MARTENSVILLE — Yullia Ahurevnina can’t help but wonder what the future holds for Ukraine, with her country still amid a war against the occupying forces of Russia — a three-month conflict with no end in sight.
Like hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians — women, children and men over 60 — she was forced to flee as fighting intensified between the Ukrainian armed fighters and Russian troops. She is now reunited with her sister Kateryna Soloviova after arriving in Canada last month.
Soloviova arrived in Canada eight years ago and just recently earned her Canadian citizenship. She availed of Canada’s immigration measures for Ukrainians affected by their country’s ongoing conflict with Russia to bring her sister safely to Canada.
Ahurevnina was staying in Kramatorsk, a city that is almost 700 kilometeres east of the capital Kyiv, where she was working in a kindergarten. She decided to leave for her safety as missile strikes and bombings became frequent even in civilian-populated areas.
She endured standing for hours inside train cars packed with other refugees fleeing the war. From Kramatorsk, carrying only a backpack filled with some clothes and other personal belongings, she went to stay with a cousin in Lviv before crossing the Polish border.
Various international humanitarian relief agencies like the Red Cross have been assisting refugees crossing the Ukraine-Poland border by providing food, clothing and other essentials.
From Poland, she stayed for a few days in Berlin and then flew to Paris before arriving for an emotional reunion with her sister in Calgary.
Ahurevnina said that the trains were so packed some people decided to lie down and sleep in the luggage compartment. The lights in the cars were also turned off at night when the train was passing a city being bombed by Russia.
“It was exhausting, mentally and physically. People are standing close to each other. The children are crying. You can hear some cats and dogs, too. So, for the train to be not visible from Russian aircraft, we travelled in darkness and it was scary for the kids.”
She said the war has brought nothing but destruction and despair to Ukrainians, and the world needs to know what has been happening as airstrikes and bombardment level cities and villages.
“The situation is hard with things like the supply chain is broken. If you have a car, you cannot buy gas since the lines are long. There are not many people left in the cities as everyone who can leave is leaving,” Ahurevnina told SASKTODAY.ca.
She and her sister believe Russian President Vladimir Putin and everyone involved in the occupation should be tried for war crimes. She claims Russian soldiers committed atrocities against civilians, incidents that were seldom reported.
“There are still some people with their kids in villages and cities. Sometimes they no longer hide in bomb shelters. There have been cases of rape by Russian soldiers, were three girls as young as nine years old,” added a teary-eyed Ahurevnina.
“Looting and stealing have become rampant, too. Sometimes Ukrainians tend to splurge and buy expensive things, like Victoria’s Secret underwear. These are taken by Russian soldiers and they send them back to their families in Russia.”
She is hoping world leaders who are members of NATO — like the United States, Britain, France and Canada — will do more to end the war and have Russia pay for what they have done.
“Our president [Volodomyr Zelenskyy] asked people to leave [civilians who can’t fight] for the army to better protect the area and fight the Russian invaders. It’s hard for civilians to fight because most have no military training,” added Ahurevnina.
Their parents, now in their 70s, also left their farm once Russian tanks began building up near the village of Novoselivka and are now living in Germany along with other Ukrainian refugees.
Rebuilding her life
Although safe and more than 8,000 kilometres away from the war, Ahurevnina still misses her life back in their homeland. She remembers the hours she spent relaxing in cafes, the frequent visits to museums, or just enjoying watching an opera or a play.
“There are still people who do not want to leave and they are doing the best they can to survive. They are planting flowers and acting like they live a normal life. But there are also areas, cities, that are like ghost towns now,” said Ahurevnina.
“I still think of my life back in Ukraine. My work and my daily activities. Kramatorsk is a modern city and more than 30 per cent of it is destroyed by the bombings. The small towns and other nearby villages were not lucky as they are destroyed. There’s nothing left.”
She has acquired an open work permit and her sister found her a part-time job as a cleaner but is also looking forward to someday becoming a teacher, especially in a Ukrainian school in the district.
Ahurevnina said that she is more relaxed now but still feels the stress of what’s happening in their country, where she hopes to someday return despite an uncertain future and the war still ongoing.
“It was emotionally hard for me to leave our country. I wish I could go back to my old life. I miss my clothes, my house and other stuff. I have been working and living independently since I was 18, so I have been doing what I want and enjoying what I earned,” she said.
“I have a good job, a good life and good friends back in Ukraine. Now, I have nothing. But I always bounce back. I will try to forget what had happened and start a new life here. It is always hard to start, but we all need to move forward.
Brief background of the war
Russian leaders said they are trying to stop NATO’s further expansion in Eastern Europe as Ukraine is applying to become a member of the 30-country intergovernmental military alliance. Putin wants Western leaders to deny Ukraine NATO membership.
NATO, however, has an open-door policy where any European country can join. The entire body, however, discusses accepting new members. The treaty signed by the United States, Europe and Russia more than 70 years ago does not include any provisions on NATO membership.
The NATO website also stated that no promise was made to Russia against expansion after the Cold War. NATO opened its membership after it was formed in 1949. Article 10 of their founding treaty stated that any European country can apply for membership.
Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014, began its invasion of Ukraine Feb. 24 by launching separate attacks, with troops coming from Belarus while also conducting missile attacks in dozens of cities across the country.
Russia has also supported anti-government separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic declared their independence in 2014 with Russia the only United Nations member country recognizing them.
Around 1.4 million Canadians have full or partial Ukrainian ancestry, Canadian citizens of Ukrainian descent, or Ukrainian-born people who immigrated to Canada. Saskatoon is sixth in Canadian cities that have a large Ukrainian population behind Winnipeg, Man., Edmonton and Calgary, Alta., Vancouver, B.C. and Toronto. Ont.