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  • Українці розповідають про пережите під час війни з росією

    Ukrainians talk about their experiences during the war with russia

    Oksana Bersan

    Oksana Bersan: “In the course of a day, I knew there were no people left in Russia. Only slaves and butchers”

    Life under fire

    АвторAuthor: Yulia Zarudnitska | Translation: Lisa Bolotova

    5 June 2022

    Oksana Bersan is an artist from the Donetsk region who has had to flee the war yet again. She speaks about how she no longer has any plans for the future because it’s too hard to live knowing that everything you have is so fragile.

    On her first experience of the war

    For me, the war started back in 2014. I was 23 then, and my life was only beginning to blossom. I come from a small town in the Donetsk region, from a poor family. For many years, I would take on any job I found, but then I finally mastered my gift of painting. I found a job in Donetsk and moved there. I rented a beautiful apartment in a district called Tekstylshchyk and met a nice guy. We entertained the thought of buying our own apartment and having kids. But then February 2014 happened. While I was watching the events in Kyiv, terrified, people around me, even some that I knew, were being brainwashed with imaginary threats. The building of the Donetsk regional administration was captured by armed people. I saw military vehicles and servicemen in the city. I was afraid of making eye contact with them or even venturing downtown.

    Then there was a peaceful pro-Ukrainian rally where people were killed just because, much to the separatists’ glee. My friend got it quite bad, and my boyfriend forbade me to go because he felt it was too dangerous. Then I posted my work about how I loved Donetsk and Ukraine, which was followed by threats. We stayed in the city. I still believed that the new Ukrainian government would bring it all to order and we would return to our normal lives.

    When fighting broke out in the city, I wasn’t afraid. I looked forward to it, dreaming that it would finally make the frightful armed people go away. I waited and waited—for us to win. Several months passed. We slept in turns. When the combat raged on from dusk till dawn, we would hide in the bathroom. I had a ferret then. She was sick, but the vet was in the city center. I remember how we took her to surgery, and right after we came back home, that district was shelled. 

    I was overwhelmed with fear when the men in uniforms without any insignia installed an MLRS in our yard. My boyfriend was smoking on the balcony, and I was talking to him. It was around two in the morning. We were waiting for shots to be fired because that was the time they usually started. Suddenly, we heard and saw shells flying very close. Soldiers we are not: it’s impossible to be ready for such things when you’re a freelancer. I had never seen anything like that before. It was bright and loud when the target was somewhere outside the city. We realized they were doing that on purpose, so that the Armed Forces of Ukraine would shoot back at residential areas. We were a human shield for those beasts. We took the essential stuff, our ferret, and laptops, and left for the small town of Bakhmut, which was under Ukraine’s control.

    Oksana Bersan with her husband

    Oksana Bersan with her husband

    I don’t think I’d have the chance to leave the occupied territory now. But back then, smartphones, social media, and the web were completely different. So the occupiers only demanded that I show my registration address at checkpoints, and I was registered in Bakhmut. There was one DPR [Translator’s note: Donetsk People’s Republic] minion who threw the carrier with my ferret in my face when he was searching the car. Both she and I were hurt. These are the tiny details that make up the whole picture. It hurt the most that so many people were actually happy about what was going on. Even my father thought that the self-appointed Donetsk government was doing the right thing. 

    My life was ruined… That war was taking hundreds of our boys’ lives 

    And my life was ruined for the first time. Then, a few months into the war, when it was clear that Donetsk would not be recovered, I came back to that apartment and took all I could. Over a half remained there. After all that I witnessed at checkpoints and all I heard about the occupiers’ treatment of Ukrainians, I couldn’t come back. That war was taking hundreds of our boys’ lives. At one DPR checkpoint, there was a bus riddled with bullets, decimated, covered in blood, with a graffiti on it saying, “Death to the pigs.” It came back in my nightmares for six months.

    Pet ferret

    Oksana Bersan with her pet ferret

    I had no strength to rebuild my life from scratch. We rented an apartment in Bakhmut and gradually came to our senses. It helped that my family was there and a lot of childhood friends. The first years were tough. Any loud noise would startle us. We started to hate fireworks and firecrackers. It was almost as tense as in Donetsk. Incessant fighting in the background and occasional hits in the city gradually became part of our lives. It turned out that you could live with the war going on. But there was no life anyway. I wanted neither kids nor my own apartment. I kept saying that one can’t grow attached to anything until the east is back to normal.

    Over time, fighting ceased. In the recent years, we didn’t even want to move to any big city from Bakhmut because we got great friends, a cat, and new plans. Odd as it sounds, we started talking about kids and home again. Although I would still have none of it, my arguments grew less and less compelling.

    Turned out you feared more about others than for yourself

    But then the winter of 2022 came. The tension was building up, and with it, our anxiety. We had our go-bags packed long before February 24. The day Putin announced he recognized the DPR and LPR, meaning the entire regions at that, I had a breakdown.

    The day before it started, I met with friends. We joked along the lines of, “let’s go to a cafe while the war hasn’t started yet.” No one laughed, of course. We were arguing about where the war would start. Someone tried to cheer us up and said there would be no war. We really didn’t want to believe that the neighboring country was that insane. Flash forward to my boyfriend-turned-husband waking me up saying that Ukraine’s major cities were hit with missiles. I’m an artist, so I have friends all over the country. It was a nightmare. We messaged each other, tried to find those that we couldn’t reach. It turned out you feared more about others than for yourself.

    Donetsk in 2014

    Memories from 2014, during the first evacuation

    I was repelled by my co-workers and ex-friends from Russia who repeated parrot-like that they couldn’t change anything or that they actually supported the “special military operation.” On February 24, more people blocked me on social media than in all my life. I have never thought that I would be cursed and accused of sharing fakes when I asked for help in spreading the word. After that, just in the course of a day, I knew that there were no people left in Russia. Only slaves and butchers.

    “I’d rather be dead than trapped in the hands of those monsters, especially now that my smartphone is basically my death warrant”.

    In the first month of the war, I did volunteer work, making camo netting, bringing food and clothes to the volunteer hub in our town. One evening, an aircraft dropped a bomb near our house. We hid in the corridor. I grabbed the cat with us. He was so terrified he shredded me. The scratches are still healing. Again, I wasn’t afraid. Just adrenaline pumping. The blast wave was so strong I felt it in my bones. It was too unnatural.

    Since then, the city has suffered several air strikes more. But we agreed to evacuate only after the possibility of occupation had been mentioned. I’d rather be dead than trapped in the hands of those monsters, especially now that my smartphone is basically my death warrant. I’ve been drawing since the first week of the war, as a way to cheer up both myself and other Ukrainians. Some of my art became very popular on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.

    So, I took my younger sister and we went to my husband’s relatives to Dnipro. We are here now. With us we have only our backpacks, our cat, and two laptops. Our gaming PCs, our settled routine, beautiful kitchenware and clothes we left at home. I realize that some people are having it a lot worse than us, but still it hurts to live on the run again, when you have no place of your own on this earth.

    I don’t have any job now. Now I make art of social media to support our army and Ukrainians

    I don’t do volunteer work in Dnipro because, to be honest, I don’t have any spirit left for it. Neither my husband nor I have any job now. Because of the war, the projects we had been working on were closed or put on hold. Now I just make art for social media. Every day, to support our army and all Ukrainians. That my talent can be of any use to people in these terrible times is my greatest joy. 

    Art from Oksana

    Art in support of Ukraine’s army from Oksana

    I, for one, have no hopes for the future now. I know for sure that Ukraine will win. But the hell that we have lived through and are braving now, the fear for my life and for the lives of the people I love, it won’t go away, I don’t think. And it’s too hard to live knowing that everything you have is so fragile.

    The city where my mother and brother still live recently suffered another air strike. They are OK. This time. We got lucky again…

    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: Yulia Zarudnitska | Translation: Lisa Bolotova

    Life under fire

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