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Ukraine Conflict

Ukraine conflict: Uprooting lives, splitting families

Published : Mar 11, 2022 16:53 IST T+T-
A woman carries her luggage, as she arrives by ferry after fleeing from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the Isaccea-Orlivka border crossing, Romania on March 11, 2022.

A woman carries her luggage, as she arrives by ferry after fleeing from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the Isaccea-Orlivka border crossing, Romania on March 11, 2022.

To leave or stay? Flee or resist? Putin's war is forcing Ukrainians to make brutal choices.

Inna Sovsun has been working nonstop. She sits at her laptop in a house near Kyiv, talking to journalists. She keeps talking even as Russian troops advance on the Ukrainian capital, fierce fighting rages around suburbs like Irpin, bullets rain down and bombs fall from the sky. Sometimes, she says, she keeps talking even when she hears the air raid siren.

Talking is her mission now

Sovsun, a Ukrainian politician, gives interviews from morning till night. She speaks fluent English; she studied in Sweden and has lived in the United States. Now she explains the war in her country to media all over the Western world — and makes an urgent plea for help. "[The sanctions] so far are not nearly tough enough," she says. "We need sanctions that will crush the Russian economy. They shouldn't have the money to buy any weapons. So we are asking for a complete and absolute trade embargo." She wants countries to completely boycott all Russian oil, gas and coal.

Inna Sovsun represents the liberal, pro-European party Golos Zmin in the Ukrainian parliament. Speaking to DW on Zoom, she looks tired. She's hardly slept more than three hours each night for the past two weeks. She's currently staying with friends who have a stable internet connection and a basement. Her apartment in Kyiv doesn't have one. Sovsun doesn't know how many times she has had to take shelter in the basement; she's stopped counting. The alarm sounds every few hours, she says.

When DW reaches her, it is March 8, the 13th day of the war. Inna Sovsun hasn't seen her 9-year-old son since the Russian attack began. She took him away from Kyiv as a precaution; he is with his father in the west of the country, where at the moment it is safer. There was no question of her leaving the capital, she says. Right now, her place is here. Also — even especially — for her son. When she spoke to him on the phone for the first time after they were separated, he asked, "Mom, when will I see you?" All she could do was cry.

Escaping Kharkiv — and going back again

For Victor, it's his middle daughter who he is most worried about. The 12-year-old is sometimes hysterical with fear. Her older sister is outwardly very calm, he says, and the youngest, who is only 6, doesn't really understand yet what's going on. DW has been in contact with Victor since the beginning of March. He sends short WhatsApp messages every day, whenever he dares to go upstairs or out into his yard, where he can get cell phone reception.

Victor is an IT specialist. He and his family lived with their dog and two cats in a house of their own in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, in the northeast of the country. Kharkiv has been under heavy bombardment for days. At 8 a.m. on March 1, a cruise missile destroyed the regional administration building in Kharkiv's central Freedom Square. Less than 10 minutes later, a second explosion shook the heart of the city. Victor and his family could hear and feel the impact; their house is only about four kilometers away.

The day after the attack, Victor wrote that things were still comparatively quiet in their immediate neighborhood. But he was consumed with fear that they could be hit at any time. "We are constantly reassessing the situation and keep balancing the risks between moving and staying," he writes. "I love my family, and so far we feel safer at home in our basement than on the road." Victor and his wife tried their best to give their children some sense of normal life. They made the basement as comfortable as possible. The children had books with them and could play downloaded games on their phones, tablets and laptops. "We even had sweets to distract [them]," Victor says.

But the constant explosions wore them down. On March 7, the family finally decided to leave Kharkiv to escape the bombardment. They became refugees in their own country, traveling by bus to the city of Poltava, almost 150 kilometers away. Here they managed to find temporary accommodation in an apartment. But Victor only stayed one night before taking a train back to Kharkiv: "I'll leave my family there and get back to Kharkiv to help volunteers," he wrote.

The separation from his wife and his three daughters has been tough, he says. "But we firmly believe that we will see each other soon." Victor wants to help his besieged city and wants to deliver water and food to residents who are still in Kharkiv and need aid. He wants to clear the rubble. Asked whether he's scared, all Victor says is "no."

Fleeing to the mountains

Jurii too left Kharkiv, together with his wife and 17-year-old daughter. He says they were on the road in their car for several days. Their house in Kharkiv is still standing though several buildings in the vicinity, including the neighboring house, were destroyed. It was hit shortly after they left the city.

The family headed to a small town in the Carpathian region where Jurii's employer had rented a hotel room for them. "We have arrived. There are no bombs here," Jurii wrote on March 7. For the first time since the outbreak of the war, he managed to sleep through the night. "We were lucky that we could leave Kharkiv uninjured. And my employer paid for the room for two weeks," he says. The hotel owner has made a generous offer to the family once the two weeks are over. "He's suggested that we can move into his private home in a village at the foot of the mountains," Jurii writes. The owner hasn't asked for money. "Of course, we've said yes." Jurii actually wanted to go back to Kharkiv. "Only time will tell if that’s possible," he says, adding that he can't imagine leaving his country altogether. "I love Ukraine."

Jurii and Victor would not be allowed to leave the country at the moment: All men aged 18 to 60 have to stay to support the armed forces and take up arms to defend their country. Jurii is anguished by the fact that his city is increasingly being devastated and reduced to rubble. But, he says, he cannot understand that so many Ukrainians are disappointed by NATO's refusal to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, something that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has consistently demanded. "I know that this is not your war. Each government has to first and foremost take care of their own citizens," he says. He says there's a huge wave support from the entire world. "We will win. We will succeed with our own forces."

Disappointed with the West

Back in Kharkiv, Victor writes: "We are standing." As opposed to Jurii, he's deeply disappointed with the West, which he feels is abandoning Ukraine to its fate: "NATO's impotence in enforcing a no-fly zone or at least supplying us with modern anti-aircraft weapons is enraging."

Inna Sovsun's frustration is also evident on this issue. "In 1994, Ukraine gave up our nuclear weapon[s], because we were given assurances from the West that the West will provide security assurances to us," she says. "We were supposed to get that. But we don't. Now we are just getting excuses of why this cannot be provided, while the Russians continue to throw bombs on our heads."

Observers agree that Russia plans to move in and attack the capital in the coming days. At the very least, Ukraine must be supplied with fighter jets, says parliamentarian Inna Sovsun. "We need those jets to ensure they do not encircle the city of Kyiv. If we have the jets, we can bomb them from the air." Sovsun repeats her demand several times. Kyiv can only be defended with the help of the jets, she says; it's the only way to prevent many civilian deaths. "What they did in Irpin is what they are planning to do in Kyiv," she says. "They were given orders to shoot civilians. And that is what they will do here as well."

The Russian side is sticking by its official account. It claims that its army is only attacking military targets. Yet there is clear evidence that civilian targets, such as residential areas and hospitals, are repeatedly being hit. The World Health Organization has published a list of damaged hospitals on its website. It includes hospitals in the areas of Kharkiv and Kyiv — where Victor, Jurii and Inna lived in peace until just two weeks ago.

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