When I woke up on the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, and saw my homescreen flooded with notifications, I knew. Three days earlier, when Russian President Vladimir Putin made a speech announcing Russia’s recognition of the fake DNR/LNR as separate republics, I knew. Four days earlier, when my parents made the rushed decision to fly to Kyiv on one of the last flights that took place over an airspace that has been closed for a year now, I knew deep down that they would not be able to take a flight back.
We all knew that something deeply violent, irreversible, and painful was going to happen. From the moment I was born, I had a crystal clear understanding that our neighbouring country was no friend, even less so of a ‘brother’ as Russia so often would claim to be. Members of my family were suppressed, separated, and forcibly deported by the Soviet regime in the late 40s, a trauma which has lingered across three generations, touching me. Ukrainians knew of Russia’s capacity to inflict pain on us – it has been doing so over the course of four hundred years. Foreigners tend not to acknowledge that fact in their attempts to shift the blame away from Russia as the instigator of the biggest war on European soil since the Second World War. We knew something could happen when the first headlines reported the build-up of Russian troops around the Ukrainian border. No amount of knowledge, expectation, or prediction could have prepared anyone for the scale of what did end up happening – a full-scale war, major cities being bombed across the entire territory of the largest country in Europe, seven million refugees, over 70,000 war crimes, and numerous crimes against humanity.
The first couple of weeks were a blur. Daily calls with family back home, non-stop consuming of minute-by-minute coverage, tracing the distance between where a missile has landed and my flat in Kyiv (the nearest was 10 minutes away), waves of never-ending panic attacks and survivor’s guilt. These things continue to this day. I wish I could say I’ve grown completely numb to the things I see happening back home. To an extent I have, but not so much out of my own desire as out of a necessity to remain sane in an environment which soon grew indifferent to the emotional trauma of Ukrainians.
This month has been difficult. Through my phone’s constant “On This Day” reminders I am shown a life previously lived by me that I cannot fully recall. On February 15th a year ago, I had given the first of many interviews on the perspective of young Ukrainians of our country being on the brink of war. On February 20th a year ago, I argued with my parents, trying to convince them not to go to Ukraine. On February 21st a year ago, I cried on the phone to my brother after Putin’s speech declaring that Ukraine should not exist. Looking at photos and text messages exchanged prior to February 2022 and in the months that followed, I realise I have no recollection of what happened in my life during that period of time. I’ve forgotten about the rallies attended, the interviews given, the conversations had, the trips taken, the meals shared, and the help provided. I struggle to summon images of my own life lived over the course of the past 365 days because the visual library of my mind is saturated with photos of the victims of the massacre in Bucha, of the residential buildings raised to the ground in Mariupol, and of the bodies lying on the ground near the bus station in Kramatorsk.
As I’ve spent the whole of last year attending rallies, giving interviews and speeches at outlets ranging from the BBC to the News Movement, organising Ukraine-centred events, fighting for the inclusion of Ukrainian perspectives in our university, creating the Ukrainian Society, and advocating for global support for Ukraine, I’ve done so while in a permanent state of grief and mourning. Every day, I mourn after the lives lost, the cities destroyed, the children kidnapped, and the people forever scarred. I mourn after the life we all had and the life we could have had this year had Russia not begun bombing every major Ukrainian city on that fateful morning of February 24th, 2022.
If Russia hadn’t launched a full-scale invasion, the 19-year old friend of a friend would be alive. My 87-year-old grandfather wouldn’t be spending hours in a bomb shelter for the second time in his life. My 14-year-old cousin wouldn’t be thanking me for bringing her an attachable book light, because without it, she would spend hours in her school’s bomb shelter trying to do her homework using her phone’s flashlight. I wouldn’t have panic attacks in the library after getting notifications of an air raid alert sounding in my hometown and not being able to reach my family. My family wouldn’t have conversations about having keys to a flat we might not potentially find standing in one piece when we eventually go back.
And yet, when I made an 18-hour journey to Ukraine over winter break, alongside the visual reminders of wartime – anti-tank hedgehogs on the sides of the road, sandbags propped up against the windows of ancient churches, and daily sirens sounding an air raid alert – what I also saw was the resilience and the unbreakable spirit of the Ukrainian people. This steadfastness, exhibited by the insistence on participating and maintaining rituals of the mundane, is held on to as a floating device in unsteady waters. Because to fall into despair and to succumb to the weight of everything happening around you is understood as giving Russia exactly what it wants, surrender. So we keep on making ambitious plans for the future; starting new jobs, bringing new life into this world, supporting each other and cherishing every moment spent with our loved ones – to remember what we’re fighting for and to retain our sources of strength to continue our fight to the end.
We’ve resisted Russian oppression and colonialism for hundreds of years before and we are doing it again today, one last time, before bringing its absolute end.
We are here. We always were and we always will be. We are not going anywhere.
Images courtesy of Kvitka Perehinets.