Alina is a professional artist with a career spanning some thirty years. She has work in a number of prestigious public galleries in the Ukraine and exhibits internationally. As a result of the war on Ukraine, Alina has been displaced and has had to leave everything behind in her hometown Kiev. She is currently sheltering in Vienna after a seven-day flight to escape the violence.
This is Alina’s story:
Around two weeks before the Russian Federation invaded the territory of Ukraine, my Polish friends began writing to me. Leave, they said. There was no certainty that a war was possible. It was too crazy and unreal, the word would stick in my mouth, unutterable, unreadable. What was very real was a feeling of viscidity, unsteadiness. For some reason my legs were like jelly and I fell while walking down the street; it was level ground and I tripped over my own feet. I broke my hip and they had to operate. Regular patients were being released from hospital early to make room for the anticipated wounded, and I was fortunate they were able to operate on me. I had surgery two days before the war began on 22nd February.
Late on the night of the 24th, the head doctor came into our ward. He asked us to turn the lights off, and then told us that since no wounded had arrived yet they would perform all scheduled operations overnight. During the day he anticipated they’d be busy. He explained they had an incredible team who would work continuous shifts, only leaving to take care of their children. I want so much to see them all safe and sound, to hug them… as soon the war is over. It is amongst my worst nightmares to realise that the human face and the warmth we need is no longer there, where you’d hope to find it. I realise this is probably about me not being able to make room for death in my comprehension.
On the third day of war I returned home to Irpin. I had moved from Kyiv to a new home just recently in December. Irpin, a resort town with fresh air, pine trees, abundant light and lots of children was suddenly on the front line of the advance on Kyiv.
My father drove me by car from the hospital. Twelve kilometers took six hours; the first wave of people fleeing Kyiv created a sea of cars clogging the streets out of the city heading toward the western border. The bridge to Bilohorodka had not been destroyed yet and traffic along the road to Chop was still moving, albeit at pedestrian speed. People were escaping however they could, and many were walking along the side of the road. The bridge at the entrance to Irpin was already blown up. We came upon its ribbing and pieces of asphalt sticking out, helpless, and the burnt-black supermarket Fora, and turned around to search for a still passable detour; my cat, documents, and money were waiting at home. While the horizon rumbled, we hurried at a speed of 3-5 km/hour. Along the roads our tanks and checkpoints were already in place.
I spent the next ten days of war living at home in Irpin under fire. It would get closer and then recede, a column of smoke appearing beyond the neighboring buildings from the direction of Hostomel. It would thin out, disappear, and then rise again. The days passed between morning and evening-calls to friends and loved ones to find out if everyone was okay. Mobile service and electricity would fail and then resume; someone miraculously was repairing the damaged lines.
I immediately stocked up on water and washed myself in anticipation. When the shooting was very close, life indoors looked hardly any different but my body responded with bursts of adrenaline, which by evening reached levels that make me nauseous. My body did not react with fear but with revulsion.
Suddenly the shooting stopped and it was quiet; a deep, resounding quiet. It was unexpected, as if a cable has been cut. A few stores and pharmacies remained open with kilometer-long lines under rattling fire. There was no more bread for sale and when a car pulled up beside me whilst I was standing in line, a guy pulled out a white loaf and gave it to me. It was still warm.
By the tenth day, the entire building shuddered from artillery fire. It’s easy to differentiate from automatic rifle rounds. Buildings in Irpin were destroyed and neighboring Bucha was ruined. Photographs of collapsed buildings and mutilated military vehicles on the streets began appearing in the news. During a lull I drove to the edge of Irpin, to the border with Bucha, to look around and find out where to get petrol. Getting petrol was simply impossible and I only had a little left, which I had bought just before my fall and admittance to hospital. It became my living nightmare until the moment I left. I still dream of empty petrol stations and my own sense of disorientation. How can I explain this endless feeling of insecurity? And now, having left, I cannot trust any peaceful landscape in any peaceful place because at any moment from out of nowhere, a new foreign sound of war could emerge; the sound of nearby explosions and automatic fire.
I left Irpin on the thirteenth day of war. There was probably a ‘humanitarian corridor’, I don’t know for sure, I overheard a conversation outside and asked my friends how they had gotten out. Then I threw my cat, camera, documents and things into my car and locked the house. Because I was on crutches, this all took much longer than usual; imagine ‘grabbing my things’ as a film in slow motion.
I drove with a firm resolve to leave and was incredibly lucky there was no shooting at the time. The driver of a car heading toward me waved his hands, ‘don’t go that way’, but I kept driving. After passing the checkpoint I understood why: there was a fresh crater in the road from an explosion, next to a shot-up car and frayed wires. There were cars carrying refugees like me in front and behind, all the way to the intersection with the road to Zhytomyr with the now destroyed bridge up ahead. There were charred supermarket carcasses along both sides and a column of smoke somewhere off to the side of the road. It’s strange the way memory works in these situations; I remember seeing a journalist and camera operator in ashes by the side of the road, I remember my cat crying in the car.
Twenty-five kilometers later I arrived at my parents’ small homestead, a wooden house with no basement and twenty cats. I had a plan to convince them to leave within the next few days. At the time their village was removed from military combat. Our conversation around their table was unsuccessful and my father said the safest place was where we were sitting right now. He said, “There is no need to leave. Here we have neighbors with kids, a local defense force, food, logistics.” He gave lots of other reasons including me being on crutches.
Everything changed in the next few hours. Mama came into my bedroom around midnight and said, “The neighbors are taking their kids and leaving. They’re afraid to stay here and be encircled.” We gathered our belongings in the dark because turning on the light was forbidden, finding our things by feeling. My mind struggled with the most important issues; how many cats could we take in the car, how could we leave food for the rest. We had very little petrol, if we were very lucky we’d make it to a station that was open, if not, then to a main road but we’d have made it out of the Kyiv region. Roll out the car, don’t slam the door, quiet, the neighbors are standing guard, nobody has an extra can of petrol, transferring it from tank to tank is technically impossible, in the worst case they’ll tow us. They won’t abandon us.
There were still a few hours before dawn and our departure so we went inside to wait. My father sat down on the bed and said he was staying. “Yes, alone, it’s fine, the cats are here, take your mother”. Mama tried to persuade my father to leave, searching for arguments, reasons, saying, “We’ll come back soon”. She repeated this with less and less confidence until I grasped, more from her tone of voice than from her words, that my parents were staying. By morning we had taken their things out of my car.
The remainder of that night was more frightening than any other time in my experience. I huddled into a distant, dense, desperate corner of myself and struggled not to cry. I was afraid that once I began, I would not be able to stop. And there was that nasty, grating thought that we were parting for who knew how long… and still, “Yes of course I will call from the road, I’ll take the dried pears and I have enough water.”
We left in the morning in a column of nine cars. I had two children, a woman, my cat who I had put in the car earlier, and another cat with me. I was shaking so much that my teeth were literally chattering. It was comical, like in a cartoon I had seen long ago… yes, Tom and Jerry… as if from the cold, although it wasn’t cold at all and I was wearing several layers, all the warm clothing I had. Some tablets that tasted like Corvalol helped me to get through it. By then Kyiv was behind us and the gas meter showed only one bar. We only had about ten litres in the tank.
I got lucky several more times. Our column of cars carrying children had a military escort, who led us through check points and onto a safe route. By some miracle the car beside me had a can of extra petrol. It was meant for their son but he had refused to leave. Our soldiers helped me find another can along the way, passing it from one pair of caring hands to another. Once the soldiers said we had reached safe lands and could relax from here on, our column dispersed and my companions got out. I drove the rest of the way alone with my cat through check points, a pot-holed detour around an intersection destroyed by shelling, humanitarian aid from the western border, traffic jams – three hours, two hours, eight hours passed. At dusk I saw a bevy of swans in a pond by the side of the road. My cat got used to living in the car.
I had enough petrol to make it to safety in Khmelnytskyi in Western Ukraine and eventually at 4 a.m. I arrived at the city check point. The guards only asked if I had people there; Auntie Lena had fallen asleep waiting for me. Her home was chock-full of refugees, I don’t know how she managed to remember all their names, set them up, feed them, make the beds, make conversation, offer hugs. There were families from Kharkiv, Hostomel, Bucha, Vorzel, Kyiv. Three floors of human homelessness with dogs, cats, birds, new faces replacing the ones that left every couple of days. “No-no” said Auntie Lena, “no money, my daughter helps out”. The table was set with her fine china and it was warm and quiet. There was still 200 kilometers to the Romanian border.
I was lucky again when in the morning Khmelnytskyi got a petrol delivery. Each car was allowed no more than twenty litres. The lines were a kilometer long, which I now realise is not a lot, but most importantly they moved. I have sixteen hours still to wait in line at the border with Romania. My daughter and her husband are waiting for me at the first petrol station on the other side.