During the sacred days of Christmas and into New Year’s Eve and Day, the residents of Kyiv endured some of the cruelest missile and drone attacks of the year-long ruthless Russian aggression against Ukraine. A so-called “special military operation” that has already claimed more than 6,800 Ukrainian civilian lives, 428 of them children.
Neither hospitals – not even a maternity clinic — nor homes, nor schools – not even a kindergartens — nor cultural centers, crowded train stations or places of worship – not even sacred sites such as cemeteries and a Holocaust memorial — have been spared thus far from Russia’s indiscriminate attacks designed to instill terror among the Ukrainian people.
Additionally, Russia has continued to relentlessly and “strategically” target and destroy energy, water, fuel, gas, transportation and other critical infrastructure, depriving Ukrainians of the most basic essentials needed to survive the cruel Eastern European winter. Attacks designed to break the will of the Ukrainian people, after having failed to achieve a military victory. Atrocities that amount to war crimes.
Just a few days earlier, a friend had introduced me to Oksana, a young Ukrainian woman living in Kyiv. Notwithstanding the need to flee to shelters during air raids and in spite of frequent power outages, Oksana was able to send me some poignant emails and photographs via her cellphone.
One of those messages gave me additional appreciation for the courage and resilience of Oksana and increased my respect, my admiration for her and for her compatriots.
Oksana wrote, in part:
Everything is fine with us. Despite the difficulties with electricity, we try to be positive. Mom continues to weave tactical camouflage nets. I work and study at military training courses! We also have a volunteer organization of therapeutic masseurs, and we go to military units to massage the military to help with the recovery and rehabilitation of our fighters.
But then the messages stopped and naturally I grew concerned.
Fortunately, on New Year’s Day I received an email from Oksana wishing my wife and me a Happy New Year and stoically adding:
Today, the Russians congratulated us with a massive shelling. But we can’t be intimidated by this anymore, people, as always, on the last day of the outgoing year, run around the shops in search of gifts and food.
The mood is not very festive, but traditions must be observed.
Both emails were sprinkled with “happy faces.”
What Oksana is doing today to help her country survive and defeat the despicable Russian onslaught is commendable enough, but it is only half the story.
One must go back to the morning of February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and struck at its capital.
On that morning, Oksana was preparing to go to work at the “Tea Club” that she managed and where she taught courses on the art of tea preparation, tea etiquette, and the history of tea (below). It is difficult to think of a more traditional, more peaceful role.
But soon the sounds of war changed her plans and her life. In Oksana’s own words, “Early on the morning of February 24, my plans changed. Like millions of Ukrainians, I heard chilling explosions. I guess I won’t be able to forget this coldness in my stomach from these nightmarish sounds.”
As thousands of other Kyiv residents did during the next few days, Oksana decided to leave Kyiv for a safer place.
Oksana planned to take her mother and her 10-year-old niece to an empty house that had belonged to her grandmother, in an area outside the city. Then, she intended to register for the draft. However, the Russians had quickly occupied the area and Oksana’s only other option was to leave Ukraine, as nearly 8 million other Ukrainians would do during the next 10 months.
After stuffing into her backpack all the personal belongings that would fit, Oksana, her mother and young niece tried desperately to find transportation that would take them out of Kyiv, out of Ukraine, hopefully to safety, for sure to an uncertain future.
Eventually, they succeeded to get on a bus that would take them all the way to the Polish border, but not before experiencing the dangers, the hardships, the humiliation Americans witnessed day after day on the evening news.
Oksana and her companions had become part of an unprecedented exodus that, within just 12 days after the invasion, grew to 2 million people – half of them children. An exodus that “stunned even veteran humanitarian workers.”
After waiting at the border for nearly 24 hours, in the cold, in lines that sometimes stretched for miles, Oksana and her companions finally were on their way to Warsaw, where a kind and generous Polish American family offered them a place to stay.
After five months in Warsaw and after witnessing from afar the continued destruction of her country and the never-ending atrocities the Russian invaders committed day after day, night after night, on her fellow citizens, Oksana felt compelled to return to Kyiv with her mother and fight the aggressors in whatever way she could.
“We returned home with joy, because in Ukraine we are needed more,” Oksana modestly says.
Once back in Kyiv, Oksana learned to use firearms, received basic military training including field medical training (below). In addition, she provides therapeutic massages to exhausted and wounded soldiers returning from battle.
Would she be willing to join the fight for her country? Oksana’s answer is both brave and firm. “So far, there is no call for civilians to the front,” “But,”” she immediately adds, “If they announce mobilization, I will be ready to go.”
When TIME announced its 2022 Person of the Year – Volodymir Zelensky – it included “The Spirit of Ukraine…embodied by countless individuals inside and outside the country.”
Oksana is certainly one of those individuals.
For those who wish to help the Ukrainian people in their hour of need, there are many reputable organizations. Oksana recommends two:
United 24, launched by the President of Ukraine, Volodymir Zelensky
Please read here how women in Ukraine “have become an omnipresent force in Ukraine’s war…[as] they are increasingly joining the military, including in combat positions, and spearheading volunteer and fund-raising efforts…in addition to running businesses and to looking after their families.”
1. To protect their identity, only first names have been used and faces have been blurred out.
2. Oksana expresses her gratitude to Dorota, Malgosha, Matthew, Jarek, David who took her and her companions into their home and took care of them, and to all the Polish people who helped them and millions of other Ukrainian refugees.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.