Amidst the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the voices of civilians often get drowned out by the noise of geopolitics. Yet, within the everyday lives of Ukrainians lies a collage of resilience and perseverance.

In this post, we explore the stories of Ukrainian civilians living through the war. From bustling cities to rural towns, each individual offers a unique perspective on navigating through uncertainty and adversity. These narratives provide insight into the human experiences beyond the headlines. 

 

 

“Teach us how to protect, or weʼre done”: The story of a woman who faces fears, but supports civilians through war 

 

In the heart of Pyriatyn, where air raid sirens sound one after another, the locals no longer raise an eyebrow when the wail of yet another siren fills the streets. Despite being considered a transit zone, where displaced persons briefly pause on their journey westward, Pyriatyn takes safety very seriously. “Teach us how to protect ourselves, or we are done,” was the plea from civilians traumatized by the ravages of war. Through CIVIC’s initiatives, Pyriatyn’s residents have now been taught how to distinguish between different types of mines and cope with panic attacks. Pyriatyn’s Deputy Mayor and local resident, Tamara Kovalenko, shares her own story and why it’s important.

“Pyriatyn is a transit community. In peacetime, we’re usually a pass-through,” says Tamara Kovalenko. “We are on the way to Kyiv, Kharkiv, near Sumy, and, of course, the eastern regions. Initially, many displaced persons came from Kyiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv. However, after the liberation of those territories, they returned home,” she adds.

Tamara is not originally from here, but for more than two decades, she has lovingly called this place home. United by love, her husband’s hometown of Pyriatyn has become the heart of her world. She tends to local people with a mother’s care and devotion even during the war. Tamara herself chose not to leave Pyriatyn after the invasion. Instead, her entire family gathered and began volunteering. “I didn’t believe that a war could start. Even on February 24, 2022, as I read the news, I couldn’t fathom that those who called themselves brothers could attack us. But my initial thought was clear: if they come here, I will fight to protect my land. I didn’t know how, but I understood I wouldn’t abandon my land,” she recalls. Today, Pyriatyn is home to Tamara and 30,000 other residents. She’s on a mission to empower her community – organizing a range of training exercises to ensure the safety of her neighbors. Throughout the year, she and her fellow community members actively engaged in mine safety, nuclear safety, and evacuation drills, realizing that their physical well-being hinges on preparedness. “We can’t hide our fears, as people must remember that the war is ongoing and it’s close,” she concludes.

 

 

“We used to worry about what movie to watch at home, but now we worry about missile threats that can destroy our home”: The story of a civilian from a small city-hero transformed by war 

 
“Everyone scares us with the looming war, saying we’re very close to the border, but we don’t believe it will happen,” said Vladyslav Holiakov from Okhtyrka, Sumy region, 12 days before Russia’s full-scale invasion. The border with Russia is approximately 60 km away. On that day, he was celebrating his birthday, coinciding with a major forum of local volunteers. Volunteering is a cause to which Vlad has dedicated his life. At that time, he and his team of activists were planning projects. No one truly believed that everything could change so drastically in just two weeks. But on February 24, 2022, he woke up to an alarming call from his relatives and heard the words “It’s started!” on the phone.

“I told my wife then that we should stay in Okhtyrka. Because it’s our city, and there are military personnel here who will defend it, or so it seemed. However, at the insistence of my wife’s mother, we temporarily went to her home in athe village. It’s even closer to the border, but we decided not to leave her alone. The area was familiar, so we knew the detours in case something bad would happen,” Vlad recalls. 

Unfortunately, the village where Vlad went, albeit briefly, fell under occupation. “There was a constant feeling that you don’t know if you’ll survive until tomorrow. And even now, after two years of full-scale war, there are still stories that are just impossible to accept, impossible to believe that such things could happen in the 21st century,” says Vlad. 

Okhtyrka now holds the official status of a city-hero. Vlad is proud that de-occupation has occurred. However, the Russian onslaught did not pass without consequences. Until February 24, Vlad’s focus was on youth activities, but after the invasion, they switched to humanitarian work. Everyone started coming together and working as one. Vlad and his colleagues distributed food to the locals, especially the elderly. “Sometimes these elderly people were without water and food for many days and would just cry when they saw bread,” Vlad remembers. 

He and his colleagues also started analyzing the broader security needs of civilians in the city and surrounding areas, taking into account constant power outages, lack of heating, and, most importantly, the constant threat of shelling. Moreover, there was no information about where the shelters were. So, they developed an interactive online map of shelters in Okhtyrka in collaboration with CIVIC. This project became a crucial step in raising awareness and improving the protection of civilians in a region still exposed to shelling and attacks. “Knowing where to hide and how to act during attacks — this information literally saves lives,” emphasizes the project team. 

Vlad continues to work at the Okhtyrka Youth Center, has no plans to leave, and says his current task is to provide a platform for local youth to realize their potential. And currently, they are succeeding. Vlad’s wards include at least several dozen young Ukrainians with interesting projects and big plans. 

“Before February 24, 2022, my problem could have been deciding which movie to watch in the evening. Now there has been a significant reassessment of values, and we all realize how trivial things concerned us back then compared to how we worry now about securing our own lives, the lives of our families and loved ones, and how to maintain the functioning of the entire country,” Vlad concludes. 

 

 

“We just really wanted to survive”: The story of a man who was kept in a basement for a month alongside 367 other civilians without food and lack of fresh air
 

Ivan’s entire life is connected with his native village of Yahidne in Chernihiv Oblast. For many years, he worked as a school administrator at the only school in the village and spent a lot of his time there. At the beginning of the Russian invasion and occupation of Chernihiv region, the basement of this school turned into a trap for 367 villagers, including Ivan and his family. Despite his captivity and the absolutely inhumane conditions of detention, the man still did not leave his native village and continues to guard the school, which has become an epicenter for harm to civilians. He is convinced that the world should know about this crime against people who just wanted to live their peaceful lives.

“I remember the day they broke into the basement of our house where we were hiding. They threatened us with guns, ordered us to take off our clothes, and hand over our phones. They called my son’s roommate outside. .We heard only gunshots and thought she was gone. But – it turned out – that they took the phone, made her kneel, and shot the gadget for show,” Ivan says about those horrific events. A few days later, the entire terrified family was taken to the basement of the school, where more than 300 other civilians were already being held. 

The basement consisted of several rooms. Ivan was kept in the largest room, with people literally huddled together. For 26 days, the man had his own place – a small chair on which he also slept. His legs were swollen and covered with wounds from the terrible conditions in the basement. They were hardly given any food. Half of a small plastic cup of soup was the maximum, and not every day. They spared no children, no old women, and the sick. “We literally had nothing to breathe. Children sat in one corner, in another corner there were buckets that were used as a toilet, in another corner we stacked the bodies of those who could not withstand these conditions and died. Their names were scratched on the walls so that they would be remembered,” says Ivan. Civilians requested permission to remove and bury the dead bodies. But this was allowed to be done only after three or four corpses were gathered. 

People almost immediately started keeping a wall calendar to keep track of time. The days in captivity were crossed out, and the date of liberation was marked with a drawing of the sun. “Many of us went outside for the first time in a month. Our eyes were stinging, but we were happy to have survived,” says Ivan. Hhimself had a small chair to sleep on for 30 days. His legs were swollen and covered with wounds. 

After the liberation, many civilians immediately left the village. “Evacuation buses came. People didn’t even ask where they were going, they just quickly put their children on, boarded themselves, and left without even their belongings. They were afraid to stay. There was nowhere to live, clothes and appliances were stolen, and windows were smashed. At that time, about 15 percent of the villagers remained in the village. But I had no thoughts of running away. My wife, son, and I stayed behind. And although there were no windows in our house for two months, we lived like that because it was our home,” Ivan says about the time after the liberation. 

The tragedy in Yahidne shocked everyone. Students from different cities and volunteers from all over the country traveled to the demolished village to rebuild. Ivan recalls that at one point the sound of construction materials could be heard everywhere. Two years after the invasion, construction crews are still working. According to locals, most residents have returned and are now planning to rebuild their homes. The school itself and the basement are not being restored, but a memorial is planned to be created to commemorate the crimes committed against peaceful civilians in the 21st century. 

 

 

“I tried to evacuate on a scooter under gunfire and explosions”: The story of a student who escaped the bombing of Kharkiv, but returned to study and help rebuild the region

Saltivka is the largest residential neighborhood of Kharkiv. Before the outbreak of full-scale war with Russia, about half a million people lived here, which was a third of the city’s population. After February 24, 2022, almost every building bears marks from shelling or bombing. espite the reality that Kharkiv is shelled on a regular basis, people are returning. Student Andrii Shkolnikov is one such resident.  

He has been living in Kharkiv for five years. It is his mother’s hometown. Andrii says that Kharkiv is very special and has a soul. That’s why he decided to go to college here. Interestingly, before the full-scale invasion, Kharkiv was called Ukraine’s student and youth capital. Due to his great attachment to the city, Andrii did not want to leave for a long time after the invasion. He decided to evacuate only when a shell hit the house next to his girlfriend’s apartment. It wasMarch 2022. 

“I had to call a taxi to get to the station and board the evacuation train. I did not have my own car. There was no public transportation and I couldn’t call a taxi either. My friend offered to give me a ride on his scooter. The train station was about 10 kilometers away. My friend agreed to give me a ride of only 5 kilometers because it was too dangerous to go further. I took one backpack with only my most necessary things, and we set off. Military vehicles drove past us, cars full of people were driving to evacuate, and we were on the side of the road on a scooter with a backpack. We could hear shots and explosions. The alarm was sounding. And we were riding the scooter because there was no other way out. Everyone thought that we were nuts. Then I walked another five kilometers. I will never forget this road. The city was destroyed, cars were shot, and everything was covered in blood. I had no emotions; I thought I had lived enough, and ruins were everywhere. I was lucky and walked to the train station, met my girlfriend there, and we left Kharkiv together,” Andrii recalls. 

For nine months, Andrii lived in the north of Odesa Oblast, in the small town of Podilsk. On the first day of his arrival, Andrii says he just sat on a bench in the street for a few hours and listened to the silence. It was hard to imagine such a thing in Kharkiv back then. He admits that during this time he rethought his values, decided that he wanted to help people, and resolved to return to Kharkiv. Now he not only continues his studies, but also volunteers in his free time and helps rebuild housing, especially for older people, whose homes are all they have left. 

“Now I still live in Saltivka. My house is located near a large clinic, and I have been flown there several times. There are four houses, a church, and a market near it. All these objects were hit. There were many destroyed houses across the street from me, but now everything is being restored very quickly. Utilities are working; people are returning to their homes,” he says. 

Despite the constant shelling of Kharkiv and the region, Andriihas no plans to evacuate to another region, as he is much better prepared and knows how to protect himself and his family, where to hide, and what to do.  

“Kharkiv is made of reinforced concrete – we can withstand anything. The war continues. At the age of 23, I was in the crosshairs of the occupiers. I saw death, and now every day I think that tomorrow may not come, so we have to hurry to live,” concludes Andrii. 

 

 

“War Through My Panoramic Windows”: A Kharkiv resident’s story of survival and solidarity

Kharkiv was one of the first regions to witness the explosions on February 24, 2022. Since the start of the full-scale invasion in Kharkiv , 2,406 people lost their lives to Russian shelling, including 86 children. The Russians relentlessly attacked peaceful residential neighborhoods with missiles and airstrikes. The Northern Saltivka district remains in the media spotlight because the Russians constantly attempt to wipe it off the face of the earth. Kharkiv resident Maryna Grechanyuk shared how the war has changed her life. 

“I have panoramic windows. On February 24, I saw the explosions in all their horror right from my bed. That’s when I realized it had begun. I work as the head of the Probation Center in the Kharkiv region, so I immediately went to work to collect electronic keys to the registries, equipment. We were afraid that the occupiers might gain access to the registries and access all the information. One of my colleagues took 10 computers and hid them in the attic, in the basement, and in closets. Our instinct kicked in,” Maryna recalls her first actions upon realizing what was unfolding. 

Maryna does not have children of her own, but she admits that on that day in February, she felt like an instant mother of many. “I oversee 37 offices in the districts, and suddenly I had 37 adult children whom I worried about. We were constantly in touch and monitoring what was happening in each district of the region,” says Maryna. In her family, her brother and other relatives immediately joined the territorial defense. She recollects how the city united then; all civilian residents who remained felt like one family. 

Maryna decided immediately that she would not leave Kharkiv, but she moved out of Northern Saltivka because it was constantly under fire. In a safer area of the city, she couldn’t just sit idly. 

 “I saw an ad that a baker was needed to make bread for people who stay. I remember writing to that ad at night. Similarly, I received a response at night every other day. In peacetime, it was a luxurious restaurant, but after the invasion, it became a volunteer headquarters. We cooked, sorted things, delivered medicine. We fed my beloved Northern Saltivka — those who were constantly under fire. In one day, I learned how to bake bread there. I cut my nails and got to work. The next day, the baker who taught me didn’t come to the restaurant-hub; the area where she lived was heavily shelled. So, in one day, I baked a minimum of 200 loaves of bread for the people of Kharkiv. On Easter, we decided to bake Easter cakes for the locals who were hiding in the metro. Then I made over 2,000 Easter cakes in two days; it was such an adrenaline rush,” recalls Maryna. 

In Maryna’s opinion, during the first year of the war, she and other civilians lived and acted on impulses because their beloved home was attacked, and they had to defend it. “In the second year, we already feel a lot of pain, a lot of sorrow. We have to learn to live with it. There will be no more old life. Everything has changed forever,” she says.. 

Currently, Maryna continues to work at the probation center. She does not regret staying in Kharkiv. “Everyone’s windows were shattered by the blast wave at least once; it’s already routine for us. All Kharkiv residents, and Ukrainians in general, are now crisis managers because we don’t know what tomorrow holds, and we act here and now. We live, love, work here and now,” believes Maryna. 

Currently, about 150,000 Kharkiv residents are homeless due to constant shelling by Russian occupiers. Although Maryna remains, the population of Kharkiv has halved since the start of the full-scale war.  

 

Image courtesy of OCHA/Matteo Minasi
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