How the horror of my native land unlocks a longing for my family’s safety in Ukraine

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Anastasea Marynovska

“Actions Not Words”. A Ukrainian woman, dressed in a Ukrainian-style scarf, holds up her handwritten poster to support the Detroit’s Hart Plaza protest on February 27. This is a simple yet powerful phrase to emphasize the light needed against the horror unveiling in Ukraine and its poor citizens, many of them are my relatives.

 

“Your cousin got drafted.”

My heart jolted to a stop, bile rose from deep in my stomach up to my throat and my chest ached with longing, sympathy, and sheer panic as the four words slipped from my mother’s mouth.

Ukrainians who once enjoyed the vast fields and vibrant cities are now dragging the soles of their feet, glancing back at their homes with tear-stained cheeks and nothing but emergency backpacks and their last ounce of energy to take them across the borders. Except for the few footprints that remain still are my cousins and relatives.

Witnessing such scenes on an iPhone ignites a burning sensation of fear and shock, for both my cousins and relatives. It felt too surreal to see the country I visited every summer crumbling. Dropping everything, my heart hammered against my chest as I watched the horror unveil between Ukraine and Russia to an inhumane breaking point. Civilians ran for their lives out of homes and fields as Russian tanks unleashed their roaring destruction.

With straining breaths, I jumped out of bed and sprinted downstairs, only to find my parents’ eyes glued to the television screen. Teeth gnawing, my parents shook intensely while staggered breaths left their lips as they watched mothers sob and squeeze their children to their sides, cradling their heads in hopes to provide some protection. Overwhelmed, my mom’s fingers trembled as she turned the television off. Barely looking up, I knew I had to give them space to process the scenes unfolding.

Several days passed, and Ukrainians continued to urge for an escape as buildings and homes began to topple into ash. Since then, with the lack of sleep and loss of appetite, my under-eye bags grew to a darker shade of purple and my ribcage began to peek through. Loud booms and screams of terror flooded my mind, suffocating me in guilt. Guilty of sitting in a warm home, with homemade pierogies on the table waiting to be devoured, while others lie starving on the cold cement of the subway stations. I felt useless, and eventually, the guilt swallowed me whole.

Mourning over the lost lives, I lost the train of thought in most conversations I was partaking in, especially at home when all my parents did was bicker and criticize Putin’s selfish and cold-hearted acts of anger and resentment. Looking for a way out, I let my fingers swipe through various Snapchat stories on my phone, when suddenly my finger glided to a stop, noticing the sentence, “Protest for Ukraine at Hart Plaza in Detroit, at 1:00 P.M.” I quickly sent a text to my friend, who also happens to be Ukrainian, stating that if she’s attending the event, there’s no way in hell I’m missing out on that.

The day approached, and quickly, vibrant shades of blue and yellow sprinkled across the plaza. Meanwhile, Ukrainians waved their flags with grace, chanting “Slava Ukraini, Heroyam Slava” (Glory to Ukraine, Glory to Heroes). Clutching onto the hand-drawn, eye-catching posters, I charged through the hundreds of bodies, dragging my friend by the arm as I dreaded to have a closer view of the trucks lined up at the stoplight. As trucks inched by, horns blared with pride, and flags attached swayed back and forth. With one glance over my shoulder, a stunned expression washed over both myself and my friend, surprised by the amount of support expressed within such a small area. I would never have thought there could be that many Ukrainians in Detroit.

 

 

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Shortly after a good hour or two, the crowd began to march, initiating a melody of voices throughout the city that sang the Ukrainian National Anthem. Cars continued to honk along, and as cold as it was, I couldn’t care less about how numb my fingers were or how I had to wipe the snot that ran down to my lips every few minutes. I took a minute to look around and admire the unity of not only Ukrainians but fellow Americans, Polish, and other ethnic individuals. As we eventually made our way back to the central plaza, I couldn’t help but laugh at the poster one had made, which had Putin drawn devil-like with black pupils and devil horns. Seeing that put the cherry on top of the march.

Over a thousand Ukrainians gathered around the plaza center to chant, “Slava Ukraini, Heroyam Slava,” (Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the heroes) on February 27. Chanting in unison provided hope for peace and safety for my relatives and Ukrainian family friends. (Anastasea Marynovska)

Hopes for the better diminished as my mom received an incoming phone call a few days later from my aunt. Heaving, my aunt’s voice lodged in her throat, failing to make a sound. My mom glanced at me wide-eyed, and out of respect, I stepped foot into another room. However, as terrible as it was, I couldn’t resist eavesdropping. Hearing my mother’s shift in tone peaked my attention as soothing words of reassurance left her parched throat. After the longest ten minutes of my life, I entered the room again, only to see my mother zoning out. After another killing minute of silence, I asked if everything was okay. Yet, it wasn’t. My cousin had to fight for the country, and I couldn’t picture him gone.

Entering school with a fake smile was one of the hardest hurdles I had to face. Every day, before going in, I would sit in my car for several minutes, scrolling through Instagram to read about the soul-crushing updates occurring in Ukraine. Yet, I dreaded an escape, an escape to an alternative universe where peace was achieved.

Although sleep cured a sliver of my mental and physical exhaustion on most days, anxiety overruled my state of mind. It followed me wherever I went, whether to school, to a sporting event, to the store, or to hang out with friends. The thought of others being in danger at this moment stood at the back of my mind. I also began to closely notice my mother’s appearance with her lack of sleep as her skin began to look paler day by day. According to my mom, her sisters and friends in Ukraine had too looked as if they were about to crumble.

Who knew that the war would lead to rape and brutal genocide? As if it wasn’t hard enough hearing about the millions of deaths, drafts, and evacuations, more and more evil continues to hurdle Ukraine. Bucha’s month of terror-filled village roads with decapitated limbs and cold, raped bodies. Thinking about such vile acts stirs a brew of disgust and anger, almost making me throw up at the thought. With every nerve-racking day that passes, I pray for my cousins, relatives, and friends, who are dying to have peace. My younger cousins should not have to barricade from the dangers lurking nearby. They should be free, out on the fields and streets, singing Ukrainian melodies as they share glasses of Kvas and grill Shish Kabobs on the cheap grill sitting outside in their backyards. Instead, they witness their parents pacing back and forth in their homes, mumbling Ukrainian prayers as tears of terror ran down their cheeks.

To many, Lviv is the city filled with the aroma of rich sourdough bread and tulips that run along the center, but to my mother and I, it’s a safe place, at least until now. Why would anyone want to destroy such a capturing and inviting landscape? That is a question that remains unanswered today.

Although trauma and inevitable pain tore at my heart and mental space, love and reassurance from classmates, staff, and other family friends played a large part in gluing back the bits and pieces. Hosting bake sales, partaking in protests, raising money, and attaching Ukrainian flags to the side of homes, evolved the support for the country. My condolences go to every Ukrainian who has or continues to face losses and departs from their homelands. To them, I say, “Slava Ukraini.”