This essay is the first in 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 reunion with their loved ones.
February 24th, 2022. This day will be forever marked for the harassment, criminal offence and slaughter of a European country which did not seem possible in the rules-based international order of the 21st century in the eyes of all educated nations, except one – one which sent their troops to the sovereign territory of our independent country.
Looking back to that morning, I still struggle to believe that what had happened was not simply a nightmare, but my new reality. It was 05:17 AM when I was woken up by the air defence system in Kharkiv launching right outside my apartment. At first, I believed these to be fireworks but quickly realized that this was not the case. As I heard the jets flying over my home, my initial confusion was replaced with an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. This was the first time I had heard the sounds of their engines and I will never forget it.
We were at the underground station within the hour. The streets were frantic with activity and the station was filled by hundreds of people, all trembling and confused. We were all aware about the possibility of war, yet we never imagined that on the 24th of February that this ‘possibility’ would become a long-term reality for the whole nation.
Our family had a strict plan which included only one objective – to leave Kharkiv and move West. Our way to Lviv took five days by car, usually it takes 18 hours by train. I had never seen so many cars on the road, one lane became three out of necessity. Car accidents, vehicles right off the road, and people on foot with small rucksacks and crying children – it felt like an apocalyptic horror film that we had never dreamt to become a part of. Civilian cars were moving alongside military battle columns. My husband warned us against joining such columns, but they were everywhere. At least they were ours.
Our first destination was roughly 250 kilometers away. We arrived in Kremenchuk after nearly ten hours on the road only to find that there was no place for us to stay, other than a summer tent with small heaters. We listened to every sound outside, trying to make sense of what was happening. No one slept. Our eyes were glued to the news with a desperate hope that this would be over by morning. Instead, we learned that war was spreading throughout the country, cities were burning, and some were already occupied by Russian forces. Although the news was hard to make sense of, it seemed that we were already expecting the unexpected – being bombed, shelled, and at same time, had to be ready to run.
We spent three more days in Kremenchuk in hopes that this nightmare would end. As Russian troops moved deeper inside Ukrainian territory, more bridges were being destroyed to block the movement of the invading army and limit access to their specialized armour. We quickly understood the urgency of the situation once we heard news of the destruction to bridges in the East. We needed to move further West immediately, otherwise we risked being trapped by an explosion to the bridge over the Dneiper river.
We were shortly on route to Lviv. One more exhausting road with an endless flow of cars. There were so many people with empty eyes, no one knew what would happen tomorrow – or if there would even be a tomorrow at all.
This terrifying trip was the hardest for my six-year-old son. He has been constantly asking me why we had to move, why we could not return home, why he could not attend school, and the main question – why he could not be with his father, an officer of the National Guard of Ukraine, who had to stay in Kharkiv. We want to be together, but it is impossible because there is no place to return. Our summer cottage has been occupied since the 24th of February, and our district was shelled a week later leaving our flat without windows. The life we had is gone. It was ruined in mere seconds because Putin acted on a whim.
Unfortunately, we were not met with peace and silence in Lviv. There is no safe place in Ukraine anymore. We spent three weeks there, exhausted from hiding and deprived of sleep from the endless sirens, of which my son is very much afraid. My husband and I were forced to make the difficult decision to leave Ukraine and move to Germany temporarily. We left behind our family, our home, and our lives but we still maintain hope that we may return in the future – we were born in Ukraine, that is our home and that is where we belong.
Myroslava Zabotnova is currently pursuing a PhD in Philology at the Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University. She is a lecturer at the National Academy of the National Guard of Ukraine since 2013. Myroslava Zabotnova deals with political discourse, internet memes, and strategic communication.