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'I knew it was the last lunch': One refugee's final day in Kyiv

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By Lauren Chadwick
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Iryna speaks to Euronews about fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Iryna speaks to Euronews about fleeing the war in Ukraine.   -   Copyright  Iryna Zemlyana

The day before Russia invaded Ukraine, Iryna Zemlyana made herself a nice breakfast, went to her favourite restaurant and saw her closest friends.

She went to her office to get important documents and to the dentist to find out what to do about her braces during the war. Her dentist laughed when she asked if there was a plan.

But 34-year-old Zemlyana, who has been training journalists to brave tough war conditions for eight years during the war in Ukraine's east, wanted to be prepared and knew the conflict would break out soon.

"I just really knew that it was the last day of peace," she said. "I asked my very good friend to have lunch with me. And we went to my favourite restaurant and I ate my favourite dishes and I just knew that it was the last lunch."

Fears had risen that war was imminent that week following Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech on 22 February, when he claimed that Ukraine was not a sovereign state.

Zemlyana went to her office at the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information to gather documents and first aid, gathered her emergency bag, said goodbye to her apartment and stayed with a friend on the other side of Kyiv -- in an area from which it would be easier to escape.

Iryna Zemlyana
Iryna left her apartment with just two bags on 23 February.Iryna Zemlyana

She couldn't sleep and when she started hearing explosions in the city on Thursday, 24 February, she waited several minutes before waking her friend.

"I didn't want to disturb the peace," she said of those last moments before she fled.

Hard for people to believe there's a war

Zemlyana and her friend had made an evacuation plan beforehand, so she was ready to leave Kyiv immediately.

Her bag was packed a month before the war started, even though she says some had mocked her, blaming her that preparing for the worst came from adrenaline.

Iryna Zemlyana
Iryna crossed the Polish border five days after leaving Kyiv.Iryna Zemlyana

As she evacuated Kyiv, she received a message from her therapist who she was supposed to see later in the day. She told him she hoped to see him again someday, but he responded by asking her if she would miss her appointment.

"Can you imagine it's already started, but people still don't believe that it's a war?" Zemlyana said.

"People didn't want to believe, it's not because they're bad. It's just that they didn't want to believe it would happen."

But Zemlyana, who was active in the Euromaidan protests in 2013 said one part of her had been preparing for this moment for eight years. The other part was worried and hoping this wouldn't happen.

"I have two parts of me, of course, one part is a refugee who wants to cry and don't know what to do on the next day and how I will live, but I'm quite optimistic," she said.

Zemlyana is now doing what she can in Warsaw to continue supporting journalists on the ground in Ukraine and the military there. But for now, she doesn't have work in Poland.

"We will win or we will die. People will not live in occupation. It's impossible for Ukrainians. So I'm sure we will win," she said.

Video editor • Adrien Rignol