressed the button a few seconds earlier or later? Could it have fallen on our house? You couldn’t ask such questions out loud, but we’ve all thought about it.

That was when I first thought about leaving home. While it was terribly hard to walk away, it was even harder to stand there feeling useless, scared, numb, and helpless. Then we kissed and shed a few tears. Then I left. All alone. With a small backpack and some memories of my “peaceful life” before that. After two trains through Ukraine, a car ride to Warsaw, I flew to Paris. The journey lasted three days.

Every night I cry before I fall asleep

My parents stayed there, in this village near Kharkiv. Luckily, as I write these lines, they are well and I can talk to them on a daily basis. My friends are all over the world – in western Ukraine, in Poland, in Germany, in Prague and – sometimes always in Kharkiv. Some of them became volunteers or soldiers. Some have already lost their lives.

I’m in Paris – safe and sound – busy with work, hosted by my uncle’s incredible family. Still, I cry every night before I fall asleep.

My “path” was far from easy, although I can say with certainty that it was much more difficult for others. No words can describe the landscape you will see while escaping Ukraine. You only see fear and pain.

Work helps me keep my head above water

Luckily I can still work remotely. I’m a social media manager at a Ukrainian app development company. My salary is two to three times lower than that of the French Smic, but here I can be productive and help others, even if at the beginning it was emotionally draining to open the computer for the smallest task. Over time, I’ve found that immersing myself in routine and work helps me stay afloat.

Now I’m able to combine my work with building a non-profit start-up. Together with my team (some of them are still working from Kharkiv, by the way!) we are creating a new application to provide Ukrainians with free psychological help. However, the experts are paid by the non-profit foundation.

The war in Ukraine is not a distant threat

I also help in the volunteer center where we collect, organize and transport humanitarian aid to Ukraine. I will also demonstrate regularly. I feel like I have the resources to do so much more. Since I can’t hold a gun, I try to get as much outside help as possible.

I continue to work to keep our business running and help solve our customers’ problems. I offer support and share information with anyone who asks me. I donate as much as I can to various Ukrainian organizations. I’m learning French to settle down faster, build new relationships, and find new ways to support myself, my family, and my home country. For example, I wrote this (not so) small text! All of these things, along with the beautiful people around me, help me resist the terror.

I hope that most of you reading this text will understand that the war in Ukraine is not a distant threat, although it is pleasant to think so. Many people outside of Ukraine’s territory will have to deal with the economic, political and emotional consequences of this tragedy. I believe that all sane people should unite around a single mission: to end the war, prevent Russian aggression, and establish justice and peace. »

“Words of Ukrainian Refugees”

Same war, different story. Find the testimony of Valentyna, 28 years old, artistic director and independent designer. She was completing her Masters in Art Theory when she had to go into exile in Portugal before the war.

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