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“We are home”: Portraits of Ukrainians who have just fled the Russian occupation

On behalf of Bird in Flight, photographer Vera Blansh met the people from the occupied territories who had just arrived in Zaporizhzhia and documented their first impressions and feelings.

Mykyta, age 22. Mariupol

— My parents remain in Mariupol because shelling has stopped there, and they believe it is safer there than elsewhere in Ukraine. As heartbreaking as it is, it was their choice to make. I’m heading to Dnipro to meet a friend of mine. I’d like to say that we need to hold on regardless of how hard it is or who we lose in this war. Our lives go on, and we need to move on, too. I myself lost my best friend when a rocket hit his house. It is hard to cope with something like that, but I must be strong.

The Yakovlevs family. Nova Khakhovka

— Our house is undamaged, but our neighbours weren’t as lucky — theirs was destroyed by a shell. Also, our neighbours were taken away for interrogation multiple times, and all their houses were searched.

We passed 10 Russian checkpoints on our way from Nova Kakhovka to Zaporizhzhia. The Russians searched our bags and put us face down on the road each time. When we were approaching the territories outside the Russian occupation, the sight of a Ukrainian flag brought us to tears — even the men were crying. We couldn’t speak our minds under Russian occupation, and the Ukrainian flag was our freedom flag. We are home now and have no plans to leave the country. Our daughter is waiting for us in Kyiv, and our son is in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Volodymyr Isakovych, age 87. Mariupol

— My Mariupol home burned down from a Russian air strike. I have no clothes of my own left — everything I wear now was donated by kind strangers. In Mariupol, I had to hide in the basements for fear of death. All that we endured there, it was hell, plain and simple. I’m going to meet my grandson here, who will take me to Kyiv.

Olena, age 19. Mariupol

— My house burned down from shelling, and I had to hide in the basement. Later, I moved in with acquaintances of mine in Mariupol. My parents remained there, and I decided to leave because I love it in Ukraine. I plan to go to Odesa. I want to establish a volunteer organization. I have even come up with a name for it — Vyvezemo (a play on the double meaning of the Ukrainian word “вивеземо”: “we will make it” and “we will extract [our people from occupation]” — Translator’s Note).

Anatolii, age 73. Orikhiv District, Zaporizhzhia Region

— My legs hurt. We came here in this beaten-up car. The headlights and windshield shattered when we came under shelling. Our house is no more, too. We passed lots of checkpoints on our way, Russian and Ukrainian alike. However, the Ukrainian ones were not scary at all — I even started applauding when I saw the Ukrainian flag.

I came here with my daughter and grandchildren. We evacuated our entire family. I don’t want to live under Russian rule, and being back in my land feels great.

Dasha, age 19 Mariupol

— These eight months under occupation were a pure horror, especially since everybody knew I was pro-Ukrainian. My friends were so zombified that they blamed Ukraine and Azov Regiment fighters for everything, despite seeing how the Russians shelled our city with their own eyes. In March, I almost died twice because the shells hit so close to where I was.

My boyfriend remains in Berdiansk. He is 17, and his mum will not let him go for fear of him becoming conscripted into the Russian army. We had been looking for someone to take us to the Ukrainian side for a long time because living under Russian rule was impossible. I used to work as a waitress in a local coffee shop, and Russian soldiers kept harassing and humiliating me just for being Ukrainian. Also, bread was sold at UAH 80 a loaf.

While on our way, I burst into tears when somebody in our microbus said, “It is over; we are in Ukraine”. I had been dreaming about it for so long, and I am glad to finally be here. Now I want to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine and help Ukraine there. I study criminalistics but had to take an academic leave to recharge before making such a big decision. Perhaps, I could go volunteer somewhere instead.

Andrii, age 35. Berdiansk

— Living under occupation was hard: there was no food and no work there. My entire family had left earlier, and I followed soon after, taking our two cats, Pushok and Barsik, with me. Now I want to go to Germany. Hopefully, the cats will survive such a long journey. We will win, that I believe!

Volodymyr, age 42. Berdiansk District

— It is the third time I have come to Zaporizhzhia during the war. Before, I drove here for medications and food as a volunteer, so to speak. First, I have brought my children here and now leave for Ukraine with my wife. We sold whatever we could — the house was the only thing left. The difference between living under occupation and on the Ukrainian side is night and day: even grass seems greener here, and the sun shines brighter. Here, you live, and there, you exist. I’m dead serious. Even former Russia supporters in our region have already realized where Russia is heading and how much it is behind the rest of the world — we are talking twenty to thirty years at this point. We left because we couldn’t handle it anymore.

I want peace, and I want to come back home someday. Even more people are still there, waiting for Ukrainian forces to return. There is no freedom living under Russia; there is even no life there.

Khrystyna. Melitopol District

— My dad is still there, and my mum went abroad. I evacuated with my children, too, and now I’m heading to Poland to rejoin my husband. Living under occupation is a hardship nobody wants to endure. I don’t want to live either in Russia or under Russian rule. There is no freedom there, no food even. We have seen them for the monsters they are. Therefore, I only wish Ukraine to become free and win this war.

Dasha Mayakovska, age 32. Donetsk
Cats: Nafanya, Minya, and Besia. Dogs: Dobbie and Pups

— I decided to leave Donetsk because I couldn’t bear living among the murders after the 24th of February. I ran an animal shelter with 16 cats and 2 dogs. I passed younger animals to other shelters and took the old and the blind dogs with me. They endured the ride much better than I did because I gave them sedatives.

In Donetsk, I was detained for having a Ukrainian flag on my passport cover. They interrogated me and checked my phone, but I had known the dangers of keeping pro-Ukrainian pictures and messages since 2014. So they let me out rather quickly, in just a day.

I plan to stay in Cherkasy until spring, as I have too many animals on my hands to go abroad. I am happy to be back in the land of freedom, even if under Russian shelling. It feels better being among the kin rather than the enemies in Donetsk.

Oksana. Ivanivka, Kherson Region

— In my arms is my niece, and my husband carries our baby. I gave birth in Kherson — I had to pass 20 checkpoints on my way there. The city was often shelled at the time. I want to thank our Ukrainian doctors of the 1st Maternity Ward of Kherson: they are incredible and took good care of us. And when I was going back home a week later (it was at the end of May), my baby almost suffered a heat stroke.

I have three children overall, and there are five of them between my sister-in-law and me. We are bound for Kryvyi Rih, where my husband has rented a flat for us. I wish the war to end as quickly as possible because I had to leave my parents in those territories. Besides, I just want our children to live in peace.

The Fedorivs family. Berdiansk

— After the 24th of February, a lot of Russian tanks and other military equipment came. There was no work, and people started literally starving. For a while, we had to fight for our survival. We have eight children: two of them managed to get out earlier, and the remaining six are here with us. Children were afraid to play outdoors, so we were happy to flee the Russian occupation.

Lena, age 24, and her dog Lastik. Lyubymivka, Zaporizhzhia Region

— I was so happy when our evacuation bus finally reached the Ukrainian-controlled territory. I’m definitely not going abroad — I want to live in Zaporizhzhia. I work in finance and dream of helping rebuild our country’s economy after the war is over.

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