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As I interview her, Albina Khonina looks edgy but fascinatingly calm. Her composure is, to say the least, moving. She holds every quality one would expect from a mother in times of war. A Ukrainian mother, that is.
I personally have people I care about in Ukraine. There’s Vladyslava in Odesa, and Olga and Mikhail, who have just had their first grandson, in Kharkiv. They all float in my mind as I chat with determined Albina, who explains the situation with the fearlessness of a pack of wolves. There is, however, an aftertaste of anger and powerlessness.
Albina talks about “my president” in reference to equally decisive Volodymyr Zelensky; about “my military,” “my army.” I wonder if she realizes how much she has internalized possessives. This is a matter, after all, of her country; a country that, as Albina points out, is independent, and rightfully so. “Ukraine was Ukraine even in the Soviet Union,” she emphasizes.
Albina’s four-year-old cries sporadically. She excuses herself and goes to her son. “This is an aggression to a peaceful nation,” she laments.
What’s the situation right now in Kyiv, and what’s the general mood among citizens?
I’m from Kyiv, I’ve lived there all this time. But yesterday my husband, my son and I came to a city near Kyiv. My mom stayed there. With her neighbors, she shares a bomb shelter. The situation is getting worse every hour.
Yesterday [February 24th], I woke up, like many Ukrainians, because I heard the bomb. At first, I didn’t realize that it was an actual bomb. We knew, of course, that Russia wanted a war, but we didn’t expect it so quickly. Everyone was sleeping. Later, at 08:00, my husband came to pick us up and take us out of Kyiv, which was also very difficult because of traffic jams. We managed to do that.
My mom, who, as I said, stayed there, says that Kyiv is being bombed. They’re bombing peaceful houses, peaceful people. Russia attacks every day and every hour. Peaceful people are hiding in metro stations. Almost every house has a bomb shelter.
If you open a window right now, what do you see?
Most people are quiet, but many are trying to leave, even from small towns. There are usually many cars outside, but that’s not the case anymore, there are few cars now. People are fleeing. Where? I don’t know.
Are they fleeing to wherever they can, maybe?
Maybe. My husband now went to the shop to get food and medicines. He says there’s no general panic, except that we are at war. We listen to the bombs, not here, but not far from here. Near our city, which is a… [she struggles to find the word “target” in English], we heard an explosion. It was less than 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] from us.
In Kyiv, my mom told me, there’s a… [martial law]. They can’t go anywhere right now. Even if they do, cars are stopped, because there are a lot of military, our military.
You talk about bombs, what do you tell your baby?
I told him, “it is a bomb explosion, this is a bomb.” He’s 4 years old, so he thinks—he knows—that a bomb is like a bomb on cartoons or on funny movies. But I told him that there’s the war, that he couldn’t go outside. He asks me to go outside because it’s sunny. So I tell him, “no, baby, we can’t go because there’s a war outside, and we don’t know what will happen next.” A lot of children understand this, but not the younger kids. They think it’s fireworks.
When did you realize this was a point of no return?
Yesterday at 05:00 A.M. with the bomb.
Our baby goes to kindergarten, right? The teacher wrote us, “the children can still come, but I don’t know if they’ll have something to eat, so bring food for them.” Of course, nobody took their children. So that’s when I realized, “this is the start, this is just the beginning of a war that we’ve been having in our windows.” Because, you know, we’ve been having this war for eight years [in reference to Crimea annexation].
However, if you’re in Kyiv, you felt it, but you were not scared. But in the morning, when I saw the traffic jams, when I saw the news, I said, “this is just the beginning, this is the war.” And this is a real war, it’s not the Russian president talking to his people, no, he started a war! On a peaceful country, an independent country.
What’s your main source of information, knowing that many TV channels are Russia-owned?
My source is my president, Volodymyr Zelensky. On Instagram, he always tries to show all the facts and explain the situation. There are some Ukrainian channels. Of course, there’s a lot of misinformation. People wondered, “will this happen or not?” We were informed that the first attack would be on February 16th. We, as peaceful citizens, were not prepared for it, but many of my friends left the country. They’re in Turkey or Poland at the moment.
The day before yesterday I heard the news, I heard Biden. He said Putin would attack in 48 hours. This would be tomorrow. But yesterday I was woken up by a bomb and I realized that no, it doesn’t work like that.
I also follow the sites of our military, our army. They also provide us with information. They live in the facts. So I believe in it. Because when I saw Russian news, it was like… a disaster. And the most painful thing is that some people and even some countries believe in that.
How do you think Zelensky is handling the situation?
He’s good. He’s trying his best to defend our independence, to defend our country. I mean, he hasn’t left Kyiv. He’s in danger now. Of course, all Ukrainians are, but he’s the head of our state. He’s trying hard to protect Ukraine. We don’t want to give up, and he shows that we won’t give up. This is a Russian occupation that comes from nowhere.
There were doubts about him, he comes from a different background…
Yes, I agree. I voted for him, all my friends, all my family voted for him. There was a sense that he’s not a politician. But now, he’s showing that he’s the truest politician. We have so many politicians, and we’ve had some good presidents, I’m not saying Zelensky’s the best one, I’m saying he’s the best one for this situation.
He’s now talking to other countries, he says, “please stop being so peaceful to Russia, this is an aggression.” He’s not afraid of showing what Ukraine really needs.
And what is that? Do you think he’s getting the support he requires from the West?
He expects them to help us fight Russia! Not only by sanctions or really strong sanctions, like SWIFT, but he’s asking for some military help. Some countries have sent us weapons and money, but I don’t think it is enough, because Russia is the second-biggest military. We can stand here at the moment, but what people from other countries need to understand is that if something bad happens to Ukraine, everything comes to Europe and other countries. Zelensky is expecting powerful support, starting from sanctions, but not only.
Diplomatic support is also important, like asylum. This is not some internal political conflict.
Do most Ukrainians perceive Russia as an aggressor?
All Ukrainians perceive Russia as an aggressor. We fight for all of Ukraine, including Donetsk and Luhansk. There are a lot of people there who don’t support Russia. I can’t go to your home, and say, “this is my home now” just because your neighbor wants to be my neighbor. This is our home, and Russia started a war.
I have never met anyone who thinks we’re part of Russia; we are Ukrainians. And Russia is an aggressor not only for Ukraine but for Europe.
Some Russians have manifested in Moscow against the war.
Yes, I saw that. But it won’t work, because Russia is totalitarian; we are a democracy. Even if all facts are shown, with Putin, nothing can be done.
Of course, we really appreciate the manifestations, those people left their homes knowing the consequences, but they [protesters] have no support. I know they tried to do something, but they were detained, so as you can see, it doesn’t help much.
You see, twenty minutes before this call [we met by Zoom at 11:00 Kyiv time] I talked to my mom, and she’s telling me that she still hears the bombs, she’s been listening to the bombs since 03:00 A.M.
People in Kyiv haven’t slept, they haven’t eaten.
How does it work with supplies in general?
Supermarkets are still open, just like most banks, not all, but most. So what people do is when there’s a break in the bombing, they go to the supermarket.
There’s no lack of food, there are no empty shelves, no panic-buying. People buy necessary things, like oil, flour, and potatoes, but they are rather calm.
However, we are almost running out of oil. You go to a station, and you see queues of 40 cars. In this case, there was panic. When we tried to fill our tank, we spent one hour in the queue. But the rest is rather normal.
How do you explain that?
People are not totally quiet, but they don’t panic-buy. They understand that this is the war, and we have to think of others. Of course, they are scared inside. People who work in supermarkets also help us to do our purchases.
What about your husband? Will he be recruited?
Men aged 18-60 are being recruited, but there are three stages, and the first one is just reserve, you don’t go and fight unless you have had some training. The second is for retired officials and the third is everyone, all the men.
So far, my husband is staying with us, because I’m a woman, we have a child, and he wants to protect us. I don’t even have a driving license, I don’t have guns, I need protection. But if he has to fight, he will fight. He knows that. He will protect his country and his family. If he’s called, he’ll definitely go, because this is our country, this is our home.
A lot of men think like that. Some of them try to get their families out of the country first. But they’ll stay. Our men won’t give their country away; because in a way, we expected this war. What we didn’t know is that it’d happen so fast.
What do you think will happen in the upcoming weeks?
We have no idea, no one knows. There’s uncertainty everywhere. What I say now, may change in an hour. Every hour, it gets worse. I want the war to end, but I don’t think it will happen. I hope we find a diplomatic way out, but if we don’t, they’ll find us fighting We’ll be fighting in a month, we’ll be fighting in a year.
No one expected historical Kyiv; our city, Kyiv, the heart of Ukraine, to be bombed. And it happened. When I come back there, I don’t know what I’ll find. We have everything there, our home. Now, I don’t know when we’ll come back… if we come back.
Albina manages to smile and kindly says goodbye.
As I finish transcribing this interview, I get word from my people in Ukraine. Vladyslava is safe with her mom in Moldova, after days of immense hesitation and ineffable fear.
Olga and Mikhail say they hope to see me again.
Pris Guinovart is a writer, editor and teacher. In 2014, she published her fiction book «The head of God» (Rumbo, Montevideo). She speaks six languages. Columnist since the age of 19, she has written for media in Latin America and the United States // Pris Guinovart es escritora, editora y docente. En 2014, publicó su libro de ficciones «La cabeza de Dios» (Rumbo, Montevideo). Habla seis idiomas. Columnista desde los 19 años, ha escrito para medios de America Latina y Estados Unidos