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Checking In

Two weeks ago, I’d spoken with Katya from Mykolaiv, who now lives in Norway. I called again today to check in and see how things were going a little more than a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

“I speak with Ukraine every day,” Katya tells me, “We all try to help each other. Right now, my friend is trying to get her mother out. I have a friend in Warsaw who will take her mother in to live with her. We call around and find ways to help each other.”

“How has the mood in Ukraine changed since the first weeks of war?” I ask.

“It’s very different. It’s stressful, but at a whole other level of stress than earlier. At first, we just couldn’t accept that the invasion had really happened. It took two weeks for most people to get used to the idea of war. Then we got angry. Why?! We demanded to know. Why did Russia invade our home? Now people have come to accept that we are at war. I think about what I can do to help.”

“How have Norwegians reacted?”

“Some Norwegians asked me the other day which side of Ukraine I was on?” Katya remarks. “Apparently, they’d heard the Russian propaganda that Ukraine is engaged in a civil war with citizens fighting each other and they believed it. I explained to them that Russia is a separate country and they invaded Ukraine, which is also a separate country. However, I must admit that these people are not as informed as most Norwegians. In Norway, for the most part, people are understanding about the war, although they do not perceive the war as happening close to them. They think, ‘It’s happening somewhere over there but not here.’ I’ve also heard Norwegians say they are tired of the news from Ukraine. ‘I’ve seen enough!’ they say.”

“Sometimes I get the feeling that the West is watching the news coverage from Ukraine the same way ancient Romans would have watched a gladiator show. They are disgusted and excited to see, for example, a slave torn limb from limb by a lion, but they would never step into the ring to save him.”

“Yes, but when my humanitarian aid organization asks for food or clothing donations, Norwegians are happy to help us out. But still, they feel that this war is somewhere far away. They don’t understand that the Russians are not stopping with Ukraine. When they are done with Ukraine, they will head to Lithuania, Poland, Moldova.”

“How are your mother and the two young women with their two children you’ve taken in from Mykolaiv doing?” I ask.

“My mother is fine. The big news is that the four-year-old girl staying with us is now attending preschool,” Katya says proudly. “She goes to preschool together with my four-year-old son. He speaks both Russian and Norwegian and all day long he translates for her.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” I comment.

“Yes, he’s very proud of himself. He feels cool. He understands that he must help her, so he tries very hard to explain everything that is happening at school for her, and he tells the teachers what she wants. The teachers keep them together.”

“So, they are becoming like brother and sister,” I suggest.

“Yes, but they fight at times too,” Katya says and laughs.

“How is her mother doing?”

“She has signed up to study Norwegian, and she is applying for housing, but it’s not easy for her.”

“How so?”

“Well, her husband had to stay behind in Mykolaiv, and she worries about him all the time. He works in the hospital. She is an optometrist, but here in Norway her diploma does not qualify her to work in her profession. She would need to re-enroll in medical school, take her exams again, and complete her residency. All that would take around five years. She has found work cleaning a local gym, just so that she could earn some money for her family. In Ukraine she had her own house, a family, a profession, a circle of friends, a routine, but here she is reduced to working as a simple cleaning lady. But here she is safe, and her child is safe.”

“I spoke with a woman named Alina in Kyiv who is a Professor of Economics. She told me that if she had a child, she would flee the war in Ukraine for the sake of a child, but because she does not have a child, she has not left Kyiv. She is hesitant about becoming a refugee and losing everything.”

“I understand. Our Ukrainian diplomas are not accepted in most countries abroad. My diploma in Economics is from a university in Russia and its useless here. Also, when you don’t speak Norwegian, it’s difficult to find a good job. The only jobs refugees can get are cleaning, babysitting, physical labor.”

“How is the other woman who is living with you doing?” I ask.

“She studied law in Ukraine, but the laws is different in Norway, so her diploma isn’t much use here. However, she has her three-month old baby to look after, so she is just being a mother for now.”

“It is good that she has a peaceful environment to raise her child,” I comment.

“Yes, but the baby’s father is missing out on all the baby’s milestones. He will not see her sit up, take her first steps, hear her first words.”

The utter disruption to the lives of Ukrainian families by the Russian invasion is devastating. Healthy families and healthy individuals are the foundation of society. The Russian war has ripped all that apart. And it did not need to happen. This is a war based on Russian greed, nationalism, and brutality. This is an unjust war.

“It is emotionally difficult for Ukrainian refugees,” Katya continues, “It is difficult to lose your profession. Many people would rather stay in Ukraine because they are not ready to lose everything they’ve worked for their entire lives. We have to respect every person’s choice. It is difficult to leave, and it is difficult to stay.”

“How is your family in Mykolaiv doing?” I asked.

“My father and my stepmother are still there. Her son has been fighting in Donetsk for the past four or five years. They could not leave Mykolaiv because my paternal grandparents are too elderly and frail to be moved. I spoke with them on the phone yesterday. They have their little granddaughter with them. She has learned how to run from the bombs. They talk about how they run together with the child to the bomb shelter as the missiles explode. My stepmother works in a hospital compound with a clinic, psychiatric ward, children’s ward, and other buildings, including a separate building for laundry. A few days ago, she was working her shift washing sheets in the laundry. Then she finished her 24-hour shift and went home. Later, her friends from the hospital called her and told her that the clinic and the laundry had been bombed by the Russians. She’d left just in time. Had she stayed a little longer she might have been killed…”

As of March 24th, the World Health Organization claims that 64 hospitals in Ukraine have been targeted and bombed by the Russians. The WHO also reports that as of March 25th approximately 77 people have been killed in Russian hospital bombings. From the first days of the war, Russia has consciously targeted hospitals for destruction, breaking the Geneva Convention.

I was in Vilnius, Lithuania when Russia invaded Ukraine in the early morning hours of February 24th. A friend of mine, a surgeon, told me that Lithuanian hospitals were preparing to send doctors and nurses and anesthesiologists to Ukraine as volunteers to help the wounded.

A few days later, she called me and said, “I’m not going to Ukraine.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“They’ve bombed the hospitals. There are no more hospitals to go to.”

That is the reality of Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine. Have no illusions. But this war is not just against Ukraine, but against everything Ukraine represents – the desire to live in freedom, to govern by democracy, to practice rule of law.

“The Russians are bombing Mykolaiv with long-distance missiles that they are firing from Kherson. Allegedly they are targeting military bases in Mykolaiv, but we all know Russian propaganda and lies. In the first weeks of the war, Ukrainians were reporting the location of every bombing. But then they saw that the Russians were tracking our media and social media and using that information to gauge the accuracy and precision of their missile strikes, so now Ukrainians have stopped reporting on bombings. We find out by word of mouth or much later.”

“Is there any other news from Ukraine?”

“I have a close friend in Kyiv. She told me that her girlfriend has disappeared. We think the Russians killed her and may have cremated her body in one of their mobile crematoriums. In the last text she wrote to my friend she said: ‘Someone is trying to get into the house.’ After that she disappeared and was never heard from again. Nobody knows what happened to her.”

“That’s awful.”

“They are shooting at people all the time. There are lots of corpses lying around in the street. People everywhere. The governor said that people need to bury the corpses because as they decompose the bodies release noxious gases.”

“Lithuanian sources have information that the Russian troops relocating from Kyiv have been placing land mines on corpses, so that if anyone tries to move them, they blow up.”

“Yes, I have heard this as well,” Katya confirms. “Thank God none of my friends have been killed,” Katya admits, “or raped, but I have heard stories from my friends in Ukraine of their friends being raped. One woman my friend knew was raped by a Russian soldier in front of her child after her husband had been killed.”

“Right now, the statistic is that 1,000 Ukrainian women have filed criminal reports for rape, but the actual numbers are probably ten times that. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, investigative journalists reported that Russian soldiers systematically raped all women from little girls to grandmothers. It’s one of Russia’s war strategies.”

“After Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas region no country reacted strongly. The so-called sanctions were too weak. That emboldened Russia and they had eight years to prepare for this war.” Katya pauses a moment, then says, “The Russians thought Ukraine would give up on the first day of their war but giving up is not in our blood.”

“Russians underestimated Ukrainians,” I muse out loud, “And President Zelenskyy’s leadership.”

“I listened to President Zelenskyy’s speech to the Norwegian parliament. I was very affected. It was excellent. He spoke about the Norwegian seafaring tradition and that resonated with Norwegians.”

“Getting back to the Norwegian people’s comments about civil war – I think it may be difficult for them to understand a war between two groups of people they view as the same because they share a common language.”

“I’m a Russian-speaking Ukrainian,” Katya explained, “before 2014 I never gave it any thought at all if I was Russian or Ukrainian. That did not seem important. But then, after Maidan, and what happened with the Russian invasion in 2014, I made a choice. I thought to myself: I was born in Ukraine. I grew up in Ukraine. I choose to be Ukrainian.”

“I think many people decided to be Ukrainian then.”

“Yes. When I met my Norwegian husband in 2011 and came to Norway if people here asked me if I was Russian, I’d say, yes, because I didn’t think it mattered. But after 2014, it matters to me very much. I see what the Russian mentality is. This war has shown Russia’s values to the world. I have a girlfriend from Russia who emigrated to Canada. I avoid talking about politics with Russians because they always will give you the Putin perspective, but when the war started, she called me crying and said, ‘Please forgive me. I am so sorry that my people have invaded your people.’”

“She understood, but she has been living in Canada. She could see the news.”

“The first week of the war, before Russia shut down Facebook, we posted about the war online, so that people would know. But so many Russians wrote that it was all Ukrainian propaganda. In Russia, they don’t want to know about what is happening in Ukraine. It’s easier not to know. Women don’t want to face that their husbands are in Ukraine killing innocent people. If one day they understand, it will be difficult for Russians to accept how their government has deceived them.”

“Ukrainians and Russians don’t only share a common language, but they share a faith, the Greek Orthodox Church,” I continued.

“Yes, but the problem is that right now there is so much politics in religion. The Patriarch of the Russian Greek Orthodox Church should not say to the people that all Ukrainians must die.”

I realize that we have been speaking for an hour and a half. It is getting late in Norway. I hope that my conversations with Ukrainian women reeling from this war may be comforting, soothing, a form of therapy, but I also know that I cannot take too much time away from a busy woman with a household of eight to take care of. I pose my last question.

“What do you hope for Katya?”

“I hope our kids will live in peace.”

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