In June 2023 the Kakhovka dam in Kherson province was destroyed. Since the start of the war, my family had been clinging to the hope that somehow this nightmare would suddenly end. But now we knew things had changed forever. My childhood home was completely submerged by water.
Back in February 2022, we lived in Kherson city. I’m a nurse, my husband’s a policeman. We could give our son a good life and we hoped to have a second child. But at 4am on the 24th, the war started for us when my husband got an emergency callout. As we were parting, I looked out of the window and saw the bombs start to fall on Chornobaivka Airport. We didn’t know if we’d see each other again. The city was gripped by panic.
Soon the atrocities began. My friend tried to escape with her children and was shot in her car. And on the 1st of March thousands of Russians entered Kherson. They spread from street to street like cockroaches. We lived in terror, afraid to even go to the window, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. Or if tomorrow would come.
Meanwhile my husband was in Ukrainian-held territory, cursing himself for leaving us. But the city was surrounded, all roads back were cut off. He decided to risk returning on foot, through the fields. He found some civilian clothes and called his sister to tell her his route – he wanted us to know where to look for him if the worst happened. I was queuing to buy cat food when I saw him again…
After two months under occupation, we decided we had to get out. They made us travel as human shields. We drove through minefields, past machine guns and tanks... When we reached Mykolaiv and saw Ukrainian soldiers, we wept with happiness.
Kherson was liberated after nine months. My husband’s gone back to work, and my mum’s working at the hospital – but now the city gets shelled around the clock. It’s really an unbearable situation. But they believe in the future. We all believe in our victory. I know my Nezlamna story will end with Ukraine’s victory!
PERSONAL ITEM: KEYS FOR THE FLAT SHE CAN’T RETURN TO
I was 45, single, living with my sons who were 14 and 5. My two daughters were already grown up and lived in Europe, studying and working. As a single mum you’re doing it all yourself…but I loved my children, my work, my friends – and I was happy. On Saturdays I’d go for forest walks with my family in the morning, go to the Kyiv Philharmonic with friends in the evening… I’m a creative person and I strive for beauty in everything I do.
The war started... I made the decision to get out. It was a leap into the unknown, to somewhere outside of time. You felt empty…in your head, your heart, down to your fingertips. I was joking and laughing all the time, my hand gripping my phone…as if it might suddenly all end, as if somehow we could just turn back. In those days, for the first time in years, I felt helplessness. I reached out for help, taught myself to accept it. The old me died and a new one was born in her place.
The clatter of the train... A day and night in one compartment with ten other women and children, all as lost and frightened as we were. And a lone German tourist… A short stop in Warsaw, then to Strasbourg. Four months at a French farm, among forests and fields. And at the end of June, on to the UK… A month with a host family in a village in Kent. Then a job offer in London, with a week to find an apartment and move…
I needed to pick things up fast, learn on the job, keep smiling. After a month my youngest fell ill… I had to work remotely from his hospital ward. I kept smiling.
Even now I’m still learning every day, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I believe in myself and in my friends, who support me and inspire me. This war’s made me stronger. I was strong before, but I’m three times as strong now.
PERSONAL ITEM: THE SPOON SHE FED HER FOUR CHILDREN WITH
Kyiv is the best city in the world. I lived there for 12 years and was just in love with it, I felt completely safe there. By the start of 2022 I’d built a wonderful life for myself: I loved my work as a counsellor, I had friends, the chance to travel. I had the year all planned out, tickets booked for a holiday with my parents, exciting projects at work… On the 24th of February I set my alarm to wake up early. I was just about to move house, and I wanted to watch the sunrise from my old flat one last time. There were always such beautiful sunrises there… But instead of my alarm I was woken by the war.
When I left Ukraine I took my grandma's earrings, some polaroids from our last party in February, and my favourite perfume. Almost everything else I threw away or gave to refugees. I’ve no regrets. You find your attitude to material things changes radically.
I find my life here surreal at times... It’s hard for me because I’m living in the UK but I go online and I’m back in the Ukrainian info-space. I’ll read the news and then for half a day I’m just not right, I can’t function...
By now my family back home can tell the different missiles apart just by the sound they make. They take self-defence courses, first-aid courses…they carry first-aid kits everywhere they go. They work hard, selflessly. Because they’re working for our victory. And they know it’s going to come.
PERSONAL ITEM: HER GRANDMAS EARINGS
In 20 years of marriage I’d never been one to make decisions alone. But when my friend texted that a bus was leaving for the border in the morning, the decision came quickly and easily. I told my husband I just couldn’t cope if I stayed. He supported me in my choice.
I’d actually packed a suitcase a week before the war began. Got all the documents ready. I had this feeling that it was going to happen, but thought it was just my nerves. Then that first morning my sleep was broken by sounds I couldn’t process... I dozed off again, then the same happened... I shook my husband. He told me not to worry. But two minutes later we’d understood that it really was happening. It was too much for the mind to take in…
I went to wake the children. My eldest son didn’t want to get up at first. I shouted, “Wake up, it’s war!" We all got dressed. We didn't know where to go or what to do.
My brother and his family joined us. We gathered what food we had, took the pets and went out of town. We thought we’d be safer there. There were 13 of us in total. We heard constant explosions, day and night. The local store opened one hour a day so people could run to buy food. We slept in our clothes, documents ready by the bed. But I hardly slept and hardly ate. I felt cold all the time.
The journey to the border took two days. It was a terrifying experience. But I knew I had to gather all my strength and determination for the children.
Ever since they were born, I’ve devoted my life to my family. My youngest son has special needs – along with the stress of the war, he’s had to adapt to a whole new life here in Britain. It’s been tough for him, and for me too. It's not easy being a single mother when you have a husband! I’m making it work, but I know I couldn’t do this without my husband, without his support and belief in me.
The night before the war I was agitated, pacing the apartment. Was it true, was the invasion really about to happen? My family told me everything would be fine, there wouldn’t be any invasion. At last I managed to sleep, at least for a while. But at half past four we were woken by the first explosions. I still remember the sound, like pops. At first I thought it must be the children playing…
In the morning we went out for groceries. Anguish and confusion everywhere. Soon we heard rumours that Odesa would be bombed that night. I took my mum, my brother and the kids and we moved to our summer house. I tried to continue with my work, but the internet was terrible there. And of course, nothing else about the situation was helping my productivity…
My husband didn’t join us. On that very first day he made the decision to go and defend his country. He wasn’t a qualified medic but he’d trained as a first aid instructor, and he knew he had to help out any way he could. By the 26th of February he was already on active duty. From August he was on the front line.
Our summer house is east of Odesa, closer to the front, and staying there became increasingly dangerous. I decided to take the kids and get out. We took a packed refugee train to Poland. There was no water, people were sleeping anywhere they could, and the train crept along with its lights off so as not to become a target...
I see how exhausted my kids can get at times. It’s hard to bear. But it’s my responsibility to give them a calm and stable home. And that’s nezlamna for me – when it seems like your strength has drained away, you feel blank and empty inside, but you still get up and do what you need to do for your children.
Ukraine is full of proud, generous, hardworking, talented people who cherish their freedom – people in many ways similar to the British. Our culture has matured over centuries, and though it’s been undermined and distorted, it’s been kept alive to this day because of our people. For hundreds of years the Russian and Soviet empires tried to rewrite our history, appropriate our traditions, destroy our intelligentsia. They even tried to starve us into submission, in our own fertile lands. Because we refused to obey, refused to be reduced to cattle.
Before the war I worked as an interior designer. I hoped to start my own construction company, to design and build premium housing. I remember on the night of the 23rd of February I went to bed late. Around 3am I looked out of the window, and time and space seemed to be frozen. There was no movement, not a breath of wind. I thought: I’ve never known it this quiet. It was so strange. Like just before a storm. And in the morning I got the call from my mother… It had begun... A new life had begun…
I remember the search for a bomb shelter… Nothing nearby… I taped up my windows... The very first missile landed near my house… The walls shaking… You can’t make sense of it, you can’t take decisions...
In these moments instinct takes over, people reach out for their loved ones. My mother and I searched for a safe place to stay, and we found a house with a basement. There were several families there. We all took turns sleeping and monitoring the news... There was one time in each day when we felt truly alive: the communal supper, when everyone, all of us strangers, would come together for a candlelit meal.
I’m living in the UK now, but I know the shelling hasn’t stopped. You’re a thousand miles away, the phone connection often cuts out, and you don’t know where the bombs have landed. For hours you can’t call and check people are OK… It’s hard being separated from relatives and friends. You miss having someone to hold, someone to talk to about your pain... I keep a photo of my parents by my side, and at night I hug the pillow I took from home.
I was the deputy manager of a solar energy company, and I ran my own little travel agency and an online shop selling dancewear. I was also involved with the Women in Politics initiative and I even ran for city council. But overall you could say I lived an ordinary life: I was working, raising my children, travelling...
In those first days of the war, we came to know our new reality… the walls and windows shaking day and night… long queues and bare shelves… enemy planes overhead at night… hearing the rumble of tanks and not knowing if they were ours or theirs. The nights were the hardest. We slept in our clothes and shoes. You were woken by the shells whistling past your house, the blasts shook your walls, and you didn’t know what to do. We felt this would surely end soon… We live in a civilized world, it’s the 21st century, how could this happen? But little by little we started to adjust... I volunteered, made food for the guys manning the checkpoints, donated to the military like everyone else.
My story’s no different from so many others. You know you have to keep moving forward despite everything, you can’t throw up your hands. You adapt to the new reality and start your life afresh, in a foreign country, with a different culture, a different language, and no relatives to support you… But you’re not alone. Because there are people around you who try to help, who stand for decency and justice – and who believe in Ukraine’s victory.
We’d just bought our dream apartment and were waiting to move in. Meanwhile I was finalizing a new project: designing clothes for dog lovers. A percentage of each sale would go to animal shelters, and we were planning to build a community... Everything was turning out perfectly.
Looking back to that first week of the war, I remember meetings with my women’s circle morning and evening, hour after hour of prayer for the troops... The shelling was endless. I felt the urge to go and fight. It seemed like I was doing nothing at all, just praying at home... But then, what would happen to my children if they were to lose me?
I’ve left everyone behind in Ukraine: my husband, parents, brother… They all feel sorry for me being alone here with three children, and mentally it is tough, but I deal with it. I’m starting a new job as a fitness coach for dogs, and every day I’ve got my schedule planned out minute by minute: school, nursery, volunteering, work, nursery, school, football, yoga, study, sleep. At the end of each day I look back at how much I’ve done and just think…wow!
PERSONAL ITEM: ICONS FROM THE BAPTISM OF HER THREE CHILDREN
We had our whole life planned out, my husband and I. We’d chosen our path and we knew who we wanted by our side. We’d built our own house… our dream that we’d worked so hard for. We loved the forest and the sea, exploring the wide open spaces of our homeland.... Well, we could talk for hours about what we loved, what we had planned… We still have the memories, tucked away in our hearts.
It was a long, tough journey out of Ukraine. I don't know where I found the strength. All the way my head was full of intrusive thoughts, no end of them. Questions and fears for the future…
I've always been lucky with the people I’ve met in life. Good people. It’s been the same here in the UK, and when we were travelling here too. We spent several months in Romania, and people we’d never met opened their doors to us… “Come in, stay with us!” Just like that. It was amazing. I can’t express how grateful I am…
I try to teach my children about Ukraine and our traditions. I worked with our local church to open a Ukrainian library, to help all our kids stay in touch with their language and culture. Back in Ukraine my husband volunteers, helps out in every way he can. My grandma’s there too, waiting for us… She’s seen one war already, and she won’t stand for anyone losing heart! My granny believes in Ukraine’s victory!