On Thursday 24th February Russia’s president Vladimir Putin shocked the world by launching a brutal invasion of Ukraine. It has sparked a huge exodus – 1.7 million people so far, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – with many Ukrainians and Ukrainian residents fleeing into surrounding countries such as Poland, Germany, Slovakia and Romania.
Russia stands accused by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky of targeting civilians by shelling buildings including hospitals, nurseries and schools. There are also reports of Russian soldiers raping women in captured areas.
Under martial law, men aged 18 to 60 must stay in Ukraine to fight so a large number of those fleeing are women, often with children in tow.
On International Women’s Day, Refinery29 speaks to five women about their experiences. Some are still in the country and some have managed to get out. They talk about what they’ve been through over the past week and what they want the world to know about the situation in Ukraine right now.
Krystyna Hotie, 26, YouTuber and nurse, Kryvyi Rih
I woke up on Thursday 24th February to a video of explosions my friend had sent me. I thought it was a joke at first so I checked online. As soon as I realised what was happening, my immediate thought was, I have to leave the country, right now. I threw as many things as possible in a suitcase – it ended up being 20kg and very difficult to carry.
My mum, who I live with, refused to come even though I begged her – she didn’t believe the situation was that bad. I decided to try to reach Germany as I know they treat refugees well but the nearby airport was destroyed so I had to go by bus. It took six days across Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland – I slept on floors and only ate plain bread and biscuits. When I reached Berlin I was bent over because my stomach hurt so much. I’m now staying with a family that speak Russian and we’ve managed to persuade my mum to leave – she just crossed into Poland.
I didn’t read the news during my journey and when I finally caught up with everything I didn’t even have the words. I run a gaming YouTube channel and I’ve started making videos explaining how to leave Ukraine. But I am still hopeful that there will be a victory in our country eventually.
Gabriella Idonije, 18, medical student, Zaporizhzhia, from Abuja, Nigeria
In the weeks before the invasion I knew there had been talk of war but we were told by the embassy and university to stay calm and that the situation wasn’t as bad as people were saying.
On the morning of the invasion I was woken in the early hours by a friend knocking on everyone’s doors in our student halls. She told us we needed to pack our bags and be ready to leave at any time. It was too much to process – no one really understood what was happening.
Later that day we had a test drill to see where the bomb shelters were, which made it feel more real. After two days we students saw the fighting was getting worse so we decided to leave. The airport had been bombed so we tried to get a train but the station was too full – everyone was panicking and there were fights breaking out. With some friends, I got a hire car and drove close to the Hungarian border, then walked the last part.
My group managed to cross into Hungary at about 2am, then got a bus and train to Budapest. I have seen the reports about people of colour being harassed but luckily I didn’t experience this myself. I flew home to Nigeria and although in one way it feels good to be home, it’s obviously difficult in these circumstances.
I hope I can go back to Ukraine to finish my studies, or go to one of the countries that has said they will take in students. I’ve been following the news and all I can say is that it’s a lot. It’s really sad to see a country having to go through something like this.
Anastasiia Arkharova, 23, model, Kharkiv
My girlfriend, Tatiana (who is a psychology student), and I knew there was talk of an invasion for many weeks but we didn’t really think it would happen – war is so expensive and people are still dealing with COVID. But we knew there was a small chance so we agreed that if Russia did invade, we would leave.
On that Thursday I was woken up by my girlfriend walking around – she had heard the explosions. Then all my friends started calling me. Everyone in the city was trying to get taxis. By pure luck we found a free one and managed to get a train to Lviv, in the west. We could hear explosions the whole way – it was terrifying.
My girlfriend found contact details for an organisation called Quarteera, which helps LGBTQ+ people from all Russian-speaking countries. We arranged to meet one of their volunteers at the Polish border and they took us to Berlin. They found us accommodation and helped us speak to a psychologist.
Right now we have left all our lives behind but we feel hopeful that we will be okay eventually. My girlfriend’s parents are refusing to go to a safe place – they just want to carry on as normal. So she is very worried whenever she can’t get through to them.
The whole centre of our city has now been destroyed. It’s so sad and we are so angry. Why resort to war? We just don’t understand it.
Natalya Kasianchuk, 28, university lecturer and translator, Lutsk
I live in Lutsk, close to the Polish border. My boyfriend lives in New York and we haven’t seen each other for a year because of COVID so we’d been really excited about 2022 – we had tickets to a Coldplay concert in Berlin in July and we’d bought an apartment in my city, which we were planning to move into. But on Thursday 24th February I was woken by him calling me, telling me the invasion had started. And immediately my entire life changed.
The fighting isn’t close to my city so we are all focused on trying to help those fleeing and gathering aid for the rest of the country. I teach linguistics at the university and my students and I are helping translate people’s documents – for example, if they have medical conditions and need treatment. I am really worried about people I know in other parts of the country though. I have a close friend in Mariupol, who was meant to be being evacuated with her family yesterday, but now fighting has escalated again and I can’t get hold of her.
I really don’t know yet what I will do – if I will stay here or leave. My parents are old and don’t want to leave the place they’ve lived all their lives. I just hope that Western countries will intervene and help us more.
Natalya Malysheva, 41, interior designer and Airbnb host, Kyiv
I’m originally from Crimea but I’ve lived in Kyiv for many years and own two Airbnb apartments there. I was actually in Mexico when the invasion began and had someone staying in my home in Kyiv.
My husband and I were sorting our papers to go home when we got the news. After helping our Airbnb guest flee to Poland, we started panicking. We had no income and nowhere to go.
Suddenly my email pinged with an Airbnb booking. I messaged asking if it was a mistake but they replied saying they were sending money to help Ukraine. Soon I was flooded with bookings – my calendar is full for months. I was almost in tears at people’s generosity.
I’m a new mum so I want to share some money with women who have given birth in awful conditions, underground in bomb shelters. I’m in touch with a doctor who says there’s a shortage of baby formula as high stress levels stop women producing milk. We have about €5,000 to distribute.
We’re now hoping to fly to the US, where we can stay with some friends. I remember when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, it felt like no one cared. But now the whole world is supporting Ukraine.