The cost of freedom is human lives. Behind that freedom are continuity and national memory. “Little Stories of a Big War” is a project by the Ukrainian Catholic University which brings together stories of Ukrainians and their experiences under the conditions of a full-scale war.
Our protagonists want safety for their children, so they head where they may, leaving their homes as they are being bombed. In any case their comfort zone is defined by the borders of their country. Among others, this resonates in Yulia Avanesova’s story.
In peace time, Yulia had been an editor and proofreader. Her family lived at the northern boundary of Kharkiv. The city was bombed with multiple launch rocket systems. In the chaos, they had to leave everything behind, fitting their peaceful lives into backpacks. Yulia’ s trip took four and a half days, The road to Lviv was punctuated by different cities, people, and cars. Today, with her children and two cats, she is hundreds of miles away from home.
At what point did it become clear that the situation was intolerable and you needed a safe space?
We were awakened at 5 in the morning by loud cannonade. I understood immediately this was war. We had our things ready, but because we had no car, we were looking for other options. The Friday we left there were no evacuation trains yet.
We had stayed home all Thursday. It’s very scary, like in the movies. We did not go down into the basement, because it was dirty and dark, and the children would grow tired. It was best to go there at night, because movies and books will tell you [smiles] they usually fire at night to frighten the populace or inflict damage upon the city. But at night there was less firing, there was fog. I got 3.5 hours of sleep in those 48 hours, I was worried.
Next morning there was information that people are being evacuated, but nobody came to our end of town, which was the most dangerous. We managed to get to a friend of mine in the center of Kharkiv – she (smiles) has a better basement.
At night we were being evacuated by a marshrutka minivan – children with women. In the dark, in silence, we reached Dnipro. We spent the night at a friends’ place. Then we were on our way again.
What do you miss the most?
(tearfully) I left my man behind. He’s in the military. He is defending the city (weeping).
I have to say, I just want to go home. We all want to go home. Though we understand it’s all destroyed. Our courtyard was bombed to rubble yesterday. The city is destroyed – we’re seeing the photographs, we’re hearing what our friends say – but I still want to go back.
I have faith that we will return, because this is our land. We’ve got nowhere left to retreat – we can only be there.
Who are you most worried for?
Now that I’m safe, I’m worried for my husband. As we were leaving, I was very worried for the children. It’s such an unspeakable, instinctual fear, for your kids, every mother understands.
It took two days for myself and the kids to become fearful of any loud noise. I keep listening for whether anything is flying. You have this feeling like something’s just about to drop. That is war trauma. The shock is wearing off, but we who spent two days under those Smerch and Grad rockets, are already traumatized.
What is your children’s opinion on all that is happening in the country today?
My older kid is an adult, he’s 17, he understands what’s going on. The younger kid is 7 and I have to explain to her that there’s a war, that we were attacked by aggressors, and that we have temporarily moved to await the liberation of our city.
What sort of questions do the children most frequently ask?
My younger daughter: “When are we going home?” My older son asks what we’re going to do next. I answer we’ll return home (smiles) straight after victory. I tell the older one we’ll definitely return, no matter from how far away.
If you have family in Russia; how do they respond to this situation?
I have no relations in Russia. I do have a friend in Moldova. It appears their television is “Russian.” At the start of the war she asked how I was. I start telling her, she goes: “are they not bombing [only] military targets over there?” I countered, described my feelings, sent her photographs. I spread the same sort of thing on social media. If even one person sees this and tells another, we’ll have a better world.
There are two kinds of people in Russia. Those who know it’s a war, but stay silent. And then there’s those who believe the television and fully support the war.
They can call it whatever they like, but it’s a war, it’s annihilation of Ukrainians.
How do you feel today, after over a week of full-blown war?
The shock has passed for me. Now there are a lot of logistical questions: how can we help; and what to do with the kids. They have simmered down. The kids have become quiet; they worry. It would be nice to figure out how we’re going to live in these circumstances (sighs), because children need stability.
What do you do to try and distract yourself?
I don’t, I don’t distract myself. I try to do something, anything to make myself useful. I translate digests, news into other languages so that people in other countries can spread them on social media.
What were your plans before the war, and what do you intend to do once Ukraine wins?
I’d like my son to finish school, it’s his graduation year, enroll in university, then we’d go on vacation.
My plans currently are to return and embrace everyone I love that had stayed behind, or been dispersed in different towns in Ukraine and abroad (cries).
We went to Lviv because it seems safe. We were hosted by a girl from my [Plast] kurin [Scouts unit]. She has let me stay in her apartment. We are very grateful for that, grateful to every family that hosted us on our long journey to this city. It’s nice here, but we want to go home.
Many mothers with children are going to Poland now. Is that something you see as an option for yourself?
I don’t want to. A friend has gone, and one of my children’s godmothers will more likely than not go to stay with family abroad, but everybody wants to return. I understand why they are leaving. It’s people who didn’t manage to get out of Kharkiv in the first few days. They were living in basements, couldn’t even step outside. They were being shelled.
None of these mothers with children said they were going there for the sake of benefits. Each is doing something. If there’s no online work, they’re in touch with our volunteers: loading aid for the army or [IDPs] here in Ukraine.
And none wanted (cries) to move their kids out of the country for good. Each says they want to return, even if there’s no home [to return to], that we’ll rebuild everything, but we’ll be home.
In Kharkiv, where they say it’s a Russophone town, that they would welcome the Russians… not true. They weren’t and aren’t welcome here. Everybody says: Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava!
It’s not right for one nation to attack another. So I think we will win, and everybody will return (smiles).
Interviewer: Natalia Starepravo
Translator: Andrii Myroshnychenko
Proofreader: Shari Henning Garland