This is the first of a series of interviews about the war in Ukraine, which began February 24, 2022, with the Russian invasion. The series title is from “My Testament” by Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko (1814-1861), the first Ukrainian poet to be celebrated internationally.
In 2022 Canadian Laura Swart traveled from her home in Calgary, Alberta, to central Ukraine with a non-governmental aid organization. She managed a logistical base, which was responsible for delivering food and nonfood items to the red zones. During her time there she interviewed doctors, nurses, hospital patients, security personnel, humanitarian workers, and pastors. The speakers are not identified for security reasons. Swart edited and arranged the interviews.
Part One. The Beginning
At 4 am I woke up because of a very loud noise. I took my phone and saw the message that war had started. After were some rockets. In our city Boyarka people emigrated to west Ukraine or abroad. We have free buses. Some areas were destroyed. Irpin, Bucha. Missiles were hitting. Now I’m in Lviv; it’s safer. I only think about now; I can’t plan for next month because I don’t know what will be. The first day I was afraid. That night we could not sleep because there were air alarms. But now is good.
When I saw the news on the first day, I couldn’t believe it. I started to cry because I saw how many Ukrainian people were killed. It was hard to believe that someone would come and kill people. People were talking for a couple of weeks already that something’s gonna break out, like a war, but I was one of those people who didn’t believe it. I thought Putin was not gonna do this. This is not gonna happen to us.
The twenty-first of February, I woke up in the morning, and my classmates from university sent a news message. Our president was talking, and he told us what was going on, that Kyiv was bombed, that other cities and towns were shelled, and that war had started in our country.
At first it was kind of a shock. I didn’t know what to do. I was in Lviv for my work and my studying. I worked in a laboratory doing tests for COVID in the airport. Airports were closed, so I went home. I was home for a couple of days, and it was hard for me to do nothing, just sitting and reading the news. I just wanted to do something for my people. I packed my things, my clothes and everything again. And I told my mom that I’m going back to Lviv. At first, she was angry with me. I told her, Everything’s gonna be okay. Lviv is not so dangerous at this time.
For the first week, lots of people were moving abroad. There were a lot of long lines before the borders; mostly people were trying to go to Poland. And people were asking, Are you going to Poland or somewhere else? And I was like, No, I’m staying in my country. I will stay here and help. I didn’t know I had that in me. I didn’t know that I’m a patriotic person before. Because I planned after my graduation to go for an internship in Poland and after that to work there, because it has better possibilities for me than here in Ukraine.
But I stayed. I don’t think I’m brave. I don’t think I’m doing as much as other people are doing. You know, some people like soldiers and militaries are standing there fighting for us. Some volunteers are driving cars in front of shelling, getting shot because they’re trying to get aid to eastern regions, trying to get humanitarian help, medical help, and medication to different regions like Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities and towns. So my work is not much in comparison.
We learned how to hold a gun using planks of wood.
We had heard from officials and other sources that the Russians were planning something bad, but nobody knew what was going to happen exactly. So we lived as usual. We worked, planned a winter vacation, went to the Carpathian Mountains with the family. Then on the twenty-fourth of February, my wife woke me up at four o’clock, maybe 4:30 am, with the words, The war has started! I sat on my bed trying to understand. I felt like my head and back were paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do. We came together, we prayed, and then we started scrolling the news. My father-in-law told us it would be finished in two or three days—the Russian helicopters would fly away. Let’s wait three days, he said, and then we’ll go back home and we’ll continue to live.
We waited another day, then a third day and fourth day. On the fourth day, the Russians came with tanks—tanks with thousands of soldiers to Kyiv, which is very close to my town. I realized that the war would not finish in one week. It would not be finished in one or two months. At that time a friend of our family from Sweden invited all of our family to come to her place and wait for the war to end. It was a really difficult decision, because I realized that I would not see my family for a long time. But I knew that my country and my town needed me. So I sent them to a safe place and returned to my town to help people.
Our task was to bring gas to Irpin because all the gas stations there were empty and people were trapped. They had their cars, but no gas, and they couldn’t get out of the city. So we bought gas, as much as we could, and gave every person ten or fifteen litres to drive about 150 km, because the Russians were very close. We also evacuated people, as many as we could, we took them to Rivne, a city about 300 kilometers away from Irpin. This continued for maybe one week. Then on the seventh of March, the Russians occupied Irpin. They occupied seventy percent of the city. They didn’t allow people to travel by car. They allowed people to walk and just take a little purse with documents and maybe a little money and a toothbrush. Nothing else. People started walking out of Irpin, but the bridge was destroyed, and people needed to cross the river. We put some lumber on the river so they could cross, and they walked by the hundreds; every hour one hundred people were walking. We took them in our cars as many as we could; in one car we could take six, seven, maybe nine people, and we took them away. Rockets were falling and bombs were exploding and people were screaming. We didn’t know when another mine or rocket would come. So those people in our car we took them out. This continued maybe one week, maybe ten days until all the people who wanted to get out immigrated successfully. Some people didn’t want to leave their houses; they stayed under occupation. And in one moment we understood that we could do nothing else for them.
I have two younger sisters. When the war started, we had to emigrate. The younger one emigrated to Poland and another evacuated to Khmilnyk and I evacuated to Lviv. My parents stayed near Kyiv.
We all went to bed in the evening and woke up with sirens going off and martial law over our heads. Panic was in the town. Nobody knew what was happening. There was no information about what to do, what was happening, what was next.
We gathered some food and went to the grocery store. Our world just kind of turned into an apocalypse. In the store everyone grabbed everything from the shelves, whether it was needed or not. We tried to think, Is this a necessity or not a necessity?
We live near the airport, and of course the airport is one of the prime targets in terms of bombings. We decided to go to our cousin’s house with our whole family. She lives near us but not by the airport, so we joined her family.
And then after some time passed, despite the danger, it got better. So we decided to come back home to Lviv. There’s work here, there’s school here, so we can continue our lives.
My family moved from Irpin the day they heard the first military aeroplanes and rockets. My brother-in-law is a military guy—he works in a military company with air raids, sirens, locators, and radar systems—and he understood what had happened and he didn’t stay a long time. In forty minutes, they packed their bags and left Irpin. They came to our home, the place where all the family came to decide what to do next. They decided to go to a city near the Romanian border. There was a big line, about twelve kilometers long, of trucks full of people who wanted to cross the border. They spent three whole days in line waiting to cross. But people served them in the line: they brought them food and hot tea and anything else they needed. It was really amazing that people were open to help. Because they needed to stay in this line. If they left to go to the store or somewhere to buy food, they would be passed.
It was early morning, 6 or 7 am, and I was sleeping. I was woken up by my mother, and she told me the war had begun. I didn’t want to believe this. But when I heard for the first time the siren, the air raid in my town, I understood that things were really, really serious and really, really bad. We gathered all our family money, all our documents, and we were ready to move; we didn’t know what to expect from the situation because nobody believed that a full-scale invasion in the twenty-first century was possible in a civilized world with brains.
Every country wants to develop professionals who are clever and who can develop the business of a country, develop its economy. But it’s unbelievable to realize that in the center of Europe in the twenty-first century, there are tanks invading another independent country and setting up camps in occupied territory, Russian camps for Ukrainian people. Ukrainians must receive special cards that give them the right to cross the city and to get food and water and to work. Ukrainians are hostages.
I woke up in the morning and went outside to get in my car. I heard something flying over my house, and it was a bomb. As a result of the explosion, my house started to fall. I wanted to bring some things with me, especially documents. So I ran into my house even though it was on fire. I knew if I didn’t have any documents, it would be difficult to go to another city and find shelter.
The fire was going very, very fast. Neighbors started to help me to pour water on the fire, but all of my house was destroyed.
I stayed in my town, Kyiv, for a day. My neighbors gave me shelter, but I had very deep burns on my face and leg and the upper part of my back. And I felt pain. I called an ambulance and told them my address, and the ambulance said, We cannot go here because it’s a very dangerous region and it’s usually bombing down in your region.
I went to the street and looked for cars that could help me get to the Kyiv regional hospital. I stayed in hospital for two or three days. But they could not help me. They gave me different pills for pain, but it was not helpful. Maybe there was not enough medicine for all the patients.
I went to the rail station, and there I started to look for some trains to the west of our country to the safe cities. I found a train to Lviv. And when I got out from the train, I met doctors at the train station who looked at my burns and decided to bring me to a mobile hospital. After that they took care of me.
I lived in one shelter and changed to another because our government provides a shelter for refugees only for a few days, maybe for a week. After that, they must leave and find some other shelters or an apartment because every day more and more people come to the west of our country. I met a friend in Lviv that helped me so now I have a room. It’s not very big, but it’s good for me. But I only have my documents and I haven’t got anything of my things; I haven’t enough clothes or toothbrush or anything like this.
And I will not be with my mother in Kyiv for Easter. I always spent holidays with my mother. I bring her food and I feel comfortable with her because I love her.
I go to the emergency field hospital every day for treatment. Every day the doctors and nurses come and pray for my health because I have really deep burns on my legs and face, and I can’t move the muscles on my face. But I started to read the Bible. Every day I read, and it is very helpful. I feel good, peaceful. And every night before I go to sleep, I pray. Now my belief is stronger than it was before.
First people were running, then they were screaming at the sounds of those rockets, and they were lying down on the ground and those bombs exploded and it was terrible, it was terrible seeing all that stuff—the fire, the smoke, the bodies. Now I remember it like a dream, but it was terrible.
Laura Swart is a novelist, poet, and playwright. She has taught creative and critical writing to adults for over thirty years, encouraging students to find and raise their writing voices. Her humanitarian work around the world—most recently in Ethiopia and Ukraine—have shaped her thinking, her teaching, and her writing.
From Laura Swart: My profound thanks go to the men and women who shared their lives and their stories with me. Thank you also to those who translated during interviews. Finally, Borys Sydoruk, chairman of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation, spent several hours teaching me about all things Ukraine. Thank you.
Anna Chornenka was born and raised in Lviv, Ukraine. At thirteen she moved with her mother and two brothers to Calgary, where they joined her father, who had arrived five years prior. Anna’s photography, animation, and painting depict the displacement and homesickness of immigration. Her recent work deals with the genocide and war her home country is going through.
If you would like to support Ukrainians who are helping Ukrainians, consider donating to Dental Hope, which provides free dental work to victims of the war throughout Ukraine.
[These interviews were further edited and arranged by ACM‘s S.L. Wisenberg. Part two, “In the Midst of War,” will appear next Thursday.]