Like mostly everyone, we were nervous before February 24, but had not dared to fully believe in the possibility of war.
The morning of the 24th woke me up with the sounds of explosions and phone calls. From my brother, who is now defending us near Kharkiv, came a short message: it started, be careful.
The following hours and days were as if in a fog. How to be careful, what to do, will this go on for long, and is this for real? Turns out that it is for long and for real. We-two women and a dog-packed our bags and held our breath. What did we feel?
Panic, fear, disbelief, confusion, and again fear. I remember breathing deeply so as not to suffocate from the realization of what was happening. I called my Dad in Kryviy Rih, trying to calm him down before he heard the news. He was actually out for a morning jog, and I could feel how the earth trembled beneath his feet. At that time, I tried really hard to not let my voice shake. In the meantime, cars began to buzz on the street. There was a line of cars along our small, sleepy lane that does not even have a street light and usually sees 3 cars in an hour. That, too, was scary: everyone (there was a feeling that everyone) was leaving. And we are staying.
In those few hours on the morning of February 24, we all changed. Morning, when the full-scale war began.
We went to walk the dog and saw lone people with backpacks, suitcases, and carriers from which worried noses or tails were sticking out-cats, birds, hamsters. The owners were afraid to leave them by themselves and were taking them everywhere they went. It seemed like all of that cannot be true. Gray February, half-empty street, and the sounds of explosions.
By the second night, we were in the basement together with the neighbors-adults, children, animals. Everyone instantly became close to each other. I will forever remember how a 4-year-old kept asking her mother: «We are not going to die, are we? You will save us, right?» And the mother held her close, hiding tears of despair.
In that first week of the full-scale war in Kyiv, we learned to distinguish whether the missiles were flying toward us or away from us. In between air alerts, we managed to walk the dog, make pancakes, run to the store for the necessities. I remember a line outside a market after a two-day curfew. The men from territorial defense walked by. All four kilometers of the line begin to applaud. Echoing: «Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!» The men smile and exclaim: «Ukraine is invincible!» We start to sob. Tears of emotion.
We knew that we were being defended. And it also seemed that our «retirement district,» as we called it, in Kyiv will not be affected. But that same district borders Bucha and Irpin. So when an armored personnel carrier went down our street, we could no longer take the stress, threw two t-shirts and dog food into the backpacks, and headed for the train station.
The line for the train and then 12 hours of travel, standing in the aisle. On some stretches of the road, the conductor instructed us to turn off the phones; at another to quickly sit down due to shelling; at the third one we were moving as if tiptoeing our way. The train had the lights shut off the whole way. And I suddenly caught myself thinking: if we survive, I will have the experience I could have never obtained had we stayed in place. The experience of evacuation. Painful, but experience. And in that experience, there were moments when we were again sobbing from emotion: at some stations, volunteers filled the train with boxes of food, water, and diapers since there were passengers who grabbed their children from buildings already on fire. And that was help for them-the only things they now had.
We spent 5 days in Lviv. It was strange to watch people enjoy drinks and desserts at cafes, calmly walk the streets, laugh loudly. But there was a sense of vigilance all around, as if everyone was waiting for the worst.
Little by little, during those 5 days, we began to get used to life without the sirens. When you live for a certain amount of time in the conditions of constant stress, worrisome sounds, and the clinging of weapons, you begin to somehow get used to that. You run faster, react quicker, catch up automatically, and eventually jump better than Bubka [Ukrainian pole vaulter].
Having entered the zone of conditional silence, you slowly start to relax. And if the first two days, we felt suffocated by the imaginary sirens, by the third day we even stopped keeping our shoulders raised from constant tension. But on the morning of the 5th day, there was the sound of the siren.
Maybe there is a name for that in psychology. I call that the return effect. Because when we were awoken by the Lviv siren at 4 in the morning, it was more frightening than those almost-hourly Kyiv alerts. And we immediately made the decision-keep going further. We were not thinking where it would be better, weren’t choosing a country based on its climate or anything else. We were choosing a bus that will take us with the dog. And in 24 hours, we were already in the Czech Republic.
We were lucky with the people who took us in, lucky with the place of living-Prague is the most beautiful city in Europe. But if only this visit was under different circumstances. We were like the walking dead, not noticing the beauty, feeling ourselves like strangers and freeloaders. We processed everything we saw through a single prism. The prism of war.
The eyes catch external manifestations of the world, and the brain instantly analyzes the situation.
«Wow, what big glass balconies!»
«That's not good. It’s very dangerous during explosions.»
«Oh, what a tiny dog!»
«Yes, that’s convenient during alert or evacuation; put under your jacket and run.»
«What beautiful old buildings.»
«It's good that their neighbors are not the russians, or they would have barbarically destroyed everything here sooner or later.»
«What an interesting building!»
«Oh no, it would shatter in pieces from the power of the explosion.»
But the friendly Czechs, great city, churches breathing with history, the kind host that took us in-they all warmed our souls to the extent that was possible, and we began getting ready to return home. We understood that the war was continuing and it was still unsafe, but our hearts remained over there, in February, in Ukraine. And as soon as we crossed the border of our native land, I got a feeling of irrational happiness that filled me to the brim: I am home! I am in my land, which we will not give away to anyone.
It’s strange, but even with the sounds of sirens, you feel calmer at home than in a quiet foreign land. Over there, we constantly scrolled the news, checked a ton of chats, cringed at every call. But at home we are doing what we are supposed to be doing: working, meeting with friends, donating to the Ukrainian Defense Forces, scratching our traveling dog, feeling the rustle of the autumn leaves, and holding on.
We remember every: «how are you?» where are you?" «alive?» «we love you!» «hugs to you» «how can I help?» «give me your card number [to send help]» «we will prevail.»
We will never forget who our enemy is. We know the cost of our every morning and evening.
They want to destroy and frighten us, but we are not like them. There is a lot that the war can take away, but it cannot take away our humanity, our essence, our Ukrainian identity. We are different. We are full of love for our land and rage for the enemy, and that combination is more powerful than any nuclear weapon.
With that love, we will revive all that was destroyed, we will rebuild and restore.
And they-who came to us in February-will be brought down by our rage!
Translated by Natalya Barden