I had barely turned 17 when I woke up from explosions for the first time. Now I am 26, and it seems that nothing can scare me for real.
The first escape from the war and occupation seemed fine. It was calming to know I was only 3 hours away from my home. I could always come back. My home city changed from the time it had been cosy and safe.
Mariupol became my new home. In those first few days, it seemed so bland, so strange, but became the best place on earth later on. Seaside walks, modern parks, cosy streets, festivals, people who really cared for their city. But all of that changed on February 24th. The bubble burst and a safe peaceful city turned into hell in a matter of days.
Now the face of war looked like a 6 year old kid, that sternly shouted at their sister: “Go or die.” Just half a year ago these kids would take their colourful backpacks to school, but the war and the blockade made it so they had to fill in their whole life into a small bag. Everything worth carrying. On foot.
On the first day of the full-scale war, you just feel fear and confusion about how something like this could ever happen. You tell yourself that this will end soon. It just has to. On the third day, you’re just angry that somebody else’s malice ruins everything around you, everything you care about. You can’t stop thinking that there’s somebody just a few dozen kilometers away who puts their child to sleep and doesn’t even spare a thought about children dying here.
On the seventh day, there was no longer any mobile service, and all I could think was: “What’s happening in other cities? Do they have it just as bad? Which one’s been taken? Have we been forgotten?” On the eleventh day, there was little sense in counting days without service, water and electricity; the gas supply had been broken as well. We had catastrophically little drinking water and could cook only on the open fire near our block of flats. You’re a simple human who found herself under a horrible blockade and can’t escape it. No one could rescue you.
I had to sleep dressed because I had already been woken up several times by the unnatural fiery glow behind the window. I’ll remember forever the moment when the planes bombed the sleepy city for the first time. Afterwards, you’re too scared to close your eyes. With each passing day, you get used to it more, and count that this is the tenth plane flight over your building.
It was akin to shock therapy to leave our yard. Burnt down buildings everywhere, broken cars, ruins of someone’s life.
It was impossible to forget that moment of realisation that a missile would hit somewhere really close. We had already learned to understand how close the danger was by sound alone. And running away at the very last second, grabbing your loved ones and pressing them close, you laugh like a madwoman. Because you’re alive and whole. You don’t see immediately from behind the treeline whether your building still has its walls and windows. But the sounds of ringing glass, concrete shuddering, and people screaming, never leave you.
Your life changes when you see a burning building and can’t do anything about it. There are people inside. And that knowledge kills you inside. So do night terrors, that everyone who has seen such things, experiences.
All of your being zeroes on “after de-occupation” and “normal life” that will come later. Your thoughts are full of lists of things that need to be done first, lists of things you would like to do, lists of things you need to give to those who suffered more, and shopping lists. And there is still that magical “tomorrow”.
We found an easy way out of this situation – a way out on foot.
I have little notion about how much I left that day. All that I could save was me, a sweater my mum had knitted for me, and a few important trinkets. And here you are, an adult with no childhood and family pictures, no home, things, no job, or friends. And you are happy at the mere fact that you have made it, that you are alive and healthy.
At first, it seems that everything is behind you and your life is going to be fine, but the problems are only just beginning.
You’re a stranger. Even if you know the language of a country that gave you shelter. Everything is so different from what you’re used to. The rhythm of life clashes with your habits, food tastes differently, the weather surprises you, and traditions shock you a bit. There is one answer to everything: “It’s different at home”. Even flowers smell differently.
People around you are full of life, they are optimistic and genuine, and that charms you. You want to nurture the same within yourself. Every day you remind yourself that you are extremely lucky to have found shelter, help, and even a temporary home. You forcefully wake yourself up out of this strange slumber to explore the landscapes of a new country, you build new connections and new skills, but you can’t stop thinking about that one thing.
Your home isn’t letting you go. You start every day with scrolling news and finish every day with them as well. It’s impossible to stop thinking that every day people die, that landmarks are destroyed. More and more people suffer. You can only look from the outside how your home is being destroyed, how favourite places change until you can no longer recognise them. I had to watch online how my own home was destroyed and demolished. I never built a new one. Even a year and a half later a plane flying over my head makes me shudder from the deep-seated fear.
Will this feeling ever pass? Of course, it will, but nobody knows how long it will take to.
Letterfrack, Co Galway