Oksana Kukuruza: "I used to live in Kyiv" - Guest Post
"I was leaving my family's menfolk and homeland, not knowing when or if I would return."
Photo: Oksana Kukuruza, outside her workplace, the MIM Business School, in Kyiv.
Introduction : I can't remember how I first got to know Oksana, but as she worked at a Kyiv business school, and I wrote about business education and MBAs for the FT, it was probably over the internet researching an article for the paper. We met perhaps three times in the Ukrainian capital, from about 2005 – 2015. After that, we exchanged the odd email now and then, Christmas greetings, that sort of thing.
That is, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after which I often asked how she was bearing up. After all, I had to show support for a friend under military attack.
A week or so ago, I asked her to write up her story. At first, she was reluctant, fearing her English would was not up to the task. (I have cleaned her text up a bit, with her permission.) I'm sure Oksana doesn't pretend her plight is the worst her compatriots have suffered in the past ten weeks, far from it, in fact.
But it's still uneccessary suffering of civilian lives. Anyway, this is her story.
I used to live in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The city is green, comfortable, beautiful, and friendly. I left my home on February 25.
When it comes to being forced out of your home, I suppose it was as smooth and easy as it can be.
But let's start at the beginning.
On February 24, I woke up to the sound of explosions. `They sounded close. My first thought was that it was Russians. However, for a short moment I did hope that it was some kind of accident.
But 15 minutes later my friend called to tell me that the Russians had indeed invaded Ukraine. Although there had been tension in the air for weeks, most Ukrainians had been hoping the Russians would show some sanity. It was not to be.
On the first day, it seemed relentless: every two to three hours there were explosions and the air raid sirens sounded. It was so terrifying that I couldn’t even force myself to go to a grocery store. Later on I learned that the air defence system in Kyiv had been working well and the sounds of blasts were in fact the sounds of Ukrainian anti-aircraft fire.
All I could do was to follow the news. And to avoid panic, I started reviewing international media coverage of the invasion for the business school where I worked. (I am continuing to work for the school, in fact.)
The same afternoon I joined my neighbours in converting our apartment block basement into a shelter. I am a typical, big city person who rarely knows the neighbours. But in this situation, I had a good chance to get know most of them and indeed, to like them. Later, many of them also fled Ukraine.
On February 24ththe situation went from bad to worse, in the afternoon and the next morning. I was lucky to have Halyna, my daughter, and Serhii, my son-in-law with me. They were trying to work online as well, although with little success. We were interrupting our work all the time either by reading news or going down to the basement.
On the next day the sirens were even more frequent. My neighbourhood is close to the Ministry of Defence, General Staff HQ, and Central Railway Station. No wonder that the air raid sirens were so frequent; and they sounded ever more terrifying.
After a short family discussion, Halyna and Serhii decided to leave Kyiv and started pressing me to join them. I did not want to leave my home. However, thinking about it, and with the continuing air raids, I understood that it would be a reasonable decision. In the afternoon, as they were leaving for the railway station, I realised I was terrified just thinking about being separated and not knowing how my family was. So, along with our family pet, a male sphynx cat named Affix, I joined them.
It was all so spontaenous, and I was in such a hurry that food was still in the refrigerator, and all the utilities were working. Perhaps they still are.
My well-off and usually bright neighborhood looked gloomy. There were few people in the streets, the grocery stores were mostly closed, and there was not a single restaurant, hairdressers’ or any other business open. However, the taxis were working and we landed a ride to the station.
There were plenty of people at the station, something like the numbers during the summer holidays. But the mood was dreary, even if people were nice and helpful to each other.
The train was crowded but excessively so. Many had their pets with them. The conductors let everyone on, no matter if they had tickets. My family had 2 tickets for the three of us, yet the conductor did not mind.
Our final destination at that point was Chernivtsi, perhaps better known as Czernowitz, a city of high culture in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It's perhaps an hour or so in a car south to the Romania border.
We decided to go there via Vinnytsya, a city to the South West of Kyiv. There we stayed the night and left in the morning for Lviv, in western Ukraine. A good friend and colleague lives not far from Lviv, and we could stay stay with him and his family overnight.
Although the air raids had been very unnerving, the night near Lviv was one of the warmest memories of the journey. We spent the evening dreaming about our victory and discussing the post-war revival. It was not safe, but it felt safe.
In the morning we left for Chernivtsi. Lviv train station had a very anxious, unhappy vibe. It was overcrowded with women and children heading for Poland. However, the platforms with trains to other places, including Chernivtsi, were not so busy, though our train took on many students from Morocco going to the Bukovinian Medical University, in Chernivtsi.
The train journey was very similar to any pre-war service. It did not take much longer, and was not seriously overcrowded. And once again, if you had tickets it was fine, if not, it was ok as well.
Map of western Ukraine: Okasana's journey's took her first south-west to Vinnytsia, the west to Lviv, before a south-east turn to Chernivtsi, near the bottom of this map.
When we arrived in Chernivtsi, I had to look after my cousin Slava, who was not well. We stayed in the city for a week. The need to take care of Slava helped to take our minds off things, preventing me from sliding into complete darkness. Taking care of your loved ones gives you a purpose and strength.
At that time Chernivtsi was as safe as a Ukrainian city could be. However, the news was ominous, and our friends in the military urged us to leave the country.
It was heartbreaking, but we heeded the advice. The women in the family - myself, my daughter, and my cousin Slava, who was still feeling awful - were leaving our menfolk - my son-in-law, my other cousin, my nephew, and our cat Affix – behind.
For now, they are all staying in Chernivtsi together, supporting each other.
From that part of Ukraine, it is natural to leave through Romania, though our ultimate destination, was Portugal because Slava’s daughter is a doctorate student in Oeiras, a suburb of Lisbon.
Our host and friend gave us a ride there towards the border, but even though most refugees were fleeing via Poland, there was a long line of cars here. So we walked the final kilometre to the crossing point.
The queue at the border was long, consisting mostly of women and children, although some men were allowed up to the border crossing. Funny as it may seem, we found ourselves with a group of opera lovers from Kyiv. So, we started to chat about the Metropolitan Opera inviting Liudmyla Monastyrska, a soprano and one of the best-known Ukrainian opera singers in the world. We had enjoyed her performance in Kyiv before the war. The chat helped us to bear the waiting time.
I am used to travelling abroad, but this time, the moment when the border officer put a stamp into my passport was very emotional.
It is difficult to describe what I felt. I was leaving my family's menfolk and homeland, not knowing when or if I would return. My life as I knew and loved it was over, not because I chose so, but because some mad criminal had decided he was entitled to come to my country and impose his rules.
And with bloodshed. I now hate Russians.
At this point, I want to say thank you to Europeans. Every person I met on my way was kind and supportive. Everyone went the extra mile to help. They made our journey to Europe memorable. We were offered free transportation, tea, coffee, and food. It was so warm and so human.
Photo: Left behind with the menfolk in Chernivtsi, Affix, the family cat.
We travelled to Lisbon via Bucharest and Vienna, where we had to stay a day awaiting our connecting flights. So we went to the Staatsopera and dreamed - dreamed that in five years we would come to the opera for the show starring some Ukrainian singer who is on her or his way to stardom.
We knew it would take us at least five years to win the war, to rebuild our country and make enough to afford an opera show in Vienna. It may take us longer. But we will enjoy a yet unknown Ukrainian opera star in Kyiv and Vienna.
After our victory.