How does it feel to shut the door on your home knowing it might be reduced to rubble by airstrikes in your absence? What do you pack when time is short, you don’t know if you’ll ever be back, and you can take only a few bags?
That’s been the dilemma for a flood of Ukrainian evacuees, including Nataly Shevchenko, who doesn’t know when or whether she’ll see her home and its contents again: furniture, clothes, toys, books – the fabric of family life, once ordinary and precious.
As Kyiv came under heavy shelling, the biology teacher and her two small children fled their apartment in the capital city. Deciding what to put in suitcases and what to leave behind only looked like an exercise in choice. In reality, the 34-year-old biology teacher is one among tens of millions of Ukrainians whose alternatives were eradicated by Vladimir Putin’s war.
I spoke by phone to Nataly in Ukraine yesterday, where she told me she took a deep breath and began making a pile of practical things – documents, medicines, towels, toothbrushes, footwear and clothing. But sentiment persuaded her to make space for some photographs, and two books for her daughter. There was no room for her husband, Mikhailo, in the car whose owner gave them a lift – that separation was an additional source of fear. Fortunately, he was able to join them later.
They left Kyiv last week. This week, liberty has become a relative term for their family and others. They are both free and unfree, with normal life upended in the space of a few days. They are evacuees but not yet refugees, hoping to stay in Ukraine but aware that escalating warfare may make it impossible. Currently, they are sheltering with Mikhailo’s relatives in a village in the Rivne region of western Ukraine, within reach of the Belarusian and Polish borders.
Frightened and under stress, they are waiting. Nataly told the Irish Independent: “I’m thinking about if I will ever see my apartment again. The main thing I’m worrying about is my books and the children’s books. We had no space to take them.
“I’m not worrying so much about the furniture or clothes we left behind, although if we do get back there will be no jobs or money and it will be difficult to replace things that may have been destroyed or looted. And of course I am worrying there will be no place to go back to, that our home will be gone. The Russians will have destroyed it with rockets.”
They could find refuge in Slovakia, where there are friends who will take them in, but have decided to stay in Ukraine for now. If Nataly leaves with their 20-month-old son Liubomyr and five-year-old daughter Melania, it means splitting up the family – her husband isn’t allowed to go because men aged 18 to 60 must stay in case they are called up to fight.
She knows she must protect her children above all, but for now she and Mikhailo (36) are trying to preserve the integrity of their family. Every extra day they can spend together is a blessing.
“I want to breathe air while I can, I want to see my children today because I don’t know whether I will see them tomorrow. That’s the reality in Ukraine. I want to live an ordinary life while I have an opportunity to do it,” says Nataly.
But there is nothing ordinary about life on the ground in Ukraine for civilians caught up in this ruthless war.
Nataly is showing signs of the trauma she has experienced – speaking of feelings of guilt that she’s alive when so many have died.
She describes her daily life as being in “an odd state of uncertainty”.
“You never know what’s going to happen in the next hour. Even when it’s quiet now you can’t say it will remain peaceful. I never know how it will be tomorrow. I don’t feel safe enough. But strangely you get used to this feeling. Of course you always want to go home, too, but I don’t know when or if we will go home again.”
Her husband, an ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund who specialises in forestry, is waiting to be called up to fight. His job must heighten his awareness that shock-and-awe warfare annihilates not just cities but the natural environment – an aspect of the confrontation engineered by Russia which is not yet receiving much attention.
Nataly is resigned to Mikhailo joining the army, although she’d prefer if he didn’t. “He will go if it’s a call of duty and I understand why, but he doesn’t have the experience or skills. That’s why he is now with us, protecting and supporting us. We were talking today about if he might have to move back to Kyiv. He’d have to go by train but trains are dangerous, they are targets.”
For now, she is attempting to chisel something approaching normality out of a fundamentally abnormal situation by reading to her children, playing with them, going for walks. Also keen to make a contribution to the war effort, she is helping to make camouflage netting for military vehicles, and coordinating help for elderly neighbours in Kyiv who need medicine or food.
When they fled eight days ago, she and her children went first to her parents’ home 30km away, but as the fighting intensified they realised they needed to push further on. “At first we thought it would be safe there because my parents have a house and we wouldn’t have to run down lots of floors in an apartment block to take shelter in the basement from air strikes,” she said.
“We thought we could shelter in the vegetable storeroom underneath my parents’ home. But we realised it wouldn’t save us from rockets because the shelter is not bomb-proof and a lot of people are just dying under rubble. We didn’t believe the Russians would make war on civilians but we were wrong. It’s awful.”
The second leg of their evacuation took them to where they are currently, 90km from Belarus. “We were lucky not to get bombed while travelling,” she said. “It is not safe to move around. A bridge we drove over to get here was bombed soon afterwards with five cars on it. Dying as you travel is dying like a dog. This is terrorism against civilians.”
Nataly is one among more than a million Ukrainians displaced from their homes by Putin’s hostilities.
Ukraine is not a small country, like Ireland, but it exists in the shadow of a considerably larger neighbour with imperial impulses; a situation we have experienced in our history.
Nataly’s belief that Russia’s intention is to obliterate Ukraine’s identity strikes a chord, too.
She has a stark warning for the EU: Putin won’t stop at Ukraine.