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‘Everyone believes Ukraine will win – it’s just a question of the price we will pay’

I’m sorry for crying. Today is the hardest day. I don’t remember what it feels like not having the war. I remember that I used to have feelings and ambitions, but since the war began, it’s been very hard to make myself do anything or concentrate.

I hate that I can’t feel anything when I see pictures of the maternity hospital in Mariupol that Russian forces bombed, but there is only so much pain that a person can take in. What is happening to us has made me numb.

I haven’t even been in great danger, as I left Kharkiv a few days before the war started.

My personal experiences compelled me to leave early. I was born in Donetsk and fled to Kharkiv when Russia invaded in 2014. I had been afraid of a Russian invasion for a few months. Finally, on Feb. 11th, my boyfriend and I decided to leave. We took our cat, clothes, documents and a few books and took the train to Lviv, where we are now staying with friends.

I’m now living in a 3 bedroom apartment with 10 people and six cats. My boyfriend and I are sleeping in sleeping bags in the kitchen. Everyone here is from Kharkiv and has nowhere else to go. In the past two weeks, 25 people, seven cats and one dog have stayed here for at least a night or more.

The author and her housemates together in kitchen

The author in green, center, pictured with her ten housemates in their kitchen in Lviv. They are all residents of Kharkiv who fled the Russian invasion. Courtesy of Masha Shumiatska

Every day feels like Groundhog Day, and everyone is busy helping others. We are trying to send medical supplies, ammunition, helmets and gloves to our army, and I am providing translation services for a group that is collecting evidence of war crimes.

I’m turning 31 next month. Before the war, I was working in a massive Jewish after-school program for kids aged 5-13 all over the Former Soviet Union. I don’t know which verb tense to use: we “are,” or we “were,” working in eight countries and have more than 40 branches. I was responsible for everything related to English language instruction.

There are only a few things now that give me pleasure. The sanctions against Russia, and seeing videos of the Russian military being devastated, bring me joy. But day to day, having six cats around is a great source of happiness. Four of the cats live in a spare room, and it’s become the “therapy room” where we each take turns visiting and playing with the cats.

We are also buying and eating lots of sweets and cookies. There is a blockade and deficit of food in Kharkiv and Mariupol, but here in Lviv, we haven’t had this problem. We also have dinner together every night, and we don’t use our phones. It’s the 40 minutes a day during which we try to not talk about the war.

The past three days in Lviv, there have been no sirens. During the first 12 days of the war, they were happening two to five times a day. We’d have to get the cats into their cages and go to the basement. The first day, a missile landed close by in a Lviv suburb that contains a military base.

The mood is very tense. There are reports of pro-Russian saboteurs in the city, and everyone is suspicious.

There are many heavily armed people in the streets. Ukrainian soldiers will stop and ask you for your ID, and they came by to visit the apartment where I’m staying the first few days. Our neighbors had seen some men standing next to our apartment speaking Russian, and they got concerned; the police came to check it out and talk to us. I don’t mind, and am glad they are doing it.

I too saw some very suspicious-looking people in the city center. The way they were looking and watching people, it was obvious that they were not from Lviv. They were armed, and seemed weird and out of place. I gave the police the license plate of their car, and they told me I did the right thing. You cannot be too sure right now, and people are very worried about internal sabotage.

Ukraine survived a genocide — the Holodomor — during Soviet rule. From 1932-1933, Stalin enacted deliberate punitive measures through farm collectivization. Food was specifically confiscated from Ukrainians, and up to 4 million people died in a human-made famine. The Soviets killed Ukrainian culture, language and traditions.

Russian is my first language. My boyfriend is from Kharkiv, and his first language is Russian, too, but a few years ago, he stopped speaking Russian entirely, and I did so as well a year and a half ago. Other friends have similarly made a conscious choice to speak Ukrainian. Even if my Ukrainian isn’t as strong as my English, I feel it’s important.

The author with four cats

The author in the “therapy room,” with four of the six cats in the apartment. Courtesy of Masha Shumiatska

Now, Russia is telling us that Ukraine was “invented” by Lenin, that Ukraine doesn’t exist. I hear things like this and I laugh. I feel pity for Russians, for those people who believe this stuff, because they are living in a totalitarian regime.

Everyone believes we will win, and that it’s just a question of the price we will have to pay. I don’t know a single person in Ukraine who is not volunteering, in ways both big and small, to help this country right now. The camaraderie among everyone is very strong and morale is high.

I believe the price will be extremely high; freedom is the most expensive thing to gain. Ukraine has been oppressed by Russia for centuries, and there is a sense that this war has the potential to stop it for good.

The Soviet Union has done tremendous work to link present-day Ukrainians to the Nazis, but it’s all lies. Nobody in Ukraine today cares about where your ancestors come from. I have never experienced antisemitism in my entire life. In 2014 in Maidan, there were many Ukrainian Jews who were fighting and supporting the revolution.

I think today’s Ukrainian society is trying to build a democratic nation, not an ethnic nation. If you believe that freedom and that human beings are important, then you belong here.

I did not vote for Zelenskyy in 2019, and when he got 72-75% of the votes, I was devastated. In Ukraine, the president is the head of the army, and I was terrified that this man with no experience would be in charge. I was telling my friends at the time: “We’re done for if Russia invades!”

Now, I am so grateful that Zelenskyy is here. I wonder all the time if he could have known back when he was running for president that Russia would invade in a couple of years, if he would have still gone through with it.

Everyone in Ukraine is surprised, in a good way, both by Zelenskyy and our army. I didn’t know that our army was that strong. But starting in 2014, there have been many reforms and improvements, and I had no idea that they would be this impactful.

This war now is nothing compared to the war in 2014. There was much more flooding of Russian narratives of pro-Russian Ukrainians. I saw shelling and heard booms at night in Donetsk, but then, I could flee. It was not constant shelling.

The weapons the Russians used then were more limited, they didn’t use the more deadly capabilities they have now, because they were trying to get people to stay and be Russian. Now it seems that they expected to be welcomed, they were not, and now they are just trying to destroy as many lives as possible. They are shooting at civilians because they are not really fighting for anything. I really don’t understand it, the Russian soldier’s mindset.

I don’t have any friends in Russia, but I had been following some Russian bloggers on Instagram until the war. I unfollowed many of them, not because they were posting pro-Russian statements, but because they didn’t say anything at all. Not saying anything is already saying something.

I’m already worried that this silence is indicative of global indifference to what is happening to us. For three years in a row, I visited the United States to speak and raise money for the JDC. When I came in 2015, I had a personal story of what I had seen in Donetsk and having to flee to Kharkiv.

I was struck by the apathy I encountered. I saw clearly over the three years that people were losing interest.

But make no mistake: what is happening in Ukraine is a full-scale war that Europe hasn’t experienced since World War II. I pray that we will win before people get bored.

I am determined to stay in Ukraine for several reasons: If I leave, it would be a victory for the people bombarding us. If we leave, the Russians win. Each day I see more destruction of our country, it raises my desire to rebuild, whatever it takes. They’ve taken so much from us; Kharkiv is priceless.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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