“Fear has big eyes”

Anstasiia, Sumy/Donetsk region, 07.04.22

“Fear has big eyes”

I wrote this text in several increments, each of them started with a negotiation with myself… Why should I write about my impressions, memories, and feelings…? – I did not see the war; I knew about it. There are people who indeed have something to tell, they lost everything, they saw and felt the war… - and I did not. But then I realised that I am blocking my feelings, I am afraid to lose control and admit that maybe I too have lost everything…

I have to start from afar for it to be more clear…

I am 32, I was born in …, Sumy region. In the 90s, my father left for the Donetsk region to work at the mine, then mom with a 3-year-old me joined him. We lived in rented apartments for a long time… But every summer we would go “HOME”, to the Sumy region. That is where my grandmothers, lots of relatives and friends lived.

Throughout my life, as a tradition, I would go home to … with my parents and my children. I almost did not accept the city in the Donetsk region, where I spent most of my life, where my children were born, where we lived happily, I did not see myself as part of Donbas.

In 2013-2014, during the Revolution of Dignity, people had aggressive attitude towards our family, because we were not locals – “banderivites,” did anyone even understand that we were from Sumy region… Besides that, we unambiguously showing and expressing our position and helped the warriors and refugees. Over the 8 years, the situation in the region has changed, and our circle has changed specifically. I stopped being in contact with the fanatics of the “Russian world,” and at a certain moment it seemed that there are none of those in our city…

In February of 2022, when talking about a possible war, I tried to calm down those I was talking to and would not allow spreading the panic. Now I regret not thinking through the options beforehand, it is too bad I was not preparing for the worst.

February 24…I cannot forget that morning. I was scared to refresh the newsfeed. There were lots of messages to my loved ones, friends, colleagues… I got into a supermarket and was overtaken by panic, although it was quiet in our city, and after all no-one has cancelled the basic needs. My best joke of the first days of war was that it was nice to live in a city where there is nothing but dirt and a coal mine. Those characteristics have saved our city in 2014… There is nothing to take here, nothing to fight for. “Fear has big eyes” – this is true. When we heard the noise that sounded like explosions, together with children and relatives, we got into the car and went to the village to escape. There was an old unorganised house, and we spent the night there. We almost did not sleep, we were watching the news. It was even worse due to the cold and the mess around us. I do not remember why we decided that it would be safer in the village, but now that idea seems extremely strange.

On the 25th of February, my native city… was surrounded by the Russian army, they entered all of the villages around it, there was no information about the attacks or aggression. I got my first panic attack that day. I felt physical pain because of the fear, I could not breathe, the tears were choking me, I felt like I was about to throw up. Videos with the enemy’s equipment sent by my loved ones, the news, constant messages and calls. I had no time to charge my phone. I could not stop my thoughts. The flow of information was knocking me off my feet. I would go to work, but these were some actions done on autopilot and that was so for the next couple of days. My dad was in the territorial defence by that time, lots of friends and relatives, some of them are in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Tears again… My husband is a truck driver in Europe, we talked him out of coming back, as he would be the only source of income for us and all of our relatives in case of anything.

In November of 2021 I started to work on the UPSHIFT project from UNICEF. My team and I were at the finishing stage, but the war has changed our plans. A message from our team: “We must do a zoom call, we will decide what we are going to feed the dogs with,” it gave the energy for conquering the world. The project was directed at helping the street dogs. This is what we started doing on the 28th of February.

Over these days, the refugees from Volnovakha started coming, they were provided with accommodation in the kindergartens of the city. Me and my children packed the bags with kids and adult clothing, blankets, pillows. When my children put some of their toys into a bag to pass them on to the refugees, I was in tears, fear and panic again. I carried the things and food to the collection centres multiple times a day. I transferred 1000 hryvnias for the support of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, all of my bonus earning too. My daughter proudly transferred 5.36 hryvnias from her Privat bank account… I am crying again. I transferred more money for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, gathered food and jam jars to pass them to the soldiers.

I was fighting over my thoughts of what is best to do for my children for over a week. My husband was talking me out of going because the trains from the Donetsk region pass through Kyiv and Khrakiv. My in-laws and friends were talking me out of going – it is quiet here anyway… On the 4th of March at 10 am, I decided to leave, just to go without a plan, without money, without accommodation or any security. At 12:00 we left the city, at 13:00, me and the children with two backpacks stuffed with clothes were on a train. This trip lasted 36 hours in a carriage where people were sleeping on the floor, in the vestibule, in front of the toilet… - I will never forget that, my children will probably not forget that either. I have not liked the top shelves in placard trains since my student years, but during this trip they saved us. By some miracle, the three of us settled on two top shelves, then a girl sat next to my daughter. We were passing through Kharkiv in complete darkness. We were standing for hours in Kyiv, Fastiv, Koroshyshev… as we later understood from the news – that was because of the bombings.

The places which are supposed to be occupied by 6 persons maximum (placard) – were occupied by 9 adults and 8 children, the youngest of whom was 6 months old. None of us knew where exactly they were going. We ran out of water pretty fast, tea was saving us, but the children wanted water. The only option was to get tap water, no alternatives. I remembered how I was disgusted to even brush my teeth using the tap water on the trains.

Trains will always remind me of those 36 hours, they sound like children crying, they smell like sweat and food, they are sticky if you touch them and they are stretchy like rubber. The news was adding to the fear and shaking in my whole body.

On the 6th of March at 00:40 we arrived at the railway station of Lviv and then panic overtook my children. We were tired and confused, night… There were thousands of people at the railway station. The line to the train was starting at platform one, turned over the railway station, then through the central entrance in the tunnel for the entrance to the tracks and the platforms themselves, from there, there were trains to Peremyshl. The children got scared of the crowds and started to cry. My son (6 years old) hit me with his leg and said that I was to blame because we left and he is scared and wants to go home… I was ready to cry, but I could not allow myself to do that. Thankfully my friend, we went to their children’s godparents place at 2 am, I will not tell you how I was stopping a taxi past the curfew. But I have so many impressions of that night.

I found bla-bla-car [rideshare] which took us from the border to the checkpoint Shehyni, well it did not exactly drive us all the way – we got off in a village that is 5 kilometres from the border, the cars were not allowed after that point. Thankfully, there was transportation to the pedestrian line. The line and going through the customs control took 2 hours. Polish border guards were smiling, they were joking, they offered cookies and water to everyone, my children were so happy to get juice and cookies, I was surprised.

Then we were met by a friend with a car, who took us to Katowice. But that is a separate story, I felt like the heaviest burden was taken off my shoulders, but the process of adaptation and comprehending of the situation took us a month. There were days when my children and I would not even leave our apartment to go to the grocery store. It will be my son’s first day at the kindergarten tomorrow, and my daughter’s first day at school is on Monday. I’ve started looking for a job, and meanwhile I continue to work at school remotely.

I don’t know what else to write…what to remember here. The news scares me all the time, no-one can tell what will happen tomorrow. But a constant is my wish to return home, to my native Donetsk region, to the dirt and the mines. By the way, I still think that I do not have a moral right to write about the war, because I did not see it, and I only have heard of it…

As of today, the 7th of April, the residents of Donetsk region are asked to evacuate because of the threat of the repetition of the events that took place in Kyiv region, Mariupol and Volnovakha. My father stayed to defend our Donetsk region with a weapon, and the majority of our male friends and acquaintances, some of them continue going down to the mine to get coal, because the country has to live. My father-in-law stayed in the village with his far property, dogs and cats. My husband’s grandparents refused to go. Almost all of the grocery stores in the city are closed, the pharmacies and post offices don’t operate at all.

In our native […] my grandma is working on her garden, she is 85, she saw a war as a child, she knows about it now, but there is still work to do in the garden and that gives hope.