My story of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Over the last few days I have been thinking about surrealism a lot. It was the only word that seemed to describe the shocking change my life was subjected to on Feb 24th. I use the word surreal to describe how something so dream like and unreal could consume my very believable reality. Now having looked it up I am not surprised to see the surrealism started after World War I so that artists could share their unnerving and illogical experiences. It seems without even knowing I understood the mood they were trying to convey.
It is now Day 5 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and my world is shattered. Every day there are so many people to worry about that it hard to focus on anything else. It’s the first time in my life I am so dependent on the news. I have anxiety now. Every foreign sound debilitates me. I know that I am supposed to work and create some semblance of normal, because keeping a job is very important right now but I have no idea how my work will look.
On Thursday I woke up at 9 am after a late evening of Netflix only to find that my phone was flying off the hinges. A multitude of messages and missed calls. I called my mother first. That was when I found out that a war began in our country. She was worried because I was in Kyiv. The traffic jams were too big for me to get out so I stayed the night with a friend outside the city. The house was mid construction so we were lucky to have light, water and heating. There was no furniture so I was glad to get any space to sleep in.
There were 10 adults and one scared child. I spent my day at work setting up a hotline for people who needed help relocating. It was only the next morning that I realized I was one of those people. Thursday was so odd. We were surreptitiously watching the news, trying to avoid spreading panic but at the same time unable to put down our phone. At one point we heard the sound of a rocket flying over our heads. Everyone ran from the windows towards the strongest walls in the house. That is all we had, there was no bunker to speak of. The little girl began to cry when it was over, but not before. There was no time to cry while it was happening.
To me war has always been something out of a movie or a history book. Could I think that the XXI century could bring something so truly barbaric? No, I was under the misconception that by now we were able to tame our inner animals. I believe in the best of people and this war is a contradiction I still can’t process.
The next morning things in Kyiv were escalating even more. I had a choice to make. Either I move down south with people I know and people who have a car or I move west towards my family. The first meant I would get farther away from my family. The second meant I had to reach the road through which everyone was trying to escape and which was closer to the attacks. My dad and I made a plan. I would try to get as far from the city and he would drive out to get me.
What do you do in times of war? I didn’t have a car. I didn’t know if public transport was working or safe. And just for a minute my normal life came to mind: “Why don’t you try calling a cab?” I did and was surprised that anyone would be willing to drive me to the main road. I made a choice I would leave the people I was staying with. It was scary to leave a place that was relatively safe and go to place that could get bombed at any moment, but now I knew my father was on his way and I had a plan. It’s hard to describe the type of relief you feel when your cab driver decides not to go back into the city but instead drives you through all sorts of nooks and crannies, villages and forests. I left behind my life. I had one backpack and I was prepared to lose that too, so I put my documents and whatever cash I had in my pockets. I wrote my blood type on a piece of paper and I set my phone to energy saving mode. I had no idea how much time it would take to meet up with my dad.
I was never one to be great at taking calls. Half the time my phone is on silent. My parents get annoyed but it was only on that day that me not answering my phone would evoke soul crushing fear in my mother. I sent my dad a map that could work offline, in case our phone operators stopped working. On our way to the main road we passed tanks. Again my first instinct was to freeze. I have no way of knowing who’s tanks they are, but the cars before us were passing by without trouble and so I allowed myself to breathe out.
When we got to the destination point, I offered the cab driver more money if he could get me as further from the traffic as he could. His electro-car was already blocked because he wasn’t allowed to leave the city. I tried to hitch a new ride with the app to get his car started but it didn’t work. Now I would have to walk. And so I walked. I passed a pedestrian bridge over the road. This time the next day that bridge was blown up to prevent tanks from entering the Capital.
At a gas station I went to the bathroom, who knows how much walking I had ahead of me. I tried to hitch a ride as people were filling up their tanks, but all the cars were either full of people or full of belongings. I continued to walk. Every now and again I would turn trying to stop one of the myriad of cars passing by. The other side of the street, that led to Kyiv was free save for the one line that was used to get out of the city. Later on I would see the consequences of riding on the other side of the street.
I was trying to keep my cool and started a conversation with another hitchhiker to grab on to anything normal in my life. I was never a hitchhiker until this day. It always seemed like something dangerous, not worth the risk. Today it was a way to get away from bombs. We got picked up by a couple who was already giving a ride to one other man. In that moment and the days following I would only witness the kindness and courage of Ukrainians.
It warms my heart to think that in these hard times instead of crumbling we have finally started forming a nation.
I met my dad outside the Kyiv region and the mood changed drastically. He could still joke and reassure me. We got stuck outside of Zhytomyr in a 9 km traffic jam. Heading towards Kyiv were tanks and what I think were anti-aircraft missiles. It seemed like all the gas stations turned into oases for those running away from the war. The queues at every last one were like something I have never seen before. There were moments when I was distracted by something normal, like a dog in the back window of a car riding in front of us. It was beautiful to see that despite events pets were a priority. My trip from Kyiv home took 9 hours. At the last moment my friend Aleksandra gave me a bottle of water and a bun. I could only stomach the water. At 7 pm we arrived home, my mother with food ready for us. I tried to eat but I quickly found I wasn’t as hungry as I thought. I fell asleep fast, but I may have forever lost the sleep I had when I slept through the bombings on that first Thursday morning.
The next day my parents woke me with a Happy Birthday song that was part of our family tradition. They didn’t have a cake and so they put some old soviet candles (who knows where they found them) on to some cheesecakes. I think that was the best birthday greeting I ever had. There was a lot of symbolism behind it and I appreciated it all. Despite the war I got a lot of greetings that day, far more than I was waiting for, to be honest. After getting to a place where I felt safer I started reaching out to everyone I could think of, trying to figure out if they were okay, if they were safe, if they needed help.
I also came across people who were heading towards Kyiv and though I knew I couldn’t stop them, I was overjoyed to hear that at least for now they were unharmed. I spent my entire birthday checking in with people, sorting out clothes the we could take to the volunteer shelters and patching up holes in trousers. I needn’t have bothered, while we were preparing our care package our volunteer shelter had already been packed with people who were willing to help anyway they could. I donated money and started responding to the messages I got from abroad. People I knew were reaching out to offer help. At first I didn’t know that I needed any, but then I started referring everyone to donate to our army, because of all of us they are the ones who need it most.
Today I am going back to work to help others who need to find a place to stay or transport. I beat myself up about being afraid and being paralyzed by that fear. I sign petitions, report channels that share the whereabouts of our armies, I spread awareness about the atrocious crimes that are being committed against the civilians as well as uplifting posts to keep spirits up. I feel I should be doing more. I just need more time to find the composure to do more. Today I started with this story, it feels meaningless right now, but maybe one day I will be able to see its importance.