Struggle for freedom

Who is he – the hero of our time? A volunteer combatant who took up arms to defend the country from invaders? A civilian volunteer who collects things for refugees? A bus driver who carries people to the roar of shells? Each of them, and each of us. We all are an unbreakable chain. Yet, there are people I want to talk about separately.

“When it happened on the 24th, we, like everyone else, jumped up because of explosions. We were aware that the war had begun, but reluctant to accept it. Turning off all emotions, I called my sister and said that they had 15 minutes for packing. Son, dog. Backpacks were thrown into the car. I drove them to the Ternivsky ring, hugged everyone and sent them away from Mykolayiv. Then I took my bug-out bag and drove to the regional administration. The administration head was already there, and we began discussing what we should do.”

That was how Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began for Olha Maliarchuk. In her life, unlike most Ukrainians, war broke in eight years before February 24, when missile strikes woke up almost all of Ukraine.

Olha, practically since the very beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, has been working in the Mykolayiv regional administration as an adviser on communication with military. Today, when the war has entered an active phase, she and her team are dealing with issues of humanitarian aid and other spheres, but she cannot always talk about them because of the ongoing hostilities.

“We were 100% aware that there would be a war. Since 2014 it has been waged in only two sectors – Luhansk and Donetsk regions. But we all understood that sooner or later the war would be all-out. At the end of December, we realized that “clouds were thickening.” But we thought that the hostilities would be only in the LDNR areas. A week before the 24th it became clearer and clearer that everything was about to begin. I made arrangements with my son, because when we came to talk that he would have to leave, he flatly refused, cursed, said that he would fight with me. I talked to my younger sister, warned them to be ready,” Olha recalls.

On the morning of February 24, the main task was to get oriented quickly, to decide what to do first. Mykolayiv, unlike Kherson, had a little more time. Although there were some sabotage and reconnaissance groups in the city, with plans to seize power in a matter of hours, this was avoided.

“Mykolayiv was saved due to the unity of all our people. When everyone saw how quickly that had happened in the Kherson region and how it had happened, many people “woke up” very quickly. Everyone realized that “I am out of politics”, “this is not my war”, “let someone fight but not us” won’t work now and something must be done to keep the orcs from entering the Mykolayiv region. There was a well-coordinated work of the Mykolayiv regional state administration, the city authorities and the military. All services united, we no longer distinguished the Armed Forces, the National Police, and the National Guard. We were all as one, and set off to defend our region shoulder to shoulder. The vertical has become horizontal,” says Maliarchuk.

Another Russian failure was that the hope of the Russian authorities for underground fans of the “Russian world” did not come true.

“A lot of people ‘woke up’ and clearly determined for themselves that we are not brothers, that this is not a fratricidal war, that this is a war with Russia. After the missile strikes, the percentage of supporters became much lower. Yes, there are still those who support it. There are those who do it for a penny, giving away coordinates, working on social networks. There are those who are waiting, hoping to get to power. There are those who are ‘bewitched’ with whom you can do nothing. Let them take a suitcase and go and see how they live in Russia. Usually, everyone imbued with propaganda for all the arguments just stomp their feet and shout. There are no facts, only aggression and shouting,” says Olha.

She adds that many people not only “woke up”, but also began to help in every possible way on various fronts.

“There was a person I opposed publicly. We had very long discussions when it all started because I wanted to understand some things. It was quite difficult for me to accept, because I am categorical and for me there is only “black” and “white”, but on seeing actions and deeds, a desire to be as effective as possible, I understand that it is not fakery. Although it was before, but in the format of “Peace in the entire world”. In fact, there are people who do everything to correct the situation in which they may be indirectly involved,” Maliarchuk said.

Olha attributes the reasons why Russian soldiers came to Ukraine to propaganda.

“Propaganda there is simply off the charts. They say we’re zombified. We say they are. But when I saw those documents personally, when I heard the prisoners talking, they are really zombified. They were told that there are nationalists here who oppress Russian speakers, that there are repressions here, that Russian-speaking women and kids are massacred here, that Ukrainians are committing real genocide against Russian-speaking people. When we spoke to them in Russian, there was so much incomprehension in their eyes, they were shocked. Many people came here on enthusiasm. They were all sure that they would take us within 24 hours and that they would pass all over Ukraine. They were really told that they were very welcome here. And it was on this enthusiasm they came “to liberate” us,” Maliarchuk says.

Olha is appalled at women who call on their sons and husbands to commit violence against Ukrainians.

“I don’t know how those women can be called women. They are just some kind of creatures. A woman who loves, who gave birth to a child, who got married – she understands that a man must be cared for and fought for. When they die here in packs and nobody comes to pick up Cargo 200, they don’t shout, they just take it for granted. If, God forbid, one of ours is captured, we do everything we can to get them out. Every woman takes care of her husband, tends him. Men tell them: “Nobody waited for us here, we are not liberators. We kill and destroy. It’s scary.” And instead of saying, “Come back, I’m waiting for you at home. Don’t do that,” she advises to rape women and kill children. I don’t understand this. And I don’t want to understand. They are not women. It’s a hard topic for me, because after Chechnya I was sure those women would not allow this to happen. They can really stand up and protest. They won’t all be arrested or killed. But they keep silent. And they even support this,” says Maliarchuk.

Olha sounds genuinely surprised when she shares her emotions about how Russian women went to the Victory Day parade with portraits of men killed in the war in Ukraine and were proud of it.

“Today, a lot of young girls came out to the march of the Immortal Regiment, and they carried portraits of killed occupiers. What are they happy about? A young girl carries a nameplate with a portrait of a man who could be next to her, who could bring up his child, could meet summer, spring. And she carries that nameplate with the letter Z on it and is proud that he is a hero. Do you need such a hero? In the nameplate? ” she wonders.

Speaking of the aid flowing to Ukraine from all over the world, Olha stresses the need for control.

“I always ask: if you buy some expensive equipment for the army needs, everything should be registered. We can’t just bring a thermal imager, give it to you and say “Use it.” It shouldn’t be done so. This is often wrong. We must see what is transferred by the acts, and then everything will work where it is really needed. There are many questions now on what volunteers say about their work on social networks. They say it’s PR. I agree that PR in war is always bad. But there is a time when you need to report and show your work. For me, these are completely different things. People should see that everything reaches the addressee,” Maliarchuk says. 

One of the activities of Olha’s team is organizing funerals of those who died defending Ukraine. This topic is very painful for her, and when asked whether the losses of Ukrainians should be announced now, she answers that “we can make some things public only after the war,” and switches to explaining the motivations of both sides.

“We are fighting for our land. We understand that our cities and villages, our future, our children are behind us. They came as occupiers and they realize it. Russian propaganda doesn’t work as well as it used to. Russian authorities threaten to imprison people. But they cannot imprison them all. Russians can stop this war, there are millions of them. But they do not want to hear. Freedom must be fought for. They have become blind and dumb slaves. This is very sad, because they could develop in a completely different direction. When orcs enter our villages and rob everything from underpants and hygienic pads to washing machines, because they have nothing, they are wondering why ‘ukropy’ and ‘khokhly’ live better. And who prevents you from working and developing? Do you lack underpants? We will chip in and send you, write your postal address. Tell us what you lack – we will send you. But first of all, they lack freedom. They don’t know what it is. They do not know what it is like to fight for their rights, what equal rights are, that they can fight for the future. Hatred for Ukrainians is instilled in them from early childhood, in particular through cartoons,” Olha says, recalling “The Tale about Vanya and Mykola.” 

For many, the war is a time to reassess their values. Olha has had several such turning points during these long eight years of war.

“It was in 2014 that the war directly affected my family. Then I realized that it would never be the same as it used to be.” There were several such moments that change you “at the flick of a switch.” This is late February 2014, when the 79th Brigade went to Chonhar; June 3 – when I learned about my husband’s injury; June 5 – when I was admitted to the Kyiv Military Hospital. It was like you were in an unreal movie. The moments when I lost friends. Sometimes it seemed that there was simply not enough strength to endure that pain and everything that was happening inside me. In 2015, there was a moment of my burnout, when I had to choose: to stop or move on, learning to turn off my emotions. I chose to turn off my emotions to be productive and helpful. Among such moments is, of course, February 24, when these creatures again drove the soil from under my feet with their air bombs. This is March 29, when the missile hit the regional administration building. This is my second birthday. I understand that the most precious thing is life. Not just life for the sake of life, but life for our future, for our children. We are Ukrainians. We are a nation that has been fighting for its freedom for many centuries. You understand that there are things that are really secondary. It does not matter whether you have only one pair of socks all this time, whether you can wash or not. Everything loses its meaning, goes to the background and the priority is to work hard for a future victory over the aggressor, so that all of us can return to a peaceful Ukraine as soon as possible. That the future will be Ukraine,” Olha says. 

For more than a month she, as well as all residents of Mykolayiv, live without water. Mykolayiv lost its centralized water supply after a missile hit a water pipe. The damaged water artery which supplied water to Mykolayiv is in the occupied territory. Municipal services stopped trying to replace the pipe after being shelled by the enemy several times. The city began to look for alternative sources of water supply.

“I never get tired to admire Mykolayiv residents, though I often thought that they were mostly depressed people. But since February 24, everything has changed. People hold on, people fight, adapt, and help, for example with water. It’s really a problem, because you want to wash, cook something. But there was no howling or whining. Everyone understands that we must wait; we must help and support each other. Now we have technical water supply so we don’t have to carry water to wash something. The issue of drinking water is now being addressed. There is no hysteria. People have united,” Olha expands.

She hopes that the war will end soon and everyone who left will be able to return home. 

“I want to believe that this will happen all at once, that Russia will come to realize and they will stop. But as a person who has been in this for a long time, I understand that they will prolong everything, exhaust us. There will be long war. They will expect us to get tired. It can be six months or three years. For the time being, there will be no changes in Russia, the question when the war will end is unanswered,” Olha said. 

Today, when Ukrainians are united, when almost the whole world united around helping our country, it is very important not to lose what our people received through the pain, Olha believes:

“In 2015, when I was offered to come to the Regional State Administration and head the Center for Assistance to ATO Participants, there were people among our volunteer movement members who did not support me. They thought that power would change me. But even then I realized that just going to rallies and protesting against injustice was not enough. People who want change need to take responsibility. We need to learn to hear each other. When we have peace, it is important not to lose unity and communication. It is very important to keep hearing each other. There’s plenty of work ahead for everyone. Listening and appreciating each other is a priority.” 

An air alarm sound bursts into our conversation. For millions of Ukrainians, it has long been commonplace. Despite the alarm, because the rule of two walls is observed, Olha says about what Mykolayiv and all Ukrainians need for the war to end:

“We need offensive weapons very much. We need long-range artillery. We need means of communication. This is what is urgent. We need thermal imagers, UAVs – “birds”.

I can’t but ask Olha about the phenomenon of unexpected, without exaggeration, world popularity of the head of Mykolayiv regional state administration Vitaliy Kim. 

Everything is trite and simple. That’s exactly what he is. There is no secret. It was significant for me that on February 24, when we were in his office, someone asked him, “What are we going to do?” He just looked at that man, spread his arms and said, “What do you mean? We’re gonna kick them ass!” When I heard this, I was satisfied with the answer. He does not show and will never show many emotions, but his phrase “we will knock them out” is not a publicity stunt. This is really his position. He managed to gather people around him, thanks to whom the Russians were hindered from entering the city and dislodged from a number of positions,” Olha says.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba made a statement that the negotiation process with Russia “burnt up like a match.” Accordingly, the position of “knocking out” is the only thing left for Ukrainians today. To win the war in order to survive is the main task facing not only Ukraine, but the whole world today.

Oleksandra Yushchyshena, “Prestupnosti NET”, Mykolayiv

The material was created under the joint project of Ukraine Crisis Media Center and the Estonian Center for International Development with the financial support of the US Embassy in Kyiv and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia.