I grew up in Makeyevka, a town in eastern Ukraine. I remember its busy streets that I used to roam as a child, the heaving markets selling anything and everything, ice cream kiosks scattered everywhere on hot summer days, trams rumbling cheerfully along busy streets and children’s parks open every weekend full of entertainment rides.
Today the same streets are deserted and the parks are abandoned. Instead of ice cream sellers there are armed masked men, the tanks are crawling heavily where trams used to run and the lively buzz of the town has been replaced by chilling stillness. Gun shots break the silence now and then.
This is now life for many Ukrainians today; this is the new normality for my family too. And as their familiar dear faces appear on my screen as we Skype, the relief washes over me. Knowing that even a food shopping trip can be dangerous, I am simply happy they are all alive.
My innocent cheerful niece is telling me all about the new doll she got. Life as usual for her, she doesn’t understand the scale of what is going on around her. But she doesn’t need to, she is only 5.
The cute little toddler, my nephew, who shares the birthday with Prince George, is trying to walk and beams at me with his toothless mouth, unsteady on his little feet he sits down instead of making another step.
And as I’m Skyping from my London flat, thousands miles away from the people I love, I feel powerless and useless. I desperately want to be in Ukraine, holding closely the little girl, who is the spitting image of me when I was her age, and the little boy who has barely started living; I long for a quiet night with my brothers over a bottle of good old Ukrainian vodka putting the world to rights; and more than ever I yearn to visit mum’s grave.
My baby brother, who aged over the past few months and doesn’t look so baby anymore, and his wife are telling me about their seemingly normal everyday life – they are soft-pedalling of course. And as I’m listening to their played down stories I can’t help but wonder, why me? Why am I living a comfortable safe life while my family is in danger and I can’t do anything about that?
It’s been 8 years since I left Ukraine. I’ve taken to the culture like a duck to water and speaking English is now second nature. I work in London, all my friends are Brits and I’ve sworn the allegiance to the Queen.
But underneath the British exterior is my Ukrainian identity, my core. And although I have a British passport and I think in English, the blood running through my veins is Ukrainian.
And as my country is standing up for the crucial battle that will change the course of its history, I feel closer to Ukraine than I felt in years. Their fight is my fight, their pain is my pain, their loss is my loss.
We cheerfully say goodbye and log out, we all play it down for each other. We all are aware of the dangers but we don’t talk about them. We don’t voice things in my family – we bottle them up and sweep them under the rug; we don’t confront. It’s easier that way.
A few days ago, after yet another Skyping session, I fell into broken disturbed sleep. My inflamed mind was taking me though fragments of happy childhood memories mixed with the horrors of today’s war. And as the whirlpool of nightmares was sucking me deeper and deeper into the darkness of my subconsciousness, I suddenly jolted and woke up.
My heart was pounding, threatening to break loose from my chest, my breathing was heavy, tears were streaming down my cheeks, the vivid nightmare was still too fresh in my mind. It took me a few seconds to realise why I woke up - I got a text.
A drunken ‘I love you’ text from my boyfriend at 1.35am, it yanked me out of my Ukrainian nightmare and brought me back to my British reality. I called him immediately.
He let me talk and he listened, really listened. At the end of the conversation he said: ‘I’m glad you are here and safe’. And right there something clicked, I realised that being far away from Ukraine didn’t make me any less Ukrainian or any less patriotic, it didn’t make me a deserter. It just meant I was safe and alive.
I didn’t dream again that night, for the first time in many weeks I finally fell into a deep healthy sleep.