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My soul is in Kyiv

I left behind the city I was born in, where I learnt to ride a bike and ice skate, where I finished school and where I had my first kiss. There, I also left my ambitions, my plans and a part of my soul.

I did not believe that this war would take place up until the very last moment. All arguments, expert opinions and pure logic had convinced me that it would not reach Kyiv. Yet, it did. It destroyed my life on February 24th at five o’clock in the morning. The worst part was the first phone call I received about half an hour later. It was my dad, who only said, “Pack up your stuff”. This meant that everything that was written in the media was real. It was not a dream, not a fantasy but my life here and now. This was my life, with Russian rockets that were destroying not only the nearby airport but also my future.

August 25, 2022 - Zoriana Varenia - Hot Topics

A russian rocket hit a high-rise building in Kyiv. It destroyed apartments on about six floors. Photo: kibri_ho / Shutterstock

I will soon turn 24. I am a representative of the generation of Ukrainian freedom, a generation of conscientious citizens and soldiers who believe in what they are fighting for. With air raid sirens in the background, I started to chaotically pack my things. I had some time and a half-packed bag. I looked at my house, as if it was the first time in my life, not knowing what to take along. I always kept here some souvenirs, my favourite mug, a small, but my own, library and a bunch of photographs. Now, during the war, none of this was needed. As a result, my bag stayed half empty. It took me the longest time to figure out what to do with the large board next to my bed. The one where I had laid out my plans and goals for 2022. It was supposed to be a decisive year, in many ways. On March 26th, I was supposed to get married, which quite clearly did not take place. Most of my friends do not even know about it. As for me, marriage was something very intimate and personal. A small party was supposed to take place in our family house near Kyiv. Before the war, I had bought numerous decorations to make it look nice and now I do not even know if the building is there in one piece. What is worse, I do not know what will happen to my fiancé who is still in Ukraine.

Dreams and nightmares

For the summer, we planned to have a housewarming party in our new apartment. My parents had dreamt about it their whole lives and have long been saving for it. In early December last year, we got the keys to our new place. When the bombs started falling over Kyiv, our place only lacked furniture and some electronics. But the last thing that I had learnt before leaving was that the house located next to our building had been bombed.

On the board that is hanging next to my bed, I also wrote that in 2022 I would like to get my driving licence, compete for an internship in the Canadian Parliament, visit five new countries, and a few other things. Now my goal is survival and spreading love to Ukraine against the ill-will of the occupiers and fascists, who came up with the idea that they will sweep us off the face of the earth.

I ran away to Poland. It took me three whole days and nights to cross the border but I do not want to write about all the details. I experienced a small hell on earth in which two moments were the worst. The first was the farewell that my parents had to say to each other. They have been together for 30 years, 25 as a married couple. I am an only child and the three of us have always been close. We have always been together in the most difficult situations. But this has changed in the new reality.

We got stuck in a 30-kilometre traffic jam before the border crossing. It did not move even by a few centimetres for a few hours. When it became clear that it will take a few days to reach the border crossing, we decided with my mother to walk those 30 kilometres. My dad, with tears in his eyes, took our luggage out of the trunk. Then he hugged my mum, kissed her hands and apologised for everything he had not done for her or what he had done wrong. My mum was shouting and crying at the same time, saying that for sure they will see each other again and that she will not say goodbye to him in such a way. This scene is stuck in my head. I cannot hold back my tears when I think about it, even now when I am writing this text and tears are dropping down on my keyboard. It was probably the first time when I saw what real love means. 

The second worst thing took place after we crossed the border and the Polish volunteers took us to Warsaw. This was our third day without food, almost nothing to drink and no sleep. I already had hallucinations and when I was not concentrating my body was refusing to work properly. 

I was sitting in the front seat, next to the driver. The trip from Przemyśl (where we got picked up) to Warsaw took around four hours. I fell asleep after the first one. However, at a certain point the driver said something about Warsaw over the phone. To me, it sounded like the Russian tanks were already there and we could not escape from them. It sounded like we were heading towards a war zone. I started to shout. The volunteer who was transporting us woke me up and said that everything will be okay. But for the next three or four nights I continued to have the same nightmare: I was being driven from the border to Warsaw and heard that Russian tanks are already in Warsaw. After such dreams, I cannot fall back to sleep and just watch the news from Ukraine.   

My soul is in Kyiv

In the end, together with my mum we reached Warsaw. All we had with us were our documents, two old sweaters, a laptop, headphones, a phone and public transport tickets from Kyiv.

We left behind my father, who was my best friend, and my grandma, who had raised me with great love. We also left behind my beloved fiancé, our new flat in Kyiv and our house near Kyiv where I spent the best days of my childhood and where I was dreaming to raise my own children. I left behind the city I was born in, where I learnt to ride a bike and ice skate, where I finished school and where I had my first kiss. There I also left my ambitions, my plans and a part of my soul.

A question came as to “how to carry on?” I was constantly asking everybody “how to carry on?” After a complete lack of understanding of what was going on, after the panic and despair, the time had come when I started to understand that I had to do something. First of all, I recalled who I was, what I had been doing before and how I had lived. And right away I thought about 2014 and the Maidan. This was the most important event in my life, even though I did not personally participate in this revolution. I was just about to turn 16, which is the age when we are the most sensitive and when are values are shaped. It is an age of high emotion. At that time, I realised that freedom was the most important thing in life. This is what I also heard from the majority of my peers. Due to this, I believe we are the generation of freedom.

This is the biggest mistake that Putin has made. He did not take into account the fact that it has been a whole eight years now since the occupation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas! We have grown up as a generation, as conscious citizens and soldiers who are now defending our land. Everyone is on their own frontline: some are in the trenches, others in humanitarian organisations, some are providing psychological assistance and others information. But we are all fighting because we all grew up surrounded by Russian lies and we learnt to recognise them. We learnt to distinguish what we really want and what has been imposed on us. Everyone and each of us will fight for the territory for which since 2014 many thousands of people have lost their lives.

A war between the past and the future

We called the last Maidan the Revolution of Dignity. This is very important. Dignity is something that Putin wants to take away from us and something he cannot stand that we have. He also cannot stand the fact that we come out onto the streets when we do not approve of something or that we can change our president every five years in an election. He hates the fact that we let a comedian become our head of state and that we constantly encourage Russians to protest. In his view, we are not entitled to any of that, as he believes that we are nothing but a Russian province.

It turns out that what has been happening is not only a Russian war against Ukraine but a war between democracy and dictatorship. It is a war between progress and Soviet nostalgia, a war between the past and the future. A war between good and evil. Neither Russia, nor the rest of the world, have rightly estimated the strength, determination and devotion of Ukrainian society in defence of its sovereignty. Ukrainian soldiers, or even ordinary people, are not scared of death. In occupied cities, our girls approach Russian tanks with Ukrainian flags, and our men lie down in front of Russian vehicles to keep them away from cities. I would call it a national stubbornness. This is something that the majority of Russians will never understand, as they are scared of their own police forces.

Yesterday, I talked with my best friend who is in her small family town near Dnipro. She complained to me that after she joined the territorial defence she was assigned to work with documents and got no weapons. This was due to the large number of people who want to defend our homeland. She is just an average 24-year-old who has a rabbit as a pet. Before, she worked in human resources and never talked about the war.

Now, everybody needs some time to come to terms with all these things that we have feared so much. But soon our energy and love for freedom will turn into anger. My friends from Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Sumy and Odesa were once neutral towards Russia but now express only hatred towards the aggressor. The invader can take over territory but not its people. This is the most important thing in this war.

Zoriana Varenia is a political scientist from Ukraine who left Kyiv as a result of the war.

This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the "Support Ukraine” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. 

Texts published as part of this project are available free of charge under open access Creative Commons license. Republishing is allowed under the CC license, however requires attribution and crediting the author and source. 

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