Vira, a resident of Mykolaiv, Ukraine, was scheduled to fly to the US on February 25 to visit her daughter Kateryna (Kate) and her son-in-law, Devin. “We were just planning that she would come in the springtime when it is warm, and she can see the cherry blossoms and spend a month with us.” But all flights were canceled on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Devin notes that before this all happened on February 24, they were seeing on the American news that Ukraine was going to be invaded by Russia, but talking to people in Ukraine, it sounded like until the very last second, they didn’t believe it. Kate agrees, adding, “I mean, it’s just so unbelievable that something like this could happen. Until the first bomb fell on the ground, my mom said that nothing will happen, Kate. Don’t worry; it’s just talk. Nothing will happen. And then, on Thursday morning, I guess it was still our nighttime, she called me, and that’s when I was unexpectedly like, ‘Why are you awake at 5:00 a.m.?’ And she told me that Russia has invaded Ukraine, and we just couldn’t believe it.”
Mykolaiv is in the south of Ukraine, and Kate and her husband Devin felt that the Russian military would target the cities. Vira would be safer in the village of Posad Pokrovske (30 kilometers from Mykolaiv), where Vira’s elder daughter lived with her family. Vira moved to the village the next day. “But then, with time, we realized that the city at least was getting everything that they needed.”
The entire time Vira was in Posad Pokrovske, they could hear gunshots and bombings. Initially, the village was not directly under attack, although there were Russian troops in that area. But on March 14, everything changed.
Vira and Kate had been in daily communication, but there was no connectivity when Kateryna called on the 14th. “That’s when we lost communication,” says Kate.
“One morning, the Russian military just blocked the connection in the village because when I woke up, I couldn’t reach anybody,” said Kate. “My mother would call me every day, and I could at least hear that she’s OK. But that morning, when I woke up and couldn’t reach anybody, I saw on social media that one of the girls escaped the village with her family on their own transportation. And she posted on Instagram that the village was bombed and the connection is blocked.” Kate immediately started reaching out to all of the neighbors’ families and managed to speak to a neighbor’s daughter, who is in Germany. The village didn’t have electricity, water, or gas, and all of the houses were severely damaged. People were hiding in the cellars, and it was hard for people in the village to get to the city.
“I was able to get in touch with my mom’s best friend’s daughter, who lives in Portugal. We started reposting that news to the Mykolaiv government, Mykolaiv’s Mayor, and the news. We tried to reach as many people in the city as possible to let them know what is happening in the village and if anybody could go and help because we could not reach anybody, we tried to call all of the friends and families that we could. But none of them were answering because, at that point, they had no phone connection, electricity or internet, and they didn’t have electricity, they didn’t have anything at that point.”
Within a couple of hours of making calls and posting on social media, Kate and her friends saw that information was getting across on the news. The relevant authorities got the information, and they started posting it on the news that some villages in that area had been shelled and needed help. “That’s when the Ukrainian military came to the village. They first went to their main shelters in the village, which were in the basements of the cultural center, the local kindergarten basement. And they said whoever has their own transportation, we can convoy you to the city.”
When the Ukrainian military got the first batch of people out and moved them to the city, Kate and other families started getting some news because people could charge their phones and call their families. “Then, using an app called Telegram, we connected all of the families of people from the village. So we could exchange any information that we have,” said Kate.
After that, small buses were sent to the village to evacuate children, women, and elderly people. “But the problem was that the village had no siren or anything. So people who were just in their cellars didn’t know that evacuation was happening. So it was a problem. We started reaching out to the military, whoever was in the city and asking them to go from house to house to get people out of their cellars because they didn’t know that they could be rescued.”
The Ukrainian military helped us evacuate her to Mykolaiv city. With the help of friends, we were able to get her through Odesa to the Romanian border. After Vira crossed the border, a friend of a friend picked her up and drove her to Bucharest. And then we flew from here to Bucharest to pick her up, and we flew back to the US. It was not hard to get in because she already had her tourist visa.
Kate recalls the moment when she knew that Vira had left Ukraine and crossed the border into Romania. “Up until then, we were all so nervous. But the minute when we knew she crossed the border, we could breathe a little easier. But at the same time, I still had my sister and her family, who could not leave Ukraine.” Her sister’s family doesn’t have passports or visas, so it’s difficult for them to leave. Their house in the village was destroyed by shelling from Russian forces. Now her sister’s family lives in Mykolaiv. Vira’s grandson is a firefighter, so he cannot leave. He is working tirelessly to help get people out of the rubble from buildings that have been shelled. Kate worries for their safety. “We still do not sleep well. We still think about them and keep texting and calling people. We still check in on people and ask as many people as possible: Do you need any help?” Some friends and volunteers are helping, providing food, clothes, and medicines. With the war, prices of essential items have gone up. Kate helped organize a fundraiser to try to support people who may have relocated or need assistance. “We can’t live our normal life. It affects us a lot, and I do not think we can just do regular things until we know everybody’s safe and alive,” says Kate.
Devin served as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. “The United States government set me on a mission of peace in Ukraine. So to see this happening is heartbreaking.” During 2014, Devin was evacuated the first time Russia invaded. Last summer Devin and Kate organized a trip because they had not been to Ukraine together since they’ve been married. “We were just there in that village last August having home-cooked Ukrainian food with her family there. We have photos in front of the house that was destroyed. It’s surreal that we walked down these streets a few months ago, across these restaurants with these beautiful views of the river, and right, where we were standing, is where all these administration buildings are being hit with rockets. It’s very hard to believe because we were just standing there a few months ago.”
Vira says she is very worried about what is happening because the shelling never stopped. The Russians bombed Mykolaiv’s administration building where more than 30 people died. There have been missile strikes in Mykolaiv and Odesa. “That was considered a safer place, but even that place is getting bombed now,” says Kate. “So every morning, my mom wakes up, reads the news, and starts calling people one after another to make sure that everybody is alive.”
In that area of Ukraine, there is one main road that connects the city of Kherson to Mykolaiv. The village of Posad Pokrovske is right on that road. That’s where a lot of the battles are happening, and the roads are not safe unless you have a military escort, for example. So even for people in the village who might have a vehicle, it is not safe for them to leave independently. It is difficult for them to be able to evacuate without that humanitarian or military support or protection.
“When you see the news about all these humanitarian corridors, it seems to be from the big cities,” says Devin. “But all these people in the villages don’t have the same kind of resources for evacuation. So we were scrambling to try to figure out how do you help somebody who is in one of these villages in the region to evacuate safely because those resources don’t exist?”
Vira says there were more than 2000 people who lived in that village. Now, there may be just 100 who are still there. Most of them left or were evacuated, or they are right now in Mykolaiv. They just don’t have anywhere to go back because their houses are damaged, And right now, with the help of volunteers, they’re staying in the dorms, kindergartens, or wherever the volunteers provide space for them to sleep and eat. The group on Telegram is still active because there are some people who decided not to leave their homes. There are volunteers in Mykoloaiv who are, if possible, bringing some food and some water to those people who are left in the village.
Vira says she just wants peace. She wants everybody to be alive and healthy. And as with a lot of people around the world now, she has one thought – she wants to go home. She wants to feel safe at home. She wants to return to that spot and rebuild her house and just be there because that’s where she grew up and lived her life. “We have families and friends who went to Portugal, Germany, and Romania, and everybody would call me to say, I want to go home,” adds Kate. “And even my mom, she’s safe, but she keeps telling me, I just want to go home, and I say to her that as soon as it’s safe, you will go home.”
Smiling through her tears, Vira says, “Ukraine will live. Ukraine will be victorious.”