February 24, 2022. For many Ukrainians it is now a date that split their lives into “before and after” forever. Many of them woke up that morning to the sounds of bombs exploding. Russian forces invaded Ukraine and are actively bombing its cities. The entire world watches in horror and disbelief. Hasn’t humanity learned anything in the 20th century?
Social media and television news are flooded with images of war and destruction in Ukraine. We are seeing the suffering of Ukrainians, many of whom are stuck in the make-shift bomb shelters. Children sleeping in underground subways, rescuers working to get people from the rubble of buildings destroyed, airstrikes, bombed-out maternity hospitals, lines on the borders, men saying good-bye to their wives and children. The list of atrocities goes on and on in an increasingly war-torn country familiar to most in the West only through movies.
The NYC Daily Post’s editorial team has been working directly with journalists and Ukrainians on the ground who have firsthand experiences of the ongoing war. Our goal is to give voice to the images people are seeing all over the world and let Ukrainians tell their stories.
This is an account of a Ukrainian journalist, Oksana Piddubna, who escaped the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, as Russia bombed it.
“War takes away from you the most valuable and most important thing — yourself, leaving only emptiness and pain.
It was supposed to be a regular working Thursday: after working from home, I planned to attend my friend’s birthday party in the evening. I had plans for Friday and the weekend. Suddenly, at 7 a.m., I woke up from a call on my work phone.
“How are you? Is everything okay? We couldn’t reach you from 5 a.m.,” my boss told me as I panicked and tried to figure out what was going on.
This is how the war began for me. The neighbors were walking their dog outside my window; everything looked perfectly normal. The phone was lighting up constantly with notifications and missed calls. Then I finally decided to go out to see what was happening on the streets. Long lines at ATMs and stores, people with suitcases and bags were walking towards the train station and bus stops. It all seemed as surreal as in “War of the Worlds Z”. In fact, the main character’s words became my motto for the next few days: “Movement is life.”
I packed all my essentials in two backpacks and at 9 a.m. my friend came to pick me up. He drove to a seemingly safe place — to a friend with a car who had a house near the Zhytomyr highway. Eventually, this place would be burned, the nearby bridge blown up, and this exit from Kyiv destroyed. At that time, however, the war had just begun with all the destruction still to come.
It took six hours to drive 30 kilometers. There were lines everywhere at ATMs, pharmacies and stores. Fighter jets were flying over our heads, and the country’s war hotspots were announced on the radio. That was the first time I felt a huge lump in my chest that kept me from breathing. Before the war, I thought I was a very strong person: for many years I made my own decisions and was financially independent. But from the sounds of bombs and fighter jets overhead, I could no longer make any decisions or even think clearly. I wanted to close my eyes and wake up in my country without war.
We decided not to leave right away and spent the night with friends as it was not known whether the Russians would bomb the road. However, spending the night in a village near Gostomel, where a military airfield was bombed all day and night, was not the best decision, as it turned out.
The bombs were exploding all night. The house was swaying. It was impossible to sleep or lie in bed from these loud sounds. I felt unable to breathe. I was so scared the next bomb would hit a house which didn’t even have a basement.
After lying on the floor for several hours waiting for the morning, I thought it was good that I had no children and they would not be orphaned. My mother has another daughter, and she would not be left alone. When my friends went downstairs in the morning, all I could do was to say, “Please, let’s go.”
We went to Western Ukraine. We were running away from bombs and fighter jets, leaving home and everything we had behind.
We drove a stretch of road for 15 hours, which usually takes only five. It was the first time I saw so many cars, accidents, lines at gas stations and terrified people. When we finally got to Lviv, it seemed we could finally get some rest. As usual, I put on my pajamas, but when I eventually fell asleep, my friend woke me up as an air raid siren was going off.
When war begins, you start sleeping to be “ready for anything”, dressed to flee for a bomb shelter, basement, or just a semi-basement, as in the case of our place in Lviv. In a few minutes, the siren sounded again after the air raid stopped. You can go back to sleep.
It is difficult to describe the sound of a siren to those who have never heard it. It’s like a strong signal to all the cells of your body that you need to run. It seems to cover you completely, and the only thing you can do is run away to places where you can’t hear it.
I ended up making a “shelter” in the bathroom, put a blanket and pillow on the floor and laid down. Later, I learned I would have been killed by hot water from the boiler and shredded tiles if there was an airstrike. However, after two nights without sleep, it seemed to be the only option for rest.
When the decree was issued that men could no longer leave Ukraine, it became clear that I had to go on my own. Twice I tried to squeeze into crowded trains in Lviv where I saw the picture of “The Last Day of Pompeii” with my own eyes. Women were yelling; children were crying; men with suitcases were running in front of trains and jumping onto the track…
A friend wrote she would be driving a car with a pregnant woman to the border of Poland in the morning, and there was a place for me. “But the queues can last two days,” I told her. “What choice do we have?” she replied.
We left on Sunday at 7 a.m. in a car given to us, not knowing we would stay in line at the border for 48 hours, beginning at a distance of 30 kilometers, all the time fed by good people from the villages near the road. The moment a Polish border guard quickly stamped our passports, we left our country, not knowing when we would be able to return. The only thing we wanted then was for all of this to have never happened.
On February 24, my world was divided into “before” and “after”. The lump in my throat eventually passed, I found the strength not to fall to the ground when a plane was flying above me, but I still cannot bear loud noises and try to stay away from people. I can only be with family or Ukrainian friends. I am constantly trying to help win this war against Russia, searching for necessities and ammunition for the army and territorial defense, transferring money and responding to any request for help. I’m doing everything I can to bring the moment of returning home as fast as possible.
They say one goes through a stage of rejecting traumatic events during the healing process. All this time, I still can’t believe that there is a war in my country and I am a refugee. The opportunity to sleep in a bed with my pajamas on now seems like an incredible luxury, which I greatly appreciate.”
Oksana was able to make it out of Ukraine safely. She is now, like over a million other Ukrainians, a refugee in a foreign country. Despite the hardships, she continues her work as a journalist. She is also working to gather the needed help for Ukrainian people and soldiers. She is a voice of so many who had to flee their homeland and whose life was changed once and for all by the Russian invasion.
For ways to help Ukrainian people in their fight against the aggressor click here. The NYC Daily Post Editorial Team vetted the links in the article to make sure the help goes directly to Ukraine.
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Edited by James Sutton.