АвторAuthor: Iryna Semenova | Translation: Nataliia Zadorozhna
31 July 2022
From the first days of the war, psychologist Anna Kharchenko has been helping people professionally, often on a free basis. However, she admits that there were times when she couldn’t even get herself together. The woman has a disability, moves in a wheelchair and before the war, she got sick with coronavirus. That made the situation even more difficult for everyone. When she and her husband decided to evacuate from Kyiv to Prague, it turned out that traveling during the war is another unpredictable challenge, and even a GPS navigator can go nuts. More about this in “Monologues of the War”.
“The day before the invasion, I got sick with covid. I was on drips, and I didn’t have time to think about whether the war would break out or not. I heard a lot from people I consider competent that there would be a war after February 20, after the Olympic Games, but I didn’t want to believe it. So, back then, we just bought some groceries and collected the documents so that they would be at hand.
My treatment was over two days before the war broke out, so there was time to think about other risks. At that time, I really wanted to stay in Kyiv. “They can’t bomb us,” I told my friend and hoped for the best. In this way I tried to reassure myself, but I still was very anxious about it. Because, deep down I felt that there would be a war.
Our apartment is on the ground floor, it’s like a bunker, so we didn’t hear any siren or explosions there. But my husband always wakes up early, and on February 24 at 6 a.m. he woke me up with terrible news. After that, we stayed awake until 3:00 p.m. the next day, until we were in Chernivtsi.
I had scheduled consultations with clients for the whole day, and I said that I would stay there, because it couldn’t get any worse. However, my determination melted away with every air raid alert, especially when my husband pulled me away from the clients at the end of the session and we ran to hide somewhere.
There was underground parking across the street, but it was so cold that if we stayed there all the treatment I was going through would have been for nothing. We waited until the end of my working day, and since the situation was only getting worse, we decided at seven in the evening that we would leave the town immediately”.
A day before the war, I received a phone call from a close friend whose parents live in Chernivtsi in a private house. She insisted that my husband and I should come here, so the evening decision to leave was not as difficult as it could have been. It took us 19 hours to get to Chernivtsi. We stopped four times for 10 minutes to take a breath and drink some water. On the way out of Kyiv and near Bila Tserkva, we got stuck in long traffic jams. Many people, like us, tried to drive in such a way that the path did not run close to airports or the Zhytomyr highway. Apparently, having recognized the traffic jams on the road, the navigator offered us a faster alternative by seeing a road where there was none. So, at 3 a. m. we went to the direction, which was covered with screenings for several kilometers in a row. It’s impossible to drive fast on such a road if you are not in a Jeep. However, it was too late to return to the main road, so we drove through the field. There were no villages nearby, no lighting, no other cars, no decent roads. My husband tried to bypass one of the worst sections, turning to the right. We scratched the bottom of the car a lot and both of us were scared that we left the suspension on the road. But, fortunately, everything worked out.
In Chernivtsi we stayed for a week. The owners were wonderful, but the house had stairs: the kitchen with the basement, where we hid during air raids, was on the ground floor, and the bedroom, where it was warm and I could work and rest, was on the second floor. My husband carried me in his arms several times to the basement at night, and by the end of the week I was already very out of shape, which is why we decided to try to move further. At that time, it was not yet clarified whether he could officially leave with me, because I need constant outside help due to disability. So we just drove to the nearest checkpoint. A couple of days ago there were queues for 5-6 hours, but we crossed the border surprisingly easily. The first wave of those willing to leave has passed, and we were able to be in Moldova in just 20 minutes. We stood for an hour and a half at the next border.
Unfortunately, the certificates of disability cannot be renewed. They were issued to me 22 years ago. My main certificate was lost somewhere in America, and now I only have a copy of it. At the first border, when they looked at my documents, there was a delay, because they wanted to check everything and look at the database. But I was still lucky, because I know of cases when people with more serious diagnoses were kept at the border for four hours. I am very grateful to the border guards for their adequacy and the fact that they did not start creating problems where there are none.
We immediately headed to the Czech Republic because my student lives here. She helped us find a family there, who gladly rented us an available apartment. Our journey lasted for 4 days. This was partly due to the fact that the navigator once again took us on a “short” path in Romania. This shorter path turned out to be a serpentine path. As we drove, we passed a signpost to Count Dracula’s castle, a cross with a church on one of the mountains against the background of an eternally gray sky, and snowy landscapes. It was beautiful and a little creepy at the same time.
Then we spent one night in Budapest. We stayed at the same friend from Chernivtsi who was waiting for her flight to travel further. And now, we have been living in the Czech Republic for four months.
Prague is more accessible than Kyiv in terms of physical space. When I move around the city, I don’t need outside help. The Czech Republic introduced financial support for Ukrainians. Although it is small, it was very important for us in the beginning. Health insurance is provided to everyone who has a visa of tolerance. Everything else depends on the place where you ended up and the people who helped you with housing.
“In the second or third week of the war, my practice resumed and even increased by 1.5 times. At the beginning of the war, I provided psychological help to many people for free. For the first 3 months, I provided free group supervision twice a week to therapists working with crisis clients. The payment arrangements for clients whose work depended on their place of residence were reviewed.
The first week, while we were in Chernivtsi, my husband said that we would not return back as soon as I wanted. He said that I should have brought more than just sweatpants. But I took a suitcase for 3 days, and believed that in a week or two active fights would end, and we would come back. But the air raids became more frequent, and although Chernivtsi was not bombed, rockets flew through the region regularly. And hiding in basements with a wheelchair is a big challenge. On the one hand, I expected that everything would be over soon, and on the other hand, I had and still have the impression that a year and a half will definitely be difficult. It’s not the case when we can spend a month there and then it will be possible for us to return back. The inability to physically escape from danger has exhausted me completely. That’s why I chose to take care of myself now, so that I wouldn’t worry about it later: I resumed personal therapy, left the country, and got actively involved in work.
The only time my husband cried was when we arrived in the Czech Republic and realized that we had an apartment for a year and were not in danger. And I cried for every house that was hit by a missile in Kyiv and Kharkiv. The second emotional wave was very serious for me, it happened against the background of the events in Bucha, Irpen and Hostomel. After that, I deliberately stopped watching photos and videos of news, because it is perceived as very hard emotionally.
It is important to be informed, but it is also necessary to dose information that can affect your mental state, so that there is no secondary trauma. If I look at a photo or video, and then I can’t eat, sleep or function normally because of it – these are the consequences of indirect (secondary) trauma. So, it is important to stop being addicted to the news.
There are many other ways to be involved, to feel like a Ukrainian. We plan to be there next year. We plan to just live and help as much as possible. If the end of the war is obvious, then, of course, we will come back home and help to rebuild our country.
It can be considered patriotic not to leave Kyiv, to work as a volunteer, and so on. And it’s really important and very patriotic if you don’t have a panic attack every time you hear sirens, and generally remain emotionally stable. If you cannot eat, sleep, etc. due to air raid alerts and while being in wartime Ukraine you do not take into account your own limits, then this is what will cause you trauma, not the war. Therefore, it is important to find a place and a way where you will feel safe enough to remain emotionally stable and, if possible, be useful to others. If you still need to be taken care of after you have volunteered, it is better to find an alternative way.
War experience is traumatic, but it does not mean that the mental state of the majority of Ukrainians will be destroyed. Up to 80% of us will come out of this war without significant trauma, which would radically interfere with life and break us forever (although there will certainly be some difficulties).
When the war is over, we have a chance to come out of it stronger and more mature in terms of our own national identity. Unfortunately, at such a high price. But the feeling of unity and understanding of who we are will definitely have a good effect on the future of Ukraine. I think a lot about returning and rebuilding Ukraine. Also about the day when we will be able to live peacefully in our country knowing that we will be able to protect and defend ourselves under any circumstances and under any conditions”.
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: Iryna Semenova | Translation: Nataliia Zadorozhna