My Time in Ukraine During the War

October 2022 (Last Updated on November 2022)

In this five-part series, I document my three months in Ukraine during the war and the gained perspective from my first to last week here. My time in Ukraine is a time I can never forget. Слава Україні!

Part 1: My First Week

Ukrainian Stamp

I stayed in Kraków for only a day in July 2022 before taking the overnight train to Ukraine, unsure of what was waiting for me on the other side despite having travelled to Iraq and Syria before. This became evident when I asked my train neighbour if there was a specific place in Kyiv where I could donate my (very large) bag of feminine and baby hygiene products that I brought over from Poland, which was met with laughter as she responded that I was very pessimistic because Kyiv had sufficient supplies for everyone and was not as ‘destroyed’ as I thought it was. Nonetheless, my donations to the local charities was received with gratitude because it most likely provided women and their children escaping from their city and coming to Kyiv extra support and comfort knowing that they will be properly provided for given these unfortunate circumstances with the war.

Besides the overnight curfew and the constant air sirens, Kyiv was like any other thriving busy city as people were going about their day. If you did not hear about the war, you would not have assumed that Ukraine was currently being shelled by the neighbouring Russian Federation. Life seemed ‘normal’ as it should be, though you could feel the heaviness and anxiety of not knowing what’s to come next.

Solidarity was my main takeaway in the first week of Ukraine where I assisted with the cleanup of debris at a village near Chernihiv caused by Russian missile strikes in the area. I was extremely humbled to witness and feel the strong sense of community as Ukrainians were supporting each other working through the hard labour with song and dance. Even though I could not speak much Ukrainian, I was welcomed with open arms and towards the end of my time there I felt like I was part of a larger family. But what made me feel despondent was talking to the young men who were helping out, all of whom had dreams and aspirations to follow before the war but were now preparing themselves mentally to be ready to defend Ukraine from foreign actors. I had someone thank me for taking my time out to help the local community, which I gladly accepted, but rather, as I had explained to her, that it should be all of the Ukrainians who volunteered that should be thanked and appreciated for their continuous and ongoing effort that I cannot even fathom what every one of them is going through at the moment; after all, I am just a guest in this country helping out as much as I can and sharing as much as I can to bring awareness and insight from the inside.

Any loss of human life is a tragedy, which comes with it the loss of interpersonal relationships with loved ones and memories of their lived experiences, dreams, and aspirations. I’m sure everyone would agree with me that the war should end sooner rather than later.

If I could share one message to the world right now:

Дай Боже

Part 2: Visiting Saltivka, the Most Shelled Area of Kharkiv

I travelled to Kharkiv from Kyiv a few weeks later soon upon hearing the news, every day, about the increased Russian shelling in the residential areas of Kharkiv leaving countless people dead. I found an opportunity there to help build a bomb shelter at a children’s hospital nearby, but I had some spare time beforehand so I spent the day visiting Saltivka.

Saltivka is a residential area in the east of Kharkiv which is only approximately 30 kilometres from the Russian border, and is currently situated on the edge of the frontline as of 24 August 2022. Arriving in Saltivka was visually depressing; the streets were empty* and the air was carrying with it thick dust and smoke from the aftermath of the shelling as I was surrounded by the remnants of collapsed buildings now inhabitable, and bus stops and convenience stores turned into rubble. I could also hear the soft whistling of missiles and then loud explosions near me every few minutes or so. I didn’t spend too long in Saltivka as I felt like it was getting more and more dangerous the longer I stayed (and yet again, the area is being shelled at the time I write this part as more innocent lives are lost).

Devastation in Saltivka, Ukraine

*Well, the streets were not empty as the elderly and some families, who have called Saltivka their home for many decades, were going to the one and only open supermarket to stock up on essential supplies (including pet food) in case of further shelling as would be likely nearing closer to the Independence Day of Ukraine.

I had not processed what had happened during my time in Saltivka but as soon as I left the area and got back to a relatively safe place, I was unable to function for the rest of the day given how shaken up I was after experiencing all that was happening there. Though how grateful I am to have the opportunity to witness humanitarian events on the ground with my own eyes to spread awareness of what’s happening from the inside, and that includes having to prepare myself mentally and physically to travel to conflict zones. But not everyone has that luxury and sometimes you forget that people live here and call the place home. And there are often reasons why they are not able to leave their home (and the alternative is becoming Internally Displaced People), such as that they are vulnerable, and have families and belongings here…but most importantly, they are just not ready to leave. Many Ukrainians have sought refugee status abroad, but many more are coming back to Ukraine because they simply miss home despite the fact that Ukraine has been under attack for six months now. In fact, Ukrainians coming back to Ukraine despite these times is a testament to the national solidarity and resilience of its people during the war. May the war end sooner rather than later.

Part 3: Visiting Irpin and Bucha

I arrived back in Kyiv and spent the majority of my remaining time there, occasionally making the trip to Irpin to act as a facilitator for some classes on the weekend for children. There was no syllabus really; the classes were just an opportunity for children to socialise and interact with one another through some activities and games, which would have been extremely difficult for them at first given what had happened in Irpin earlier in the war. I still remember my first day helping out in Irpin and using two long pieces of tape to secure my name tag on my pullover as I was introducing myself to the class, not knowing that the tape was double-sided tape which explained why the tape on their name tags were not visible. My ‘comical’ act was met with laughter and closer rapport with the kids, and visiting them from time to time again they were always sad to finish their afternoon with me.

One afternoon after class, I decided to walk around Irpin and Bucha to witness the rebuilding efforts that were being made after the Russian invasion in the Kyiv oblast earlier in the war. Whilst the city centres were relatively redeveloped, the same unfortunately could not be said for the buildings on the side of the road to and from Irpin and Bucha. Around this area also situated the destroyed Irpin bridge that Ukrainians were using to evacuate to Kyiv.

It was only half a year ago when Irpin and Bucha made international headlines as the world witnessed Russian war crimes committed on innocent civilians which were left dead on the streets, later to be buried in the hundreds in mass graves. The mental strength and resilience of Ukrainians is underestimated as there continues to be hundreds of rebuilding projects across Ukraine, to demonstrate to the Russian Federation that Ukraine will not stop rebuilding its country even after the war is over.

Part 4: Guilt and the Fragility of Life

Early October, I woke up in Kyiv and read the news about the shelling of multiple residential buildings in Zaporizhzhia overnight which resulted in the death of many civilians, similar to what I had witnessed in Kharkiv. Hearing any news about the death of innocent civilians as a result of missile strikes on people’s homes is always heartbreaking because no matter which side you are on, shelling residential buildings is in NO WAY JUSTIFIED. Why are innocent civilians dragged into this unjustified massacre?

At times, especially during these tragic moments, I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough to help others. And I’m sure that I’m not the only one in Ukraine (and abroad) experiencing the same survivor’s guilt as I am. I understand that we could always be doing more, helping out more, saving the lives of more…but there is never enough and as long as we put in our best efforts to help others, that is enough and no one should become guilt-ridden merely because they ‘could not do enough’.

I’m doing okay :]

Helping ‘on the ground’ is not the only way to assist with the humanitarian efforts around the world as I concluded in my post about my unique experiences in the Middle East. I was introduced by a close friend into weaving camouflage nets as a way to assist Ukraine without being directly involved in the frontline. As we arrived at the location, I was greeted by many wholesome grandmas getting to know more about me [“my husband has travelled to Australia before!”] and feeding me biscuits and tea as we were working tirelessly together for many hours. They were full of dedication, commitment, and perseverance as they consistently turned up to volunteer from morning to night. Plenty of jokes were shared by the grandmas for our collective enjoyment and I miss them as much as I miss those kids in Irpin.

Weaving Camouflage Nets

Needless to say, I do not regret doing what I do despite the instability this lifestyle brings. I am highly grateful of the fact that I had the opportunity to choose my life the way I wanted, that is, to spread awareness about world events and provide humanitarian assistance to those most in need. I would not have it any other way.

Part 5: My Last Week

In my last week of Ukraine, I began to reflect on my time here before departing to Warsaw. I had expected to have an uneventful last week in Kyiv, as I was enjoying my last moments appreciating the beauty of the Autumn landscape with the friends I have made along the way. But unfortunately that was not the case.

It was only a day after writing the events in Part 4. I woke up in Kyiv and went about my day as usual by exercising at a nearby park in the morning. Soon, I was alerted to multiple explosions happening across Kyiv, only a few kilometres away from me. I quickly checked the news to ensure that I was up to date with everything that was going on; I heard subsequent explosions near my area again and so I did the sensible thing and went home. Countless people dead this morning.* An hour later, I headed to a bomb shelter after hearing reports of multiple new rounds of shelling in Kyiv. It would have been more sensible to head to the bomb shelter first, but I went home to bring my bag of essentials with me in case I had to flee permanently. Even though the air sirens had stopped soon after, things were still eerie, and I was worried that the worst had yet to come.

*And yet again, only a week after this terrible event, lives were lost as Kyiv was attacked by Russian-operated kamikaze drones supplied by the Iranian government.

Approximately six hours later, I deemed it was safe enough and joined in the volunteering efforts to help clean up the debris of the places that were directly impacted by Russian shelling. I was sure everyone with me anticipated that further shelling might occur again at night (and of course we were ready to leave to a bomb shelter if air sirens went off), yet we soldiered on to rebuild with the best of our abilities to show to our Ukrainian citizens and the world that Ukraine will continue to flourish no matter the circumstances faced by the nation; after all, Ukraine has always revolutionised against authoritarian regimes in its history and continues to strive to become what the world now sees Ukraine as — the cornerstone of community, solidarity, and independence to defeat the common injustice threatening its existence.

From my first to last week in Ukraine, I grew to understand more about the decade-long war from an insider’s perspective, but my time in Ukraine would not be complete without mentioning the compassion of the amazing people that I have met here. Even though I am sad to leave Ukraine, I know that I will be greeted with open arms by a bigger and stronger Ukraine as we continue on with our rebuilding efforts. And I am proud to call Kyiv my second home.

My chapter here is not finished yet. Until next time…Слава Україні!

A New Dawn for Ukraine <3


EDIT: A week after coming back from Ukraine, I gave a speech in front of a Ukrainian rally near Downing Street in London.

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