“No time to be upset.”

Kateryna, Lviv region, 02.04.22

“No time to be upset.”

February 24 at 7:40, I woke up to the sound of sirens. What am I supposed to do, I have no clue, maybe it is a dream, or perhaps, a drill at the most? But no, the sister says Russia has started bombing all of the major [Ukrainian] cities. Something I could not believe until the last moment has begun, something that will prevent me from sleeping peacefully at night, that will make my life seem like an absurd dream, something there is no turning back from, something that one NEVER forgets. We quickly started getting ready to go to the basement, there were no keys, but we were not the only ones running to the shelter, so we just did not think about the keys. There were no more sirens. Is everything back to normal, is it over yet? I went to the store, and my mother asked to withdraw all the money from the card. I have never seen so many people at an ATM. There were many people: women with babies, elderly people, people on wheelchairs, the whole area was going to withdraw money, the most amazing thing is that nothing was heard, no one spoke, complete silence, as if time had stopped. The bank has set a withdrawal limit of a maximum of UAH 2,000 per day. I stood in line for 4 hours, I did not have my phone with me, I thought I would run out for 10 minutes and return home, as a result I missed all of the lectures. I could not withdraw the money; the card was blocked. So I went to the store, had some cash on hand, and wanted to buy water and some food. I did not buy either, since the shelves were almost empty, and a 5-liter bottle of water costs UAH 100. I got back home with nothing. I got 20 jars from the attic, so I filtered water in them.

My mother decided to go to her acquaintances in Truskavets, because there was information that our house would be bombed at night, because we have 120 apartments for military officers, and my parents are from the military, and the next building is an armored plant, the best target for a bomb, heh? We drove restlessly, the journey was hard and scary, it seemed that we might not make it, now I understand that these were children's worries and nothing dangerous. But my sister has been living in the front line for 4 years, when we visited her, on the way we saw a burned bus which did not reach its destination. For the rest of the journey, this picture was in front of my eyes, and made me think, it could have been us, we could also not get there. It was calm in Truskavets. But I could not rest, so the next morning I returned to Lviv to meet refugees from Rubizhne and Kyiv (grandmother with granddaughter, and mother with a child). They were supposed to arrive in the evening, but the train was delayed for 17 hours. 6 AM, I did not sleep all night, waiting for them, finally arrive at the station. I wanted to call a taxi, but there were no cars. Suddenly, I heard sirens. I ran out into the street, all the neighbours were in the basements, I ran down the street and asked people if they had a car, that I needed to pick up women and children from the station. One had no keys, the other one called me stupid, no one was willing to go with me during the air raid.

Once again, I regretted that I did not pass the driving test and did not make enough money for the car… I was in a panic, in tears I ran around the area and asked people for help, asking to save, not myself, them. I did not care about the sirens, the air alarm, I would take them away and take care of them. One noble man agreed to go with me to the station. I took the children and women home, fed them, and put them to bed. I was later horrified by their stories. 17 hours in a compartment for 16 people with closed windows, without light, water, food, and signal. One 1.5-liter bottle of water was shared among all the people in the compartment during the whole time. Some fled with a suitcase full of stuff, the others had no time to collect even the essentials. I prayed every day that the military facility where I host refugees and try to save them, give them the opportunity to rest before going abroad, would not be bombed. But I cannot provide people with peaceful rest, every 2-3 hours we go to the shelter because of the air alarm. I recall one 90-year-old grandfather from Kharkiv, with whom I used to go down to the basement (from the 10th floor) 4-6 times a day, he could see almost nothing. And I was afraid of everything. God, give us time to crawl to the shelter. I had no fear over my own life, but I felt responsible for the lives of these people. I blamed myself for the sirens and that people could not rest, instead, I would call them to the shelter.

My mother and 8-year-old sister Tanya were in Truskavets at the time. At night mom called me and asked to pick Tanya up and take her abroad. Knowing what it was like to sit in the basement of a military building for hours and find explosive butterflies on the grounds, I did not want such a life for my sister. And since they could no longer stay in Truskavets and living in a ticking bomb-house was not an option. We rented a car to take the refugees and my sister abroad. I was responsible for a grandmother with a 6-year-old granddaughter, a woman with two children and my Tanya. I had to save them, at least provide them with a calmer life, because they had already suffered a lot. After hastily collecting some stuff, leaving the keys in the postbox so that someone could use the apartment, if necessary, we went to Truskavets. We collected Tanya at some point of the journey, said goodbye to our mother and went to the Krosten pedestrian border crossing point. Nothing has been said about my dad in my story. He is a colonel of the Armed Forces, I have not seen him since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, and I had no connection with him, where is he, how is he? Maybe it sounds funny, but back then it did not bother me much, I wanted to save these people, and I was sure that my dad would cover our backs, protect us, and fight.

My mother is also a military doctor in the reserve, she was expecting a summons any day, so she could not go with us. There was no time for being upset, I quickly came up with a plan and promised myself to do anything in my power to save these children and their confused relatives. They did not understand Ukrainian well, they seldom left their towns, and now there was such a journey ahead of them, but I was sure that I would not let us down. The driver drove us to the border, I left everyone in the car, ran to the station, checked in on the bus that takes 15 km to customs. We were #525 in the line, the driver said we would take a bus to the border no earlier than 12 hours. I ran to seek shelter for us, because the children would soon be hungry, they would need to sleep. I ran from yard to yard, knocked on the doors, and asked to sleep over. One grandmother agreed to take us in and promised to feed us. I came back to pick up my group, thanked the driver, took all the bags, and went to our rescuer. It was my fourth night without sleep. Every hour I ran to the station and asked about the state of the queue. I wanted to sleep incredibly, but I could not, could not afford to sleep. The grandma let us in a small living room, the children slept on the couch, while others - right on the floor covered with our coats. I have never seen a more hospitable and sacrificial person in my whole life until then, because then there is more. The queue was clearly delayed, and 12 hours turned into 25. The grandmother only had a sofa for 2 people, there was no room for sleeping, and there were 7 of us. She ran looking for alternatives. We were told that the boarding school accepted refugees, there were mattresses, and we could spend the night there. I dragged my people there, and we got registered. Seven were given 3 mattresses, but we were still glad; it was better than staying on the street, given it was ruthlessly cold outside.

It turned out that it was no longer a boarding school, but a school where children, instead of studying, playing games, watching TV series, going to clubs, were registering, and resettling refugees, preparing meals, cleaning, and playing with refugee children. These kids grew up way too fast! We slept next to people who were #320 in the line, they were from a town on the border with Poland, 3 teenagers, a grandmother, and a woman. If I am not mistaken, they were very happy to be able to go abroad and told us how everything was promising there: high salaries and developed infrastructure. These exciting stories made me sick! People who loved their home, had everything, lived in full security, were simply forced to leave, and flee, without clothes and food, they fled from Rubizhne and Kyiv. I blamed myself for not being able to help them cross the border quicker. I wanted these storytellers to shut up, those who thanked the war for the opportunity to go to Europe. I was mad inside, but there was no strength to argue, to prove something, my group was very grateful for everything and did not complain about anything. I was even more nervous that I was also running away, that I was not in the defence or on the volunteer point, I wanted to go back and be useful, but I could not leave these people. If there were relatives abroad, I would have left Tanya with them and gone back, but we had no one. I was supposed to live in that Europe and settle in, but about that later. On the Polish side of the border, a Pole had been waiting for us for 20 hours in his car. I had agreed with him back in Lviv that he would wait for us and pick us up and accommodate us for a couple of days. Poles have always treated us [Ukrainians] superficially, for them Ukrainians were a second class, cleaners with higher education, and ass-cleaners with master's degrees. I could not even think about the good attitude towards Ukrainians. Moreover, I was surprised that they had not yet closed the borders for us. Myths about Poles began to dissipate with the arrival at customs, we still waited for our 525 number and got on a “Bogdan“ (brand) bus. Two people per one seat, first loading people, then suitcases and bags; a total of 2 m in height. Based on those bags one could distinguish who was coming from where. Whether someone is fleeing the war after losing his/her home in one pair of slippers, or someone looking for new employment opportunities and a comfortable life. Someone has one sack, and someone else - 3 brand new suitcases measuring one meter by one meter. 20 minutes and the bus miraculously took us to the customs. It was freezing cold if my memory serves me well - -8 degrees + snow. Got into the line. We waited in the cold for about 1.5 hours. At that time, I forgot about myself. But the children were freezing. We took out all the blankets and wrapped them like cabbages, but in vain, they continued to tremble from the cold. We put on up to 3 pairs of socks for warmth - hopeless. The Poles kept bringing hot tea, we gave it all to the children to warm up their handles, but it did not help.

I began to warm children’s hands with my own breath, one girl, then another, then my Tanya. I remembered I had sweets, 2-3 kilograms were given to us by some good people. I walked between the line and handed out sweets to the children. it would not help to warm up, but perhaps, to gain some energy. An ambulance arrived; a child could not stand the cold. We heard she could not be reanimated and died. I do not know if it was 100% true, but I still can't hold back my tears. Children, we must save the children, take them out of this horror. Once you are not sure whether you will be able to bring everyone to safety- it gets scary. But as a ray of hope, in a time of helplessness, a woman arrived in a car and loaded the nine of us into her jeep so that we could cross the border quickly. Our angel, our salvation. I do not know how long she had been transporting people like that for. She could certainly go back and build a bright future a long time ago, instead she carried on saving people from the cold by transporting them across the border in a warm white car. There were two children sitting on my lap, but who cared, the most important thing is that they were alive. And what then, then it would be easier, I had believed. After an hour of driving in a jeep through customs, we crossed on the Krosten border, and Polish volunteers surrounded us with their care. They invited us to the heating tent, gave us tea, food, and even donuts for the children. One of the girls had a broken zipper on her winter coat. We got her a brand-new warm coat found in a pile of humanitarian aid. We were literally warmed and dressed up.

Later we were picked up by the Pole, with whom we had agreed before, he took care of us like no other: “Maybe you need to go to the hospital, or you are hungry, I have got some water, I can buy you coffee“ - and he went on throughout 5 hour-journey to Warsaw. The children fell asleep in the back seats, and I cried in the front when they could not see. Only the driver saw it and I am grateful to him for his silence. I am grateful that he did not ask questions, did not try to calm me down, because I just had to cry and regain some strength for further action. Having realised everything, this incredible desire to take out as many children as possible and carding that I could not take anyone else. But most of all, I was aware and depressed from POWERLESSNESS, I could not save everyone, I could not stop the war, I could not shoot down flying bombs, I COULDN'T. I understood that all these children would be taken away by their relatives and taken care of. Most of all, I was thinking about my sister. Our parents, our defenders, remained in Ukraine. Our mother had to be called on duty any day, given she is a nurse in reserve. Dad (Colonel of the Armed Forces) whom I have not seen for a long time, where he is now, is he alive? I am going to an unknown place, what awaits me? I do not know. But I was confident that I would do anything I could, to provide for my baby [young sister]. I am her mother for now, maybe forever.

I did not even dream of continuing my studies at the university. I just had to settle down somewhere, get a kid to school and work, a lot, so that Tanya would never be hungry again. No, I also wanted to study and defend my thesis. It was my biggest dream for the last 5 years, but now this idea seemed so unrealistic and unattainable. My sister thought this was a fun trip and she had always dreamed of travelling. How wonderful she is, never complaining. I was so joyful and happy in front of her, but as soon as she fell asleep, I cried… non-stop… Tanya would often ask why I had such red eyes. I told her that it was an allergy (I had never had anything like it in my life), but I lied as much as I could. She asked about our parents… I lied with a lump in my throat that our father was our defender, he would defeat the Muscovites and we would come home, but I did not really know if he was still alive. I would also tell her that our mother just could not come now, but she was in a beautiful sunny place where there was no war… I wish.

P.S.P.S. helplessness has become my main character trait, I am constantly aware of it. Some say that I am achieving something incredible, maybe in peacetime that would be the case. But for now, I cannot stop the bombing and rebuild the destroyed house, I cannot return the parents to their children, I cannot restore the psyche of the ruthlessly raped woman, I cannot do any of these… nothing… powerless…