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The images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine show only part of what it is like to live in a country at war: destroyed cities, casualties everywhere, and thousands of losses, both human and material. Simultaneously, there are other images that do not come to light, stories that have not yet been told, and that reflect a nation sheltering within its borders, trying to survive.
While Vladimir Putin destroys Kherson, Irpin, Mariupol, and Odessa, thousands of Ukrainians escape to other cities to flee the war, destinations that opened their doors to receive displaced people and that also suffer the onslaught of the conflict.
How do Ukrainians live outside the attacked cities? What is the situation of access to food and medicine? How do citizens support themselves economically if the country is under attack?
To learn a little about the new reality Ukrainians are living in, El American interviewed Paul Bilichenko, a businessman and family man who left his life in the capital in order to save his wife and daughter. He now lives in a small room with his parents in his hometown, helps get supplies for his army, and at the same time runs a GoFundMe campaign in order to help his employees rebuild their lives. Before the war, Paul lived with his wife, 10-month-old baby, and cat in the Ukrainian capital. Two years ago he set up a company linked to research and development for Neonomics, a Norwegian fintech company; and currently has 17 employees in Ukraine.
With good humor, videos, pictures, some jokes and a message to the world, Paul told us what his life was like, how he found out about the war, and how he must survive now.
What was your life like before the invasion, your routine, and how did you live the first day of the attack? Where were you, and what were you doing?
“I led a normal life, every day I got up in the morning, helped my wife with my daughter, and went to work. Because of the Covid-19, we worked remotely, but I preferred to go to the office for a walk in the morning and work productively without distractions. Having a small baby meant a lot of distractions.
“The Russian military was gathering at our borders. There were numerous reports from U.S. intelligence that the invasion would happen soon. The Russians had another message, their propaganda said that no one was going to attack and that it was all fake.
“Russia said it had no intention of attacking Ukraine, yet it kept gathering more and more soldiers, tanks, armored vehicles, helicopters, and planes in Russia and Belarus near our borders. Its army was 100 km from Kyiv.
“On the night of February 23, I had some bad feelings. I even told my wife that I thought we should pack our bags and move to western Ukraine, to my hometown. I suggested that we leave at night, so in the morning we would be there. But we thought that the 8-hour trip would be too exhausting for our daughter and decided to stay. Instead, I started preparing some important things to take with us in case something happened in the near future. I was sorting and packing things until 3 am, and then I went to sleep.
“I slept for only an hour and a half and at 4:35 AM, our cat started acting wild. He was jumping on us in bed and making as much noise as he could. I woke up, opened the window to let some fresh air in, and went to get a drink of water. When I came back, my wife was terrified, she asked me ‘did you hear the noise outside?’ I thought she was stressed and wanted to calm her down, but suddenly I heard a very loud explosion somewhere nearby.
“All doubts dissipated in a second, I asked her to pack her bags and take our daughter. Meanwhile, I was following the news to find out what was happening and if there was still any chance to get out of Kyiv safely.
“Putin declared the beginning of the special ‘war operation’ (that’s what these fascists call it) this message was all over the news. There were explosions in almost every major city in Ukraine. I felt the danger and smelled the smoke outside the window. One thing I thought is that I have to make sure that my wife and daughter are safe. So I decided that we had to leave.
“I ran out with our suitcases, put them in the car, and ran back to get some more. All our neighbors were awake, some of them were packing their bags too. I packed everything I could, the stroller and some clothes, mostly focusing on my daughter’s needs.
“When we left, I realized we were in a terrible traffic jam at 6 am. We managed to make 15 km from Kyiv in the first 7 hours and there I realized that I would not make it to my parents (650 km) and that I would run out of fuel. So I decided to stay at our friend’s place in Bilogorodka, which is near Kyiv and close to the Gostomel airport.
“We got there, hoping to get some sleep and keep on going the following morning. We unpacked some of our things and went into the house. After about an hour, I heard big explosions coming from the Gostomel airport, which was 10 km away from us. Then, I heard fighter planes start flying overhead at very low altitudes… They were flying towards Gostomel, then we heard massive explosions, which were later repeated.
“Every time they flew overhead, I hoped that they would not shoot at the houses or that they would not be shot down and fall on us. Meanwhile, my wife and daughter were hiding in the basement.”Paul Bilichenko
“There were 5 men in the house, including me, so we took out some rifles we could use and started preparing to defend the house. The explosions were getting louder and louder, and I was hearing and feeling more and more. The windows were shaking; the doors were clapping. That night I barely slept for an hour with the rifle nearby.
“The next morning, we decided to keep on traveling. I found some fuel at the gas station off the main road and thought it would be enough to get home. But we only made it as far as my grandparents, who live 230 km from Kyiv. It took us another 7 hours because the roads were crowded. We stayed another night and the next day we traveled to my hometown, for another 11 hours, and we were there.”
How did the war change your life? What did you lose, where are your family and friends, how do you communicate with them?
“The war changed my life completely. Here I have the most important things in my life: my wife, my daughter, and my cat; but materially I lost everything that could not be put in three bags: I lost my own apartment in Kyiv, in the center of the city, and everything I had there. I took only 2 pairs of shoes, 2 jackets, and some T-shirts. The same goes for my wife.
“My family is here in a small town near the Polish border, but my wife’s parents stayed in Kyiv. My father-in-law needs special medical treatment, so I am currently sending medical help to the hospital in Kyiv, where he receives it. Distribution is complicated, because most of the roads leading to Kyiv were destroyed by the Russians and by our army, which was trying to stop them. My employees are also now spread all over the country. Two of them are from Irpin, a city that was almost completely destroyed by the Russians. I asked my Norwegian colleague to set up a special fund on GoFundMe to help them buy new houses after the war.”
What did your wife do before the war and what is her life like now?
“My wife was working as a human resources manager in a local company before maternity leave. When the war started, my daughter was 9 months old, so she was still babysitting. Now she is taking care of our daughter and cooking delicious things.”
What is your new routine like, how do you buy food, medicine, and water? How is the place where you are now?
“We are living at my parents’ house, we have a separate room and live with my parents and my little sister. There is not much space for all of us, but at least we have a place to stay.
“We are trying to get back to normal life as much as possible. Here in western Ukraine, the war is not felt as much as in the east. But we experience the lack of distribution, some products are impossible to find, in some stores the shelves are empty, but this is more due to the fact that most Ukrainians came to the west.
“For example, in my town of 25,000 inhabitants, there are now 65,000 refugees. Some are even living in schools; our local authorities have prepared places for them to sleep. We feel the lack of many goods that we could normally buy. For example, when we arrived here, I was driving around the city for two hours trying to find food for my daughter. Finding diapers, some medicine, and some food is also a challenge.
“I used to buy everything in one big store, now I have to visit 4 or 5 different stores all over the city to buy the food on my list, and even then some of it is nowhere to be found. Prices have already gone up 30%. Diapers are twice as expensive as before the war.”
How do you see the political situation, what do you think of what is happening and how do you see yourself in the coming months if the war continues?
“This war has brought us together very much. Whether the war continues or not depends a lot on how Western countries support us.”
“Putin’s goal is to destroy Ukraine as a country and then go further to Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, that’s why they support us more. If the war continues, I will stay here in my hometown and do what I am doing now: work remotely, help our people and our army.”Paul Bilichenko
Do you think Zelensky should surrender to Russia in order to avoid more deaths? Do you think he should continue the fight?
“I think he should continue the fight. Too many innocent lives have been lost to give up now. I can’t find words to describe Russians who support the war, they are worse than wild animals.
“They dropped a bomb on the theater in Mariupol, with children and women hiding there, they killed 300 people. During the evacuation of people from Irpin’, near Kyiv, they stopped civilians’ cars, pulled out children, and shot them dead in front of their parents… This cannot be forgotten or forgiven, they have to pay for it.
“We fight for life; they fight for death. As long as Russia exists, there will be no security for Ukraine or any country in Europe or the Middle East. Surrendering to Putin is the same as surrendering to Hitler in World War II. This is not acceptable.”Paul Bilichenko
“Putin has to be sued as a war criminal and sentenced for life or he has to die. There is no other way to ensure the security of Europe and the United States. Having this guy with access to the red button means always having a threat.”
The world is amazed by the resilience of the Ukrainians, and I personally admire them very much. What do you think of your people, your army?
“Our people are amazing. I can compare it to bees, each one is doing its job, but when the bear tries to invade their home, they unite and kill it together.
“We may have a lot of arguments in peacetime, but now we are more united than ever. Everyone, including me, donates their savings to help others and to buy anything our army may need to fight the enemy.
“Our army is well trained and has done a tremendous job to stop the Russian army, which is much bigger and has many more weapons, vehicles, missiles, etc. I am super proud of them and I think if we had 1% of NATO’s weapons, planes, missiles, etc., this war would have been over by now.”
How do you assess the West’s reaction to the invasion?
“I would divide the West’s response into, let’s say, ‘collective West’ and separate countries. The collective West is too slow, conducts endless conferences, assemblies, and consultations, but still seems to just watch what will happen next. They are afraid to respond to Putin, because of his ‘red button.’ They are unwilling to fight for democracy and human rights, silently watching as Russian troops continue to kill more and more Ukrainians and hoping that the war will not come to them.
“Separate countries are acting more united. The United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia are helping us a lot. They support us with weapons, humanitarian aid, and financial sanctions against Russia. We thank them for that. This war has shown us the way forward.”
What do you expect will happen in the coming weeks?
“The next few weeks depend a lot on whether other countries help us or not. We need anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense systems. The Russians can’t do anything to our army on the ground, so they keep bombing our cities with rockets and bombs, using their superiority in the air. They bring terror to peaceful cities and civilians. As soon as they lose air superiority, they can do nothing but surrender or die.”
What message would you like to give to those who read this interview?
“My message to those reading this interview will be simple. When I thought that we could all die suddenly, I realized what is important and what we think is important, but is not. So my message is: have fun, live the life you want to live, hug your loved ones more and tell them you love them. Don’t waste your time on things that make you sad or angry. You are lucky to live in a country where you are sure your children are safe and you can plan for your future.”
“Make your dreams come true and be happy. Anything that can be fixed with money is not worth worrying about. Life and health are priceless.”Paul Bilichenko
From El American, we thank Paul for sharing his life with us, we hope he is safe and for the war to end soon. Thank you, Paul, we will keep in touch.
Sabrina Martín Rondon is a Venezuelan journalist. Her source is politics and economics. She is a specialist in corporate communications and is committed to the task of dismantling the supposed benefits of socialism // Sabrina Martín Rondon es periodista venezolana. Su fuente es la política y economía. Es especialista en comunicaciones corporativas y se ha comprometido con la tarea de desmontar las supuestas bondades del socialismo