Published on March 23, 2023
Author: Lyudmyla Savenko
Have I ever pondered the fact that an actual war could transpire in the confines of my own home? Most certainly, as Russia is my neighboring country and in truth, the war has been ongoing since 2014, however it had yet to reach my hometown. Could I have envisioned such an event occurring while I was just beginning my journey into motherhood? Absolutely not.
First off, let’s acknowledge that being a parent is already a tough job. There are endless demands on your time and energy, and no shortage of difficult decisions to make. But when you add in the chaos and uncertainty of war, it takes things to a whole new level.
The sound of a rocket flying overhead rudely jolted me from my sleep on what was to become the worst morning of my life. I frantically scooped up my slumbering daughter and sprinted to the bathroom. Even before checking the news, I could sense that war had erupted. The first day of the conflict is seared into the memory of all Ukrainians as the most traumatic and terrifying experience of our lives. We were all caught off guard, unsure of what to do next. Fortunately, my months of pre-war anxiety had prompted me to pack all the essential items such as clothes, medicines, and documents, and come up with a contingency plan called “Our Actions When War Begins”. As I was mapping out the plan, my main concern was for my daughter’s welfare. How could I manage with a young child who had recently stopped drinking formula and still relied on a pacifier? What if I lost the pacifier or ran out of diapers, water, or food? These were the relentless worries that plagued me from the first moments of the war.
As I revisit our plan, there is one small yet significant detail I feel compelled to add. Our financial situation was dire – we didn’t have any money to speak of. Our meager earnings from our language school barely covered our basic needs, let alone allowed us to save for emergencies. With that in mind, our plan involved my husband, Vlad, who was 29 and a driver, my little 1.5-year-old daughter, Emily, and me, Liuda, a 25-year-old English teacher, journeying to the western part of Ukraine to seek refuge with my husband’s relatives, who we believed would be safer. On the first day of the conflict, we spent our time huddled in a shelter – which happened to be my dad’s garage in Irpin, a small town near the capital – and I could never have anticipated that our humble abode would become so well known worldwide.
On February 25th at 6am, an enormous column of tanks passed directly by our windows in the village outside of Kyiv, where my husband, daughter, and I had just arrived. It became clear to us then that this was going to be a prolonged situation and that we needed to flee to save our child’s life. We left in a convoy of two cars headed towards Western Ukraine, but on our journey, we encountered another column of tanks and soldiers – this was the most terrifying event of my life. I knew that Russian soldiers were known to shoot civilians, so I simply prayed that it would be quick for all of us. However, we were very fortunate because those boys were inexperienced and got frightened upon seeing us. So, by reducing our speed, we drove past them and breathed a sigh of relief. Afterwards, there was a 13-hour journey to a house belonging to people we had never met before. This was one of the first challenges we faced. We had almost no food, few diapers, and no wet wipes. We were confined to a single space, constantly stuck in traffic, and by the time we arrived at our destination, we were absolutely exhausted.
So, we spent 10 days in Western Ukraine with some completely unknown people who welcomed us very warmly, and we were relatively safe there. Meanwhile, my family (dad and sister) were constantly under fire in Irpin. My daughter got extremely sick, which was the next challenge that many Ukrainian parents faced. We were living in a village where nobody knew us, and nobody understood what to do or how to live on. Our child had a temperature of 40, and none of the medicines we had at home helped. One night, when I was putting her to bed, I gave her Nurofen and she fell asleep, but when I shone a light on her face, I saw a lot of blood. I was incredibly scared, my husband was not around because he had joined the territorial defense (volunteers from the village guarded the territory) and was patrolling the area at that time. I was completely alone with an 18-month-old child in a strange village with no money, no medicines, and completely lost. I couldn’t figure out where the blood came from, but Emily stopped crying and her temperature went down with the medicines, so the next morning, we were taken to a rural hospital – it turned out to be stomatitis, and then there were complications in the form of bronchitis.
On that same day, I heard military planes flying over our house. I felt just as scared as I did on the morning of the 24th, so we decided that my child and I would leave for abroad(men of 18-60 years are not allowed to cross the borders and leave the country during the wartime). My cousin and his family were waiting for us in Poland. Meanwhile, my sister was evacuating from Irpin, where she narrowly escaped death from the constant shelling. She had traveled to Lviv, where my husband and I picked her up. On March 7th, 2022, with a sick child in my arms, without proper clothing, with almost no money, and no idea of what to do next, the three of us crossed the border into Poland.
To say that this was the most terrifying event of my life would be an understatement. I was mortally frightened, bidding farewell to my husband and not knowing if we would ever see each other again. He was kissing our child, weeping and unable to let go, he is truly the best father to Emilia. And this is the subsequent harrowing ordeal for Ukrainian families. We are separated from each other, far from home, our husbands put on military uniforms, pick up rifles, and many of them will never return home. Forced separation is unbearable. Children grow up without their fathers, and they only see a perpetually tearful and frightened mother nearby, who doesn’t understand what to do with her life, let alone her children’s lives.
It’s been six months since we’ve been living abroad, and let me tell you, it’s been really tough. We were lucky enough to be taken in by an amazing Italian family who really looked out for us. The only problem was that I couldn’t work since all of my students were from Ukraine and had no interest in online English classes. My husband also lost his job, which was a total bummer. Before all of this craziness, I wasn’t with my kid 24/7. I went back to work just two weeks after giving birth, and my husband and I split childcare duties. But now that we’re 1500km from home, I’m pretty much alone with my child all the time. It’s been really tough on me emotionally because I’m used to having a few hours a day to myself or to focus on work. This is why moms in Ukraine really need more support and help, but it’s not something people really talk about because it seems like if you have a kid, you should be able to handle it. But no one warns you how hard it can be. It’s almost like going through motherhood all over again, but this time it’s just constant fear and terror.
It’s been a crazy few months since we moved to Italy. At first, everything was overwhelming and stressful, but we eventually adapted to the changes. We tried to enroll our kid in a daycare, but that didn’t work out ’cause she was traumatized by the whole move and thought I was ditching her for good. So, I started teaching online and we moved to a flat not far from our foster family, because we didn’t want to be a burden on them. Anyways, I went through a lot of emotional and physical changes during this half a year. I gained 20 kilos in three months, my health got worse, and my mood swings were all over the place. One day, I was optimistic that things would get better, and the next day, I was having a mental breakdown. It didn’t help that our two-year-old was also struggling to cope with the changes. She was constantly looking for her dad, trying to communicate with people who didn’t speak her language, and struggling to adjust to the new food. To make things worse, she kept getting sick, and being in a foreign country made it even more stressful. Thank god I knew English and was learning Italian, so I could talk to doctors and stuff.
Return Home to Ukraine
So, by the end of the summer of 2022, we figured out that we couldn’t afford to stay abroad anymore because it was tough for me and my sister to work while taking care of a little kid. Therefore, we made a decision to come back to Ukraine as it became calmer at that point of time. On August 25th, we reunited with our family. At first, my daughter didn’t recognize her dad, but eventually, she got used to him. It was another challenge of being a parent during the war. You have to get to know your partner again after such a long separation. I had to get used to being married again, sleeping together, and living together (when I got used to being alone). During this time, we almost got divorced because we kept going through relationship crisis over and over again. However, my daughter was very happy because her dad and grandpa were finally back in her life. But that was the only good thing about that period.
Starting from October 10th, Russians started attacking critical infrastructure in Ukraine. We were hit with power outages, no running water, and worst of all, no heat. We had to come up with a plan on how to survive the winter with a little kid. We managed to get our daughter into daycare, where we knew she’d at least have three meals a day and be warm since they bought a generator, gas heaters, and made sure the kids were comfortable. In our apartment, it was 14 degrees Celsius, and I had to work online, which made it all even more complicated since I needed the Internet. So we bought an inverter, batteries, heaters, warm clothes, a gas heater, and decided to move to a place where we’d have gas in the building, not just electricity. It was a crazy four months, and I kept blaming myself for coming back to Ukraine, but I knew I couldn’t live like this abroad(I mean the level of life). There were moments when it seemed like we’d never have electricity again, but the incredible Ukrainian people adapted even to this. So after about a month of constant attacks, people learned how to survive even under such circumstances.
I am no longer acquainted with life devoid of war. My own family and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian households are presently enduring constant blaring of sirens, rockets attacks, the sound of missiles zooming through the air and military exercises taking place on the training grounds. Every day as I travel through the streets of my native town of Irpin, I am a witness to the dire repercussions of the heinous terrorism being wrought upon us by Russia. I see how the lives of thousands of people have been torn apart. Perhaps, at some point in the future, I might be able to forgive the Russians for something (though this seems highly unlikely), but I will never be able to pardon them for robbing our Ukrainian children of their childhoods.