World News

3 Ukrainian voices reflect on war’s anniversary

KYIV, Ukraine – It’s been one year since Russia’s war in Ukraine brought one of the largest military conflicts since the end of World War II to European soil.

Neither Russian leader Vladimir Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appear ready to sit down for peace talks. 

For Ukrainians, it’s been 12 months of bloodshed, separated families, anger, confusion, anxiety, living day to day, some hope, and a lot of wondering how it will all end.

What follows – in their own words and condensed and edited for clarity – are the reflections of three Ukrainians after Russia’s invasion changed everything for them. 

The stand-up comic: ‘I joke about how all Russians really are evil’

Ukrainian comedian Anya Kochegura performs at Kyiv's Underground Standup Club, in Ukraine's capital on Feb. 8.

Anya Kochegura, 32

“I’ve been living in Kyiv for almost 13 years, doing stand-up for the last five years or so. The Ukrainian stand-up scene is pretty new. I got going with it after seeing American and British comics perform. It seemed like magic. I’m a linguist so I always watched a lot of English-speaking comedians. I’ve been in Kyiv continuously since the start of the war. I never left. Since August, I’ve been doing shows in different cities in Ukraine. These days I’m on the road a lot. I’ve been doing shows for our military, which is a new thing for me. 

Comedy is important for Ukrainians now. It’s a coping mechanism and there’s a cathartic aspect to it. We deal with so much stress and tragedy and loss every day. It’s something we have to do to stay sane. Sometimes you just need to make a silly joke to keep going. A lot of people see it as an outlet to share experiences because the comedians are living through the same experiences as everyone else during this invasion.

It helps us to feel like we are all in this together. It helps with isolation. You feel like you are part of a community. It gives people hope. After I did a show in Odesa, a lady came up to me and said: ‘That’s the first time I’ve laughed this whole year.’ 

I do observational comedy. So I talk about the war a lot. It mostly revolves around the experiences of civilians. But also about some of the frustrations and bureaucracy Ukraine has experienced in dealing with other countries. For example, about not getting weapons quickly enough. I joke a lot about how Ukrainians are so used to Russian missiles and drones that, while we know this is about life and death, we see it more as an annoyance. ‘Like, really, did you have to do it now? Couldn’t you wait a few hours? I have an appointment.’ I have a joke about how I’m afraid that a rocket will hit my building and the walls collapse and everyone will see I haven’t cleaned my apartment. I joke about how all Russians really are evil. And that’s truly how most Ukrainians see them now. I don’t joke about the tragedy of Ukraine – about Ukrainians dying. 

People in Ukraine say that your life is divided into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ It’s really true. Before the war, my jokes were not so political. I was not joking about (German Chancellor Olaf) Sholz or (French President Emmanuel) Macron. The European Union telling Ukraine it is going to send us lightbulbs is comedic gold considering we don’t have electricity. My biggest hope for this anniversary: no new anniversary every year.”

The pregnant sniper: ‘We need to keep living’

Eugenia Emerald at her home in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 9. Her baby is due in April.

Eugenia Emerald, 32

“I joined the army in March last year. Ten years ago, I received a military education. I was an officer. When the invasion happened, I was able to join active combat straight away. But before the war, I was not involved with the military at all. I was running several businesses. One was producing jewelry. Another was renting out a vacation home I own for different events. Sometimes it was used as a set for movies. One month before the war broke out, I started a new business – sports and lifestyle coaching for entrepreneurs.

When I joined the army, I was the only woman in my regiment. It was really hard. Four months went by. I was tired and lonely. Most of my male colleagues had wives and girlfriends waiting for them, supporting them. They had someone to talk to; to complain to. I didn’t. I didn’t want to worry my mother or my friends. And I didn’t feel I could confide in the men around me because I thought they might perceive me as weak. 

My call sign is “Joan of Arc” (a reference to the female military leader in medieval France; a call sign is a name used by military for sensitive communications).

At one point I was in a bunker in the Zaporizhzhia region (in southeast Ukraine). It was an abandoned basement actually. I thought I would die in that place. But thanks to Starlink (a satellite internet connection operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX) I also had a great internet connection. Ukrainian media started to contact me for interviews. Eventually, Elle (the Ukrainian edition of the glossy magazine) ran an article about me. 

My future husband read it. He then found me on Instagram and messaged me to say he was proud that Ukraine had women like me serving in the military. He thanked me for my service. He was also in the military. We started chatting a lot online. It was hard to meet up, though, because I was on the front line. He was on rotation in Kyiv. Eventually, I went to my commander and explained the situation. I told him I had fallen in love, that I needed a short break from being around 400 military guys. A little time to recharge. The next day my future husband met me at Kyiv train station with flowers. We spent three days together. Then we both returned to the front lines, in different regions. 

About a month later he showed up at my base. He had somehow convinced my commander he needed to meet with him. At this meeting, he proposed to me. I was on the front line with artillery shells and all sorts of other weapons falling around me when I found out I was pregnant. I stayed on the front line for another month, then was shifted to service in Kyiv. I wore my uniform until the 30th week of my pregnancy.

I transitioned to maternity leave a few weeks ago. This will be my second child. His too. We both have children from previous marriages. The baby is due in April. I have everything prepared: crib, stroller, all the necessities. It’s very hard to be away from him. We see each other about once a month. We are lucky. Some women have not seen their husbands at all since the start of the war. So I have nothing to complain about, but it’s still difficult. I don’t know where he will be when I give birth. I worry about him because I know he’s always in danger. But what can we do? We are not alone in this. 

There are a lot of Ukrainian families in similar situations. 

Some people say it’s not the right time to get married, to be happy and have kids while there is a war on. I disagree. The war may last for years. We need to keep living. This is exactly what the enemy wants to take away from us and we should not let this happen.” 

The school teacher: ‘The war has become part of their education’

Lyudmyla Tabolina, principal of Inventor School Kyiv, stands in a hallway of the school on Feb. 13, 2023.

Lyudmyla Tabolina, 44, elementary school principal 

“Unfortunately, going to our school’s bomb shelter is not something unusual for our kids. They are used to it now. Once they hear the air raid sirens, they know they have about two minutes to get there. It can be two times a week. Sometimes it’s five times a day. Sometimes we stay in the shelter for five or six hours. Sometimes it’s just 15 minutes. 

Six months ago, a lot of the kids were panicking when they heard the sirens. But we have tried to make the shelter a welcoming, comfortable place for them. We have filled it with books and art materials. We have painted the walls with bright colors and tried to make it look like they are going to outer space; to another planet like Mars. There’s Wi-Fi and a generator so there’s always electricity and heat no matter what. We have lockers for them where they keep an emergency bag with water and some favorite snacks. (Sometimes they sneak down to the shelter and eat these snacks when they shouldn’t!) 

I have been an educator for 22 years. 

When the war started, I ran a school in Kharkiv (in eastern Ukraine, a city heavily bombed by the Russians). My school was not destroyed but it was surrounded by buildings that sustained a lot of damage. When the children stopped coming the school became a place for volunteers to give out food. I spent long periods living in the school alone. I stayed there until late August when I moved to Kyiv for this new job. 

A lot of women and children have left Ukraine. I also had a lot of opportunities to leave. Many of my friends and colleagues have tried to convince me to go overseas. I thought it was important to stay. What are our men fighting for if we leave our country? Who will do this work if not me? It’s hard to teach the children in these circumstances. 

But it’s possible. 

Children understand a lot more about the world than we give them credit for. They grow up very quickly. The war has become part of their education. They incorporate it into their play and word games. They comfort each other if someone is feeling scared or sad. Sometimes they can start crying because they don’t know if their parents are safe. It’s been an unbelievable, unforgettable year. It’s been more like a “non-year.”

When the air raids are sounding and the youngest kids we have are coming down to the shelter in their pajamas and they are sleepy and their hair is all messed up – you know they almost never cry. They are our little heroes. And that’s why we are here.” 

Pupils of Inventor School Kyiv, in Ukraine's capital, pass by the entrance to the school's bomb shelter, right, marked "Underground," on Feb. 13.

More stories from @khjelmgaard about Russia’s war on Ukraine: 

‘It’s hard, but they’re holding on’: On the ground in Ukraine, the war depends on U.S. weapons

Vladimir Putin’s prison:Russians escaping Putin’s war on Ukraine find a new home – and a moral dilemma

Russian war crimes in Ukraine may be unprecedented: So is the country’s push for swift justice

Full of stoicism and unspoken fear:Ukrainian men steel for battle as they say goodbye to families

New lives, foreign cities: After escaping war, hardships for Ukraine refugees are just beginning

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