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Dispatch from Ukraine: The word 'hope' is banned
"Physically we're here, but our minds are with the people who are in danger, like my parents for example. They are in Mykolaiv."
By: Neil P. Hauer
Anna Kozlova slept quietly on the night of February 23rd, the day before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Little in the news was good, but it was still just another day.
“I’d been quite nervous for about two months because of the information coming in. We knew there were lots of troops on the border,” she told me. “I remember for some reason I wanted to go to sleep early because I wanted to go to the office the next day. I couldn’t fall asleep easily, because I had some sort of nausea, some sort of intuition. In general it was a normal day: you work, you sleep, nothing unusual,” Kozlova says.
That last week of February was a time of premonitions. After months of Russian troop buildups on Ukraine’s borders, events had begun to move fast. That Monday (February 21), Russian President Vladimir Putin had staged a chilling demonstration of his absolute grip on power, calling before him his inner circle (some of whom were visibly terrified) in Stalin-esque theatre as each in turn were forced to voice their support for the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the two Russian-backed statelets in eastern Ukraine. In an unhinged speech later that evening, Putin devoted upwards of half an hour ranting about Ukraine being nothing more than an “artificial creation” and springboard for powers looking to destroy Russia. He finished with an official recognition of the DNR and LNR’s independence.
A few days later, Russia’s true plans were fully revealed.
“I woke up at 7 a.m. [on February 24] to my alarm,” says Kozlova. “The first thing I saw [on my phone] was dozens of messages and missed calls. My friend messaged me on Instagram and the preview of the message said ‘Are they shooting there?’ and I said ‘What the hell.’ Then I opened the news and first item was red and all in capitals: KYIV IS BOMBED.”
In the early hours of the morning, Putin’s war on Ukraine had begun. Russia opened with dozens of cruise missile strikes on targets around the country, including the capital, Kyiv.
“We [me and my husband] didn’t expect this, the attacks and the bombing,” Kozlova says. “We didn’t listen to the warnings, and those couple of hours after we woke up, we still didn’t know. But then we saw the smoke, that something was bombed not far away from us, and we looked at each other like, nope, we’re getting the hell out. We packed three-quarters of an apartment into our car and just left. About an hour later, our district, Obolon [in north Kyiv], was bombed,” she says.
For Kozlova, war is nothing new. She originally hails from Donetsk, the city in eastern Ukraine under control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014. Still, this time was different.
“We had to flee in 2014 [from Donetsk], but we were practically kids,” Kozlova says of her and her husband. “We had just graduated university, we just got our bachelors’ degrees. But here we had to leave our adult life. I mean, we got married in Kyiv, I got a cool job in Kyiv. Even though I was born in Donetsk, Kyiv is my real home, and it will always be. I was just crying endlessly while I was driving,” she says.
Escaping Kyiv was the easy part. Ukraine’s roads were clogged with traffic, as tens of thousands fled westwards within hours of the first strikes.
“We spent almost two whole days in the car,” says Kozlova. “We slept in turns while we spent two nights in traffic jams. We were in the car and it was kind of excruciating, because while you’re driving, internet connection is not [available] everywhere, and you can’t read the news. That information vacuum was horrible, because you don’t know what was bombed, you don’t know if you still have the home that you left,” she says.
Their first plan, escaping to Slovakia, was torpedoed: as they were driving, the news came in that Ukraine had instituted martial law, meaning that all men between 18 and 60 — such as Kozlova’s husband — were barred from leaving the country. That meant changing plans on the fly.
“We decided to go instead to Uzhhorod,” a city on the Slovakian border in far western Ukraine, Kozlova explained. “Once we arrived, we found ourselves in quite a pickle, because there were a lot of people who came here earlier than we did, and they rented all of the apartments. I’m not kidding, I sincerely think that we rented the last apartment in all of Uzhhorod.”
Finding any housing at all is a tall task these days in western Ukraine. That area of the country, further from military action and the frontlines, has become something of a haven for Ukrainians.
“I was sitting there, waiting to hear from one of the 10 realtors I’d talked to,” says Kozlova. “It was a desperate, desperate moment for me, and this realtor calls me and says, okay, I have a place, if you come here now the apartment is yours. So we’re sprinting, we jump in our car because we had stopped for the night in another neighbouring city, and in 30 minutes we made it there,” she says.
In many respects, they were luckier than others. Many of those who arrived in Uzhhorod from the rest of Ukraine are now sleeping in school gymnasiums and cultural centres, as the overwhelmed housing infrastructure tries to cope with the influx.
Still, there are others that they have left behind.
“There’s a bit of survivor’s guilt,” says Kozlova. “You have to leave your home and you understand that you can help, you can donate money, you can do something, you can volunteer, you can help the army, but in general you can’t help the people who stayed in Kyiv. I have a very good friend of mine who stayed in Kyiv and she’s frightened, and they can’t really leave right now because they don’t have a car. She has two parents and they would be reluctant to leave right now. So you know, your mind is still there. Physically you’re here, but your mind is with the people who are in danger, like my parents for example. They are in Mykolaiv [a city in southern Ukraine that is now an active frontline],” Kozlova says.
Whether in exile inside the country or outside of it, many Ukrainians have tried to keep some semblance of a normal life
“My days now, I have work, which is nice,” says Kozlova “It’s a good distraction. Work now is everything because you have to have money, and also the communication that you get with your team, it’s really helping. We have this one guy, he’s so optimistic, I tell you. He’s always, ‘We’re gonna win, they have no resources, they aren’t gonna nuke us so it’s gonna be all fine,’ and it’s nice to see people like that. People who don’t lose hope, because I almost did. The word ‘hope’ has lost all meaning for me, because we used to think ‘Oh, I hope Russia won’t attack us,’ and well, you know. So since then ‘hope’ is banned from my vocabulary. And it’s really hard to substitute it: I’ve been a text writer almost my whole life, but I can’t substitute the word ‘hope’ in any language. It’s impossible,” Kozlova says.
But just as with Ukraine as a whole, since those first strikes in the early hours of February 24th, nothing has ever been the same.
“We try to pretend everything’s fine when we can, but who knows,” says Kozlova. “It’s not really possible. We can pretend it is for two minutes: we’re making coffee, eating lunch, just sitting and chatting. And then you open Facebook, and reality pulls you back in, and that’s it.”
Editor’s Note: The Line is operating with less than a skeleton staff this week due to the March Break holiday, but we will be publishing on a reduced schedule, and will respond as best we are able to any breaking news developments here or abroad.
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