Ukrainian refugee Valentyna and her daughter Liza, who has been living in Estonia since 2017, talk to Svetlena Štšur about her escape from Ukraine and welcome in Romania, Poland and Estonia.
On a sunny day, I met Valentyna with her daughter Liza from the Eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk. Valentyna is a war refugee who arrived in Estonia in the first weeks of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Liza came to Estonia to pursue her studies in 2017 and is working here for a startup company.
We sat down on the big wooden stairs at Balti Jaama Turg. I noticed that Liza was wearing a T-shirt with a famous war meme print on it: "Russian war ship, go fuck yourself." Valentyna mentioned that maybe I should take a picture of her daughter in this shirt for the cover of the interview. Liza protested this idea by saying that "it's a bit extreme to pose with a cursing shirt on for the national media." Valentyna disagreed in return, stating unapologetically: "What can be more extreme than a war?!"
About cursing during the war. Valentyna told me that quite a lot of Ukrainians (especially people in the western part of Ukraine, who are historically more religious compared to the Eastern Ukrainians) are upset because of excessive cursing in war-related Ukrainian social media posts. "They even made a banner with a statement that we should fight with God's name on our lips, not a curse. A girl from Lviv shared a reaction to this on her social media, saying that during war, even gods curse. But seriously, after seeing all the suffering of the people in my country, one's faith can really be shaken," Valentyna said. Liza responded that the war had an opposite effect on her beliefs: "I was quite indifferent to religion or God before the war but now I am more open to it, just because I cannot wrap my head around what is happening in Ukraine, I am lost for words, really…"
Valentyna and Liza are Russian-speaking Ukrainians. I asked them why they speak Russian in their family. Valentyna answered that she "розмовляла українською мовою" ("spoke Ukrainian" in Ukrainian) in her home region Poltava before she turned 17. Then Valentyna continued her studies in a Russian-speaking region, where she mastered her Russian during the next five years and then got married to a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. This way they ended up speaking Russian at home. Today Valentyna admits that she speaks Ukrainian with a slight accent and that she finds herself often searching for the right word to express herself. Nevertheless, the language change did not affect her love for Ukraine which she also shared with her daughter Liza.
About the language tensions in Ukraine. Valentyna said: "When we were driving through the country, escaping the war, and reached the western part, locals, Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, switched to Russian with us because they understood where we were from and what we had been through. They tried to make our lives easier. But even during peaceful times, honestly, there wasn't a conflict between the Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians. Eventually it all comes down to the individuals and their attitudes, the language was not a problem."
Valentyna recalls the beginning of the war almost as something that appeared "out of the blue." "It is difficult for me to assess to what extent Ukraine was ready for the war from the military point of view. It's probably safe to say that the country was partly prepared for the military conflict. However, what we Ukrainians heard from the radio or TV broadcasting was all about staying calm. They (tv and radio hosts) promised us that we will do traditional barbeques on May 1 (International Workers' Day) and that everything is going to be just fine…". Liza interrupted: "It was a different story for me. I had been super anxious for a month or so before the war started. I was talking to my mother on the phone and begged her to leave Ukraine. I was ready to buy her a vacation trip to anywhere just to get my mother out of the country. I screamed at her. I was super annoyed with my family's disbelief in the danger of war."
Liza called Valentyna as soon as she learned about the start of the war. Valentyna's house is not far from the airport, which was bombarded by the Russian air forces during the first days of the invasion. So, every time a bomb exploded in the area, she felt like the earth under her feet went shaking. Unfortunately, it was a familiar feeling for Valentyna as Sievierodonetsk also came under attack from the separatists and undercover Russian troops in 2014. Luckily, the city was liberated by the Ukrainian forces back then.
During the phone call on February 24, Liza demanded that her mother and grandmother leave their hometown immediately. Valentyna gave in, and on the same day she and her mother-in-law left Sievierodonetsk. They were lucky to escape by car when some of their relatives were forced to go to the nearest train station by foot for several kilometers, with a little child and a dog and a bunch of identity documents in a plastic bag.
Valentyna recalled the beautiful landscapes that they saw traveling all the way through Ukraine. However, the beauty of the Carpathian Mountains covered with snow did not bring much joy to them: "We were so physically and emotionally drained that we could not appreciate these beautiful surroundings. I felt like a zombie in a horror movie behind the steering wheel of my car. In all three days of driving through Ukraine, we did not have any food – we just drank water. There was no way that we could push some food down our throats from persistent stress and anxiety."
Valentyna and her mother-in-law crossed the Romanian border on the sixth day after leaving Sievierodonetsk at around 3 a.m. near a small Romanian town: "Romanians welcomed us with open arms and tears in their eyes. We did not have a place to stay. I did not have a SIM card to make calls. Romanians gave us two bags of food that we did not even ask for. They drove us to some Christian school to spend the night. In the morning they served us a warm meal and gave me medicine. I had a bad cough because I had just recovered from Covid back in Ukraine. Thank God I got well before the war began. I think if I was still sick on the day of the Russian invasion, I would not have moved from my bed."
After spending the night in Romania, Valentyna and her mother-in-law headed to Poland. The Polish welcome was also very warm. "We were told by our host family in Poland, a wonderful couple Myroslav and Marta, that we could stay with them for as long as we wantded. It may seem surprising that only in Poland did I realize that the big war had begun. The Polish were a lot more anxious about the invasion than we had been at that point. They kept saying that Poland is next. Turns out that Europe understood what was going on in Ukraine earlier than some Ukrainians themselves… I could see that the Polish were determined to fight for their freedom the same way the Ukrainians are right now. But I really hope that this madness stops with Ukraine… If you could only see what has happened to my city so far. Mariupol is gone by now and two weeks ago, I read on the news that 70 percent of Sievierodonetsk had been destroyed… I don't think it is a war anymore. Wars are fought between armies. In my country, we witness the cynical destruction of the people who refer to themselves as Ukrainians, including those who had been waiting for the "Russkiy Mir" to arrive.
Valentyna shared that Estonia welcomed them warmly too. However, there were some formalities at the border checkpoint that took time. "Estonians were more reserved and focused on getting the job done. They showed less emotion. Probably it was due to the northern mentality and because they were not volunteers for whom showing emotional support is very important. However, when Valentyna and her mother-in-law arrived in Tallinn and came to the Niine 2 refugee reception center, they had sort of a meltdown, being overwhelmed with both fatigue from the dangerous and stressful journey and extreme gratitude to the Estonian people. "People in Estonia do not cease to amaze me with their responsiveness and desire to help. I see that everywhere including the Facebook group "Ukraina sõbrad Eestis / Друзья Украины в Эстонии" (Friends of Ukraine in Estonia - ed.). It is unbelievable that a minute after a help request is posted in the group, there are numerous responses to it. People give away whatever they have – kitchen supplies, clothes, literally everything… I understand that this kind of behavior is a normal manifestation of humanity. However, I don't think that I can get used to it…It gets to me every time when I see people reaching out to other people who struggle, are lonely or in pain."
I asked Valentyna what she missed the most about her home. "I am not even sure if it is appropriate to talk about it right now. Honestly… I regret not taking with me my brand-new underwear that I bought just before the war (laughs) and a beautiful spoon set – a wedding gift from my mother-in-law that was in use in the family. I miss Liza's childhood books. I loved these books so much and I remember quite a few verses from them. I miss some old photographs. Basically, all the little things with emotional value. Strange, isn't it?"
Editor: Marcus Turovski