Local View: 'It's not a war. It's genocide'
Stories from the front lines in Ukraine are heart-wrenching
My friends in Ukraine contacted me. They said they were counting on me to do something. They wanted my help to tell what was really happening.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Ukraine declared its independence. It was a celebration for people who had been occupied for 70 years, but the transition to independence wasn’t always smooth. In 1992, a U.S. world relief project was alerted to an orphanage that had little food and no heat. I arrived with the project as a volunteer journalist.
Now, Russia is trying to turn back the clock and take Ukraine away from its people again. The accounts are brutal and often untold.
Most of the people mentioned here are from western Ukraine, which seemed relatively safe until March 12 when the bombing started near Lviv. I won’t tell you their real names or the towns they come from because I want to protect them from retaliation.
‘They are killing babies’
Tetyana said to me, “It’s not a war. It’s genocide. The Russian army is killing pregnant women and children. They are killing babies. They bombed a maternity hospital. They are killing elderly and disabled people.”
Another woman, Nataliya, told me, “I don’t know the day of the week anymore, only how many days since Feb. 24. That night, I made tea and turned on the news. There were bombings in downtown Kyiv. I called my mother and brother in the village and told them to go to the gas station and fill their gas cans.”
Nataliya is suffering from a lack of information. “My husband's father is 79 years old,” she said. “We haven’t heard from him for 14 days. His apartment building in Severodonetsk, Eastern Ukraine, was bombed." When we talked last he told us he had food. He had bread. He had filled the bathtub with water, and while he was still talking, the phone went dead.” Nataliya has seen pictures of her father-in-law's building, and some of it is still standing. She still hasn’t been able to reach any neighbors or get any information about the area. Every day she feels less hopeful.
‘Waiting for the explosion’
Olga and her daughter Anya were in Kyiv on Feb. 21 when they got a call notifying them that Russian soldiers were bombing the Ukrainian capital. They moved to the basement and stayed down there for five days with their cat. Anya said, “It was very scary; we couldn’t sleep. The explosions went on all night, and we heard shooting nearby.”
They had very little food with them in the basement. Anya said the most terrifying moment came when she heard a loud noise from the street. It seemed to be coming from a car just outside their tiny window. “I was waiting for the explosion,” she said. “I felt like it could come at any second.” She and her mother waited and eventually gathered the courage to peek out the window. “It turned out to be just a really old car.” But the terror of that moment stayed with them.
Their electricity wasn't constant. They were sometimes without gas. But worse, “Everyone knows someone who died,” Olga said.
Their friends encouraged them to flee to Poland. Olga and Anya left Kyiv on Feb. 28 with their cat to begin their journey to Warsaw.
Olga said she felt responsible for her daughter, and she was “horrified that I could not take care of my child.” They don’t know anyone in Warsaw. They still have not been able to sleep well. But they still hope and believe that Ukraine will survive.
‘Can’t protect themselves’
One night in Kyiv, a married couple, Roman and Tetyana, were eating dinner with Roman’s parents. Suddenly the sky lit up. They looked through the windows and saw and heard explosions. That was the moment they decided to leave to protect their 6-month-old daughter. “We had been waiting for her birth for 10 long years,” said Tetyana. The decision came with consequences. Leaving Kyiv meant they had to separate.
The Ukraine state has ordered all men ages 18 to 60 years old to stay in Ukraine. Roman knew he would have to leave Tetyana and his daughter once he brought them to the border. They drove for 27 hours, in high traffic. They traveled on one of the first of nine “green corridors,” routes out of Ukraine that were supposed to be safe from an ambush. But, more than once, Russian soldiers have attacked people as they traveled on the routes.
After Roman left them, Tetyana was stopped by guards. At times, when it was crowded at the border, many people had to wait up to 30 hours to pass. Because they reached the Polish border at night, Tetyana felt lucky because she and the baby only had to wait 12 hours to cross. She felt lucky but sad to leave Roman behind.
Roman said there is a lot of communication within Ukrainian cities. People talk on phones or online. There are notices from government organizers, phone networks are up, and social media is prevalent. People can reach each other with working phones. Many people in Ukraine’s countryside, however, have lost all communication.
Now, Tetyana is located in Krakow. She said, “The Polish people are more than generous.” She wanted to express her gratitude to the people who provided them with food, clothes, and medicine and even offered her a job. “They are a tremendous support,” she said. “They gave us a beautiful three-bedroom apartment with internet, Wi-Fi, food, an iron, and a washing machine.” There’s a bedroom for her and the baby, a bedroom for her niece, and a third bedroom houses another family.
Safe for now, Tetyana can vent her anger. “It’s genocide. They’re bombing people who can’t protect themselves.” She voiced another fear. “Russia wants to get Ukrainian people out of Ukraine so they can use it as free housing for Russians,” she said.
‘I start to cry’
“We can be attacked.” That’s Christina, a 10-year old student in a small village. “We can be hurt, and something bad can happen to us.” She is afraid of all the noise. “When we hear the siren, I start to cry.”
She knows many who have regrets that the war started. Christina has a grandfather who feels “very sick when he hears what’s happening in the war.”
She feels sorry for the refugees, “because there are so many people who are forced to leave their houses.” This situation is distressing to her. She knows people who built their own homes — every door, every window — and they had to leave. “They don’t know if they will ever see it again.”
Karina, the littlest girl, is sad because she wants to start school again, but classes are canceled. “We are using the classrooms as bedrooms.” Karina is also frightened by the siren noise. “We have to go into a shelter in the basement, and we have to wait until the noise stops.”
‘Hard to see them go’
Anna began helping refugees immediately, even before the school opened to house travelers. Once, she even housed and fed five families in her small house. She’s been instrumental in opening the school to travelers.
They’ve had hundreds of people seek shelter in the few weeks since the war began. “The youngest child who stayed at the school was born only three days before the family came,” Anna said. “The oldest person was 92 years old.”
The travelers take an emotional toll. “Yesterday I hosted a child who was 3 years old.” The girl saw the animals in the yard. “She saw a turkey, and she didn’t want to leave the village; she wanted to stay with us.”
Another time, two small boys arrived. “They were friends, but neither of them had a family. Their houses had been burned to the ground,” Anna says. “It's hard to see them go.”
Ludmilla is an older student who comes to school every day to help out. She’s on a crew that makes nets for the warriors. The workers take nets and hang them on the wall. Then they weave (or “knit”) fabric into the nets to make huge blankets. The blankets are donated to Ukrainian soldiers to hide things under, like tents, supplies, and even themselves.
‘I fear for the planet’
When Roksolana saw the bombing, she knew she had to do something to protest. “Sometimes, I stand alone in Minneapolis with my flag,” she said. “I was alone on the bridge over Highway 169, and every other car beeped in support. I joined a big rally of Ukrainians and Belorussians at the Stone Arch Bridge, and there was a lot of support.”
She joined others when the Russian Ballet performed at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. “Some in the ticket line gave us looks.”
Roksolana stays in touch with friends in Ukraine. She said that communication lines are still up, and they are powerful. “We can see the war if we are across the ocean or across the city,” she said. People aren’t giving up. They are self-organized. “We are creating our own communication. We’re using social media to stay informed and to take action.”
She said, “When the Russians first invaded, people told me not to panic.” Her friend In Ukraine said, “It’s OK. Don't worry. It’s just the military destroying Ukrainian infrastructure. …
“But I think it's more than that.” she continued. “They're bombing because they want to break the will of the people. They are bombing the nuclear power plants. I don’t just fear for Ukraine; I fear for the planet.”
Cheryl Reitan of Duluth is a writer whose works include, "Thunder of Freedom: Black Leadership and the Transformation of 1960s Mississippi," which was authored with Sue (Lorenzi) Sojourner. She wrote this for the News Tribune.
WAYS TO HELP
There are many organizations and efforts working to help the people of Ukraine. Here are just a few:
- UNICEF is an international nonprofit working on “safeguarding children's rights to safety, health, education, psychosocial support, protection and water and sanitation services.” Go to unicefusa.org/crisis-ukraine .
- Direct Relief is an international humanitarian-aid organization working with Ukraine’s Ministry of Health and others to provide medical aid to those displaced or affected by the conflict. Go to directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis .
- ImpactUkraine is a nonprofit started by Seth Neistadt of Brainerd, Minnesota, to “work with churches, pastors, and other organizations in Ukraine to support humanitarian needs.” All funds it receives go directly to its ministry partners,it said. Go to impactukraine.com .
- Kyiv Independent is Ukraine’s English-language media outlet, created by veteran journalists in Kyiv. Its GoFundMe page is at gofundme.com/f/kyivindependent-launch .
- Samaritan’s Purse is an international crisis-support organization which has deployed an emergency field hospital to Ukraine. Go to samaritanspurse.org/our-ministry/ukraine-response .
- The Ukrainian Medical Association of North America Crisis Response is at umana.org .