I want to tell you a story from Ukraine. It’s about my girlfriend, Bohdana (not her real name), her mom, and their nation of extraordinary people.
In the leadup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was frustrating to watch her and most other Ukrainians not take the threat of what I thought might happen here as seriously as seemed natural to me. I made the move from Kyiv to Lviv about a month ago. Although I had booked train tickets for both of us, Bohdana decided to wait a few days to take care of work-related matters. When she finally arrived in Lviv, it felt as though she was here just to make me feel better.
Bohdana explained to me how during 2014 and 2015, after protestors were cut down by bullets in the center of Kyiv, Russia stole Crimea, and Russia began its war in Donbas, she and so many other Ukrainians fell into a deep depression over the fate of their country. There were of course thousands of Ukrainians who took up arms, gathered medical supplies, and wrought camouflage netting with their own hands to take on the Russian aggressor. But for Bohdana and many other Ukrainians, what they could do just never seemed enough, and the news was just too painful to watch. She told me that she understood that something terrible might be coming, but that she did not want to experience the horror of history happening to her country until the day that it came. She wanted to enjoy the peaceful days while they lasted.
I couldn’t argue with what she told me. She had been through something here that I hadn’t. All I could say was “yes, but…” It was a great source of stress for us. It was hard to listen to my instincts and knowledge about what I was seeing from military specialists and Russian rhetoric on the one hand, and then to be a good boyfriend who respects his partner, her decisions and her experiences on the other. It was even harder maintaining that balance with her mom.
Bohdana went back to Kyiv early Wednesday morning to try to convince her mom to come to Lviv. I told her it was a bad idea, but she needed to do what she needed to do. I told her Wednesday night that I thought that night would be the night the Russians invaded. Early Thursday morning, the Russians began striking Kyiv.
Her mom’s friend was supposed to have a spot for them to ride out of town if something happened, but the friend decided she wanted to stay. Her mom decided that she would stay, too. Bohdana went to her friend and her husband, who have a car and were planning to go to another provincial capital in the West, but they too, decided they didn’t want to leave that night. “Bohdana,” I wrote to her via Telegram with so much frustration, “The Russians are going to try to surround the city. Please, you have to convince your friends that the Russians are coming. Head to my friend’s apartment on the outskirts! It’s safer than being in Kyiv! Walk if you have to! Please!”
Bohdana was furious with the pressure she felt from me and with the feeling of powerlessness in her situation. I was in despair. I didn’t know what to tell her. I didn’t know what to do. I was terrified that the woman I love was going to be stuck in the capital as Russian missiles pounded the city and Russian armor rolled in.
But she took things into her own hands. In her words:
“I just walked along the highway, like hundreds of other people with suitcases and their pets, approached every car that was in the terrible traffic jam, and moved at a speed of 2 km per hour. I was already desperate after a futile search, but then I saw a bus heading west, and these people took me away.”
She got on a half-empty bus heading to the Carpathian resort town of Yaremche. All my study of the unfolding military and political situation, all my worry, they didn’t matter when it mattered. She knew where she needed to go to get lucky, and then she got lucky.
Twenty-five hours later, she arrived at the hotel we had booked for her. The bus was escorted by the woman who owned it. She and the other people on board took care of everyone else. Bohdana was scared to be on the road with bright lights as Russian warplanes flew over the country, but she kept calm. She was safe now.
I don’t know when I will see her next, but I am so much more at peace knowing she is safe, and that she will not have to feel the fear and dread of sharing the streets with Russian invaders. I got her mom and her husband a spot on a train to Yaremche for tonight. It took some convincing. I don’t know whether to call her mother’s attitude crazy nonchalance or nerves of steel.
A lot of the news coverage I’ve seen from western media from before and during this ordeal has shown a great level of anxiety on the ground. I’m sure that there are examples of that anxiety in places I haven’t looked, but for the past three days in Lviv, I have seen a city that is tense and nervous, but confident, calm and defiant. There have been air raid sirens to which my shelter-mates responded with calm, composure and patience for my occasional confusion and frequently sub-optimal Ukrainian.
On the one hand, I see lots of people with suitcases in the center, appearing to be headed toward the central train station for a bus to the border (or at least out of the city). On the other, I see public transit with healthy loads of passengers on their way to work or to take care of their daily affairs, and I see people out with their young children and/or their dogs. I see a high number of cars with out-of-town license plates, but traffic runs smoothly, and there are no horns of aggravation. I see troops patrolling downtown – young men armed with both automatic weapons and calm, professional resolve on their faces. Lines at ATMs are long but orderly. Grocery stores and bazaars have their employees coming to work and doing their jobs. Everyone has decided what they need to do for today, and they are doing it. They will do the same tomorrow.
The Ukrainian military seems to be blessed with the same defiant, controlled resolve as on Friday night they turned back the Russian assault on the Mother City of Rus’ and inflicted stunning losses upon the invader. Kyiv’s defenders fought and won a pitched battle with Russian mechanized units on Victory Avenue, mere miles from both the empty U.S. Embassy building and my Kyiv apartment. Friends on my social networks in Kyiv are scared, horrified and wrathful toward their tormentor. But they are not panicking and they are not defeated. There is worse ahead, but on Friday night, Kyiv held.
Dark days are soon to come for Ukraine. I’m worried that the clogging of roads is going to soon make food distribution a big challenge. Ukrainian cities run on just-in-time food logistics, too. The lines at the borders stretch for dozens of kilometers. I worry about the humanitarian situation there.
Leaders in European capitals are debating how to respond to Russia’s wanton savaging of Ukraine. Certain countries are ready to offer a great deal to Ukraine’s defenders while others are afraid of offering military support that could ignite a dangerous conflagration beyond Ukraine. Certain countries are insisting that some sanctions be held back, some for reasons I don’t like but can’t dismiss (the need to keep the lights on and fuel coming), and some for reasons that are pure selfishness and cowardice (sanctions carve-outs for diamonds and luxury goods). But what must not be up for debate is the urgency of sending medicine, food, shelter and other critically needed humanitarian supplies for the people of Ukraine.
Please listen to the cries of Ukrainians as they ask for justice upon the Russian invader.
Please donate to trusted charities, including the ICRC and the Red Crosses of Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Moldova. Please urge your representatives in government to get humanitarian aid to these people now. Please urge your representatives to make vigorous, effective efforts to get Ukrainian refugees (especially our embassy staffers) to places of safety.
These are people who just want to live in peace, and who can do wonders when we give them the helping hand they need.
Glory to Ukraine, her people and her defenders.
Editor’s Note: Joel Wasserman and his cat Yuri are currently living with his girlfriend in western Ukraine after leaving Kyiv. Joel is an American who went to Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland. These are his memories of the last few days.