War is not a sprint but a marathon
Kyiv volunteer Antonina Dembytska interviews Ukrainians who had to flee the war. To preserve the voices of witnesses for the history and future tribunal of war criminals. Here is her conversation with a resident of Vyshhorod, who stayed in the city to protect it.
— My name is Antonina, I am 32 years old, I live in Kyiv and I am currently working as a volunteer. Today is the 12th of March. Please tell us about yourself: who you are, where you are from, how can you descrie your life before the war started.
— My name is Pavel, I am 38 years old, I am director of a small engineering company. I am from Vyshhorod, it is a town in Kyiv Region, in fact a suburb of Kyiv.
— As far as I understand your mother tongue is Russian, right?
— Yes, my mother tongue is Russian. I am fluent in Ukrainian, also speak English quite well, but I use Russian in my everyday life, at work, in society, and in fact... every time.
— Have you ever experienced infringement of your rights as a Russian-speaker in Ukraine? Have you faced any aggression? Perhaps there were some troubles at work?
— No, I have never had any real restriction of my rights or any aggression towards me because I speak Russian. Well... Apart from engineering, I’ve been doing music for quite a long time. There are rules for some festivals, where a certain amount of songs must be in Ukrainian. But this is the only thing which comes to my mind and I think it is right. There is nothing special about it.
— Before February 24, 2022, the day the Ukrainian-Russian war started, have you imagined that such a full-scale invasion of the Russian troops into Ukraine can actually happen? Have you discussed this issue with friends, with relatives? Have you prepared an emergency kit, or have you made any plans in case of “if somtehing happens”?
— Yes, when putin signed the recognition of (so-called) “LPR” and “DPR”, it was already clear that something big and unpleasant would happen, but of course I did not expect a full-scale invasion. I discussed it very often with my parents, with my friends. Yes, I had an emergency kit fully prepared, and according to all the rules I had bought a good rucksack shortly before the invasion, there were also food and water supplies at home, and a fully packed rucksack with everything I needed: documents, money, etc... With all the resources needed to survive for three days. So, in fact, I was ready. But the fact that there would be a full-scale invasion from all possible directions was certainly not something I expected. It just defies common sense and all at once: values, logic, everything.
— Tell us how you found out that the war had begun? Did you turn on the news, or did someone call and woke you up? And in general, please describe your first day in as much detail as possible.
— At about five in the morning there were two loud explosions and I heard the car alarm. So I woke up immediately and realised that something had started... That a war had begun! The third explosion — I even saw the glow of a rocket, and it just “blossomed” behind the neighbouring house. I mean, it was just as if... as if the sun had risen, but it was certainly not the sun at all. I quickly got dressed, and then realised that the only thing I had forgotten to do was to tape up the windows ... My ex-wife called me, saying that “it’s started” (the war), that she was panicking, she was terrified. I told her not to worry and that in twenty minutes I would be ready to go... But out of those twenty minutes, I spent fifteen minutes taping up the windows. I went down with the rucksack ("emergency kit"), it was very heavy... But I had checked it the day before so I could actually carry it. I went downstairs, left the house, got into my car and drove to my ex-wife and my kid’s house. They also live in my town, it is not far away from my house, just a few kilometres. Having arrived there, I calmed them down as best as I could, just to get them out of this kind of state of shock. I was not shocked, I mean I was pretty focused. Well, my psyche works this way. I prepared somehow the appartment, taped up the windows, got some extra water, something else. And then I got involved into, well, kind of rulling our appartment house ... I used to take care of our house before I had moved out. I immediately got in touch with other activists from our house, we prepared our bomb shelters, we shared with each other this awareness, it was an attempt to realize what had already happened. And... I think I went out and bought some more food. In fact I don’t remember exactly what was going on... That was the first day. The first day was like this, so I just moved and prepared for what might await us then. Of course, later then, when I was done with neccessary stuff, I called my loved ones: parents, friends, my business partner...
— Did you have thoughts, plans, ideas to get your relatives out of the country, maybe move them to a safer, in your opinion, place in Ukraine? If yes, has this plan come true?
— No, at first there were no such plans, but a few days later, watching the development of the war, all the terrible events that were taking place both across the country and in the vicinity — in Kyiv Region — we quite quickly and spontaneously decided to evacuate... We decided that my wife and daughter have to be evacuated. And they are now in Poland.
— Did you personally take them to the border or did they get there on their own? Or did someone you knew help you? How long did the journey take in total and what challenges did you face along the way?
— Well... I can tell you that at the time we evacuated them — it was five days ago — it was already very risky to go by car, not mentioning the risk of returning by car. Regular evacuation trains were already running. I drove them by car to the railway station, got them on the train, in fact without troubles. It wasn’t the most popular route — to Kovel, and they were going quite normally, comfortably... Not sitting, but pretty fine. So they took a train, and there our friends met them and took them to the Polish border, in fact it was not the most popular border crossing either. It was rather northern. And, in fact, they got to Poland without any troubles.
— Were they going to nowhere or was there someone you knew, maybe friends who supposed to meet them there?
— 50/50. At first they drove practically to nowhere, I mean to some intermediate point. But with the plan to call our friends in Europe afterwards. In order to find more or less permanent place to stay and with more or less adequate conditions.
— Your family is safe now and you have returned to your hometown. And what are you doing now? Can you tell us?
— Well, I haven’t actually left my hometown. I am actively involved in, let’s say, community work: I manage our appartment house. It happened, that I had to become a house manager. What else? We provide humanitarian aid: we quite actively help people in the town and in the district as well. And I am a member of the Territorial Defence Forces.
— And directly in your district or if you went somewhere, have you seen explosions, shootings, real horrors of war? In my part of the city so far, thank God, it is quiet right now, I just hear sounds of explosions and air defence system from time to time.
— So far, let’s say, I’m lucky. Quite often I hear air defence system, “Grads”, other sounds... I find out sometimes what’s going on there, because I am a member of the Territorial Defence Forces. But so far nothing so super scary has faced my town directly. Fortunately, we’ve been lucky so far. Let’s just say... But, of course, there are quite a lot of stories: I have my loved ones there... One of my closest people is in Borodianka, he went through all that horror there from the beginning to the end. It was, of course, a nightmare. The people from Demydiv, from Dymer, from Kozarovychy tell... That there are constantly breakthrough there all the time... We support these people, give them clothes, feed them, etc... But these are, of course, terrible things. From what I know for sure — Russian troops are shooting at vehicles with humanitarian aid. There are cases when, for example, a family is trying to leave.... Their car is taken away and they walk several dozens of kilometres with their little child or children. There are cases when civilians being shot. I know this for sure. For example, in Borodyanka, when the convoy was moving, so tanks shot directly at the infrastructure, i.e. at „ATБ“ (popular Ukraininan supermarket chain), supermarkets, some other shops. That means they completely destroyed the infrastructure of the town. And then the air forces attacked and all high-rise buildings were destroyed.
— Do you already serve in the Territorial Defence Forces, or are you still on a waiting list?
— Well, I am kind of on a waiting list. Speaking about active actions from my side, sometimes I did “smoothies” (Molotov cocktails) and fortifications.
— I have a personal question. Are civilians allowed to participate directly in hostilities with those, for example, mentioned “smoothies”? Let’s say, I know how to make this cocktail, but at least I know what is forbidden... You need a permit to carry a weapon, and if you don’t have one, you only have the right to defend yourself...
— Look, what if there is going to be active military actions, right? Direct military confrontations? Then I don’t think anyone will charge you if you throw this “smoothie” and at the same time you won’t hurt either yourself or our people, right? But yes, there is, of course, a permit to carry a gun, there is a certificate that you are a member of the Territorial Defence Forces, of course, we have it, and if you just go out with a gun like that, it is understandabe, that in wartime you will have big troubles. If you do it without permission. I guess some kind of situational ethics must work here, but there are very strict priorities, like — yes, everyone has their function. So there is the Armed Forces of Ukraine, there is the National Guard of Ukraine, there is the Territorial Defence Forces, right? There is police, there are civilians. They all have their own functions, and the Armed Froces of Ukraine is at the top of all of the above-mentioned. They tell us what to do. And what not to do.
— I don’t have a permit either, and I wanted understand the situation with the “cocktail” story. Because I heard the following in some regions — “we sit quietly, hide, do not interfere with work”, and in some regions people say “yes, everyone gathered, we brought tyres, prepared “cocktails"”... In general, we will obey the Armed Forces of Ukraine and follow the orders. Now, watching which events take place, of course, it is difficult to predict anything, but I would like to hear your opinion: how do you see the situation in the future? Do you believe in our victory, and when will it finally happen?
— I believe in our victory. But when it will happen and at what cost — I cannot predict it. Because there are so many external factors, such as the support of Western partners, the internal crisis processes in the Russian Federation that started because of the sanctions and directly because of the war that their president and part of the top of their governement started. So I hope it will be over within a month or two. But this is my hope. It is quite possible that... There is hope that the Russian president’s inner circle will just remove him. Because I think that his inner circle clearly understands that he has lost his mind and is doing things that do not fit at all into any logic, common sense or any kind of necessity at all. So, these are just the actions of a mad man who may be stopped by someone from inside. But if he is not stopped from inside, then he will be stopped by our country. But at what cost and when it will happen, as I said, I cannot predict it.
— Are we, Ukrainians, doing enough to accelerate our victory? What do you think? Or perhaps we need to pay more attention to something in partiular in order to reduce the number of victims? Especially, as a volunteer, I am interested in what I and my people could do to accelerate the end of this war?
— You ask such fundamental questions... I even do not know what to answer. In my opinion Ukrainians are doing enough. Yes, we need more weapons, yes, we really need our sky closed, but we cannot, shall we say, have much influence on closing the sky and weapons’ supply. I mean direct influence. We still need to consider the factor that everyone is on their place, but they do what they can. And it is not a sprint but a marathon. And the fact that people have not left their country, especially their cities, and continue to act in the right direction seems to me to be enough. I am not ready to assess those people who ran away somewhere, who are hiding somewhere, etc. The situation is too non-standard, the stress level is too high. So everyone reacts in different way. But I am sure that if we continue to do what we are doing and do not give in to panic and despondency, but work out our psychological state and follow the rules that the government tells us, that the Armed Forces of Ukraine tells us, then we can really win.
And as for the question what volunteers can do more, we also need to understand the fields in which these volunteers work. We have more or less enough supplies in the fileds where we work. Our deputies make efforts, we here, who are processing this, also make efforts. Of course, the people who bring humanitarian aid directly to the occupied territories and deal with evacuation of people are at huge risk. There is a very high level of danger. And I admire those people who in such conditions get behind the wheel and drive to carry out these necessary actions with such a degree of risk.
— Does the Territorial Defence Forces need more volunteers? Or those who are still in reserve? I have found people.ua platform and they offer to register for volunteer work with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Territorial Defence Forces... What do you think about it?
— Listen, well, it all also depends on the situation in a particular region and in a particular place. And on the current situation in a particular region and place. For example, we need weapons and uniforms, but not people. To a greater extent. Well... although, of course, highly qualified people with military experience — they are welcomed everywhere.
— Are you talking now about Kyiv and Kyiv Region?
— I am talking directly about my town and my field of responsibility. But the situation in Kyiv is different now, I don’t know it for sure, it’s a very big city. And the situation there is very different, completely different!
— Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, despite your workload, and thank you for taking an active part in defending our country. I wish us all victory, I believe in victory, because since we want it, since we are trying so hard — we must win!
— Thank you for the interview and for everything you do. I have no doubt that you do a lot and you are good at it. And I also believe in our victory, and all of us will be getting closer to it every day.
Translation: International Society for Human Rights (German Section)