АвторAuthor: Oleksandr Nikitin | Translation: Roman Klochko
27 October 2022
Maryna Kovalova from Luhansk fled the war for the first time in 2014. She believes that this experience better prepared her for a full-scale invasion. On February 24, at 6 a.m., Maryna and her children left for Khmelnytskyi. There, they had to hide in the basement from air alerts and the children began to suffer from panic attacks because of that. To keep them healthy, Maryna left for Italy, driving for a few days. Marina told Monologues of War about Luhansk 2014, her first forced evacuation, life in Kyiv, travel abroad, and survivor’s syndrome.
My family is from Luhansk. Before the war, I had run a private business as an aesthetic cosmetologist and my husband had worked as a law enforcement officer.
We have three children. Until 2014, we lived in Luhansk. The older child went to the first grade, and the younger twins were 3 years old. Then we moved — for the first time to Kharkiv, because my husband went to serve in the ATO, and that year, while he was in the combat zone, we were in Kharkiv. Later we moved to Kyiv and now the war has already met us here for the second time.
In 2014, the Maidan began in Luhansk, as if it were similar to Kyiv. But I remember well the Russian accent of the people who took part in it. It was a pro-Russian lobby, most likely brought into the city. So there were such rallies near the central buildings that might seem like the Maidan. But this resembled quite another because the contingent that took part in these events didn’t look like people fighting for freedom at all. Frankly, these were vagabonds because they came there, mainly to eat and shout. So I think that its participants went there for food and money. The trouble is that in this territory at that time there were many traitors and pro-Russian agents who “brewed” all this on the spot because of the annexation of Crimea. At that time, the Armed Forces of Ukraine had to go to liberate Crimea from occupation. Such a maidan in Luhansk and Donetsk just distracted their attention.
It cannot be said that this conflict fell on some gracious ground because only 10 percent cried out for Russia to come. There was no one to save because everyone communicated calmly in Russian and lived as they wanted. In general, I studied in Luhansk at the Ukrainian Lyceum, it was a rather unique phenomenon for the Russian-speaking city. So it was all an artificially created conflict.
By the end of May, it was all going as if in a slow mode but none of the conscious people did not pay attention to those rallies and did not try to counter them in any way. Our local forces, of course, were in an enhanced mode and were waiting for their management’s orders.
After the first decade of May, somewhat different processes began. The machinery began to come in, the planes began to fly…
As a mom, I knew there was something going on that I couldn’t control. And then I had the feeling as many had this February: we live in the 21st century, how is that even possible?
But my female intuition and increased responsibility for children made my husband and I think about our priorities. About the fact that the children shouldn’t be where the planes had already started to fly very loudly, so I had to close the windows. On May 20, my dad and I decided to take the children out. My husband stayed because as a civil servant he expected his management’s orders. About two weeks later, he also left Luhansk for the part of Luhansk oblast where the ATO forces were being formed. We were not faced with the issue of abandoned housing and work at all, the priority was the safety of children. We didn’t even consider the options of staying or adapting to new “authorities”. For us, these were principled positions and concepts.
My children and I moved to Kharkiv while my husband stayed in the combat zone. He could refuse to take part in hostilities like a father of many children but he would never do so. It is also a matter of honor and I fully support it in this respect. Back then, 8 years ago, I invented a way not to immerse myself in negative thoughts. For me, this way was to be busy all the time. Our young children were 3 years old. The older one was about to go to the second grade. I made sure that the children had the busiest schedule possible. The girls began to practice ballet professionally, the son started training in the Metallist football club in Kharkiv, and we attended a music school. Every hour was scheduled: I worked in the local cosmetology office while the children were in kindergarten and school, and in the afternoon I was already engaged in their development. The only thing that bothered us was that we did not see my husband and their father. We were worried about his health and safety.
And, of course, we dreamed of coming home. But because we are now enemies there, we have not been able to return. After that, I understand that some kind of sustainability of life needs to be treated very conventionally because at one moment it can change drastically.
I believe that that experience has given us a great deal. We realized that the most important thing is that you, your children, friends, and relatives are alive, healthy, and safe.
Such trials in your life make you re-evaluate your life values and very strongly encourage development. Because your growth process is behind every such difficult situation in your life. That is, such situations should be treated as a step to something bigger.
We moved to Kyiv because we wanted some development for our children as well as a more pro-Ukrainian environment. Although Kharkiv helped us a lot — both local authorities and ordinary people. During the year we spent there, we were treated very well. But we did not really understand what was happening to us and what we felt at all. Now I understand it so that until it touches you, it is as if you are showing kindness, helping a person but you do not fully understand what they had to endure. I was often asked: “Oh, how did you let your husband go to the ATO? And how did you abandon your home?” At that time, these questions seemed pointless to me because we were saving our lives and the lives of children.
We didn’t think of any material things at all. Then a year later, my husband came from the ATO zone. As he was transferred, there was a chance to choose another city so we chose Kyiv. Our schedule remained the same. Many of my acquaintances wonder about our routine and ask me: “How do you even live like this when you have every minute scheduled?” But this is probably the way to save yourself from depressed states and negative thoughts.
The experience of 2014 helped me a lot to understand that the war could happen again. When, in February, everyone around us said, “How’s it going? It is impossible to do it. This cannot be”. I had a clear understanding that this could happen. Therefore, we were absolutely ready for everything. And it helped us a lot. Because on February 23, I already packed suitcases. I understood that the war might begin but I was very calm. We had a clear plan of action. When people were panicking the day before (some were even leaving), I was at peace. I was in the gym and I heard people saying, “Well, now let’s finish training and get ready”. So when I got home on the 23rd of February in the evening, I knew it was time to get ready. It was just some gut feeling, I did not lean on any information or news. I just realized it was time to be ready. I also talked to the children and told them to pack their suitcases. I said it was for 2 weeks but, having already had the experience of such a meeting, I understood that it would be for a long time. This time I understood that if something started, it would be much more violent and of a larger scale. I understood that if we had to go, it would be — for a long time.
We collected the documents, and all the necessary things, and at 5 a.m. the calls began from everywhere. Both me and my husband. First, relatives from Luhansk called and said that a lot of machinery comes in, and the bombing goes somewhere in the circle of the city.
At the same time, there were calls from Odesa, Vyshhorod, from the East of Ukraine, from the West… We understood that everything was happening in a very massive way. We immediately went down to the parking lot, got in the car, and left for Western Ukraine.
This helped us a lot because after us a lot of people started leaving and huge congestion began. My children and I slipped fast enough, my husband, of course, stayed because he was in service. Due to my husband’s job, during these 8 years, we had the opportunity to live in Khmelnytskyi for a while. So we had some connections and friends there. We decided to go there first. During our journey, I realized that airfields in the major cities of our footsteps had been blown up but I did not panic because I understood that I had a goal – to move the children out. I understood that these rocket attacks were taking place throughout the country.
So we came to Khmelnytskyi to rest and make a decision – what to do next?
We stayed in Khmelnytskyi for about a week. There were also air alerts and people were tense as well. My children were hiding in the basement during the air alerts. As a result, the little ones started having panic attacks. The fact that in June my girls had to represent Ukraine at the World Ballet Championship also played a role. They needed to train but I understood that no training is possible in such conditions. And we decided to go to Europe, and specifically — to Italy because my mother has been here for quite a long time.
We left at the beginning of March.
Like most women in Ukraine, I have never traveled such long distances on my own and also with children. It was another experience for me. We left at 6 a.m. and on the first day, I was driving for 18 hours. But I had a condition, probably related to adrenaline, that I didn’t sleep at all for four days. I could not sleep because I had an increased level of responsibility and had to complete this mission — to take the children to a safe place. We left Khmelnytskyi, then stood at the border for about 5-6 hours, and were in Budapest around midnight. And when I had the chance to rest until morning, I still couldn’t sleep. We set off again in the morning and were already in Italy, in the suburbs of Venice, in the evening. We were already safe here but I still couldn’t sleep for several nights.
In Italy, I faced survivor syndrome. It just tore me from the inside because I understood that people, including children, die in Ukraine. You seem to be doing well but it hurts you so much that you can’t handle it. During the first month, being in absolute beauty and silence, I felt like a vegetable and could not get out of bed at all, look in the mirror or do something productive. It seemed to me as if I was dying every day, along with every dead person in Ukraine. It was excruciating and very difficult. In the last nine years, this has been probably my most challenging condition. This was not the case in 2014. For myself, I realized that it was because there was no such scale and no such atrocities. Perhaps, they were simply not so well documented and shown around the world. And here we experienced every minute together as our own experience. This is the most painful experience in my life that continues to this day. Then I picked myself up and started helping people. I helped people get out, I was looking for drugs for those who needed them in Ukraine and sending them through our Ukrainian carriers. That is, I got involved in a productive course because I understood that otherwise, I would not be able to cope with it.
I believe that everything has worked out very well for us in Italy. A week later, we reached the city of Genoa because a ballet academy was waiting for us there. Less than two months remained before the World Cup, so the girls needed to train. In the city where we lived at my mother’s, there were just dance schools but there was no classical ballet. By then, the girls had been studying for 8 years so they needed a fairly professional workload. Back when we were at my mother’s, I found a coach, who is also Ukrainian. She watched the girls dance and just cried. She said that I was very right to take the kids out of those cellars because dancing helps them live. So when we moved to Genoa, the girls immediately joined the ballet academy and began to prepare. We were allocated to a family that welcomed us, and we are here at the moment. We are still waiting for official documents because it is a long process, but our basic needs are satisfied. Because you are a forced migrant, because you are not here of your own accord, because you have been uprooted and not transplanted, there is absolutely no desire to stay here. I want to go home badly. There is a peaceful, measured life here, people are in no hurry, and rejoice in life but it does not affect you at all. It still goes in the background and you don’t care about it at all.
I was joking that we had a few dreams that came true in a rather crooked way. We have been thinking a lot about giving children the opportunity to learn in Europe, play in an Italian football club, train girls in European academies, learn languages, to travel across Italy. Imagine how all these dreams have come true in such an insanely vile way. Because of that, you don’t enjoy it. I mean, it came true, but these dreams don’t make you happy. On the contrary, they showed us how well we were doing, and how much higher things were at home on many levels. For me, it’s a paradox. If we touch on many areas: education, children’s classes, services, banking, social services, some average services, and so on, then it seems that here it is as it was 10-15 years ago in our country. Probably we needed this experience in order to start valuing our lives.
I am very glad that my children have question no.1 now: “When did we get home? When can we get back there? We want to live and study only there!” They now have great opportunities but they do not want to use them. They do not want to stay here and make any plans for the future related abroad. They see themselves only in Ukraine and I am very proud of it. I have always said that we can build our own Europe in Ukraine. I believe that now most of our people will return home with a frantic desire to do something in Ukraine. In Italy, we go to rallies in support of Ukraine, children performed with our flags in the World Cup, and they were given the opportunity to begin the opening ceremony.
This war has only strengthened my conviction that you should appreciate what you have.
In psychology, there is such a concept as resilience. It is a person’s ability to recover from life’s upheavals. It seems to me that now Ukrainians have very much increased this level, having collected all their historical memory, felt this Ukrainianness, and grown up with the concept of “being Ukrainian”. I am sure that a bright future awaits Ukraine. I am convinced that situations in life are repeated when we have not learned a lesson. In 2014, we probably did not learn this lesson because we continued to communicate in Russian, watch Russian content, interact with Russians, and so on. A lot of people didn’t even realize what was going on. If we do not learn to defend our own language and culture now, our children and grandchildren will have to defend Ukraine again. I am glad that now the Russian language and culture in Ukraine will be a sign of low intelligence.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Oleksandr Nikitin | Translation: Roman Klochko