Kyiv was just a flight away from Boston before the war. The Ukrainian sky has been closed for all planes except the military ones since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022. Getting to Ukraine from the U.S. now requires approximately two flights and two train or bus rides. The latter typically includes a long wait: between four and six hours if it is a lucky day, or about a day on other occasions, in my case on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
The windows on Ukrainian transport, especially trains, are sealed with tape to prevent glass from hurting people in the case of shootings. The blinds are put down and the lights are turned off at night, as it makes it harder for the Russian military to locate transportation if they were to try to shell it. These measures are just another example of how the war has changed the daily routine of my home country.
The further east you are in Ukraine, and thus closer to the frontline, the more frequent air raid alerts, block posts and other preventative measures are, as well as electricity blackouts due to damaged infrastructure. The final destination of my trip, my home city of Kryvyi Rih, is close to the war zone. I heard about the specifics of life there during the past 11 months from my parents, so I was not shocked or scared, rather angry and sad.
I was surprised at how rapidly I mirrored the behavior of those who were in Ukraine for the entire invasion, sometimes probably not in the best way. For instance, I never went to the shelters during air raid warnings. My immediate family lives in an apartment in a building that does not have a basement, and there are no shelters nearby. In Kyiv, even though my boyfriend’s apartment building and the building where I was staying had underground parking garages used as shelters, I did not use them either.
On New Year’s Eve, instead of hiding, we listened to the explosions as the Ukrainian air protection system was hitting Russian missiles. That day, one of the Russian missile strikes destroyed a building in a neighborhood about an hour drive away. Not hiding while the warning siren is on might seem very negligent. To some extent it is, yet there is no way to tell what is going to be safer: being inside a house, wandering outside, or going to a basement, subway station or some other shelter.
This February marks one year of full scale war, and Russian attacks have caused deaths in what seems to be all possible places. Most recently, over 40 people died in or under the piled rubble left from their apartments due to Russian missile strikes in Dnipro, ten minutes away from where I used to live. In June 2022, during an attack on a shopping center in Kremenchuk, a city in a region where I grew up, some of those walking around the area were killed or wounded. A bomb that dropped on a theater in Mariupol in March 2022 ended the lives of citizens who hid in the building’s basement.
Some places, like my parents’ house and houses in the surrounding area just don’t have basements and accessible shelters, and all you can do is to sit in a hallway or in a bathroom.
This can prevent injuries from pieces of glass from broken windows, but it will not save anyone from a rocket going through the roof or a massive explosion. The only way for us to be safe is to win the war.
Upon returning to the U.S. from Ukraine, having a constant power supply and lights on the streets feels like a weird luxury. Yet however challenging the journey, seeing my country with my own eyes was worth it. Ukraine is my home and the only place where I truly belong, and the consequences of Russian violence do not have the power to change that.