KYIV, Ukraine — In 2014, my mother fled her home in eastern Ukraine.
She didn’t want to. She’d just started a new job as a teacher and was keen to carry on her work. But as Russia-backed separatists waged war in Donetsk, the situation became unbearable. One October morning, she packed her bags, said her goodbyes and left.
When I met her in Kyiv, near the underground, we stood there sobbing violently. Her life was ruined. She left behind an apartment where she’d spent her entire life, her close friends and family. I was 20, a student and a newcomer to the capital, unable to financially support her.
In time, she found a job and settled somewhere we always assumed would be free from Russian attack: Bucha, a small, pleasant town outside Kyiv. There, along with many other eastern Ukrainians who’d fled the conflict, she slowly built a life for herself. The war in the east ground on, but at least she was safe.
Or so we thought. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine shattered our hopes of security. It also caught me by surprise: Through the months of Russia’s military buildup, I knew the east was at grave risk of Russian aggression. But I assumed it would stop there. Instead, President Vladimir Putin launched a brutal war on the entire country — and my mother, in Bucha, was suddenly at risk. Once again, she had to flee.
Far from exceptional, my mother’s story is illustrative. Donetsk and Bucha, the two homes from which she’s been expelled, are bywords for the pitiless destruction Russia has unleashed on Ukraine. In Donetsk, Russia-backed forces tortured detained civilians. In Bucha, as the world has been shocked to discover, the Russian military massacred civilians and committed horrific atrocities. In each place, ordinary Ukrainians like my mother have striven to live their lives — to go to work, to tend to their loved ones, to simply be. But Russia wouldn’t let them.
In the eight years since the conflict began in Donetsk, my family had little to complain about. Yes, we had been separated — but everyone was alive. Given that the conflict has claimed more than 14,000 lives, that’s no small piece of fortune. My father, an electrician, repaired energy networks: In heavily-shelled Donetsk, it was busy work. My aunt started a family of her own there, stubbornly refusing to allow the conflict to dominate her life. I missed them endlessly — I was blacklisted in Donetsk for my reporting and haven’t been able to visit my childhood home — yet was cheered by the hope, shared by us all, that the fighting would end at some point.
But those distant dreams were destroyed by Mr. Putin’s recognition, on Feb. 21, of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russia-backed separatists had established their so-called republics. I was stunned. His announcement in effect laid claim to the entirety of the Donbas region, an area three times larger than the one already controlled by Russian-backed troops. It was a green light to move forward and seize the rest of the region.
For my family, this was a disaster. My father was suddenly at risk of being conscripted into the army to fight against his fellow Ukrainians. My aunt was in danger of being sent away, too — but to Russia rather than Ukraine. So-called evacuation efforts, transporting eastern Ukrainians to Russia under the pretense of imminent Ukrainian attacks, had been stepped up.
Three days later, explosions in Kyiv heralded the beginning of a full-scale invasion. It felt like déjà vu. My mother and I already lived through it eight years ago. We had the exact same conversations: I would ask her to leave Donetsk, and she would refuse. She wanted to stay at home. Now I asked her to leave Bucha, but she wouldn’t do it. She didn’t want to be displaced for a second time.
When I finally talked her into leaving, we were too late: Russian troops had taken over Bucha. The first reports about locals being slaughtered by Russian soldiers started appearing; I could not stop picturing my mother as the next victim. I saw photographs of places I’d been to with my mother — like a shopping mall near her apartment — that had been demolished. I told her not to leave the basement of her building, if possible, but she didn’t listen. Only when she came under heavy shelling while shopping for groceries did she stop going out. She’s always been stubborn.
For the next 10 days, she stayed in that basement. There was no electricity or heating, and she was running out of food and water. It was terrifying: Artillery fired nonstop while Russian tanks parked next to her building. When her neighbor tried to take a picture, he was shot — luckily, he survived but his apartment was ruined. Not long after, Russian soldiers visited the building: They inspected residents’ homes, checked passports and took away mobile SIM cards. (My mother, in a remarkable flash of cunning, gave them the wrong one so she could keep in touch with me.)
The ordeal was intolerable. My mother, hungry, exhausted and frightened, finally agreed to leave. Two days later, on March 10, she managed it, escaping through a humanitarian corridor to Kyiv. She was shaken up when I met her. I covered her in all the duvets and blankets I had and put her to bed. But in the night, I could hear her groaning. When I asked her what she was dreaming about, she said that the Russians were torturing her. It was the sign of a trauma that will stay with her for a long while.
The next day I put her on a train to safety. She’s now in western Ukraine, staying with some relatives, an internally displaced person once again. She lost her job and her home, twice. Yet she’s lucky to be alive, unlike hundreds of her neighbors buried in Bucha’s mass graves. They join at least 1,964 other civilians whose lives have been extinguished by Russian force.
Bucha itself, or rather what is left of it, is free now. Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv’s environs by April 6. They’re redeploying to the east, where a battle for the Donbas lies in store. The war, which began in the east eight years ago, is returning there for its culmination. Given Russia’s brutality — which now extends to the possible use of chemical weapons in besieged Mariupol — it’s likely to be a terrible contest.
For Ukrainians, it will be the latest installment of horror. But the country, like my family, is standing strong. East and west, displaced and not, Ukrainians have acted with bravery and resilience. No matter what Russia does to us, we refuse to be beaten.
Anna Myroniuk (@AnnaMyroniuk) is the head of investigations at The Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian news site.
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