‘This Is War. This Is Big. We Don’t Know When We Can Return Home’ The Reality Of Living In War-Torn Ukraine

Katerina Sergatskova, 34, reports for Grazia on life under Russian attack

Katerina Sergatskova Ukrainian journalist

by Grazia |

Photographer: Pavlo Bishko

Early in the morning of 24 February, the Russian army began bombing my city, Kyiv. It happened at 4am, and the sounds of falling rockets broke into my sleep: one boom, second boom, then more and more. You don’t confuse these sounds with anything else. At that moment, a friend from New York called my husband, and I immediately understood why: the war had come to Kyiv.

For several months, Ukrainians had been living in tension: since autumn, Western intelligence agencies were reporting that Russia was preparing to attack Ukraine. There were several scenarios as to how the situation could develop, and no one knew which Russian President Vladimir Putin would choose. Most of the world didn’t believe that he would do it. And Putin chose the worst-case scenario: he decided to attack the whole of Ukraine.

The problems began in 2013, when the then President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign an agreement on European integration, preferring a political union with Russia. In Kyiv, thousands gathered at the main square to protest against this decision. The authorities used brutal violence against them, more than 100 people died, and the President fled to Russia. After that, the Russian army entered the territory of the Crimean peninsula, staged a fake referendum on joining Russia, and annexed Crimea.

Meanwhile, pro-Russian protests began in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. With the support of Russian politicians, local separatists proclaimed ‘people’s republics’, and this was the beginning of the occupation and military conflict. I left what had been a happy, quiet life with my parents in Crimea and went to report from the war zone in Donbas for months, before I gave birth to my first child and moved to Kyiv with my husband, also a journalist.

Seeing that violence now in Kyiv, your own streets and neighbourhood demolished by war, the only way to describe how you feel is paralysed. After the invasion began, my family was in lockdown for five days, only leaving the house to buy food. My husband and I spent our days working from home, collecting evidence of the war and coordinating journalists. Meanwhile, the fight raged on outside our windows. On day two, I saw a Russian plane get hit by the Ukranian army. It was terrifying. By day five we decided to leave Kyiv for Lviv – a city in western Ukraine where it’s safe enough for us to leave the house, but our day is still interrupted by choruses of sirens signalling bomb threats. I now have two children, but only my eldest, who is six, understands what’s going on. We told him this is war, this is big and that we don’t know when we can return home; he cried. We don’t know where we’ll go next – we’re taking things hour by hour, like so many.

Just a few days before the start of the war, I had lunch with my friend Svetlana Musiy, 34, who works as a manager at the most popular Kyiv club in Podil, K41. Partygoers came there from all over Europe, and Kyiv was called the ‘new Berlin’. (This label has now taken on an ironic meaning: Russia’s army once, as part of the Soviet Union, went to liberate the German capital from the Nazis; today, Putin claims that he is liberating Ukraine from ‘Nazism’.) Over lunch, Svetlana told me that she had cancelled all the club’s planned concerts because of the threat of war, the club was empty, and the employees were in panic.

Then, as soon as she heard the sounds of bombing, Svetlana – who lives in the centre of Kyiv with her teenage brother and young son – packed up and drove away. ‘What Russia is doing to our country right now is unthinkable; this should not happen,’ she tells me over the phone, speaking from a small hotel in the mountains, which is accepting people displaced from eastern and central Ukraine. She is among the tens of thousands who have now left Ukrainian cities: some for western Ukraine, others for Poland, Slovakia, Romania – neighbouring countries that are accepting and assisting refugees. But many cannot leave.

Liza German, 33, art curator and founder of the Kyiv-based gallery Naked Room, is expecting a baby this month. Her husband Yevgen Nikiforov, a photographer and a creator of mosaics, had a car accident in which he broke his leg and both arms, leaving him unable to evacuate and help his wife and future child. Yet Liza is optimistic, as always, as we talk over Messenger. ‘I left the house for a walk. I want to pick up parcels at the post office,’ she says, then clarifies: if the post office is still working, of course. ‘In our area, people calmly walk down the street, and there is a bomb shelter in the house.’ Liza wanted to move artworks from the gallery to a safe place, but could not due to the constant threat of shelling. Now, she plans to establish a fund to help independent art institutions and artists. ‘When the war is over, the state will not have money for culture,’ she explains.

When that might be, no one can say. TV reporter Natalya Gumenyuk, 38, has just returned from Happiness (Shchastia) in the east – an independent Ukraine-controlled city, where many wealthy people had their summer cottages. ‘I found Happiness in the last calm days,’ says Natalya. ‘During the time that the city was under Ukrainian control, they built a modern centre of services for citizens, a vaccination centre, even hipster cafés appeared. People lived in peace, but now it became clear that it was an illusory peace.’ Happiness was one of the first Russian targets, and is now destroyed.

As I write, it is a full-scale war between Putin’s Russia and a free, independent, beautiful European Ukraine. Most European countries have banned Russian aircraft from flying over their airspace, and the West has imposed harsh sanctions. The world is reacting to the worst crime against humanity in the 21st century so, sooner or later, I hope people will be able to return to their peaceful affairs: we will meet again in cafés and live a free life.

Katerina Sergatskova is editor-in-chief of independent media outlet Zaborona in Kyiv

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