Two years of war in Ukraine: "Everyone that is killed feels like a family member"

Maya, Tanya and Vita in 2019.
Maya, Tanya and Vita in 2019. Copyright Photos provided by Maya and Tanya.
By Johanna Urbancik
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Euronews spoke to Kyiv-resident Maya, who tells us about her life before the full-scale invasion and now, two years after. With three friends she is raising money to buy drones and cars, to support those, who are fighting at the frontline.

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"2021 was the best year of my life," 30-year-old Kyiv-resident, Maya, told me. Throughout the year, she immersed herself in Kyiv's vibrant nightlife, becoming an integral part of its emerging cultural scene. Alongside her best friend, Tanya, she worked for one of the city’s most prominent nightclubs, K41, and co-founded a since closed-down music magazine, called TIGHT. After a global pandemic, life seemed to finally go back to normal.

Back then, Ukraine had been at war for eight years already, fighting against Russian separatists in the Donbas, but even after reports from international media organisations and governments, many Ukrainians refused to believe what was about to happen to them. Maya couldn’t imagine it, either; even though she’d also read those reports.

Looking back at it, everything happening before the invasion seems so obvious. I feel like a fool because I refused to believe it.
Maya

"Looking back at it, everything happening before the invasion seems so obvious. I feel like a fool because I refused to believe it," she says. Then, for the first time in her life, she woke up to explosions in the early hours of the 24th February. Having never been so panicked in her life, she decided to leave Kyiv. She was forced to leave her hometown and went to the western city of Lviv first before moving to Berlin. She has since realised that leaving was the worst decision of her life. “Being away from my home and not going through this together with my family, which was around ten kilometres away from Russian forces, was the worst time of my life”, she adds.

Euronews spoke to Maya and Tanya, two best friends who have known each other since their early twenties, to better understand how their lives had changed in the last two years. Maya lives in Kyiv after briefly having left, while Tanya fled to the UK and made London her new home.

“In 2021, Kyiv felt like the centre of the universe”

When Maya thinks of her life before the full-scale invasion, she gets emotional and is briefly lost for words. Tanya jumps in and talks about their community in the nightlife scene. “We were a tight-knit community. We worked, partied together and made ambitious plans for the future. Unfortunately, none of them have happened,” she says. Maya adds that back then, Kyiv went through the peak of club tourism. 

Tanya, Vita and Maya at a party in 2021, the best year of their lives.
Tanya, Vita and Maya at a party in 2021, the best year of their lives.Photo provided by Maya and Tanya

“It felt like the last place on earth where people were going crazy every night. In 2021, Kyiv felt like the centre of the universe. I’m grateful we were lucky enough to experience it.” Talking about the past has become something of a norm for Ukrainians. Thinking back about the years before the full-scale invasion leaves a bitter taste. On the one hand, the feeling of gratitude for the joyful experiences, on the other, the feeling of frustration, uncertainty, and fear of what’s to come.

“We will find a way!”

"Now, the mood can be described as frustrated," Maya said. “People tend to forget we’re defending ourselves in this war”, added Tanya. This sense of hopelessness came up in a conversation Maya had with one of her friends, who is currently serving in the military. He told her that of course they would continue fighting. "We will find a way," he added.

Like Maya, many Ukrainians are bracing for a long war. Living through frequent air raids, drone attacks and shelling takes a toll not only on one’s physical, but also on one’s mental health.

Sandbags cover monuments in Kyiv to protect them from Russian shelling. Residents have added signs with call for helps and Ukrainian flags.
Sandbags cover monuments in Kyiv to protect them from Russian shelling. Residents have added signs with call for helps and Ukrainian flags.Photo provided by Maya.

But how do you take care of your mental health when your country is at war? Just like for any other person, social media plays a big role here. Doom-scrolling and arguments no one can win take a toll on everyone. “I muted everything and everyone who triggered me,” Maya said, adding that controlling the intake of news also played a big role in preserving her mental sanity. Especially, the recent news of Oleksandr Syrskyi replacing General Valerii Zaluzhnyi as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces stirred up confusion and panic in the country due to his reputation.

“Clubs a space where people can transform their fear, anger, frustration into something positive”

Even with the country at war, Kyiv’s nightlife – or rather daylife? – is thriving. Due to curfew restrictions, bars, restaurants, and clubs must close at midnight, which is why clubs have shifted to daytime events. Maya talks about New Year's Eve, after Kyiv was heavily shelled again, and how she was supposed to go to an event at the techno club K41 the next day.

Vita, Tanya and Maya at a party in 2021.
Vita, Tanya and Maya at a party in 2021.Photos provided by Maya and Tanya.

Naturally, she didn’t feel like going. She was convinced that heavy shelling would continue and that she would die soon. In the end, she went to the party anyway.

At the club, she met some of her friends, who told her they were feeling the same. “That’s what Russia wants, though,” said one of her friends. They put on their best outfits, went to the club and shared this experience with each other. 

What we felt, how we were dancing, it really helped us go through this trauma together.
Maya

“What we felt, how we were dancing, it really helped us go through this trauma together.” She mentioned the importance of these spaces, where you can support each other in person. “Of course, the vibe was different. It felt like escapism.” This opportunity to escape on the dancefloor is important for civilians, as well as servicemen who are on holiday. “They’re off for one day or two and go clubbing, to escape reality,” she added.

Clubs serve a different function now in Ukraine. “It’s a space where people can transform their fear, anger, frustration into something positive. You can go through this experience of being alive. It’s an existential place for people to come together and enjoy the company of each other,” Tanya explained.

“Every person that dies – whether I know them or not – feels like a family member that has been killed”

Reality catches up quickly, though. Can you get used to war and the violent images and videos posted online? Both Tanya and Maya said “no”. “Every person that dies – whether I know them or not – feels like a family member that has been killed,” said Maya. This sense of community in Ukraine has become even more important in times of war. “We’re used to poverty. We’re used to sharing our homes with many family members. We’ve always had to support each other, even before the war.” That’s why every death hits her as hard as the last one. “You suffer and breathe with every loss as if it is yours, because there is no separation between us as a nation and the individual. We go through this trauma together,” she adds.

Maya with her adopted dog Bella. Bella was saved by Ukrainian armed forces after the liberation of Bucha.
Maya with her adopted dog Bella. Bella was saved by Ukrainian armed forces after the liberation of Bucha.Photo provided by Maya.

That sense of community isn’t only as broad as the country, though. Each industry, subculture, and scene has its own tight-knit community that has grown closer in the last two years. Priorities have shifted, and the aim has become to do everything to retain your freedom as an individual, and a country.

“Everyone is doing their part to defend our country”

It is not just soldiers who are defending the country, but also civilians. Though, many Ukrainians have turned away from their passions and crafts to join the army. “During these two years, our problems and the focus have changed. The focus now for us is the frontline and supporting them as much as we can,” Maya said, adding that Russian forces are deliberately targeting civilians.

The focus now for us is the frontline and supporting them as much as we can.
Maya

For her, civilians are also the people who signed up to the army to help defend their country. “They didn’t choose to fight; they were forced to because we’ve been attacked.” Of course, both Maya and Tanya have lots of friends who are currently fighting to defend the country. These people leave behind a gaping hole in the community, but the aim is to continue fighting.

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“We are fighting the biggest country in the world, we’re in desperate need of resources”

Since the onset of the full-scale war, Ukrainians have been trying to do everything they can to help and collectively donated 1 billion euros through the ‘Bankas' feature on the Monobank online platform, as the Kyiv Post reports. This digital piggy bank, unique in the world, serves as a secure means for fundraising. Dozens of fundraisers to support the army are regularly posted on Monobank, each with a specific fundraising goal. According to Oleh Gorokhovsky, co-founder of Monobank, 'bankas' holds immense significance for Ukrainian volunteers, akin to the importance of HIMARS for Ukrainian soldiers.

Alongside two other friends, Nastya and Vita, Maya and Tanya decided to establish their own fundraising aid organisation, AIDх10, to contribute to the purchase of the crucially needed drones and cars at the frontline. According to the Times, donations have played an integral role in preventing the collapse of the Ukrainian economy thus far. However, with several million Ukrainians having left the country, Maya, Tanya, Nastya and Vita aimed to start an organisation that also involved Ukrainians who were forced to leave the country.

Vita, Tanya and Maya.
Vita, Tanya and Maya.Photo provided by Maya.

“Ukrainians are tired and strapped for cash. It's difficult for each Ukrainian to donate now,” said Tanya, adding, “this sense of urgency, coupled with the feeling we’re in this for the long haul, exhausts people, which is why we wanted to make reaching out abroad an integral part of our fundraising strategy, as well as raising awareness. We are fighting the biggest country in the world; we’re in desperate need of resources.”

Both emphasise the aid mentioned in the news falls far short and often fails to reach those in dire need. “We watch our friends struggle on the frontline,” Maya said. The frontline is extremely perilous, with equipment such as drones and vehicles easily breaking down. Both assert that soldiers are in desperate need of these resources, alongside the weapons volunteers cannot afford, such as long-range weapons, mines, to name a few. Maya stressed that everyone must understand that drones are consumables, and the military sometimes uses a dozen drones a day to neutralise their targets. “Nothing can replace the weapons we require, as Zelenskyy mentioned at this year’s Munich Security Conference,” she added.

A graveyard where fallen Ukrainian servicemen are burried.
A graveyard where fallen Ukrainian servicemen are burried.Photo provided by Maya
We’d love to invest our money into a better, greener future and the environment, but we have to spend this money to defend our country instead.
Maya

“We’d love to invest our money into a better, greener future and the environment, but we have to spend this money to defend our country instead,” Maya said. “Drones are so important, but they break so easily.” The reality for her and other Ukrainians is the need to support the thousands of soldiers fighting at the frontline. “We, as civilians, are fighting to gain as many donations to help safe as many lives as we can,” Tanya added.

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“I don’t ever want to leave Ukraine; I want to live here”

“I don’t know what the future will look like, it’s a hard question,” confessed Maya as she voices her fear of the worst-case scenario. “I don’t know what I should do if Kyiv or Ukraine end up occupied by Russia. I know I won’t be kept alive,” she said, stating that she’s a vocal activist connected to the LGBTQIA+ community. The LGBTQIA+ community was labelled as an ‘extremist organisation’ and banned by the Kremlin last year.

“It’s so painful for me to think about, but I am thinking about it quite often.” She wants her life to be in Ukraine without living in fear, to raise her future children there and live in peace. Maya doesn’t spend much time thinking about the end of the war, though. “We’ve lost so many people and sacrificed so much, I don’t think I could celebrate”, she added.

Sunset in Kyiv, Maya and Tanya hope that one day life will come back to normal in their beloved city.
Sunset in Kyiv, Maya and Tanya hope that one day life will come back to normal in their beloved city.Photos provided by Maya and Tanya.

There are no official numbers about how many civilians have died since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. US officials estimate near half a million war casualties. 

We’ve lost so many people and sacrificed so much, I don’t think I could celebrate.
Maya

There is hardly a Ukrainian who doesn’t know someone who has been killed or died defending their country.

If you want to donate to AIDx10, you can do so here.

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