“I don’t know,” Valeriya sighs. “It’s a tough question.”
We’re sitting in a poorly lit kitchen as the sun says its final goodbyes for the day. Shadows grow longer as twilight sets in. I don’t think Valeriya notices that. She is still somewhere else, in her thoughts, trying to answer her own question.
“I genuinely wonder every day, you know,” she continues, looking at me. “What is it that makes you human? Is it enough to be born one to remain human throughout your life? That can’t be it.”
It’s July, so it is very warm, despite the late hour. I get up to make another cup of tea for both of us as Valeriya answers a phone call. It is her husband.
“He’s OK, but they had a few missiles coming in the central area,” Valeriya says melancholically. “He told me his colleague got killed.”
We don’t speak for a while. The kettle alone disturbs the silence. I am not sure whether to stay or go.
“You’re really too kind,” Valeriya suddenly says. “It is so sweet to check on me. With all that’s going on, I am sure there are lots of people who need help more than I do. And I do owe you my story, but I am just not sure it is any different from anybody else’s. I left, but my husband stayed. I hope he comes here, but I cannot be sure. He is stubborn, and I love him for it. But my kids are here now, and this is where I will be.
“But mentally, I am still there.” Her voice dies down.
Valeriya is from Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine. She is in her mid-50s, and she used to work as an accountant in a bank while her husband taught physics in high school. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Valeriya was in her cozy Mykolaiv apartment. She had just woken up, and she knew something terrible had happened.
Mykolaiv is only 30 minutes away from the territories Russia has occupied since last spring. As heavy fighting continues in the area, the city is constantly under threat. Russian missiles target everything from pharmacies to kindergartens. The city didn’t have running water for months, and it will not have heat during the long Ukrainian winter.
Valeriya decided to leave Mykolaiv in March. It was getting unbearable with all the shelling. Her husband, Viktor, decided to stay.
“I think it’s kind of funny that he is the one staying behind, and not me,” Valeriya says, a sad smile on her face. “I mean, I am the one from Mykolaiv, and he moved there because of me.”
Viktor is from western Ukraine, a region farther from the front that is considered somewhat safer than the lands along the Russian border. Together with their daughter, son-in-law and grandson, Valeriya fled west and found shelter in a small town near Lviv. They are staying in the apartment of a woman who is abroad.
“What is it that makes me a human?” Valeriya asks again. “What is it that makes others human? I have been helped tremendously by others, people I never met, people who welcomed us, people who gave us clothes and shelter — all while my husband is being shelled every day. He is being shelled by humans, too! Why do they do it?
“So there must be something else that makes you a human, you see,” she adds. “It is not enough to be born human. You have to act human, too. You have to make choices. Evil erases that humanity in you.”
‘It is not enough to be born human. You have to act human, too. You have to make choices. Evil erases that humanity in you.’
My grandmother used to tell me, “Our life is a borrowed one. We never know when we have to give it back.”
Isn’t it so scary: the idea that we have no control over our lives because we never know when they might end?
Now the fear is getting more real. With every Russian missile, more Ukrainians die, and more Ukrainians will die. The realization that someone out there is trying to kill you is quite chilling. They are trying to kill you for who you are, and that makes it worse.
As I collect stories from people affected by the Russian war, they often share things they had not planned to say.
Olena, a 41-year-old woman whom my family hosted in our apartment, was reserved when we first met. She came to our little town with her husband, a son and three grandparents. Her parents live in Kherson,
a city Russia occupied for eight months. Unable to leave, they remain there today.
“My dad cannot move,” Olena says. “He has been paralyzed since he had a stroke a few years ago. My mom was taking care of him and so was my brother, but then the war broke out.”
Olena’s brother fled to Kyiv, where she used to live. He stays in the apartment she abandoned.
“We would have never left the capital if it wasn’t for our son,” she tells me. “He is in preschool and does not understand much what’s going on. I don’t want him to spend his childhood in the bomb shelter.”
Olena’s older daughter is already married. She went to Belgium to give birth because she was pregnant when the invasion started. Olena does not mention this around her husband.
“I am so torn,” she tells me, tears in her eyes. “I know she is an adult, but she is my child. And yet, I have another child here, and I have to take care of him. And my husband is counting the comrades he lost. What can I say to him?”
Olena’s husband, Sasha, is a retired pilot. He was not drafted when the invasion started as he stopped flying military jets years ago. Many of his friends are in the army, and many have been killed recently.
“We don’t talk much about it,” Olena says, “He’s gotten really quiet, and I don’t know if it’s good or bad to try to make him talk. He is very angry at Russia, and he is very angry at himself because he retired. But he knows they’ve got the best men there.”
Olena is unemployed. She worked as a secretary before the invasion. The small company that employed her went bankrupt.
“I didn’t go to the unemployment office yet,” she says. “I could not bring myself to it. I didn’t particularly like my job, but now I miss it like crazy. I miss everything about my old life. My apartment in Kyiv, our loud neighbor whose piano used to annoy me so much, and constant traffic. I don’t think we will go back to any of it soon.”
This is maybe our third or fourth conversation. I suddenly realize that Olena has aged; she looks much older now than before, much older than a photo of her on social media. Her voice is getting more tired every time I visit her.
“I am very grateful for your parents for hosting us, but you have no idea what it’s like to share a two-bedroom with your in-laws,” she tries to joke. “I cannot wait to go home.”
Olena’s relatives sit quietly in another room. There is tension in the air as different generations try to comprehend what is happening to them. Sasha is outside with their son, Ilko.
“Ilko likes it here very much,” Olena says, “He does not mind staying here for good, really. I wish I was more like him.”
She shakes her head in disbelief.
“I was not prepared for this,” she says.
At least I didn’t cry
Nadia was not prepared for the big war, either. But she knew something was coming.
“They never let us live,” she says. “The Russians want us all dead.”
Nadia is a businesswoman. She owns a clothing store that she runs by herself. She is also a fighter and a volunteer. In her late 50s, she has found her calling in community work.
“I don’t want any of that aid we receive to get stolen, you see,” Nadia says. “When there are resources, there are always people who want to take advantage of everything. So we need good people to make sure bad people don’t do anything shady.”
Nadia started volunteering eight years ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time, occupying parts of eastern Ukraine and illegally annexing the Crimean Peninsula. Her husband became a soldier then, too.
“Yura volunteered right away,” she says, pride in her voice.
Yura is almost 60 — a bit older than the average soldier. In his quiet western Ukraine town, he worked as a gym teacher.
He was always in great shape, Nadia continues. “That’s why they took him. You know, there were lots of volunteers, and all of them wanted to serve, but they turned down so many men. But they kept Yura because they knew how good of a soldier he’d be. And they were right.”
Yura served for seven years in eastern Ukraine and became the head of his unit. In 2021, he returned to civilian life. The family planned to build a house and move out of their Soviet-era apartment.
“Somehow, I knew it would not last.” Nadia looks pensive as she speaks. We’re sitting by the entrance of her store located in the town market of Novyi Rozdil, near Lviv. The place is normally busy, but it’s been less crowded since the full-scale invasion. People shop less.
It is a warm and stuffy day, and it’s hard to breathe under the Ukrainian sun in July. Nadia does not seem to mind. She is wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, and she’s playing with her cat, which lives in the store.
“Yura was not happy when he came back from the east,” she reflects. “He was angry more often, would get annoyed with small things, and always talked with his comrades on the phone. I knew he wanted to go to the front again. So, when the big war started, he was ready right away.
“We got into a big fight,” Nadia says. “I told him to wait because I was so scared for him. Nastia started crying and begging him to stay. Well, I didn’t cry. I knew better.”
Nastia is the couple’s daughter. Like her mother, she is a community activist working for the city.
“So you see, my husband left angry,” Nadia adds. “And I have not seen him since that day.”
Nadia’s son, Mykola, asked to join the army, too. He works in the local police force as an investigator. His bosses told him no.
“Thank God.” Nadia manages a smile. “I would have lost my mind if he went. But we need cops here, too. We cannot just all go to the front line, we have to stay here and work.”
Together with other local volunteers, Nadia is raising funds to buy gear and drones for the army. She helps sort the aid for internally displaced people and works to get them housed.
“We’re a community of maybe 30,000 people,” she says. “And we received around 2,000 in a matter of weeks. Where do we put them? How can we help?”
Nastia coordinates volunteers and public officials to address the influx of people, but the town simply does not have enough room. The displaced must sleep in gyms and college dormitories. Nadia encourages residents to bring blankets and clothing for new arrivals.
“God, I hate Russia so much,” she says. “I hate everything they do. Just a week ago, I assisted at a funeral. Just a kid, 21, younger than my son. Killed in action. Russians killed him! And he’s the only child! Now what are his parents going to do? What is left for them?”
Nadia tells me the soldier’s girlfriend got sick at the funeral, so she had to take care of her.
“I think of those guys all the time,” Nadia says. “Everyone had a story to tell, everyone had someone they loved and someone who loved them. I think about these children who will never be loved and kissed and hugged by their parents because there are no more parents. Dead. Just like that. Just because they can. Russians have no soul. I hate them so much.
“I think hatred is what keeps me intact, you know.” She gives me a weird look. “I am so angry, so I don’t worry about my husband all the time. I am too busy working and doing things and having all this anger in me.”
Nadia has no intention of leaving Ukraine — not even if Russia goes nuclear.
“I would rather die than flee,” she says. “I need to be here. Not just for the people who are coming. I need to be here for myself. I will lose my meaning elsewhere.”
She holds her phone tightly as she says this. Her husband, wearing his military uniform, is the wallpaper. Nadia shows me a few images he sent her.
“He was supposed to come home for rotation, but he is the head of the unit, so he let other guys rest,” she says. “I had a feeling he would sacrifice his time like that. He cares about others too much.”
“You know, we don’t communicate much because of security and connection and all,” she says. “But whenever we communicate, it’s like when we just started dating. It reminds me why I married him. I cherish every moment we talk.”
Talk later. In the shelter now.
“Are you OK? Are your parents safe?”
Yana texts me from Kyiv. She is sheltering in a subway station as Russia unleashes more missiles against Ukraine’s capital, one of many attacks that target critical infrastructure across the country. As winter approaches and Ukraine gets colder, such attacks can be deadly. Without electricity, heating and water, many Ukrainians may freeze.
“I had no internet for a few hours. Sorry I am getting back to you so late.” Another text from Yana. “We’re fine. Lots of people here. I will text you when I am back home.”
Yana is a journalist from Kyiv. She is also my friend. When the invasion started, she took her family from Kyiv to the relative safety of western Ukraine, but they returned home in May. She says they could not live elsewhere.
“Kyiv is my home.” That’s Yana again.
She is collecting evidence of Russian soldiers perpetrating crimes in Ukraine and on people Russia deported from the occupied territories. She hopes to get more information about the children who were forcefully taken away from Russian-controlled areas and put up for adoption in Russia.
“I tried a few times to imagine what a Russian person thinks,” Yana says.
We are having a phone conversation. It is the day of the strike on Kyiv, but it is relatively calm now as we talk. There is no air siren, meaning Russia is not launching missiles, so people don’t have to go into the shelter. Yana’s connection is unstable, probably because many people are trying to make calls at the same time. Kyiv, like the rest of Ukraine, experiences regular electricity outages because so much infrastructure has been damaged.
‘We’re brave, and we’re kind, and we’re hopeful, and we’re fighters. I have received more kindness and help in these months of war than during all the previous years of my life. I love my people.’
“I am trying to understand how a person can not only accept but glorify all of this,” Yana says. “They know what they did, and they like it. They celebrate it. They cheer the destruction, torture and death. They hate us simply because we are.”
Yana is referring to the warmongering in Russia as ordinary citizens praise the government for the war and the destruction of Ukraine. She monitors Russian social media for her work.
“The level of hatred there is something else,” Yana says. “They fear the Ukrainian army, so they encourage their government to kill women and children. Thousands of likes for people who praise raping Ukrainians. I cannot believe I have to read this crap.”
I asked Yana if she plans to leave Kyiv.
“Not again.” I hear a smirk in her voice. “I learned my lesson. Getting my family out of here was a pain but being outside of home was an even bigger pain. We’ll just have to stick around. People in Kyiv are not giving up.
“You know, Ukrainians are probably the maddest people in the world,” she says, with a hint of a smile. “We criticize our government, always find fault in everything, and can be such morons. But that’s when things go well. When things go bad, when we’re at war, we suddenly show our true colors. We’re brave, and we’re kind, and we’re hopeful, and we’re fighters. I have received more kindness and help in these months of war than during all the previous years of my life. I love my people.”
Yana’s voice starts to tremble. She tells me she has to go, and she will call me later.
We text each other regularly — just to check on each other. Ukrainians now need to text their loved ones just to know if they are still alive.
I believe in Ukraine
On October 10, Russia launched a missile attack against my home village of Hranky-Kuty, south of Lviv. A tiny place of fewer than 1,000 residents, it was hit by a few multimillion-dollar missiles that damaged the electric grid.
The attack felt like an earthquake. There was a whirring noise, and then the walls shook. And again.
People ran wherever they could. Most hid in their cellars. Connection was lost.
Hours later, when the electricity was restored, my father and my cat came to their senses.
“I did not expect we’d get attacked,” my father says. “I mean, 15 million dollars to hit us? And we fixed the damage in less than a day!”
Not every locality is this lucky. Many are still without any electricity, many have no heat, many lack water. People are buying blankets and wood to keep warm.
“It’s going to be a very tough winter,” my father says. “But we will manage.”
“But for how long? How is this all going to end?” I ask.
“I don’t have a timeline for you. But Russia cannot win. We cannot just disappear, Anna.”
He looks at me intently.
“You see, the best of us die. The best ones are being killed. It’s very sad. It is a tragedy, Anna. I don’t think about it often because it’s enough to make a sane person go crazy. But they won’t kill us all. They can’t. Nothing can kill the idea whose time has come.”
“Now you’re just being dramatic.”
“But that’s true, kiddo,” he sighs. “It looks very grim, I know, and it feels like the apocalypse, but we will live through it, and we will rebuild everything. We will rebuild better. I never felt more alive than now. Don’t you?”
“You see, all these people who volunteered, who are fighting, who are helping. Why are they doing it? Why not fleeing? Why not surrendering? But that’s who we are! We fight for what we love. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“And we love Ukraine,” I say quietly.
“And we love Ukraine,” my father agrees.
Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine.