February 24: The Beginning

February 24: The Beginning

Mar 19, 2022

So I’m writing this on the 24th day of the war. I can barely remember what date it is or which day of the week, but I do know which day of the war this is. I think writing down my experience might be therapeutic and can help me first of all process it, second of all look back at it later to make sure I never forget (not that it's possible to forget, but I want a documented way of how I felt), and third of all share it with others so they know it from someone who lived it, not just a news article.

To begin with, let’s establish that I was born, lived all my life, and am currently staying in Odesa, Ukraine. This is not one of the cities that’s going through the biggest hell, so my stories won’t be as graphic as the ones my friends can tell. I am among the lucky ones. And this is my lucky story.

On February 24 I woke up at 5 am from a sound of an explosion. It was loud enough to make car alarms go off. I hoped it was a car crash. Even though I knew it wasn’t, I knew what an explosion sounded like because in 2014 there was an explosion in the building across the street from my house (someone blew up a volunteers' office collecting help for our soldiers in Donbas. Yes, sudden noises still startle me years later). Still, I tried to convince myself it was a car crash. I was already a nerve-wreck by that point from all the war talk in the weeks prior, so I tried to laugh at myself, looked outside the window, saw my neighbors turning on their lights and coming to their windows to look outside, too. I drank some water and was about to get back into bed when I heard the second bang.

There was no more lying to myself. Shit went down. I grabbed my phone and started searching for info trying to stay away from windows.

The rest of the day is a blur, to be honest. It happened 24 days ago which feels both yesterday and years ago. I know there were five explosions in total that day in my city. I know I texted my parents and all my friends, even those I haven’t talked to in years, those I had long-drawn-out fights with - all little quarrels did not matter anymore. In a day the words “How are you?” became the words containing the biggest amount of meanings I ever saw. It is a message of love, care, support, forgiveness, despair, being scared, and being ready to pretend to not be scared if a person on the other side of the screen needs reassurance... Thus I just spent the day glued to my PC and my phone. There was a news channel on one of my monitors, messengers with all my friends on the other, and news websites on my phone.

I was paralyzed that first day. My biggest achievement of that day was eating half a cup of yogurt, and even that was towards the end of the day after staring at it for hours and hours. I tried talking myself into eating, explained that I needed strength, that it was the fuel that my biological organism needed, that it was my civil duty to just EAT. I have no words to explain how hard it was to eat that yogurt.

Another thing I did that day was go out to buy some food: one of my friends insisted I do it, practically bullied me out of the house. A friend from Russia by the way. You can imagine the queues, the general air of fear. But every stranger in the street was a friend. In the shop, a lady asked me to keep her spot in the queue while she ran to grab something she had forgotten, and I asked her to bring me a loaf of bread that I had forgotten, too. It's a silly little moment but I remember it very well, it gave me a feeling of not being alone, of someone having my back, and having someone else's back too. It was the first time I felt one with people I thought of as strangers just the day before. We all talked to each other, looked into each other's eyes, nobody tried to "just mind their own business" and avoid eye contact as we had done all those years before. We were all friends, neighbors, we all searched for some consolation in each other's eyes. I can't explain this surreal feeling of looking at familiar streets and buildings and knowing that everything has changed while everything still looks the same.

As I mentioned, I have friends in Russia. In fact, I have quite a lot of them. Almost all of them texted me the "How are you?" and the "I'm sorry". My closest friends never stopped texting me the entire day. Not going to lie, being on the opposite sides of this war was and is hard. I am angry and scared, they're ashamed and scared. But we're communicating and working it through. One person who never texted me on that first day was a person I respected a lot, considered my friend, and was very grateful to. My art mentor. He started teaching me two years ago because he said he saw potential in me, he taught me for free, dedicated many hours to my education, and he was an amazing teacher. I was hurt to not hear from him that day. I texted him in the evening asking if he was even curious if I were alive. He replied snarkily asking if I wanted his sympathy. He told me that he realized that I was scared, but that's how kids in Donbas lived every day for 8 years, and that "somebody had to stop it". He told me to "suck it up for a few days" and it'll all go back to normal. That's how I lost a friend. It's one thing when you read of such people online, it's not the same when strangers wish you death on Twitter. They all seem far away, distant, almost not real, imaginary evil goblins in a movie or a book. It hits a whole lot different when it's someone you considered a friend and a mentor, someone you looked up to, someone with a face, and a name, and a voice. That was the biggest spit in my face.


=== a little tangent ===

Our country was excellent at getting info to the people both by TV and social media messengers very quickly. I think I read in some article that Ukraine is more of a digital country than some imagine, and I felt it on those first days. Immediately we all found official channels where our government officials provided us with up-to-date information every hour or whenever something happened. We learned of airstrike danger from our social media before the city alarm started blaring in the streets, and we had an app made for that during the first week. I mean, honestly, the information network is amazing, and we are quick to follow directions and learn proper ways to protect ourselves and help each other through it. I think the Russian army figured out that we're well-informed because they tried attacking TV towers several times. I mean, I don't even own a TV, we're all just online, self-organizing. We have a joke that if our local territory defense unit publishes a post that they need a dinosaur bone, the volunteers will drag a living dinosaur to them within two hours. And that we still don't have nuclear weapons just because nobody asked the volunteers to find them. Seriously, the volunteers are amazing, but I'll talk more of them in a different entry.

=== tangent over ===

I knew the locations of all bomb shelters near my and my parents’ houses, I had a prepared evacuation bag, had my escape clothes ready, and my parrots were sitting in a carrier cage just in case. I made myself a nest on the floor in the hallway (the most protected place in my apartment in case a bomb hits it. It’s fun to have to find such places in your home, isn’t it?). I bullied my parents into doing the same at their place and we settled for the night. My mom was very reasonable, but my dad took the situation very hard. He was both in panic and denial, and it was exhausting trying to deal with him.

I heard more explosions during the night, I did not know yet that it was our anti-aircraft warfare working and I was very scared. I did not cry once during that entire day. I did not yet know I wouldn’t be able to cry for two more weeks.

Here is a picture of my little nest where I slept on the first night of the war, and where I am still sleeping today right after I post this message.

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