One of Seven Million Heartbreaking Personal Stories
The following essay is part of a series of publications by our colleagues Myroslova Zabotnova and Marharyta Miahka who join the CDA Institute team from exile in Germany. The two are lecturers at the National Guard Military Academy of Ukraine in Kharkiv. We are honoured to have them with us and thankful for their willingness to share these difficult stories. From the deepest of our hearts, we wish them a prompt return to normalcy and a reunion with their loved ones.
The 24th of February divided the history of the world in half. Since the beginning of the war, more than seven million Ukrainians have been forcibly displaced outside of Ukraine. This translates to more than seven million tragic and heartbreaking personal stories, most of them told by women and children. Men remain in their homeland to defend Ukraine, but it has been and continues to be a joint effort, as everyone contributes to Ukraine’s inevitable victory.
My story will be on behalf of Ukrainian women who have lost their free will, yet remain to courageously and graciously build their life in another country. These heroic women agreed to speak, not for PR, but to motivate the world to think critically and make the right choices to form the proper conclusions. Svetlana is a 50-year-old woman who left Ukraine on March 9th, 2022 who currently resides in Spain.
Here is her story.
February 24, 2022. It was the beginning of a new reality, for which no one was prepared. My decision to leave Ukraine was made late in the evening of March 2nd to the sound of Grad rockets and an air raid in a cramped bomb shelter from World War II. At that moment I was reborn; with pain and tiredness in my soul, and the single desire that this nightmare would end. My daughter was in a panic waiting for me in Spain, further exacerbating her fragile condition. I was ready to leave Ukraine and go to Spain to ease her mind.
I will start my story at 6 a.m. on March 3rd, the day of my 50th birthday. I threw a suitcase, a dog and six cats into the car, and put my son with minimal driving experience in the driver’s seat. I left Kharkiv, the only true native city in the world, watching the bleeding and fighting, and hearing the blaring sounds of an air raid alarm.
At six in the morning, I got ready in 15 minutes to leave the city before the next air-raid alarm. The main item of importance was my son’s computer, which I immediately tossed in the trunk of the car. Leaving my home in Ukraine was difficult, but leaving my son behind was heartbreaking. My son would only drive me to the border crossing, and head back for Ukraine to work. My heart stayed in Kharkiv, and I knew I would most definitely be back.
Scratched by the agitated cats as we rushed into the car, we were dirty, dripping with sweat and oblivious of what was waiting for us ahead. It was scary and strange; scary to get bombed and oddly strange that I was afraid. I could not and should not be afraid. Outwardly, I remained calm, but deep within, every sound caused anxiety and panic.
There was no time to consider the belongings I would leave behind as I was forced to abandon the house I called my home. With tremendous pain, I looked out the car window at Kharkiv, the beautiful home I had known, now in complete ruins. A stream of cars were slowly moving through the checkpoint on the way out of the city surrounded by armed people, anti-tank hedgehogs and military equipment.
My grown-up son confidently held the steering wheel for 18 hours despite the terrible stop-and-go traffic. My dog was sitting on my lap unsettled; she wouldn’t eat or drink as she was petrified by the violent sounds. There were many other dogs at the stops, and every pet was equally as shocked and frightened. Nearby, there were hundreds of cars and hundreds of A4 sheets with the word “CHILDREN”. The fastest in the stream were people with dogs were walking between slow-moving cars.
Five days and 1000 km to Western Ukraine: long, exhausting, and subsisting on adrenaline. A monotonous rhythm, the same for everyone: a day to the Poltava region, a day to Uman, an air raid alarm in Vinnytsia and sirens in Khmelnytskyi, nights on the roadside, daily three to five hours at gas stations and every hour, a checkpoint.
On the road, we couldn’t bare to listen to music or even to talk. We were busy thinking about Kharkiv, constantly on the phone to read the latest news on Telegram channels. Feelings of tension and anxiety took over as we grievously expected airstrikes and explosions. There was no logic, only overwhelming feelings. I did not want to accept that this was now my life. I closed my eyes and repeated to myself that this was not real and that tomorrow I would wake up from this horrible nightmare.
We finally managed to reach Western Ukraine where I halted for a short one-day rest. On March 9th, sadness filled my heart as I parted with my son and cats. We diverged paths as I trudged further along with my dog and my son began to head home along with my heart.
The atmosphere at the border crossing point was striking. The queue for crossing the border on foot was a kilometre long. The bitter cold was only exacerbated by anxiety and fatigue. Six hours. I could see the courageous men hugging their children at the border, bursting into tears. The children were so exhausted that they had no desire to play or to be capricious. Women resolutely moved forward away from Ukraine, because leaving was the only safe option.
Poland. Everyone here was in shock. The eyes of refugees filled with tears of gratitude. From the very first second of arrival, everyone crossing the border was treated with utmost care. The site was full of volunteers who provided sincere attention, food, clothes, and kind words. Structured, organized, and with perfect logistics; you were held by the hand and accompanied to the necessary point of the journey.
From that moment, it took 34 hours for my daughter to meet me in Spain. It took me 9 long and slow days to get there, yet deep down I was already thinking about my way back. But for now, the life of a refugee was waiting for me.”
Kharkiv continues to be subjected to systematic massive shelling, thus Svetlana remains in Spain with her daughter for now. Svetlana is grateful for safety; she is learning Spanish and tries not to be a burden to the country that provided her shelter. Not a minute goes by that she does not think about her return home.