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A bedroom in an apartment building destroyed by Russian bombs in Luhansk. September 13, 2014

‘I prayed, I wept, I cursed’ In 2014, many Luhansk residents fled the city and built new lives elsewhere. In February 2022, war found them again.

Source: Meduza
A bedroom in an apartment building destroyed by Russian bombs in Luhansk. September 13, 2014
A bedroom in an apartment building destroyed by Russian bombs in Luhansk. September 13, 2014
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Viktoria Vualo lived in Luhansk until 2014, when she and many of her friends fled the armed conflict sparked by Russia. Eight years later, in February 2022, Russia’s war forced many of them to flee again. Viktoria now lives in France, but she’s been in touch with her friends in Ukraine since the war began. They answer intermittently; when they can, they send audio messages with updates about hiding from bombs, fearing for their loved ones, and trying to get to safety. With their permission, Meduza is publishing their messages to Viktoria.

Scattered throughout the country

Viktoria Vualo was born in Russia, but she grew up in the Ukrainian cities of Berdyansk and Luhansk. Viktoria’s aunt was a professor in the philology department at the Luhask Pedagogical Institute, while her mother worked at a technical college. Viktoria followed in their footsteps: after graduating from the Pedagogical Institute, she started giving English lessons and teaching at the university.

Teachers and students always made up a major part of the family’s social circle. Some students stayed in touch even after graduating and eventually became Viktoria’s close friends. In 2014, though, everything changed.

“Immediately after Russia annexed Crimea, people appeared in Luhansk who were not at all local; they had different faces, different attitudes,” said Viktoria.

“You could tell these people had come to the city to take power. And they had support from many of the people already in power: the police academy leadership, the deputies from the Party of Regions, and the priests from the local Russian Orthodox churches. I saw it all happening, but I had my own tragedy,” said Viktoria. “My mother was sick and dying. So I saw everything that was happening through the prism of my own pain.”

Viktoria’s mother died in March 2014, when protests against the Ukrainian government and the Euromaidan Revolution had been going on for almost a month. By the end of April, the confrontation had developed into an armed conflict, and Viktoria’s relatives had begun to leave Luhansk.

Some time later, the universities started evacuating, and many of Viktoria’s former colleagues and students ended up in Kharkiv and Kyiv. On the 40th day after her mother’s death, Viktoria left, too — though not to Ukraine but to Russia. (Soon after, trains stopped running from Luhansk to Russia for eight years.)

“My aunt already lived in Moscow by that time. She dedicated her life to her Russian philology research, and she had moved away from Luhansk long before 2014 in order to continue her research,” said Viktoria. “She opposed the war in 2014 and opposed the annexation of Crimea. But she believed Russian philology, which she really loved, had nothing to do with the Russian government. She lived alone, and she was my only family. So I moved there. Not to live in Moscow, but to be with her.”

Viktoria lived with her aunt for several years before meeting her future husband and moving to France; throughout that time, though, she never lost touch with her friends in Ukraine. When the war began, Viktoria started calling and messaging her friends from Luhansk, who would respond with a combination of text messages and audio messages. For Viktoria, they served as evidence of a war that destroyed the lives of millions of ordinary people.

'The most precious message I’ve ever received: "We’re alive."'

Tatyana Mironova is a close friend of Viktoria’s. “She was one of my aunt’s students,” said Viktoria. “They became friends in the 1970s, and I inherited the friendship.”

Tatyana’s son, Sergey, was Viktoria’s own first student. Tatyana used to teach at Luhansk University as well, but in 2010, she left it for the restaurant business.

By the time the war started, Tatyana’s family was scattered all over Ukraine. Tatyana lived in Kyiv, her father lived in Luhansk, and her elderly mother, her son Sergey, and her sister and her own family all lived in Kharkiv. When Russian troops reached Kharkiv, the family hid — first in the bathroom, then in a bomb shelter. On March 1, Tatyana convinced her son to evacuate to western Ukraine. Her mother and her sister refused to leave home.

“Every day since February 24 has begun the same way: I write to everyone, ‘Hi, how are you?’” said Tatyana. “There’s so much anxiety, so much love, and so much hope in those words that your heart seems to stop beating, you stop breathing, until you get the answer: ‘We’re fine.’ These two words are so precious. Then you finally start to thaw; you start moving and doing other things.”

On March 3, Tatyana’s father turned 80. The family was supposed to meet him for a banquet in the Luhansk region, but everything was canceled because of the war. That day, Tatyana called her father and they spoke on the phone for a long time: “Dad sang me the song he had prepared for our party. I started quietly crying and I was so scared he would hear. After that, we joked that dad’s birthday was making its way around the planet, so we had every right to celebrate it any day we wanted. Those words gave me a lot of hope at that time.”

Tatyana admitted that she’s tried to get into a routine in her daily life to keep her from giving in to “emotional paralysis.” Having small errands to worry about helps her stay in control and keeps her from reading the news or going on the Internet. “It’s impossible to tear myself away,” said Tatyana. “Because it seems like if you know the news, you can control everything. But in reality, everything’s long been out of your control, because you don’t even know what’s going to happen a second from now.”

That same night, March 3, Tatyana’s sister wrote that their power had gone out and that they were hearing “banging” outside as shells exploded. After that, Tatyana lost touch with her sister, her brother-in-law, her mother, and her niece.

“I sat there paralyzed by fear. Then I got a text from my sister saying that they’d gone down to the basement. Then silence again,” said Tatyana.

She waited for hours for her family to answer, all the while reading the constant stream of news about the bombings in Kharkiv. “The only thing keeping me alive was a friend from Kharkiv who got in touch and reported all of the addresses of the building that had been shelled,” Tatyana said in a voice message. “I listened and pictured all of the buildings: mine, my family’s — I mean, I grew up there, I spent time with my friends there. I went to movies and restaurants there.”

The aftermath of Russian shelling in Kharkiv. April 1, 2022
Aziz Karimov / ZUMA Press Wire / Scanpix / LETA

A friend from Kharkiv wrote to Tatyana that a shell had hit a medical clinic just 50 meters (164 feet) from her home. “My friend said goodbye to me over text message that night, and I responded that there was no reason to say goodbye because I had other plans and I wasn’t prepared to die in a nuclear inferno,” said Tatyana.

She couldn’t sleep all night: “I tossed and turned, prayed, wept, cursed, wept again, and prayed again. I tried to figure out who to ask to bring this all to an end. At six in the morning on March 4, the mobile operator told me that my sister’s phone had service again. Then I received the most precious text message of my entire life: ‘We’re alive.’”

The family left Kharkiv early in the morning on March 4, the soonest they possibly could. They headed for Poltava. It was Tatyana’s sister and her husband, their daughter Tanya, Tatyana’s elderly mother, and their cat, Vasilisa.

Tatyana learned from her sister that the apartment on the ninth floor, where her mother had lived, had burned down after being hit by a shell. “When they started bombing Kharkiv, she couldn’t stay on the ninth floor — the elevator had stopped working. They brought Mom down to the first floor, to the neighbors’, where my sister and her family had started living. It’s closer to the ground down there, safer. They covered the windows with blankets and moved the furniture up against it to keep shrapnel from flying into the apartment. They couldn’t bring Mom down to the basement [because of her fractured hip]. She spent the entire night in the apartment on the first floor as the bombs fell."

On March 6, Tatyana wrote to Viktoria, perplexed:

I don’t understand what comes next. I don’t understand how all of this can happen in our world. My beloved Kharkiv, one of the most beautiful cities in Ukraine, is being wiped off the face of the earth. God, I ask for so little — I just want to hug my loved ones! I want to sleep in my bed in some nice pajamas. I want to have a normal morning and a peaceful breakfast. All I want is to have plans and wishes. I believe this will all come to an end, and I ask God for the strength to make it through with my psyche intact, because I want to love the world and its people and find joy in them. I don’t want to hate.

11 days later, she left Kyiv.

“Up until the end, I didn’t want to leave. But all of my loved ones insisted. Because I was alone in Kyiv. There was always a ball of fear inside of me,” Tatyana explained. “When the siren would go off, it was like my heart would stop beating and sink. It’s something you can’t put into words. It’s a sound that wraps all of your insides into a fist.”

She went to the train station alone and got on the first train — ”it didn’t matter where it was going.” She went to Ivano-Frankivsk. The train car was crowded; a five-year-old girl Tatyana didn’t know sat in her arms and told her she didn’t want to sit in a basement to hide from bombs anymore.

By the end of March, Tatyana was in Poland. Her family was still separated.

“Dad is in the Luhansk region, which is almost completely occupied now. And where they’ve started trying to implement their own rules. I can’t get in touch with him,” said Tatyana. “My mom and my sister are still in Poltava. My sister started weeping on the phone today — she told me how our mom is trying to cope with her fear. She’s 82 years old and she’s remembering the night she spent alone under the bombs.”

‘I was always Marina from Luhansk. Now I’m Marina from Kyiv'

Marina is one of Viktoria’s friends from Luhansk. They met through Tatyana. When Tatyana left Luhansk and opened a restaurant in Kyiv, she hired Marina as her manager.

“In 2014, after the Russian invasion, I had to change my entire life,” said Marina. “I couldn’t live there with the constant sound of gunfire. I quickly packed my things and left. I had a single suitcase and a bunch of questions in my head: where should I go, what lay ahead for me, what would happen to my family, who were staying behind in a war zone. I didn’t have any answers — only a desperate desire to survive. I didn’t feel anything but that.”

For several months, Marina wandered around various Ukrainian cities, eventually settling down in Kyiv. “I started a new life from scratch. I got married, had a baby.”

On the morning of February 24, her life was once again turned upside down.

“We were awoken by a call from our relatives. They were shouting into the phone with horror that Kyiv was being bombed,” Marina wrote to Viktoria few days later. “I didn’t have any thoughts, no strength — nothing but paralyzing fear. And in addition to this horror, I had the additional fear of living through all of it again. But this time I was more scared. Because it wasn’t just me. There were also my husband and my son. I was more scared for them than for myself.”

Her husband’s parents picked them up on the evening of February 24 and took them to Rivne Oblast. “It’s relatively quiet here — there’s no shooting and no bombing,” Marina told Viktoria in an audio messages. “But periodically — once, twice, sometimes seven times a day — the siren goes off and we run into the basement. To save our own lives. Every minute, whether I want to or not, I’m reading the news, looking at the reports, seeing what areas had intense fighting today, what city they’re wiping off the face of our Ukraine. It’s hard to believe this can happen in the 21st century: an invasion of a free country that wasn’t threatening anybody.”

Marina knows that she and her family are lucky they were able to leave the first day after the war began; they didn’t experience the destruction that many others are still living through. Still, they’re nervous: “The place where we live borders one other ‘brotherly nation,’ the Republic of Belarus, and we all know perfectly well that they could attack us just like Russia. Some brothers they are.”

Thinking about the future is scary, Marina said; it seems “dark” and unknown. “We used to be in the habit of making plans, but now that’s not possible: if you try to imagine tomorrow or the day after, you hit a dead end.”

Every morning, she writes to her relatives in different parts of Ukraine to see if they're still alive. Every day, she hopes to see in the news that the war has ended.

“But the weeks go on — our country keeps fighting, keeps being destroyed. Peaceful citizens — many of them children — come under fire from the air and from the ground. I have that desperate desire just to live again. I can’t think of anything else,” said Marina.

On March 21, she sent Viktoria another audio message:

I keep asking myself, why? What’s the reason for this war? Every day is a new test of life. A lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, the question ‘why?’ And an understanding that safety today can shatter into a thousand pieces and bring death tomorrow.

In 2014, I was always Marina from Luhansk. Now I’m Marina from Kyiv. I’ll have to fill out a ton of forms to get government assistance all over again. I don’t have a job, and I need to live on something.

Every day, I tell myself I should be calm because I have a small son and he needs a healthy mother. I want to protect my psyche because I’m planning to return to Kyiv and help my country get back on its feet. But it’s impossible not to read the news. These little children getting pulled out from the ruins, these civilians getting shot — I don’t know how to stay sane. I’m grateful to God that neither me nor my child have heard these things or seen them with our own eyes. But there are really people living through this horror!

And the scariest thing is that Ukraine is alone. Yes, a lot of countries are supporting us. But the countries who were supposed to protect us have stood aside. It’s very sad that the alliance that calls itself the world’s peacekeeper has done nothing for us.

‘I'm not going to find peace here’

Tatyana Mazhara is a professional skydiver; until 2014, she trained and went on jumps frequently. She and her son, Vyacheslav, lived in Luhansk. Vyacheslav studied “banking” at the technical college at East Ukrainian University, where Viktoria’s mother was one of his professors. “Slava was a good student — he graduated with honors,” said Viktoria.

In 2007, Vyacheslav moved to Kyiv to attend university. One day, after he’d been there for about a year, he and a friend were waiting at a bus stop when a car veered off the road and hit them. The friend died in the ICU; Vyacheslav lost his eyesight.

“After Mom told me about Vyacheslav, we organized a fundraiser in Luhansk for his treatment,” said Viktoria. “That’s how I became friends with Tatyana, his mother. Afterwards, in 2014, she moved to be with her son in Kyiv.”

On February 24, when the war began, Viktoria messaged Tatyana, who told her that Vyacheslav refused to leave Kyiv. Men who have reached the draft age are forbidden to leave Ukraine during the war, and people with disabilities are required to get permission from the draft board before leaving. Vyacheslav used the rule as an excuse not to leave. “I’m staying, and what happens will happen,” he told Tatyana.

She tried for two weeks to convince him. By the time he agreed, it was too late; they couldn’t leave.

“We’re in Kyiv. Slava and I can’t get out. We tried twice,” Tatyana wrote to Viktoria on March 13. “The trains are packed, standing room only. Vyacheslav can’t be in a crowd of people like that — if he doesn’t have enough oxygen, he could have a seizure. And the noise from a big group of people like that also has a bad effect on him. So that’s why we’re here. It’s in the Lord’s hands now. And we’re not the only people stuck here. We’ll make it through the next page of our long-suffering little land together.”

“Viktoria, right now there's nothing I want to say. I don’t want to curse anyone, and I don’t want to yell at anyone. Constant shelling, constant fire, sometimes far, sometimes nearby. It just numbs you,” Tatyana told Viktoria. “If it weren’t for Vyacheslav, I would have left a long time ago. But he understands everything and he doesn’t want to leave. He knows he couldn’t endure the trip. He’s been trying to get me to go, he says he can take care of himself. But I’m his mother, and I need to be there for him. And then there’s my fear when I see the empty city — and if I meet somebody, it’s people running with bags (not suitcases, just bags containing their documents and a bit of food for the road). A bag in one hand and a child or a pet in the other. It’s so demoralizing.”

Tatyana said in a written message that she’s started seeing the city completely differently. “It’s the kind of bravery, the kind of fortitude you usually only see in movies. They won’t give up a shred of their native land for anything. It’s a shame I’m already over 60. If I were 50 years old… Fighting alongside those guys, I wouldn’t be scared.”

On March 14, Viktoria received another message.

“In every resident, there lives a constant fear, even when they’re not shelling,” wrote Tatyana. “For me personally, it’s very scary when the silence takes over and the birds start chirping. It’s a fear I still have from the war in 2014. Back then, the silence would suddenly be broken by a shell exploding, and you wouldn’t even hear it coming because the first one would land right next to you. It’s a lot easier when you’re alone. When your son is next to you, you’re completely helpless. It’s a dual fear, physically and psychologically exhausting. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to live with this kind of stress.

The graves of civilians who were buried in front of their homes. Dmytrivka, Kyiv region. April 2, 2022
Oleg Petrasyuk / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

On March 16, Tatyana and her son finally left Kyiv. She sent Viktoria a message when she reached Poland:

“I still don’t understand who helped us. I was asking everybody — friends from all over the place were searching for help for us. We got a call from the Red Cross, they gave us two hours to pack, and then we had to be at the bus departure point.

We had to go to the outskirts of Kyiv. I called all the taxi services — not a single car was working. So I thought that was it, we’d still be stuck in Kyiv. Then I get a call. It’s one of the drivers from a taxi service, and he says to be ready, he’s trying to make his way to us but the city is barricaded and the streets are blocked off. But somehow, he made it. We were waiting outside. We only had the bare minimum — we were rushing to make it to the bus. By some miracle, we made it through the barricades, and even though we were late, the bus was waiting for us. On the way out of Kyiv, there was a huge traffic jam — cars, cargo trucks, buses. It took us three hours to travel one kilometer. Then we spent all night on back roads with no streetlights. In Lviv that night, there were more sirens, but nobody was reacting. At three in the morning, we made it to the Polish border. I had heard how warmly Poland was welcoming refugees, but in order to really feel it, you have to go through a war before finding yourself in the warm, caring atmosphere of these kind-hearted people with outstretched arms. We had everything we needed: hot meals, drinks, toys, clothes, medical supplies, everything for personal hygiene… Transport to any part of the country was free.

I was dying to eat or drink something hot. But I was so astonished by what I saw — these kind, open faces, the smell of food cooked with love — that the tears started pouring down my face. I felt ashamed and guilty at the thought that I was here, safe, enjoying warmth and care, while there, in my homeland, thousands of people were suffering with no food or water, hiding for weeks in their basements with children and disabled people, and dying. I won’t find peace here.”

‘This war started in 2014, not on February 24’

Every evening, Viktoria tells her children Ukrainian folktales full of names of cities they’ve never been to: Kyiv, Luhansk, Irpin, Starobilsk. The children like the stories; they ask her to repeat them over and over again.

“I sometimes cry when I’m telling them,” said Viktoria. Staying in touch with her friends who are still in Ukraine helps her cope with her despair. “It’s easy with them — we understand each other,” she said. “We don’t have to explain to one another that the war began in 2014, not on February 24. We all know that.”

To distract herself from constantly reading the news, she tries to help the refugees who have recently come to France. She said that Europeans “don’t really understand the situation, but they do help.”

Viktoria and some other expats from Ukraine are planning to start a project aimed at preserving Ukrainian culture and language; they want to create a way for refugee children to study the Ukrainian school curriculum in France. They said it’s important to work to create a world without hate.

“A lot of people in Europe right now are saying that Russians need to protest. I don’t know what ordinary people in Russia can change right now,” she said. “If I were there, as the mother of two children, I’d be afraid to go to protests. And I can’t blame other people for being scared. If I knew I had to return to Russia, I’d probably be afraid to talk to you. But I know that as a Ukrainian passport holder, I’m never going back there.”

Story by Lyudmila Kuznetsova

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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