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Ukrainians’ stories of war 

Four Ukrainians and one foreigner describe how Russia’s invasion upended their lives.

By Ido Vock

On 24 February 2022 Russian forces invaded Ukraine, beginning Europe’s most destructive war since 1945. It upended European security and forced a reckoning over Russia’s place in the world. But most significantly and often devastatingly it has transformed the lives of every Ukrainian.

To mark the first anniversary of the invasion, the New Statesman has collected testimony from five people – four Ukrainians, one foreigner – whose lives have been directly affected by the war.

[See also: Ukraine Diary: A year on, Russia’s war has failed to break our spirit]

The refugee 

Julia Sonata (a pseudonym) is a photographer. Originally from Crimea, she now lives in Potsdam, Germany 

Julia Sonata

After Russia came to Crimea in 2014, I understood that it was no longer possible to fight against the annexation. I saw friends of friends being imprisoned because they expressed thoughts against Russia. I did not want to live in a country where it is forbidden to think. I saw how well propaganda started to change people’s minds, making them pro-Russian.

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In 2016 I got the opportunity to move to Odesa. It was peaceful but in January last year we started hearing rumours that Russia really was going to start a war. Yet most people were not worried: this is the 21st century; war is not possible. 

When Russia invaded, on 24 February, two army spots close to my house in Odesa were targeted. The explosions were very loud but because a state of emergency had been declared the day before, I had gone to another district of Odesa and didn’t hear them. When I woke up I saw the missed calls on my phone and understood that the war had started. 

I was completely lost. I couldn’t understand what to do. But my friend from Crimea, a normal person who left, told me I needed to take my two kids to Germany. I was not ready but I understood that I needed to decide quickly. Nobody knew what would happen.

We crossed the border into Moldova, where some volunteers brought us to a house and gave us food. The day after we got on a bus to Warsaw, which was meant to take six hours but actually took 60. It was swamped with people – some even sat on the floor of the bus. In every country I was amazed at people’s generosity. Volunteers gave their food and shelter to complete strangers.

Finally we made it to Germany. Germany and Ukraine are quite different but now I feel like Germany really is my country. I plan to stay here. For the first few months after I arrived, when I saw news of missile attacks or people dying, I felt guilty that I was safe while others were dying. Thanks to some volunteering work, I don’t get that feeling anymore. But when I see bad news from Ukraine I still feel hopeless and helpless that I cannot do anything to help.

[See also: The West’s narrative on Ukraine hasn’t convinced the rest of the world]

The politician 

Inna Sovsun has been a member of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, since 2019, representing the opposition Holos party. She was deputy minister of education between 2014 and 2016 

Inna Sovsun

In mid-January 2022 I gave my son’s documents to my ex-husband. The deal was that if war started he would have the responsibility of taking our son away. I wouldn’t be able to do it because I am a member of parliament. In the build-up to war, my team was very nervous. So we came up with a plan. We literally had a Google Doc with instructions for where to go and what to do. It sounds ridiculous but it helped.

On the morning of 24 February I was lying awake in bed when I heard two explosions. I hadn’t read the news. For ten seconds I thought it might be something else but then an assistant called me and fearfully said it had started. The first thing I did was call my ex-husband, who said he was already on his way to pick up our son from my house.

I learned we needed to go to parliament to vote to adopt martial law, which we passed at seven in the morning. And then it was announced that guns would be handed out to members of parliament so that we would be able to protect ourselves. I am anti-gun but took one anyway – I thought I could give it to my dad, who said he was going to defend the country. By that time I realised that the Russians were very close to Kyiv. At 11 we learned that they [had reached the city of] Hostomel. At that moment I realised I could not go home because they were literally 20 minutes’ drive from my house.

I thought that many MPs would run, but the majority of people showed up to parliament in those first days. And that was the most important task: just to show up. After those sessions I would get hundreds of messages saying “thank you for being there”. People didn’t care how we voted, just that we were there and we hadn’t run away. It was scary. At the time we didn’t know that parliament was clearly a target. We were all targets.

Politics has changed as a result of the war. On issues of national security or foreign relations, parliament speaks with one voice. And not because we are being forced to. People used to ask me: “Does the government tell you what to do?” And I would say: “No, but the situation is pretty black and white. It’s clear to me what to say.” At one point I realised that what I was saying and what MPs from the president’s party were saying was actually the same, because it was also obvious for us what to say. So then we started co-ordinating a little more on some issues, such as on which weapons we need.

On other issues, such as internal policy, there are debates. Our party is extremely focused on fighting corruption. For us, any hints of corruption are unacceptable. So we started criticising some of the decisions of the president’s party that deal with domestic politics. We don’t necessarily support all the legislation it proposes.

[See also: John Sullivan: “Vladimir Putin does not want an off-ramp”]

The soldier 

Oleksander Chub is the owner of Strokati Enoti, a company that organises summer camps in Ukraine. He serves as a lance corporal in the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Oleksander Chub (left)

I was a volunteer soldier in 2014 and took part in the first wave of this war. After that I started a tourism business, working with children. Our summer camps hosted more than 1,000 children in 2021. I had great plans for 2022. I wanted to move into different activities like tourism activities in the Carpathian Mountains. Our dream was to hold summer camps in other countries, like Ireland and Italy.

Before the war, I knew that the Russians would attack us again, but I didn’t know when. We took applications for 2022’s summer camps as normal. More than 500 children applied. But then the Russians attacked and I had to go back to the military to protect my country and way of life.

On 24 February I woke up early. My friend told me that Kyiv Boryspil Airport had been attacked with missiles. I drove a bus I used for the summer camps to Kyiv to gather my friends who were ready to protect if the Russians attacked. We all signed up together and were given weapons and ammunition. On 25 February we started our training. We are not professional soldiers. We don’t want to be in the military but we have no other choice because the Russians tried to kill our families and our values.

We do not want war. But we were ready to defend against the Russians because they did not leave us any choice. We will not flee our country. We will not be victims. We want to remain in our country and be citizens who can choose their lives and their own fate. At first, I was a combat medic. Now I am a lance corporal in the Special Forces.

At the beginning of the war, when we were in the Zaporizhzhia region, we were shelled by the Russians. They shot over 80 shells at us. When we moved they tried to correct their fire towards our position. And all that happened was that I ripped my trousers! Eighty shells for some ripped trousers. At the time there was a shortage so everyone I knew had to search for a new pair in my size. I have participated in missions all over the country, although now I see action less frequently.

My goal is to return to civilian life after the war. I dream of creating more summer camps for children around Ukraine.  

[See also: Vladimir Putin’s speech shows he still thinks the West will blink first]

The journalist 

Maria Romanenko is a Ukrainian journalist and broadcaster. Originally from Kyiv, she lives in Manchester

Maria Romanenko

I flew to Ukraine from Poland on 23 February on one of the last flights to land in Kyiv, where I lived in the centre. My dad told me he heard that central Kyiv might not be safe, so I spent the night at his home in the south-west of the city. At 7am my partner shook me, saying that Russia had bombed Ukraine. He said he was leaving the country. I had one hour to decide what to do.

It took us 40 hours to cross the border into Poland. I spent four days in Poland fighting British bureaucracy to get them to let me into the country. Since then I’ve lived in Manchester.

My role as a journalist has definitely changed. It feels like I’ve almost gone from journalist to activist. My work has changed from reporting on other people’s stories to often reporting on something close and personal to me. I’ve done so much work just talking about myself.  

I feel conflicted about reporting on Ukraine. A lot of Ukrainians stopped criticising the government for now because they want to win the war first and then deal with other problems.

There can be a lot of fair criticism of the government regarding problems such as corruption, and I think it’s fine to talk about those issues. But you have to be very careful in this environment because anything negative – even if it’s fair criticism – can easily be shared by Russia as vindication of their propaganda: “Look, we told you that Ukraine was bad and corrupt.” But I think it is still fair to criticise the government. After all, Ukraine is trying to join the EU and Nato and there will be conditions for doing so. 

[See also: Is Vladimir Putin dead?]

The ambassador 

Arad Benkö has been ambassador of Austria to Ukraine since August 2022 

Arad Benkö

I arrived in Kyiv from Vienna on 2 May but it took a couple of months to go through the process of nomination, so officially I started as ambassador on 1 August.

When I arrived here in May, Kyiv was very quiet. There were hardly any restaurants open, no traffic jams, no opera or concerts. Few foreign diplomats had returned then. At the time, the sense was that I was sent to a seat which was very hot. We had no idea how long this nation would be able to withstand the Russian aggression. At that time the Russians were making advances in the east and the south of the country.

But the situation developed very quickly. It became clear that the Ukrainians were holding up. My personal feeling is that this is not just because of the military strength and support of the West but because every single individual in Ukraine is fighting for it.

Austria is militarily neutral, but of course we are never neutral when it comes to blatant violations of international law. Our focus is and remains on humanitarian aid and ensuring that aid is going where it is needed. We are number one in delivering humanitarian aid in relation to GDP. We will support Ukraine as long as it takes. There can be no doubt that since day one of the aggression Austria has stood shoulder to shoulder, in full solidarity, with the people of Ukraine.

Read more:

In the face of Russia’s aggression, global alliances have proven their indispensability

Kyiv stands, Vladimir Putin doubles down, China talks peace

No, Russia isn’t about to break apart

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