Lifestyle'This is my land, my home': Ukraine's undaunted women determined to survive despite war and fear

'This is my land, my home': Ukraine's undaunted women determined to survive despite war and fear

Olhia, Katya and Michalina stayed in Ukraine.
Olhia, Katya and Michalina stayed in Ukraine.
Images source: © Private archive

5:22 AM EST, February 1, 2024, updated: 4:34 AM EST, March 7, 2024

"I could have left Ukraine. Since my job is with an international organization, I had the opportunity to go virtually anywhere in the world. My sister lives in Krakow. Despite the insistence of my parents and my husband, not once this year did I consider leaving. I realized that staying here would allow me to contribute more to my country. I was confident that my presence would be valuable, and this is exactly what I wanted," says 35-year-old Olha Harbovska.

A 'warlike' landscape

When Russia attacked Ukraine, Olha and her husband were in their apartment in Vyshhorod, located on the ninth floor. The floors were laid by their own hands, and they painted the walls themselves. They had made it into a space where they could feel at home.

They were awakened by a horrifying roar just before 5:00 a.m. on February 24th. Looking outside, they saw explosions beneath them. Helicopters circled the building, with one nearly crashing into their window. In their kitchen, they stood pondering their next steps while trying to make sense of the warlike landscape outside their window — something they had previously only seen in films.

"The noise was terrible. We decided to head west. We didn't own a car and public transport was at a standstill. We took a paper map and walked about 6 miles to the nearest metro station, from where we planned to transition to another form of transportation. The journey to our current residence took two days, and we spent the night on the crowded train's floor," she remembers.

From the onset, Olha knew she wanted to keep working. She needed a place with internet access. She serves as a communication manager for the IREX organization which links more than a hundred countries. Among other responsibilities, she helps to facilitate access to education for young people. Also, she is developing a five-year program funded by USAID - Ukraine National Identity through Youth (UNITY), which fosters young leaders based on values related to Ukrainian identity.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the priority was ensuring the safety of all employees. Later, the team started to develop and implement new programs suited for the needs of both the company's employees and the young Ukrainians under its assistance program.

"Presently, I work with the #krainotvortsi program. We share stories on the web of young Ukrainians who are doing remarkable things for their country. We always contemplate how to showcase their courage and their ingenious and sacrificial efforts towards their homeland."

Olha Harbovska has been working two jobs since the war broke out.
Olha Harbovska has been working two jobs since the war broke out.© Private archive

Travel used to be an integral part of her job. She met with young people benefited by IREX programs. Now it's impossible. "Planning anything is very challenging. Flexibility and preparedness for sudden changes are key. Also, the ability to react swiftly and maintain composure," she explains.

"I am not planning to surrender"

In addition to her regular duties at the organization, Olha has been working double shifts for a year. She wakes up very early in the morning to volunteer and dedicates her evenings, weekends, and days off to it. She organizes collections. Using the contacts of her sister in Poland, she and her family supply the army with first aid kits.

Before the Russian invasion, she produced healthy, sugar-free bars. She designed her own logo and tested various recipes, such as those for allergen-free individuals. An Ukrainian politician was especially fond of them. However, today the recipe for the treats she creates has shifted—it’s now loaded with sugars and fats. They are given to the army and to those fleeing the war.

"The state of constant anxiety I experienced in the early days of the war is still lingering. However, I have no intention of surrendering," she asserts.

Even though she's drained both mentally and physically, the thought of taking a vacation doesn't cross her mind. As she puts it, she wouldn't be emotionally capable of unwinding. "I barely have time to ponder—I just act," she affirms.

When asked about her concerns, apart from fearing for the safety of her loved ones and colleagues, she highlights propaganda and its potential impact on people—not just in Ukraine, but in Poland and all other countries as well.

"Fake news can construct a narrative that fragments societies. Recently, there were many talks about a supposed study illustrating the degradation of Poles' attitudes towards immigrants from Ukraine. The alleged surveyed responses caused significant upheaval, only for it to be later revealed that... they were completely fabricated. Consequently, we all need to be alert and validate every piece of information we come across," she warns.

"I couldn't imagine starting anew from scratch"

"The most significant issue is the lack of electricity. The Russians have extensively bombarded all the power plants and distribution stations, our own included, in Ivano-Frankivsk. Consequently, we went several days without power. This shuts down everything: cash registers, terminals, and the internet. Numerous entrepreneurs had to reduce their staff. Others only operated for a few hours at a minimal wage," says Michalina Nesterenko, a resident of Ukraine living with her two sons: a three-year-old and a seven-year-old. Her husband has been on the war front for nearly a year.

Michalina creates motanki dolls and paints angels. For a decade, she has also been operating a motivational website that brings women together in a supportive network for personal development. In early March last year, she fled to Poland with her mother-in-law and her sons.

"That was a very strenuous period. We had no clue if Kiev would hold up. I remembered all the tragic stories about the atrocities Russians commit against civilians, especially women and children. My family back in Poland was also in a state of panic," she recollects.

However, she returned to Ukraine after three months. Although there were early rumors of bombardments in the west of the country, the situation eventually stabilized. "Our life was here: the house we bought with my husband, my workshop... I couldn't imagine having to start from scratch," she explains.

Like other city dwellers, she had to adjust to the new situation. She recognized her privileged position as her customer base primarily consists of Poles, but she nevertheless grapples with persistent power outages and prevalent high prices just like everyone else.

"Whenever the anti-aircraft alarm sirens blare, stores shut down, public transportation halts, and companies—as per regulations—have to close as well. This disrupts the workday, productivity drops. People who commute by bus face significant challenges—bus schedules are unreliable. Often, you have to hail a taxi to be punctual, a move that significantly hikes up living costs. A bus ticket costs UAH 6, while a taxi costs UAH 160," Michalina elaborates.

Michalina Nesterenko returned to Ukraine with her children.
Michalina Nesterenko returned to Ukraine with her children.© Private archive

Power outages and steep prices

She is also alarmed by the steep prices of food products and children's clothing. According to Nesterenko, their quality has drastically decreased, thereby leading her to resort to ordering from Polish stores more often.

"Before the war, this wasn't feasible. Nowadays, couriers do make deliveries. You typically have to wait a long while for the package—for instance, two weeks—but it is a workaround. Of course, it's only viable for those who can afford it," she explains.

However, there are dwindling numbers of people who can: my correspondent has exhausted the savings intended for home renovation just to survive the past year. To keep her children warm, she purchased a small generator. Before heading to the front, her husband had to suspend his business operations. While the state did provide tax relief for individuals like him, his company, due to circumstances, shows no profit. Men who were employed contractually and received a draft notice were either let go from their jobs or went on unpaid leave. Nevertheless, they do receive increased military pay.

"People here earn between 7-10 thousand hryvnias a month—that's roughly $256-342 presently. Powdered milk costs around $9-10 when converted to dollars, bread is $0.14, and children's trousers, which become shabby after three washes, are $11," Michalina discloses.

And she adds, "Everyone here is truly very brave. Everyone has a loved one on the front or knows someone who didn't return from the battlefield to their home, and despite this, people are managing."

Live normally, whatever it takes

Her husband, whom she has seen only twice in the past year, shares over the phone about the situation in Kharkiv—a city that has borne the brunt of more warfare operations. From his account, it seems that people there are also trying desperately to maintain normalcy. When a McDonald's outlet is destroyed by the war, a café springs up in its place. If a café is destroyed, someone parks a food truck at the site. After the sirens cease, people leave the shelters and reopen their businesses. They plant flowers and garb the roads with paint. They do everything within their means to survive and sustain an illusion of normality. Schools are mostly functioning remotely, but plans are in place to reopen them as usual, as well as state kindergartens. Children are taken to cellars painted with colourful murals during alarm sirens.

"In my son's kindergarten, there's a windowless room at the centre which has been furnished as a cinema room. When the alarm blares, the children head there, snack on popcorn and watch a pleasant movie. Those who arrived from the east are in an extremely precarious mental state," Michalina concedes.

On February 28, it will be a year since Nesterenko's husband left for the front.

Her sons, although safe, endured a painful separation from their father. The elder one is still under the care of a psychologist. They worked extensively to reassure him and help him cope with this issue. He used to jolt awake from nightmares screaming that his father had abandoned him, followed by bouts of hysteria.

Michalina Nesterenko with her husband, who is fighting on the front.
Michalina Nesterenko with her husband, who is fighting on the front.© Private archive

"In theory, as per the contract, military personnel who served for 12 months should be discharged. But it's hard to hold onto that belief. The state of war continues and there's no information about what lies in store," she observes. And she adds, "Someone has to defend the country."

"The thought of leaving Ukraine never crossed my mind. This is my land, my home, and I'm willing to defend it if necessary," says Katya, a 24-year-old resident of a small village located 50 miles from Lviv.

Katya works for a relatively large company that manufactures heating boilers. On February 24, 2022, she woke up as usual around 7:00 a.m. and began her morning routine. An unfamiliar sound startled her, but her mother's calming reassurancekept her going as usual. It was when they both went outside that the intensity of the noise forced them to hold hands and hurriedly return indoors. "Then I realized: it's war," the young woman recounts.

Despite this realization, for a while, she couldn't come to terms with the fact that Russia had simply invaded Ukraine. "I reassured myself that this couldn't happen in the 21st century. And yet it did. Although I finally accepted the gravity of the situation, I knew from the start that I did not want to run away," Katya insists.

Determined to rise above fear

Her previously predictable job has been primarily affected by sporadic power blackouts. "Sometimes everything halts for 14 hours, which invariably triggers vast losses. However, we employees have grown accustomed to it," says the 24-year-old. Nevertheless, battling apathy and despair poses a greater challenge for her.

"Every day I'm apprehensive for my loved ones, I continually read about more victims. It's a struggle to muster up strength to work and carry out daily chores. And although I long for an end to the war and pray for it every day, I know that preserving everyday life 'as if nothing happened' is essential," she explains.

Katya cannot imagine leaving the country.
Katya cannot imagine leaving the country.© Private archive

"If we demonstrate fear and life in Ukraine comes to a standstill, our enemy will be satisfied. I believe Putin wants Ukrainians to cower in fear, to surrender, and to just stop living. We can't let that happen," she adds.

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