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‘My prayers alone cannot save him’ As her son fights for besieged Mariupol, this Ukrainian mother refuses to give up hope
War has completely changed the lives of millions of Ukrainians. While some fight for their country’s freedom, millions have been forced to flee abroad as refugees. Others remain in their homes, struggling to survive in wartime conditions and waiting to reunite with their loved ones. Iryna Egorchenko is a 43-year-old community leader in Kyiv, whose son is fighting in besieged Mariupol. When she spoke to Meduza, Iryna hadn’t heard from her son in almost a week. But she refuses to give up hope or give in to fear. In her own words, Iryna explains why she believes in bright future for Ukraine — and for Russia, too.
43-year-old community and religious leader
I’d often seen full-scale war in my dreams. I would dream that my Kyiv was being bombed. At first I’d watch it from the window, and then I’d go outside and see the USSR. Not long before the start of the war, I dreamt of my father. I came to his house, he opened the door, and said “That’s it, Ira, it’s started.” Even in my dream, I understood, that he was talking about war.
On February 24, we were awakened early in the morning by a commotion outside. The stairwell was a mess: people hurriedly packed their things, grabbed their kids, and ran. Then the [air raid] siren sounded. We long understood that war was possible, it was often written about and discussed in the media, especially in Western media. But we couldn’t believe it until the very last minute. A person is never ready for trouble, but it so happens that trouble does come. And it came to us, too, in the end.
For my husband and I, our first reaction fear. Not for ourselves, but for our children. We’ve lived a large portion of our lives already, but the children need to be protected, they depend on us. We have four of them: two biological, a daughter and a son, and two adopted, a brother and sister. We collected ourselves quickly and tried to calm down so as to not traumatize the children with our panic.
My oldest son is 22, he’s a soldier. He’s had heroic tendencies since his childhood. He is very practical, disciplined, always striving for fairness. He wanted to do something meaningful and at 18 he volunteered for the army, even though the conscription age here is 21. He served his time and decided to continue. He was on duty until February 24, guarding the borders, and now, he’s ended up on one of the most active fronts — Mariupol.
When the war began, I immediately messaged my son, but he didn’t get in touch for three or four days. Then he wrote “[I’m] alive”. I understand that while you’re shooting back at the enemy, writing texts isn’t very easy. He knows we’re worried about him and when he can, he writes a short message saying he’s alive or sends a plus sign. He hasn’t been in touch for six days now [This interview was first published in Russian on March 18, 2022].
My husband and I fill our days with volunteer work. We helped people before the war, too: my husband is the pastor at a Christian church and I’m the founder of the community organization “Trubota i Miloserdya” [“Care and Mercy”], which for many many years has helped vulnerable members of the population. Every day, people call and write to us with requests for help. Together with other volunteers, we deliver medicine and groceries, help with transportation to hospitals, cook food, and feed those staying in bomb shelters. I’m a psychologist by training, so I also try to provide psychologic aid, many are in need of it now.
We made a conscious choice to remain in Ukraine. We had, and still have, the opportunity to leave, we have the means and we have relatives abroad. But we made a commitment to these people and we can’t abandon them. We have a responsibility to them, to God, and to our conscience. For as long as we can stay here, we will be here and we will help. Helping benefits others and oneself, as well. It’s a good way to prevent neurosis. Firstly, you are distracted from scary thoughts, and secondly, it also adds purpose to your life, it gives you strength.
We live close to Bucha [a town outside of Kyiv], we constantly hear and see explosions. Obviously, we hide the children but we continue our volunteer work. We no longer pay attention to the sirens and falling shells. There are people who have it even worse right before our eyes, so we focus on them.
I’m a person of faith. My faith has always been important to me, but now, it’s become even more relevant. I think that faith in God and unity are exactly what will help Ukraine overcome all of this. I pray for our soldiers every day, teach others to pray, and find hope in God. When people and their children sit in a basement, which could, at any point, be hit by a bomb, faith becomes the only solace. It helps people not to despair.
I pray for my son every day, as well. I understand, that my prayers alone cannot save him, but faith and truth will. God fights for truth, and the truth is on our side. We didn’t invade anywhere, we were invaded. I believe that if God allowed this situation and my son ended up at war, God will help him survive.
Initially, of course, things were very tense. We could not tear ourselves away from the news. But with time, you understand that you cannot focus on fear, it shouldn’t have control over you. And you start accepting the news as a fact and continue doing what you can.
We still have our reality and our future, we have our children for whom we are responsible, there are those who we’ve promised to help. We must think about them. We continue to live. Our children continue to learn. The schools aren’t open right now, so we assign the children exercises and topics ourselves, our oldest daughter works on foreign languages with the younger children. We aren’t just focused on the war. I constantly tell my children that every war ends at some point: they must live and grow.
I perceive what’s happening as another test. I’ve had many in my life, but of course I’ve never experienced a test of this magnitude before. It’s not over yet, but I’ve already seen that it’s possible to be unafraid and grounded in one’s values. I realized that I can’t abandon people and flee. My husband isn’t able to do this either. Those who have been left without a home should be the first in line to evacuate. We realized that even in the midst of a storm, we can maintain our calm and humanity.
Before, when we spoke about [being] Ukrainians, we often used the phrase “it’s no concern of mine.” I used it myself. But now, these words have completely lost their meaning. Right now, all of Ukraine is a united body. All Ukrainians have rallied together beyond belief. I see my nation in a new way, as brave and free people. Crowds of men and women walk in front of tanks with their bare hands. Even if the president told us to give up, we wouldn’t capitulate. We really see ourselves as a nation, a united people. And I’m very proud of the fact that I am Ukrainian.
It’d be nice if Russians followed the Ukrainian example. Our women throw themselves in front of tanks, while in Russia, a group of three people fears going to a square together. I think at that point, it’s better to serve time [in prison] than allow yourself to be controlled that way. I see in Russians fear and an unwillingness to think, a shifting of responsibility for oneself and one’s life onto the authorities. The same thing happened in the Soviet era. In the USSR, you weren’t taught to think: if they said something was bad, that meant it was bad. Why it was bad, no one understood or asked. They must finally wake up and drive out this authority — first and foremost, from themselves.
Also, I’m shocked by the indifference of Russian mothers. Their fear of the regime is stronger than motherly love. Why are they silent? They raised their children in this fear — soulless, and unable to think. Why do wives and sisters remain silent, while their husbands and brothers are lied to, and they perish and lay on the ground like trash? Why aren’t they inciting a riot? If only they went to put up leaflets, went outside and shouted, called their sons, husbands, and brothers all day, begging them to return. This indifference and desire to remain in the illusion that everything is okay and Russia is winning — I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how one can believe Putin. How can you be so passive and apathetic?
I was raised with Christian values, I was taught to love people. I cannot allow hatred in my heart, as hard as that may be. I condemn the murder of my compatriots, but I do not want to stoop to the level of those who came to kill us. But criminals must be punished. In this regard, I will support my country, this should not go unpunished.
The goal to “liberate” Ukraine just sounds weird. This is no liberation, but a desire to exterminate those who allow themselves to act with free will. How, in the twenty-first century, can you shoot at peaceful civilians, at women and children? This is just something from the Middle Ages. This is a catastrophe. I will hope and pray that Russians will change and grasp everything. I don’t know when that will happen, but when people in Russia learn the truth, open their eyes, they will have trouble accepting themselves. And that will be its own punishment.
We don’t have any type of long-term plan. The most important task right now is to survive. And to win, of course. But Ukraine will win — this is without a doubt. After everything that we’ve survived, all the resources we’ve found in ourselves, we will absolutely emerge to something new and better. It’s not even about our determination. The whole world is with us, we are protected from all sides, everyone has stood up to the aggressor, to the terrorist. I cannot even call what is happening a war. In a war, there are some rules, some minimal understanding of respect. And this is not a war, and it’s not a “special operation” — this is terrorism.
Translation by Daria Novikov
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