In this newsletter, New Lines editor Riada Asimovic Akyol speaks to a friend in Ukraine who walks us through what the ongoing Russian invasion means for people on the ground. Sign up for our newsletters here.
I remember our warm chats in cold, upstate New York college dorms about life, future and Tetyana’s sweetheart Andrey as they maintained their long-distance relationship while she was in the United States and he was back in Ukraine. While we moved on with our lives after college, we stayed connected through social media, celebrating each other’s birthdays and life milestones. I was happy to learn that Tetyana, or Tanya as I call her, a Kyiv-based communications expert, celebrated her 20th anniversary this year with Andrey, with whom she also has two kids. But it was devastating to hear the news about Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, and I immediately wrote her a message on Feb. 24. I had written to her on the evening of Feb. 23, when much of the world was anticipating an attack but didn’t know what would happen.
“I hope you are ok! My heart is with Ukraine,” I typed to her quickly, not knowing whether she would even be able to respond.
It felt so good to hear back from her. She wrote: “Thank you Riada, we will stand and fight.”
Back here, in the U.S., I’ve kept watching the news, feeling sick to my stomach. I wondered if I could do anything for her. She thanked me for my support, mentioning that it’s really scary but that she has two kids and has “no right to cry now.”
I could imagine her disappointment. Days before the invasion, dehumanization of Ukrainians was intensified through Putin’s propaganda channels on Russia’s state media. There were reports of Ukrainians being compared to dogs, pigs, supposedly different from Ukrainians who fought in World War II, while Putin also claimed that he was invading Ukraine to “denazify it.” But Tanya was so dignified in her messages, just the way I remember her, and as brave as her people have shown again in the past few days. Quite the contrary, she told me, rather than feeling dehumanized, her people demonstrate unity, even on a higher level than in the past. In the last few days, we’ve stayed in touch whenever she would be able to access the internet. We need to keep hearing and listening to Ukrainian civilians about what is going on first hand. On what turned out to be the day before the Russian invasion, Tanya wholeheartedly accepted writing more, but she was heading to a shelter that night and I hadn’t heard from her until the next day, when she notified me she was in another shelter with the bigger family, tired but safe and out of the capital. After getting some sleep, she wrote to me more this past Saturday (Feb. 26), and we were able to stay in touch over the weekend.
“May Ukraine persist in its righteous fight. You are in my thoughts!” I wrote her back with a heart emoticon.
I was a refugee once, and while I can only imagine what Tanya is going through, many images I’ve seen on TV now and things she shared with me during these past few days, bring back triggering memories, both from my family and friends’ stories from Bosnia and my own escape from Kosovo in the 1990s. My empathy for her is stronger because of our friendship bonds, and my compassion for all innocent Ukrainians is stronger because of my past personal experiences.
Here are parts of Tanya’s email she wrote on Saturday, with her permission:
I want you to know that I’m so so grateful to you for sending your support.
In the morning of February 24, my family and I woke up from a phone call from our kid’s babysitter. It was 7am, she asked if she should come today and if we heard the news. We didn’t but it took 3 minutes to see the dreadful headline – Putin started a war. That day was terrifying. We spent it glued to the news and trying to understand what to do if Russians hit Kyiv. Later in the day we went for a walk with our kids. People were walking around with their pets, kids – there was danger in the air but it was such a motivation to see people in the streets and online, keeping their heads cool, living life and at the same time not allowing panic to overwhelm them and making contingency plans. We heard an old lady talking on the phone to someone and saying ‘everyone is here, I’m telling you. I’m outside, so many people are around, everyone is here’.
We came to a supermarket to buy some chocolate and cookies and were the last customers, the supermarket which usually works till 11pm, that evening closed at 6pm. I picked up a cart and saw a piece of paper in it, it was a prayer printed in large font. That evening I still didn’t believe that Putin would decide for a full-scale attack on us. But he did.
We went home, I even started cooking something for the next day. Kids went to bed, my husband and I, after a whole day of reading and watching news, calling and writing to family and friends, felt sleepy as well. Maybe it was a result of stress. Having packed the emergency bag, by 11pm we decided to have some sleep. We went to bed half-dressed so when at 4:20am I woke up from the sound of an explosion somewhere far in the city, it took us 10 minutes to get to the nearest shelter.”
She wrote that though she didn’t vote for Zelenskyy and doubted if he could handle the presidency and contain Russia at all, she had now changed her mind, like many other Ukrainians.
“He appeared to be the leader that we needed at this moment.”
She reiterated how proud she was of the resilience of Ukrainian people and of the perseverance of their army. “Ukrainians know resilience — it’s in our genome since the world wars, Stalin’s Holodomor genocide, 2014. It’s an honor to live shoulder to shoulder with people like this. The unity we demonstrate now is just a blessing.”
Civilians are so organized, Tanya wrote. She described how thousands of civilian men joined military service volunteers in the territorial defense units, Donbas war veterans join them, while people donate blood, buy food for refugees who flock from the neighboring regions, raise money in corporate teams and local communities, donate to army, fight on cyber and media hygiene front, spread information from the trusted sources, work on the online petitions and social media flash mobs, seize Russian paratrooper saboteurs in the streets.
“We even know that Ukrainian hackers made Russians hear Ukrainian music and see the Ukrainian flag on the screen instead of TV broadcasts. We feel prepared for anything that is to come, we stay in the country just like our President does. Our nation will be victorious, because we fight for our land and our choice to choose our path.”
As far as the infrastructure goes, she added that so far there were no electricity cuts and supermarkets were full of food. When I asked whether that was valid for Kyiv only, she said the situation was still all right in different towns too and that people made contingency shopping before and can buy food now.
“There is no fear because we know that truth is ours, it’s our land and when you protect what’s yours, you will prevail. Glory to Ukraine is such a meaningful greeting to all of us now, because we see how all together we create its glory with our actions. We will not capitulate.”
She expressed utmost trust in the Ukrainian armed forces, writing that “news about the army is very encouraging, people believe tremendously and help them in the ways they can.” In less than 24 hours, she said Ukrainians donated almost $1 million for the needs of the army, and they keep donating. “Private businesses joined, local entrepreneurs supplied people in shelters and military volunteers with food and other goods. When you hear things like this, you believe that everything is possible when small drops make a flood.”
Her family was following the news closely, and Tanya was very scathing about Russia’s moves in her email to me:
“Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant remains under control of the Russian invaders. Today we read in the news that Russians imitate an air fight with an imaginary opponent. It’s all they can do because to us it appears too risky to fight anywhere close to this object. It will be a crime against humanity to damage it and undermine the nuclear safety of the whole continent. When writing this, I heard the Ukrainian TV channel saying that Russian occupants consider attacking objects in Ukraine that can be a chemical threat to the population. There is news that they attacked Chernihiv civilians with Grads. How is Putin different from Hitler in this?”
She also shared her disappointment at “indifference to global evil,” referring to countries that have refused to block Russian accounts from the SWIFT international banking system:
“The same thoughts we had about Russians who for many years kept silent and were afraid of the regime. But in recent days we saw people in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities are going to the streets with the ‘No to War’ slogan. And it’s a brave step we thank them for. The saying ‘The necessary condition for the evil to triumph is for the good men to do nothing’. Today this is true like never before.”
While she reminded me of the necessity for Putin to feel the consequences, reiterating pleas for hits to the oil-and-gas-centered economy more than just personal sanctions to him, she added a powerful reminder with a warning:
“Ukraine has been the shield to Europe for 8 years, now Europe and the whole world has to stand up to the threat together with us and take decisive action. This night Ukrainian women in Kherson shelters gave birth to two boys. Do you, EU people, want that for your women? If our shield breaks apart, will you be ready to become another shield?”
I got goosebumps on my skin just reading that.
She ended her last note with an optimistic tone, writing that “Putin has to be stopped but after he is, the world should rethink the diplomatic (or not) ways to deter Russia in the future, the ways to help Ukraine renovate the destroyed infrastructure and return to normal life, the way to stop allowing him to pursue with a terrible brainwash via propagandistic media in Europe, the way to ensure security in a world that has been on the brink of the WWIII. Of course, if the Russian invasion doesn’t develop into WWIII. Ukrainians hope it will not and we pay with the lives of our people for the peaceful future right now.”
It sounded like the Tanya I’ve known, resolute, showing no fear of such a dangerous and difficult situation.
“Glory to Ukraine!” she finished, and with a small reluctant smile on my face, I said I’d check up on her a few hours later again. We got in touch on Sunday, after she spent the night in the basement. There were fully formed territorial defense units established from mostly civilian volunteers in the town where she is staying, and Tanya added that “there were more men and even women than they could take.” She had food and water, and was still safe, at least for the time being.
I felt lucky that I was able to help share her words with the world, and show her and Ukrainians like her how much they are appreciated for their tough will and fight, much bigger than that for the freedom of their country only. We need to show how we care for each other.
That’s what friends are for, no?