АвторAuthor: Kateryna Bankova | Translation: Andrii Serbovets
26 September 2022
Alina Voroniuk is a Ukrainian-born photographer based in Israel. Her family had to endure three wars. Her parents lived in Transnistria when hostilities erupted there, Alina herself came under shelling in Tel Aviv, and her grandmother was in Ukraine when the Russian invasion began. The situation in Ukraine stirred her feelings so much that she participated in numerous anti-war rallies and volunteered for a refugee center in Poland. Now, she has organized the production of plate carriers for Ukrainian defenders. Alina told the Monologues of War about her anti-war activities and the attitude toward the war of her mother living in Russia.
As it happens, my family has had to endure three wars already. My parents lived in Transnistria in 1992 when hostilities began there. My grandma once told me about that time when she spoke to my mom on the phone, and she went, “Oh, my. The tanks are approaching,” and they go cut off. A lot happened at the time. A bread truck driver got killed, and my dad had to pull his body from behind the wheel and deliver the bread himself. A nearby house caught fire. They were sitting in the basement, and there was no radio there. Some neighbors shouted that it was the last green corridor and there would be no more. So, drove in a car with some white t-shirts to show they were civilians. And then the bridge they crossed got blown up. That makes the first war.
The second one was mine to experience — it’s what happened the year before in Israel. I moved here from Odesa about three and a half years ago. Naturally, shelling is rare in the central part of Tel Aviv, but the rocket hit a mere five buildings away from ours at the time.
We sheltered in our basement, where a local artist stored paintings she had found in the street, as well as canvas stretchers of all sizes and colors.
During the first shelling, we heard her artful curses together with all our neighbors. During the day, she trawled through her belongings, and we even found another room there during the night shelling.
We went to the basement even before the (siren) wailing began and occupied that newly found annex. In about five minutes, all hell broke loose. First, all our neighbors came there, said hello, and everyone went silent. The Iron Dome started working. The missiles were blowing up over Tel Aviv, above us, and everywhere.
I sat straight in my chair, trying to make myself believe that we were in a safe place, all that shit would end in 10 minutes, and we would go home and drink whatever alcohol we had there.
I spaced out, tried to concentrate, remembered that I took four anti-anxiety tablets, and caught myself staring at the date — 05/15/2010. I realized it was May 15, too, but the year was 2021. I slowly took the painting out of that spider den and saw a happy Israeli family, a sunset, the sea, and seagulls in the picture. It was like a scene with weird faces from the credits of some Brazilian telenovela.
Still, our situation reminded me of an entirely different movie at that moment. Like, Exam or Saw. I even spoke a couple of phrases in English because I was really excited.
There was an emergency exit in the basement, and the door crack let in a sliver of light from the street. When the rocket hit, the impact was so powerful that we thought it hit either our house or the next one. Dust and dirt violently burst into the basement through that door crack.
At the time, I realized something about how people experience war. Those who survived bombings are relaxed. They say it’s nothing like it used to be. Back in 2006, the shellings were much heavier. “You’re lucky you weren’t in the times of Saddam Hussein,” that artist told me. You know, bikers hang tails on their belt for every 100k kilometers. If the people here did that for shellings, they would have had two or three already.
So, where’s my first tail?
I had a panic attack. I didn’t leave our shelter until everything ended. Thoughts raced in my head: “Why am I here? Where am I? What kind of war is this?” What I felt when the third war my family had to endure began here in Ukraine was different. My grandma is here.
On February 24, I woke up at 5:30 AM. I felt something. I was aware of the impending war over the two previous months but naturally refused to believe it. I immediately dialed my grandma’s number to wake her up. She didn’t pick up the phone. I started calling all my friends. As it happens, I was the one telling my friends and family in Ukraine that “it’s begun” while being myself in Israel.
I was scared. I felt guilty for not being there. I felt powerless and angry for Russia actually doing it.
I immediately wrote to my mom. I needed support. After all, my grandma was in Odesa. My mom moved to Russia about ten years ago, way before Maidan. She knew about my attitude — I had been attending rallies since 2014, and she knew I aggressively hated Putin. She didn’t pick up. Not at 5:30 AM, not at 6 AM, not at 8 AM, not at noon even. I naively thought that mom was sleeping, busy, or having problems with the internet or her phone. I refused to believe that mom would fear my aggressive reaction to the point of never answering my calls.
It’s been six months of the war already, and I haven’t heard from her for about five and a half. They keep in touch with grandma but avoid the topic altogether.
I’d really like to talk to her, but it must be hard for her. Grandma said mom was afraid to discuss these topics. On the other hand, my life is all about war at the moment. I don’t know what else I could discuss with her.
It must be easier to think that it’s not your country that has invaded the place where your mother is living and where we all used to live together. I’ve been told that it’s kind of a defense mechanism. What I’d like to say about this is that it’s a defense mechanism in itself to call this a defense mechanism. I just can’t wrap my head around it — when missiles fly where your family lives, it’s not about politics. It’s about empathy.
During the first two days, I watched Russian television, like Skabeyeva with all the fireworks, to understand my mom. I wanted to understand what words they used and what information they conveyed to people in Russia. It was surreal.
I had never watched Russian TV before that. I was shocked at how everything was about politics — even the most insignificant story about the Polish soccer team refusing to play against the Russian. Here’s how they commented on it: “They refused because they understood that our soccer players are much stronger than them. They just fear us.” All that hubris, like, everyone fears us because we are so and so — it permeated every news story, every phrase.
If I could watch that, I thought, then my mom would consider the information I sent to her. But to whatever story I shared, my mother only said, “It’s fake news.”
In fact, we were always on good terms — you could call us friends even. She tried to develop me as a child as much as possible with manual dexterity, speech therapy, classes, and stuff. We were very close in general, too. I knew I could tell her anything and everything.
In Israel, there is an organization that has been helping Ukraine since 2014, dubbed Israeli Friends of Ukraine. It organized many of the rallies that I attended. The largest one was held in the first days of the war — 17,000 people gathered at the time.
My friends and I showed a few performances, too. During one, we poured red paint over ourselves on the background of the banner reading “Russian World.” Some performers laid down with their hands tied as a reminder about the people of Bucha. All that happened near the Russian embassy. The cars passing by were honking to show support.
I stood hand in hand with a girl from Ukraine, and Ukrainian music was playing from the speakers. I still remember those goosebumps. I felt so much pain for what happened that I cried for the entirety of the performance. The Russian embassy walled off with a huge fence is still before my eyes. Frankly, I don’t know if that fence was always there or if they had put it there to keep the rallies away. Police were there every day, likely to prevent any harm to embassy staff.
We waited for embassy personnel to go out — we knew they finished at 5 PM. Still, nobody showed up. They must have had some back door there.
My friends from Ukraine sent me a post from some Telegram channel with Russian flags flown in Israel as if to say, “take a look at this.” I realize that it’s hardly representative of the sentiment here because I know where it takes place. It could be Bat Yam or Haifa — people do organize pro-Russian rallies there. However, hardly 40 people walk out at a time. Usually, it’s those who left Russia 20 years ago — we call them “canned” because they as if remain in a cultural tin can, listening to the music popular twenty years ago, and even can prefer that style of clothing. Those rallies are not representative of the sentiment here at all. Pro-Ukrainian rallies are much more numerous. Among people there, you can often see Russians and Belarusians, by the way.
Zelenskyy even addressed the people at one of the rallies in Habima Square via video link. Some guys from Russia were at those rallies. They told me, “Damn, looks like it’s our first rally ever.” And I went, “Yeah, sure, you’re from Russia after all.” In truth, many people from Russia go to the rallies to show support for Ukraine.
I volunteered to help in Przemyśl, Poland. A shop was adapted to accommodate a refugee center. We worked as a part of the Hashomer Hatzair organization in the nursery. When people arrived, they needed a place to rest and take a shower, and they could leave their children with us while they were busy. Sometimes we had 70 children, and other times 8.
People arrived and had a few days or sometimes a week to decide where they went next. There were many volunteers from other countries, too: French, Swedish, German, and others. They came at their own expense, put their tables there, and helped Ukrainian refugees find families to stay with or shelter in other countries.
I tried not to agitate the children, never asking them where they were from and what they had experienced. It was hard for me. Each of us volunteers in the nursery sometimes had to go away and cry a little. We befriended one another, those children and us. We entertained them with games and dancing to distract them from their predicament. A boy approached me once, and our dialogue left such a mark on me that it rends my heart to remember it. “I’m leaving in a few hours,” he said. And I went, “Wow, that’s great. Where are you going?” He said he was going to Germany. “Super! You will take a plane there. I love flying on a plane,” I replied. And he went, “It’s very dangerous, you know.” Without a second thought, I told him that planes were the safest way of traveling out there. And he replied, “We saw so many broken planes on the ground.” That’s where it hit me how different his experience was. He had seen too much.
I was set to spend a week volunteering in Poland. However, one story made me extend my stay. There was an Israeli girl among us, and she didn’t speak Russian or Ukrainian at all. She just came there to support Ukrainians. Among the people we were in charge of, there was a little Myroslav with his father — a military-age man who had been let out of the country for being the kid’s sole custodian. Their situation was dire — they had to deprive their mother of parental rights. Myroslav’s father insisted that smartphones were unnecessary — he had a regular mobile phone, and his son had none at all. In the refugee center, however, it’s a necessity for it’s easy to lose one another. So, this Israeli girl I spoke of gifted her personal phone to Myroslav. I immediately remembered that many people in Israel had a second phone, which they hardly ever used. So, I made a post on social media, my friends supported me, and we collected 22 phones over just two days. The foundation helped me with paperwork, and my friend brought them to the center. We gave those phones away to those who needed them. It was great.
I asked my grandma to leave her apartment. She lived near a military installation, and I was afraid for her. So, she moved to a town near Odesa. Having spent some time there, she decided to go to her friends in Moldova. And a mere three days after she left, a missile hit the house near the one she lived in.
As it turned out, her friends’ sympathies were with the Russians. When grandma told them about the shelling, her friend’s husband demonstratively walked out. Naturally, she didn’t feel comfortable there, so she decided to go to Bulgaria. Before leaving, she asked me to set up mobile roaming for her, and I was hard at work in the refugee office. So, I promised her to do it in the evening. However, she didn’t pick up the phone when I called her. Neither did she in the morning. I realized that my grandma left without setting up anything, and now she has neither mobile nor internet connection.
The following evening, she called me from some random number and said, “Alina, my dear, I’m somewhere in Romania on the roadside. It’s getting dark, and there is this woman here — can you, please, explain to her who I am?” And then she returned the phone to that woman, who said, “Your grandmother is a very brave woman.” And I go, “Yeah, that’s my grandma.” The woman is 75 old, and she went all alone to another country without knowing the language or having mobile service. She found her way by the pointers.
Now my grandma is in Bulgaria under the Temporary Protection Program. She lives in a hotel with other refugees. There are many Ukrainians in her town. I spent a week with her and heard, like, five times, “Oh my God, I miss home so much,” from people there.
I’m a photographer. When the war began, I just couldn’t do my thing. Photoshoots take energy and inspiration, which have to be conveyed to people. I had neither. Sometime later, I pulled myself together and realized I could do photoshoots for armor vests. Everything just clicked into place, and I felt I could do what I love and send the money I make to support production in Ukraine. Finally, I had my motivation.
I made a video where I talked about this idea. By the way, it was the first time I showed myself on my social media — I usually post photos that I take, but not those of myself. Many people were on board with the idea. I didn’t expect that. Over the first two days, my video reached about 14,000 people, even though I’m no blogger and have never been one. However, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and it was also the first time that I encountered overt hate in comments. Although I don’t ask for donations and just ask that people buy my services, my DMs saw their fair share of abuse. I found consolation in the fact that those were from largely empty accounts, though.
I offer all kinds of photoshoots. I have an extensive portfolio spanning interiors, portraits, family, product photos, and more. I can do basically anything. Over the seven years that I have worked as a photographer, I have learned many things. I already have some photoshoot requests. Some people even transfer money and just write “For armor vests” in payment details. It’s so heartwarming.
I came here to discuss the production of armor vests personally. The atelier I work with used to make women’s apparel and switched to military products during the war. Nevertheless, their plate carriers are thought out to the tiniest details — they have gained much experience over the six months of the war. There are some softer elements that make the weight easier on the body when the plate is inside. They ensure the carrier matches the plate size perfectly, and there is even an element that reduces fabric wear. In a word, our defenders deserve comfortable protection. Also, we order certified armor plates, so I’m confident about their quality.
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: Kateryna Bankova | Translation: Andrii Serbovets