Editor’s Note: The new year dawned amid more destruction in Ukraine. Anna Romandash, a Ukrainian journalist and recent graduate of the Keough School of Global Affairs, offers this dispatch about her home country’s resilience, echoing her story in our winter issue.
It’s January 1st, New Year’s Day. I went to bed around 11 p.m. on December 31 and did not wake up for the midnight countdown. I slept through an air alert and 45 missiles and drones that Russia launched against my country in the first hours of 2023. I learned about the attack only after waking up.
A day earlier, on December 31, we had an air alert for about four hours. Russians launched missiles and drones again, targeting anything they could target. In the past, they used to strike electricity grids and other critical infrastructure. Now, as Ukrainians learned how to counter missiles more or less effectively, Russians are attacking whatever they can in hopes of causing most destruction. At least two people were killed, and a few dozen are injured. That’s how Ukraine enters 2023.
As I wake up to the new year, I read my friend’s tweet.
“Department for infants of the Kherson Regional Children’s Hospital. The hospital where my mother works. A few minutes before the New Year, Russians started shelling it. Nurses saved the children, no one was injured. Almost all other buildings are damaged. Russian army is sick.”
The tweet includes four pictures of destruction. Rubble and trash in what used to be a hospital hours ago.
I look at the images, and I suddenly feel very tired. My husband calls it emotional paralysis.
I’ve learned to tune out a lot of things recently, such as the sound of the air alert or the news or the occasional church bells announcing a burial of another victim of Russian aggression. It is difficult to live in war.
Many Ukrainians are fighting against this emotional paralysis. They love, care and hurt, but they learned to doze their feelings and not let negative emotions consume them. They learned to manage hope and empathy, too, so these don’t overwhelm them.
“People are getting more and more tired,” Yana told me a few days after Christmas when she visited me in Lviv.
Yana is a journalist from Kyiv and a friend. We met in a big mall near my house, and she was very anxious when we went there. Yana hoped there wouldn’t be a siren announcing an air alert so we wouldn’t need to rush to evacuate ourselves. We were lucky. No sirens at that time.
As we sat in a cozy café inside the mall, we talked about life, death, war and other troubles.
“So many people are getting low on energy,” Yana said. “It’s like we’re running a marathon, and it doesn’t seem to end, and we have to keep running because the track behind us is on fire.”
I feel her.
Yet Yana keeps working — just like millions of Ukrainians who, after 10 months of constant bombing, death and destruction, learned how to survive and how to live.
And today is another day, and it is glorious. It is very warm for Ukraine, almost 60 degrees, and it is sunny and fresh. I’m not sure if this is the best weather for our troops in the south and the east, but at least they’re not cold.
Ukraine goes on
In the rear, we’re not complaining either. Nadia is hopeful, despite her husband serving in the very hell of Bakhmut, a city Russians cannot conquer so they vowed to destroy it. She bought two kilos of walnuts for the holidays and made the special dishes we cook for Christmas. She goes to work regularly, and she volunteers.
Her husband visited her a month ago. He finally got his leave for two weeks and stayed with her in a relative calm of western Ukraine. Nadia still holds on to that time.
“He told me Bakhmut was a meat grinder,” she said. “But he calls almost regularly, and that’s enough for me.”
She doesn’t know when she’ll see her husband again. He fought for almost eight months before he got his leave, and there’s no way of knowing when another break will be.
“I worry about him,” Nadia continued. “But I go on.”
Life does not stop for Valeriya either. Originally from Mykolaiv in the south, she’s now splitting time between her old home and the new one in western Ukraine. After Kherson, a major southern city, was liberated, she finally visited her husband who stayed in Mykolaiv.
“I felt like I could go there now that our troops pushed Russians farther away,” she told me. “We still get bombed regularly, but people are staying no matter what. So I felt brave enough.”
She stayed with her husband for two weeks and then came back to her kids and grandkids in the Lviv region.
“I know that rationally speaking, Mykolaiv is extremely dangerous,” she said. “But it was important for me to come home. I don’t know how to describe that state, but it just felt very right and good. I know we’ll win soon, and then, I won’t need to choose between my husband or my safety.”
It’s true that even western Ukraine is not safe; Lviv receives major attacks, as do other cities and villages across the region. People run to the shelters and sing songs, call their families and even try to do work. It’s impossible to schedule your life around bombing, electricity cuts and other stresses, but Ukrainians are getting pretty good at it.
“We’re going to have to do a ton of homework when the war is over.”
That’s my dad.
“We’re actually already starting it,” he continued. “We’ll need to rebuild, better and more inclusive, and we’ll need to take care of ourselves. We cannot lose our minds when we finally win.”
I worry about that, too: about people’s souls and how to save them so they don’t carry all the trauma and damage after the war. I worry about Ukrainians, myself included; but I have no doubts about our resilience.
I am turning 30 in a few days, and while I don’t celebrate my birthdays much, I will have a small celebration this year. I’ll donate more to the army and I’ll meet with a friend I have not seen in a year. Maybe I’ll go to the theatre, too, as I haven’t been there in a long time. Those small things matter, and I, like millions of Ukrainians, appreciate them.
It’s strange to live every day with a realization that someone out there is trying to kill you. That someone is a Russian soldier, a person out of flesh and blood, who hates me for being me. But I won’t let that hatred break me. I have to live: work, dream and build, so others can do the same.
As we’re entering this year rather solemnly, with caution and restrained emotions, we remain hopeful. My mom told me that people were singing songs and shouting “Glory to Ukraine” throughout New Year’s Eve. It happened all over the country. People filmed themselves singing in the basements as they were welcoming 2023.
I, too, am hopeful and grateful that I am alive, and that I’ve got a big blue-and-yellow flag in front of my house. Before the big war, we’d put it there for the Independence Day and other holidays. But last year, we’ve kept it since February 24.
It’s still standing, and it will stand.
Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine.