Mom, when shall we go back home?

The NV newspaper recently quoted Oleksandr Vilkul in a report from Kryvyi Rih about how the city met the first day of the war. The head of the military administration said that at 5 a.m. he had called the airport and ordered to block the runway with road vehicles, and had taken heavy BelAZ trucks to the city entrances. Those and other measures helped to organize a strong defense, which cannot be said about people’s psychological state. They reacted naturally – they drove out in search of safety.

This is the third war in my life: Transnistria, Maidan, February 24. I remember each of them. I don’t want anymore, I can’t stand anymore. It hurts. To think. To breathe. To live.

I was 6 years old when I heard the first shots and explosions. It was the war in Transnistria. Then, as a little girl, I didn’t understand why it was happening. I didn’t understand why we were running away from our beautiful, cozy house in Moldova. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t take all my favorite things and toys with me. Why we left so suddenly, quickly and for so long. I asked, “Mom, when shall we go back home?” There was no answer. And I’ve never gone back there.

My parents saved us from the war. They took me to Ukraine to my grandmother. I remember a destroyed bridge, checkpoints, and soldiers with machine guns. I will never forget that. I was asleep. I woke up to machine guns pointed at me from both windows of the car. The soldiers were checking if we were carrying anything forbidden. Their plan was for me to get scared and tell everything. I was scared, but didn’t tell them, because there was nothing to tell. We did not hide anything. Just fled the war. I have carried this fear and horror all my life.

More than once during my life I had a dream – a plane flies to my house and drops a bomb. The same plane. White with a green stripe on the right side. Flies right at me. Sometimes I could even see a pilot in it – a handsome, young boy with green eyes and a wicked smile. For some reason he hates me and wants to kill me. I don’t know why, but I feel it very clearly. Hatred. Why does it exist and why am I guilty of anything?On February 24, I woke up to an explosion. 6 a.m. I lived near a military unit that was attacked on the first day of the war. The glass in the house blew out. The cat hid under the sofa in panic. My son did not understand anything. My first thought was – is it happening again? I never thought war was possible in the 21st century. I was wrong. It is possible. A real, brutal war.

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The second explosion. I realized I had to run away. I quickly threw things into my backpacks: pre-purchased food, documents, photos of my mother and her notebook. There are certain things in everyone’s life that must always be with you. For me, these are photos of my mother and her notebook. A little black notebook in which my mother wrote down something important and interesting. Short recipes, short poems, birthdays, numerology formulas. And also my drawings. I remember a long queue to the doctor’s office and this little mother’s notebook. There I learned to write letters. I was 10 when my mother died. Much has changed since then, but not the pain. It never subsides. Her photos help me keep in touch with her. The black notebook is my talisman, which remembers me as a little girl.

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The third explosion. My son is dressed, I’m looking for the cat.

The fourth explosion. We leave home. We will never return there again.

It has never been so crowded on the city streets at 6 a.m. Families with kids, suitcases, dogs, cats. They are standing on the roads, trying to stop cars, asking for a lift somewhere. And we can’t take anyone – we have 6 adults, 3 children, a cat and a dog in the car. People are panicking. It’s so scary to see the frightened eyes of a mother trying to save her child.

I’m shaking; the sounds of explosions are in my head. But I understand everything clearly. The war has begun. Russia has attacked us. I must save my child, as my parents once saved me. This is my top priority. Now I am the savior.

We lived in a bomb shelter for 5 days. A warm but dark and uncomfortable place. It smelled of dampness, food and diapers. The first days we hardly talked, we listened to explosions, planes, tanks, helicopters, any strange sounds. Even dogs seemed to be barking differently. And then there was silence. A dreadful and fearful silence. The air was heavy and full of danger. And I realized, “I can’t stay here anymore.” 

On March 1, my son and I left our city.

Our journey was hard and long. Many cars, many checkpoints; every meter of the way was incredibly stressful. The siren sounds made us even more scared. Once we stopped at the gas station to drink tea and breathe fresh air. There were a lot of people, everyone was worried. They were from all over Ukraine: Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia. Now, there is no safe city in Ukraine. All cities are under threat of being hit. We all run away. From the war. 

Evening, trip, hot tea – it’s so nice to experience something from ordinary peaceful life. I could have fancied we were traveling, going to visit a friend or on vacation. But the siren sounds brought me back to reality. And then a flash. Bright, big flash somewhere on the horizon. Something hit. I counted the seconds to understand how far it was from us (my father has taught me to count the distance from the lightning). About 10 kilometers. Far. But who knows where it will hit next time. We dropped everything and drove on in panic. Those were the worst hours of my life. It was already dark. We saw a field and a forest through the car windows. Sometimes we heard the sounds of explosions and saw distant flashes. We rolled down the car windows even though it was cold, because we had to hear what was happening and where. Not a word for almost 5 hours. I think that was when I got my first three gray hairs.

We drove for 12 hours without stopping. The children, the dog and the cat behaved very well. For some reason, they knew they were not supposed to whine, fuss and misbehave. They ate, slept and asked when we would arrive. And we did not know what to say. Just drove on. Fled the war. Disturbing news about new missile attacks, explosions and casualties frightened us even more. But we behaved with dignity, and so did our children. We understood our highest goal – to save our children…

7 hours at the border was supposed to be the final step for us to be safe. We left Ukraine. Our beautiful, free, strong Ukraine. With pain in my heart, with tears in my eyes, with an incredibly heavy feeling of betrayal. But we left Ukraine. When we crossed the border, I burst into tears. Because of stress. An hour later I had a fever. Because of stress. The next day I lost my voice. Because of stress.  

Is fleeing the war abroad a betrayal? To leave your home, to leave everything behind: normal life, a favorite cup, a soft robe, comfortable slippers, a cozy corner on the balcony. I traded my life for my son’s safety. Is the search for security a betrayal? I’m constantly thinking about it now.

We are rather waiting than living here. Nothing brings pleasure, nothing makes our hearts rejoice. We can neither rejoice nor laugh, nor wear bright clothes, because our country is at war. I am constantly anxious. I hear something fall with a loud clunk – danger, planes – danger, ambulance sounds – danger. Everything around is scary and dangerous. I once had a dream about a war. I run barefoot on the ground, feeling lumps of earth under my feet, with a small child in my arms. Amidst explosions and fire. I hide in the basement and see another child sleeping. I woke up. I didn’t understand it was a terrible dream, and I began to wake my son up and persuade him to run away. It’s good that he has grown up. He understood what was happening. He calmed me down and put me to bed. When will I stop running?

I always feel as a traitor. Why haven’t I stayed in Ukraine? Haven’t engaged in volunteering? Haven’t engaged in weaving camouflage nets? Why don’t I do that? I ask myself constantly. And I cannot answer. Because I don’t know the answer. If the answer was in my mother’s notebook … But there is no answer in it, nor are there tips on how to live with it.

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“Mom, when shall we go back home?” My son asks me. And now I understand why as a child I never heard an answer to this question. Now I understand why my mother constantly offered to sing after my question. To keep from crying. To keep from lying. So as not to upset me. To keep me safe. Because our highest goal as mothers is to save our children. 

This is the most difficult question of my life, which has haunted me since I was 6, since that first war. And I saw three of them: Transnistria, Maidan, and February 24. I remember each of them. I don’t want anymore, I can’t stand anymore. It hurts. To think. To breathe. To live.

Ksenia Minchuk, journalist of “Expert KR” (Kryvyi Rih, Dnipro region) and Public Radio.
Currently based in Krakow, Poland

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.