A year after the invasion, the suspended life of Ukrainian refugees in Poland

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A year after the invasion, life on hold for Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Photo: Wojtek Radwanski Agence France-Presse On January 6, a meal Christmas party for Ukrainian refugees was given in Warsaw, Poland.

The phone call received by his roommate that night foreshadowed the worst. “As a border guard, she was ordered to take her bag and join her unit immediately. Today she is still alive,” said 19-year-old Ilona Litsenko. The imminence of war was thus revealed to him, even before the first assault. It was just a year ago, shortly before Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine, at dawn on February 24, 2022, claiming a “special military operation”.

Mariupol, the birthplace of Ilona, ​​not far from the border with Russia and adjoining the Black Sea, was about to undergo the firepower of the army of Moscow. “Many thought that the war would only last a few days, that its scope would be limited”, testifies the young woman with long light brown hair, whom Le Devoir recently met in Warsaw, her new homeland. exile.

It was life or death. The Russians were destroying the city with their high-powered missiles. Food was in short supply, but some people braved the danger and went back and forth outside to collect food, at the risk of being killed.

—Ilona Litsenko

Fleeing the bombs from shelter to shelter, Ilona resolves, on March 2, to hide in a bunker, not far from the Mariupol station. This is the beginning of a two-month ordeal underground and deprivation. Up there, the din of Russian artillery and air force make the fortified concrete resonate. “It was life or death. The Russians were destroying the city with their high-powered missiles. Food was in short supply, but some people braved the danger and went back and forth outside to collect food, at the risk of being killed. From about twenty displaced people at the start, there will soon be some 200 hiding there, including Ilona's mother and sisters. Their refuge was next to the Azovstal steelworks, the last stronghold of the Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol. “Soldiers would then bring us food, try to keep people's spirits up. »

“A trauma”

On May 2, llona finally sees the light of day. Disoriented, after eight weeks cut off from the outside world, she discovers the extent of the destruction. Mariupol is rubble, at the mercy of the Russian occupiers. Tanks marked “Z” tear through the streets. Everywhere, gutted houses, charred buildings, improvised cemeteries in gardens. And this omnipresent smell of death… Ilona prefers to walk headlong. “I consider myself lucky not to have seen any human corpses. But seeing my hometown so decimated was nonetheless traumatic. »

Comes the escape. Twenty Russian checkpoints crossed later, Ilona left Ukraine at the end of June, reluctantly. “Ukraine is my home, why run away from it? I thought to myself. My mother insisted on leaving. And a volunteer in Zaporizhia convinced me: to make the task more obvious to our soldiers, civilians should leave the territory as much as possible. As a destination of exile, Poland has gone without saying, both geographically and culturally close to Ukraine. It's my second home. Since the summer, she has been involved with Fundacja Otwarty Dialog, an NGO helping exiles at Warszawa Wschodnia station in the Polish capital. Around her, on this Sunday in February, a swarm of exiles coming out of an evacuation convoy entered the furnished tent. “Having gone through the hardships of occupation, war, exile, I know how to approach and help these people who are fleeing here. »

Every day of the week, Ilona is on deck, without knowing any respite. “It is my duty to help. When I arrived in Poland, my morale was at rock bottom. It was a shock to see that life went on here, people went to cafes or shopping malls… While the sirens in Ukraine keep blaring! But I had to rebuild myself, keep myself busy. Above all, avoid looking back so as not to relive the trauma. The hardest part is not being able to walk around Mariupol anymore, not being able to visit my grandmother anymore. My dreams and my life, I wanted to realize them in Mariupol. »

Advancing towards an uncertain future

No one knows when the war will end. How, then, do we see the future for these refugees like Ilona, ​​who all don't know what tomorrow will bring? Some, like Nadiia Mandrych, arrived in Poland well before, a year ago. His only certainty, “is to stay here as long as the war lasts, without any long-term plan”. The 49-year-old teacher from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine manages to make ends meet by working in a Ukrainian school in Warsaw. Most of her time she spends there, “where it feels like home.”

In the apartment building where she now lives in Warsaw, in the residential district of Ursynów, she met Yuliia Mykhailova, her next-door neighbor. She too reached neighboring Poland in March after eight days of anguish in a bomb shelter in Vychhorod, north of kyiv. The Russian forces then had the ambition to encircle the capital. “February 24 was the most terrifying day of my life,” says Yuliia, who has no regrets about her exile with Vlad, her discreet 12-year-old son.

Quickly, in her host city, where her niece was already living, she was able to find her bearings. “We found accommodation ten days after our arrival,” says the divorced mother, who continues to work remotely for the clinical research company that employed her in Ukraine. As for his son, after a short and inconclusive stint in a Polish school, he preferred to continue his online courses offered by his school in Ukraine, despite the power cuts that are still raging there. By receiving certain allowances from the Polish state, she can also resume certain daily activities, such as “going to the swimming pool or to the museum with Vlad, who dreams of becoming an artist”. Integration also facilitated by the proximity of Ukrainian and Polish, two Slavic languages. However, the feeling of uprooting persists, a year later, and a deep loneliness lives in him. ” I miss my friends. My eyes continue to be on Ukraine and I am very worried about my loved ones who are still there.

The first anniversary of the war brings back painful memories for Ilona Litsenko. “Opening the calendar and seeing the month of February, it struck me. Tears suddenly well up in her eyes. “Once, in the bunker, a Ukrainian soldier came to give us courage and some sweets. Later I learned that he had been killed in action. Since then, I have kept the candy with me. And I will only eat it on Victory Day. »