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The first days of war: The humanitarian forced to flee

A Ukrainian serviceman inspects a destroyed Russian tank in the north-eastern city of Trostyanets on 29th March

A Ukrainian serviceman inspects a destroyed Russian tank in the north-eastern city of Trostyanets on 29th March. Photo:Photo by Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images

We spoke to several people from Ukraine and Russia whose lives were thrown into disarray by the outbreak of war. This article is one of several pieces on the first days of the Ukraine conflict we published in issue 46 of Delayed Gratification, which can be purchased at our online shop.

The humanitarian forced to flee
How Putin’s aggression drove Liliia Ivashchenko from Donetsk via Kyiv to the Polish border

In the early hours of 24th February 2022, Liliia Ivashchenko was driving through Kyiv with her friend Dima. A handful of people were meandering out of the last few open bars and restaurants but mostly the streets were quiet. “It was beautiful, so peaceful, just watching the city at night, chatting and listening to music,” recalls Ivashchenko. She got home around 1am, slipped off her shoes, put her phone on mute, and lay down on the sofa to soak up the silence of the night with her dog nestled at her feet. “I think I knew, in my heart, that this would be the last time in a long time I could have such a moment,” she says. Ivashchenko hadn’t wanted to believe the media reports citing Western governments’ intelligence that Russia was planning to invade Ukraine. But Dima had warned her to prepare for the worst. “He said that he believed the war would start very soon and that he had already sent his wife to the west of the country,” Ivashchenko tells me.

Just a few hours later, at around 5am, she was jolted awake. She recognised the thunderous booms of artillery fire immediately. Born in Mariupol, Ivashchenko had moved to Donetsk, the largest city of the Donbas region in east Ukraine, as a teenager to study at the city’s university. She was still living there in 2014 when trouble began in the wake of then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s last-minute refusal to sign a trade deal with the European Union. After he was  overthrown by protesters, local administrative buildings in Donetsk were seized by armed pro-Russian separatists. When Ukraine’s new revolutionary government responded with an anti-terrorist operation to oust the separatists, who were armed and backed by the Russian military, the situation quickly spiralled into a major conflict.

For a long time Ivashchenko held out hope that the situation would improve, that Donetsk would be brought back under Ukrainian control. But as the months stretched into years and the frontlines hardened into a de facto border she realised that for the sake of her son it was time for her to leave too. In August 2018 she packed up her apartment and drove away from Donetsk for good, joining the 1.6 million people displaced from the region by the conflict. By then Ivashchenko was working for Polish Humanitarian Action, an NGO coordinating aid delivery to needy civilians living on both sides of the frontline in Ukraine. “Somehow it helped me to deal with this terrible situation, to be helping others, to not feel powerless in it,” she tells me.

As the Russian bombardment began on 24th February 2022, Ivashchenko realised once again that she would have to leave – and knew from bitter experience that she might not be returning for some time, if ever. “I didn’t pack many clothes, those you can replace. I took the things that you can’t buy. The things that would remind me of happy times, good memories.” Among the items she stuffed in her suitcase, along with her important documents, were the hospital wristband worn by her son Maksim on the day he was born, a teacup and saucer heirloom from her grandmother and some rolled-up works of art she had collected on her travels.

Everyone at the camp for internally displaced people was like a deer in the headlights – totally frozen with fear”

For the first two nights of the war Ivashchenko, Maksim and their dog slept on camp beds in a centre for internally displaced people set up in a village to the west of the capital. “The people who were running the place told us to keep the lights off at night and to only talk in whispers,” she tells me. “Everyone there was like a deer in the headlights – totally frozen with fear.”  Ivashchenko’s instincts, however, told her that she should make a plan and move on. “My first instinct was to flee as far away as possible, but then I thought ‘no’… I must stay here to help my own people in their hour of need.”

Evacuees cross a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, 7th March

Evacuees cross a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, 7th March 2022. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP

It was now 27th February, and hundreds of thousands of people were on the move in a desperate bid to flee the bombs that were striking almost every major city in the country. It was here that Ivashchenko knew that she could use her experience as a humanitarian worker to help. First she decided to get her sister and her family, including their four pet cats, to the border with Moldova. Then she headed to the west of Ukraine, to the epicentre of the refugee crisis. As far as possible, she stuck to the relative safety of roads that skirted along Ukraine’s borders with European Union countries, which meant, she hoped, that they would be protected from being the target of Russian air strikes.

When Ivashchenko arrived at the Polish border she was shocked at “the scale of the crisis – the number of people”. Tailbacks stretched for miles, leaving people queuing for days without access to food, water or sanitation. Some abandoned their cars, making the arduous trek to the border on foot carrying luggage, pets and children. Meanwhile the nearby city of Lviv was overwhelmed by a flood of displaced people seeking refuge. Ivashchenko got to work. “Our organisation was one of the first there,” she tells me. “In those early days none of the big humanitarian organisations were present yet. No one was prepared for the scale of this invasion. People left their homes with nothing and it was very difficult to find a space in the city to stay – they needed clothes, food, sanitary items…” At that time, just three days into the war, around half a million people had already left the country. That number has now reached almost six million.

A further eight million people in Ukraine, around 20 percent of the population, have been internally displaced by the fighting – most to the relative safety of the western regions. Although the influx of people has slowed, compared to the early days of the invasion, many are settling in for the long haul. “The challenges change all the time. At the beginning it was necessary to provide for peoples’ basic needs but over time you need to think about long-term issues like schooling, medical care and accommodation,” explains Ivashchenko. “By the time you solve one problem there is another one that needs attention. Of course, we hope that the war will be over soon, but it is necessary to prepare as if it won’t be and that means people need to be able to access services that give them normal lives.”

I didn’t know if my mum was even alive. It was a constant thought in the back of my mind”

Ivashchenko also had her own worries. Her mother, who lived in Mariupol, had been sheltering in the basement of her brother’s house but Ivashchenko couldn’t reach them by phone. “I didn’t know if my mum was even alive. It was a constant thought in the back of my mind. You try to put it to one side, to think positive, but your mind takes you to the darkest places,” says Ivashchenko.

After nearly two weeks with no news, Ivashchenko received a call. It was a friend from Donetsk who said they had seen her mother on a news programme on a separatist television channel. She was on an evacuation bus to Russia. “I was horrified to hear about my mum being on this separatist TV show, but at the same time I was so relieved because I knew she was OK,” says Ivashchenko. Fortunately, her mother was not sent to a ‘filtration’ camp in Russia where Ukrainian evacuees are interrogated about their political allegiances and report squalid conditions, having their identity documents taken and, in some cases, being tortured.

Eventually Ivashchenko was able to get tickets for her mother to fly out of Russia, via Istanbul, to Warsaw where they were reunited – a tricky task as most major airlines have stopped flying to Moscow due to the sanctions imposed by western countries.

Ivashchenko’s mum is now staying with her and Maksim in a small village outside Lviv. “Through all these times since 2014, I learned that your home is not a place. It’s not Donetsk or Kyiv, it’s in your heart with your family.
I have my son and mum with me and so I am OK,” she tells me.

“I’m very proud of Ukraine and Ukrainians. I see a lot of young people helping and becoming active in civil society. I know that the next generation of humanitarians will be Ukrainian and, hopefully, when the war ends, they will use this experience to help people across the world.”

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