How does it feel to close the door of your home knowing that in your absence it could be reduced to rubble by air raids? What do you pack when time is short, you don’t know if you’ll ever come back, and you only have a few bags to take with you?
hat is the dilemma for a spate of Ukrainian evacuees, including Nataly Shevchenko, who does not know when or if she will see her home and its contents again: furniture, clothes, toys, books – the fabric of family life once ordinary and precious.
When Kyiv came under heavy shelling, the biology teacher and her two young children fled their home in the capital. Deciding what to pack and what to leave behind seemed just a choice exercise. In reality, the 34-year-old biology teacher is one of tens of millions of Ukrainians whose alternatives have been wiped out by Vladimir Putin’s war.
I spoke to Nataly yesterday in Ukraine, where she told me that she took a deep breath and started making a bunch of practical things – documents, medicines, towels, toothbrushes, shoes and clothes. But feelings convinced her to make room for a few photos and two books for her daughter. In the car, the owner of which took her, there was no room for her husband Mikhailo – this separation was an additional source of anxiety. Luckily he was able to join them later.
They left Kyiv last week. This week, freedom has become a relative term for her family and others. They are both free and unfree, with normal life being turned upside down in a matter of days. They are evacuees, but not yet refugees, hoping to stay in Ukraine but aware that the escalation of the war could make this impossible. They are currently taking shelter with Mikhailo’s relatives in a village in the Rivne region of western Ukraine, within easy reach of the Belarusian and Polish borders.
Frightened and stressed, they wait. Nataly told that Irish Independent: “I’m thinking about whether I’ll ever see my apartment again. I worry mainly about my books and the children’s books. We didn’t have room to take them with us.
“I’m not that worried about the furniture or clothes we left behind, although there will be no jobs or money when we return and it will be difficult to replace things that may have been destroyed or looted. And of course I worry that there will be no place to go back to, that our home will be gone. The Russians will have destroyed it with rockets.”
They could find refuge in Slovakia, where there are friends who will take them in, but have decided to stay in Ukraine for the time being. If Nataly leaves with her 20-month-old son Liubomyr and five-year-old daughter Melania, it means a family split — her husband is not allowed to go because men between the ages of 18 and 60 have to stay if they are called up to fight.
She knows she has to protect her children first, but for now, she and Mikhailo, 36, are trying to protect their family’s integrity. Every extra day they get to spend together is a blessing.
“I want to breathe air while I can, I want to see my kids today because I don’t know if I’ll see them tomorrow. This is the reality in Ukraine. I want to live a normal life while I have the opportunity,” says Nataly.
But life on the ground in Ukraine is nothing ordinary for civilians caught up in this ruthless war.
Nataly is showing signs of the trauma she has experienced – speaks of guilt that she is alive when so many have died.
She describes her everyday life as “in a strange state of uncertainty”.
“You never know what’s going to happen in the next hour. Even if it is quiet now, it cannot be said that it will remain peaceful. I never know what tomorrow will be like. i don’t feel safe enough But oddly enough, you get used to that feeling. Of course you always want to go home, but I don’t know when or if we’re going home again.”
Her husband, a forestry ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund, is waiting to be called up to fight. His job must raise his awareness that shock and awe wars not only devastate cities but also the natural environment – an aspect of the Russian-managed confrontation that hasn’t received much attention yet.
Nataly has come to terms with Mikhailo joining the army, although she would prefer him not to. “He will go when it is his duty and I understand why, but he doesn’t have the experience or the skills. That is why he is with us now, protecting and supporting us. We talked today about whether he might have to return to Kyiv. He would have to take the train, but trains are dangerous, they are destinations.”
At first she tries to carve something normal out of a fundamentally wrong situation by reading to her children, playing with them, going for walks. She also wants to contribute to the war effort, helping to make camouflage nets for military vehicles and coordinating help for elderly neighbors in Kyiv who need medicine or food.
Fleeing eight days ago, she and her children first went to their parents’ house 30km away, but as fighting intensified they realized they had to go further. “At first we thought it would be safe there because my parents have a house and we didn’t have to walk down many floors in an apartment block to find shelter from air raids in the basement,” she said.
“We thought we could find shelter in the vegetable storage room under my parents’ house. But we realized that this wouldn’t save us from missiles because the bunker isn’t bombproof and many people just die under the rubble. We didn’t think the Russians would attack civilians, but we were wrong. It’s terrible.”
The second part of their evacuation took them to where they are currently located, 90 km from Belarus. “We were lucky not to have been bombed while traveling,” she said. “It’s not safe to move around. A bridge we drove over to get here was bombed shortly after with five cars on it. Dying while traveling is like dying a dog. This is terrorism against civilians.”
Nataly is one of more than a million Ukrainians displaced from their homes by Putin’s hostilities.
Not a small country like Ireland, Ukraine is overshadowed by a vastly larger neighbor with imperial impulses; a situation that we have experienced in our history.
Nataly’s belief that Russia intends to erase Ukraine’s identity also strikes a nerve.
She has a clear warning for the EU: Putin will not stop at Ukraine.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/uprooted-surviving-in-a-terrifying-limbo-yet-determined-to-preserve-family-integrity-41409421.html Uprooted, surviving in a terrible limbo, yet determined to protect the integrity of the family