What Young Ukrainians Have Lost Overnight

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, launching a vicious war that has already killed thousands of Ukrainians and driven nearly three million from the country, Peckmezian’s portraits became documents of a past suddenly lost, of youth ruptured by violence and grief. Speaking recently by phone, Varvara, a young woman whom Peckmezian met in Kyiv, was in tears from the beginning of the call to the end. Sergey, who appears as a beautiful boy in Peckmezian’s portrait from Kyiv, was now sitting in the dark because of the city’s curfew—light in the window might attract bombers. Of the eleven young people I was able to reach last week, some had escaped to the relative safety of western Ukraine. Others had made it out of the country, and several remained in Kyiv or its outskirts. Those from the eastern Ukrainian territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, which were seized by Russia-backed separatists in 2014, are experiencing their second displacement in less than a decade. Lisa, a twenty-three-year-old from Luhansk, told me, “When you’ve lost your sense of safety at home—twice—you rethink everything.”

Nikita, age nineteen

I’m from Kyiv, but at the moment I’m with my family in western Ukraine. We had to leave our home and go to stay with my aunt, along with several other families. Since the Army hasn’t taken me yet, my family and I sit in the basement making camouflage nets from old military linens. Along with the rest of the people in the city, we build checkpoints and make Molotov cocktails.

Ellina, age twenty-six

On February 24th, my mother called me at five in the morning, saying, “It’s started, kids, you have to hide.” Everything after that blurs together in one endless, frightening day. We got into the car in our pajamas and went to get my mother. The streets to get out of the city were packed. All I had with me were socks, underwear, my laptop, and a charger.

At my mother’s house, we sat and cried and thought about what to do next. We decided to run. As soon as we went downstairs we heard the air-raid siren. We rushed to the nearest shelter, a metro station. There were lots of people sitting on the floor, children, dogs, suitcases. After half an hour, the alarm was over. We decided to leave immediately, since there might not be another chance. We got to our friends’ dacha and they took us in, even though they already had nine people in the house. We’ve been living here for twelve days. An oil plant burned down right nearby. The fire was so huge that for a night it was as bright as noon.

Alexandra, age twenty-nine

I’m from Donetsk—I lived there until 2014. My mother is Russian. During that war, I was in Moscow doing my master’s degree. I watched from afar as all my relatives left Donetsk—first for Mariupol, then for Zaporizhzhia, and eventually for Kharkiv. I moved to Kyiv, and now I’m in Lviv. So I’ve been all over Ukraine. My family already had experience evacuating. They know how to pack up and go in a matter of hours, and how to be prepared to be gone for a long time. Some people feel a lot of hate and aggression toward Russians, but I don’t. I have a lot of family and friends in Russia. They go to protests and risk twenty years in prison. Ordinary people aren’t guilty of this—at least not the ones I know.

Lisa, age twenty-three

In the beginning of February, I went to Sri Lanka. My return ticket was for February 26th. The flight was cancelled, and now my boyfriend and I are stranded. Vacation ended on the day of the invasion. Now every day passes in an endless stream of news from Ukraine, in fear and unabating anxiety. My parents, Tania and Roma, are in the outskirts of Kyiv, in Bucha, under heavy fire. I haven’t been able to get in touch with them. I read the news, and when I don’t see anything about their street I feel better. But it means that someone else’s house was destroyed by a missile.

Artem, age twenty

They’re bombing my city, Kyiv, destroying historic buildings, killing civilians, destroying my whole vision of the world. Lots of my friends have left our city, or even left the country. The skate shop where I work is closed indefinitely.

Julia, age twenty-two

My boyfriend, my dog, and I are currently in Cyprus. We came here two weeks before the war started. Two of our friends were able to get to Poland on the first day of the war and now we’re all together, trying to do our best. We attend protests in Cyprus, and every day I help my friends and family in Ukraine, as much as I can from here. My mom, my grandparents, and my ninety-one-year-old great-grandmother are still in Boyarka, which is only twelve kilometres from Kyiv.

During the first days of war, I wasn’t able to sleep, because I was afraid to wake up to the worst news of all. I was thinking, What if my mom doesn’t reply to me in the morning? Sometimes I forgot to eat, to walk my dog, or to feed her. Now I’m trying to concentrate on what I can do to be useful for my country.

Alina, age thirty

I left Kyiv on the second day of the war. Now I’m in Lviv. My colleague and best friend happened to offer me an extra spot in his car. My mother and grandmother and lots of my friends and classmates are in Sumy Oblast, where I grew up. My cousin and her two children are in Kharkiv. My friends in Kherson and Kyiv are defending the country directly. I’m most afraid for them.

When it was taken, this portrait was foreign to me—I looked at it and didn’t see myself. It’s from the past, but it seems to be from the future. Now this girl looks more like me than she did then. I’ve always tried to be strong, but in the photo I see fear and uncertainty.

Vanya, age seventeen

My parents sent me and my six-year-old brother out of Kyiv on February 27th. My mother is a doctor who can be called up for military service, so she can’t leave. Now we’re in Poland, in Lublin. My father drove us to the border, but there was a line of cars there thirty kilometres long. Eventually, we decided to get out of the car and continue on foot. Three kilometres from the border, we understood that we couldn’t cross on foot, so we got in a bus. Then my father turned around and went back to Kyiv. My grandma lives in the U.S., and we’re trying to get the documents to go there to stay with her. During this whole experience, my brother never cried. He’s a hero. I’m so glad that he’s so strong.

Maksym, age twenty-two

I have my own business, repairing motorcycles, but now there’s no business. The only activities are trying to save lives and deciding whether to leave or not, what to take with you out of Kyiv before it’s too late. I spend most of my time in a basement space I was already renting—now it’s a bomb shelter. There are explosions all the time, things falling from the sky. You can stand on the street long enough to smoke a cigarette, but it’s dangerous to take a walk.

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