At 5:22 am on the 24th of February, I receive a text. It says: “The war has started.“ It is from my friend Irena, Ukrainian, 20 years old, born and raised in Brovary, Kyiv region. I text back and check the news anxiously, like in the past few weeks – only that this time, I know that it has happened. The war has started.
From now on, we count the days of the war. I sometimes don’t know the date, but I know which day of the war it is.
Today is the 35th – we meet through a video call, me in the middle of nowhere in Germany, her in the south. She lives with friends of her family now, maybe she will stay, maybe she won’t. Everything is uncertain in these times. Irena studied at the Ukrainian Film School in Kyiv, she was one of the very few who got it.
Now, she doesn’t know what’s coming next. I ask her to share her perspective, maybe starting from the day the war started? She says –
I have to go back a little. The russian troops were gathering near our borders, one month prior to this, maybe even two months. It was flying around in the air that maybe the war would start but everyone was just continuing with their lives, trying to stay positive, thinking “it’s not gonna happen, we’re in the 21st century, come on”. My dad – as I thought back then – panicked.
One day, at the beginning of January, I asked him what he thought. If the war was really gonna happen. He said “yes”. I was like “oh okay”. Nobody really wanted to believe that, and I also didn’t.
Some time at the end of January, I had a gathering with my friends. Then, I received a call from my dad. He asked me for a copy of my passport. He was buying one-way tickets for my younger brother and me. I thought he was joking. I had fallen behind my friends as we were walking down the street and had a little fight with my dad. I accused him of panicking. I didn’t want to leave. I was in my country, in my city, with my friends and family. I didn’t understand why I needed to leave all that. My father sighed, took a moment of silence, and this time, he begged me to go. I finally gave in.
I thought to myself that I could go to Poland, stay there for a bit and then go back. Maybe “it’s not that much of a big deal”, I thought. I made my dad promise me that we would be going back to Kyiv on the 28th of February and maybe even sooner if the air cleared out. I packed very lightly – just to assure myself that I would come back soon.
Well, after that it was more than one month with a carry-on. When I was leaving my house, I saw my mum, my animals, my room, my stuff etc. I didn’t want to say goodbye to them. Deep down, I was panicking too.
I didn’t want to tell my mum that I loved her, that I was gonna miss her because it would feel like I was saying goodbye. On my way to the airport, I cried.
We arrived in Poland on the 26th of January. Every week I called my dad and asked him if we could return. I saved the money we had just in case I needed to buy the tickets. It kept me calm. We were planning to go back by the 28th of February.
I was waiting for the green light from my dad – which didn’t happen. This whole time, I couldn’t sleep. No matter how tired I was, no matter how many kilometres I had walked during the day, I just couldn’t sleep. I even started doing meditations and yoga but nothing would help, at all.
On the night of the 24th of February, I also didn’t sleep. And at 4 am I decided I should try to sleep for at least a couple of hours. But something clicked in me to check the news. So, I turned on the news. The news reported, “The rockets are flying in the Kyiv region“. It couldn’t be true, I thought I was dreaming. I said to myself “It can’t be true”. I texted my mom and she replied immediately even though it was around 5 am in Ukraine – and I heard her voice trembling and she said “yes, the sirens woke me up, I heard the noise and it was really close, the animals are freaking out”.
At this point I realised: it had started. It’s here. I didn’t know what to do. What should I do? Obviously, I couldn’t go back to sleep. On that day, I went to protest at the russian embassy in Warsaw. I also texted everybody I knew in order to check how they were doing and if they were safe. That’s how my first day went.
The first week was all about me feeling guilty for not being there and acting out of my adrenaline and euphoria, I guess. I was protesting a lot and I was screaming a lot at those protests. I was furious. I never knew that I could be this furious and that I could hate this much. Before that, I would always say that you need to spread love and be happy and that violence is not an option. But the truth is that you can say those words as long as you haven’t been in this situation where you have to choose between life or death. And I didn’t have to make this choice. That made me feel even worse because I thought that I didn’t have the right to feel all those emotions.
So, that first week was just crazy for me. I’m sure it was crazy for everyone. I learned a lot about myself. I can hate a lot, apparently. And I can be angry a lot.
Then, in the second week, the first exhaustion came over me. I remember turning on the news and seeing photos of dead children, and ruined cities, and I couldn’t feel anything. My brain was protecting me from all the emotions at that point. I looked at them and nothing moved inside of me. I remember thinking that in this state of my mind, I could be a doctor. It didn’t bother me to look at those pictures. It was not like I didn’t care; it was not like it didn’t make me sad – it was more like when you’re in a very loud place and at some point, you’re not able to hear anything, you know? I was numb.
This happened to a lot of people in the second week of the war. I heard everyone saying “I can’t feel anything anymore”. Our brains just turned off this function. That was stage two. It lasted for a week and a half, I think.
Then I had a new wave of emotions. I became angry and sad and furious all over again. It’s just a rollercoaster, you go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. You feel all the emotions, your brain gets tired and turns it off and you can’t feel anything, then it takes a rest and you can feel everything again. It goes round and round and round.
In the first week, I felt like I was in the wrong place. My first idea had been to go to Lviv and from there back to my city. What stopped me, however, was that I couldn’t do that to my dad who specifically wanted us to be safe. I also didn’t want to bring my younger brother with me to Lviv, yet, at the same time, I also couldn’t leave him.
I was thinking a lot about it and it cost me a lot of energy to switch to a different mindset. What help would I be in Ukraine? What could I do there? It took me almost three weeks to acknowledge and accept the fact that I was safe. And that it was not wrong that I was safe. I happened to be safe just because my dad had had an intuition about this whole thing. I just had to accept it and move on.
Sounds like survivor’s guilt.
Yes! And it felt shitty. All my friends, all my family were there living under the sirens, rockets, bombing and shelling. Whereas I was here in Poland and just happened to be safe. It felt shitty at first, very shitty. It took me quite some time to accept the fact that it was okay. That I could help from here.
What kind of messages do you receive from your family and friends?
My friends say that they get used to it. I talk to my mum regularly. In fact, three days ago, she told me she can fall asleep even when something is going on outside. Even when the sirens are working, even when she can hear shootings. She got used to it. My friends told me that they sometimes can’t understand if all the sirens are screaming in their heads or if they are real and they should go and hide.
What gives you hope?
The fact that we have something to fight for. In my mind there’s no way we can lose this war. We have something to protect. I don’t know what russians are fighting for. They’re not protecting their land. They came to us like riots.
She struggles with the right words, laughs, then says –
I am trying not to swear here.
I ask her about the things she finds unique about the cultural differences and she tells me a story back from 2019 when I visited her in Kyiv.
What I’ve noticed recently is – that the robbery rate in Ukraine is higher than in, for example, Germany or Poland, but the level of trust in Ukraine is also higher. I remember when we were on a bus in Kyiv and the bus was stuffed with people and everyone from behind was passing their money to pay for the bus. You asked me if that was okay. “Does the money actually make its way to the driver?“ She laughs. It’s an unspoken rule, a silent law, that you cannot steal the money from the bus. You can steal whenever you like, but not from the bus – not when someone passes the money. You have to take it to the driver.
We both laugh, I remember it too. Me and her on the bus, people passing the money, and I say “that would never work in Germany”.
I mean, we have our problems and we’re still fighting them, corruption and stuff – but at least we fight them. We don’t just sit and wait for something to change. We do something to change it. I really appreciate that. The level of my hate rises dramatically when I think about how Ukraine was doing better during the past years – it was getting better and better.
We had a lot of start-ups going on, we had new investments coming in and then this happens. We had built so many new houses, and apartment blocks and our infrastructure was evolving and now it’s all being ruined. I was so naive to assume that I could actually feel what Remarque was writing about. It turned out I couldn’t until now.
How do you imagine the future?
I would love to go back, of course. But I’m gonna study and it’s not gonna be in Ukraine. But of course, I don’t want to change my citizenship or anything like that. I am proud to be Ukrainian. Right now, more than ever.
I don’t know for how long this war will last. I’m afraid it’s not gonna end in one month, maybe not even two months. There is a big chance it will last more than half a year. Out of these pessimistic thoughts, I try to distinguish the optimistic ones. There are a lot of Ukrainians scattered all around the world now. We will learn the languages of the countries we stay in, the children will go to school there, their parents are going to work there. They will need to learn these languages. When it’s time to return, we will bring those experiences with us. A friend of mine said: “When the time comes to rebuild everything that russia has destroyed, we will need all those people with all the languages they’ve learned and the experiences they’ve gained. It makes me excited to think about what we can bring back to Ukraine. Whenever I fall back into negativity, I try to remind myself that we will be okay. We will rebuild everything and maybe even better than it was before. I try to constantly remind myself of that.
You can find some of Irena’s favourite ukrainian songs here.
Written by Raphaela Pöllmann