Social Justice

What I Want You To Know About Ukraine As This Crisis Unfolds

Journalist Maria Romanenko reflects on history, memes, and the strength of her country as she seeks safety.

by Maria Romanenko
Journalist Maria Romanenko reflects on history, memes, and the strength of Ukrainian people, as she ...
Courtesy of Maria Romanenko

“Russia is attacking Kyiv,” were my boyfriend’s first words on Wednesday morning. It was and remains a surreal feeling. Not 24 hours prior, we were in Gdańsk, Poland, and I was reassuring him that it would be safe to return. Never in a million years did I think things would escalate this far, this quickly. But here we are.

This year, I’ll be 30, meaning I will have spent nearly a third of my life with my country under Russian threat. In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, cutting off access to one of my family’s favourite holiday spots and causing thousands of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars to migrate into areas of government-controlled Ukraine. Distant relatives had to relocate from Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine, when Russian proxies led a government overthrow shortly after the illegal annexation of Crimea. Not a single day since has gone by without thinking about the war in the East, and the destruction and casualties that it has led to.

But in a weird way, you kind of get used to it, too. There’s always warfare in the East. Aside from the impact on the economy and general stability of the country, life has been (generally speaking) going on as normal for everyone outside of the Donbas region. We just learned to live with it.

Or at least, we had until now. I watched Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech, just before he announced the recognition of the occupied republics. Seeing a leader of a country of the size of Russia, with nuclear weapons, deny my nation the right to exist was frightening, to say the least.

Maria Romanenko/Jez Myers

As memes circulate, “WWIII” trends, and Instagram feeds fill with images from Ukraine, I want the world to know and understand that this is a peaceful nation. Established by the Vikings, and inspired by the Byzantine Empire, over the course of its history, the country has been under Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian rule. Ukraine left the Soviet Union in 1991, eight months before I was born. In 1994, the country gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees from the West and Russia about its security. Neither has so far ensured safety for Ukraine. And on Feb. 23, Russia took a firm step to take that away from us anew.

I am not religious, but I think we are all praying.

As I travel West, as so many others have done before and are doing so now, I am hoping for the best, but have no idea what will come. We spent almost 30 hours in a queue at the Ukrainian-Polish pedestrian border, surrounded by concerned women, children, and foreign nationals. A little girl being held by her mother behind me cries. “We’re walking home,” her mother told her, in an attempt to soothe her sobs, and by extension everyone else’s fears.

Time crawls by, while we wait and shiver. As the evening wears on, temperatures plummet to -4 degrees Celsius. We’re unable to eat or drink anything other than what we brought with us, and there were no bathroom facilities available. The mood is palpable: anxious, exhausted, and cold.

Thankfully, that immediately flipped to overwhelming relief when, finally able to cross the border, we were offered food, drinks, toiletries, accommodation, and transport – all for free, courtesy of the Polish government and kind locals offering their help.

Maria Romanenko

Leaving Ukraine wasn’t my first choice, but the wailing sirens seem to follow us everywhere and having already been separated from my boyfriend before, we decided to head into the safety of Poland, and our friends, together. However, my family remains in Ukraine, near Kyiv. My dad has joined the territorial defence force, a self-organised group taking up arms, while my mum and brother are staying put. We remain in constant communication; safety being the main topic of conversation.

I am not religious, but I think we are all praying. Praying our nation will be safe, that we will return to peace and normality soon. That our basic human rights will be reinstated before long and that our fears over our safety are soon a distant memory. Among friends and family, the feeling is that Putin and his army had planned for Ukraine to surrender after four days of fighting, but we have not – and will not. The hope is that the sanctions hit harder, and forces the situation to subside soon. Then I’ll return to my home and my flat – hopefully still intact – and hug my family once again.