(NewsNation Now) — As the explosions grew closer and louder, Olena took her 6-year-old daughter hundreds of miles to safety in the west Ukraine. But, she had to leave her husband and family behind.
“We are afraid of everything. We’re afraid of sleeping. We’re afraid of just sitting silently because we’re just permanently nervous and we’re waiting for the worst,” said Olena, who asked only to be identified by her first name. As she spoke, her daughter, Mirasol, played in the small room where the two had taken refuge.
Her story is a testimony to the reality facing everyday Ukrainians: where relatives becomes enemies and there’s a need to flee what two weeks ago would have been unimaginable danger.
Earlier this week, the bombs started falling on Olena’s beloved hometown of Kherson by the Black Sea. The Russian government was quick to claim control of the strategic port town in the wee hours of Wednesday, though for a time, the Ukrainian government denied the claim, saying there was still hope.
Olena and her daughter are now in Ivano-Frankivsk, in the west of Ukraine and a few hours drive from Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Poland. She still held on to hope on Friday.
“We hope that (Kherson) is still a Ukrainian city because as far as I know, they (don’t have) full control,” Olena said. “So people are resisting and they still believe that they are Ukrainians.”
But, after brutal fighting and the deaths of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers, the city became the first to fall to President Vladimir Putin’s army late Wednesday.
“We don’t know the methods of stopping this. But we’re just asking for help. Every Ukrainian is asking for help. Every child and every mother,” she said.
Keeping the harsh realities of war from Mirasol has been difficult for Olena.
“It’s very hard because I think — and most mothers think — that children shouldn’t see the war. And they shouldn’t understand what happens,” she said. “So we try to smile, to be happy, to be cheerful with them,” she said. “It’s very hard to make such emotions that you (don’t have) in your soul,” she said.
To explain why they had to flee their home, Olena used a character from one of Mirasol’s favorite movies: The Lord of the Rings. “We just say (to Mirasol) that the Orcs are here.”
“She asks when we can go back,” Olena said. “We try to say everything will be OK and we will go back soon… we would like to be home because it’s not comfortable to be outside and moreover you are without your close people. It’s the most difficult thing.”
Olena’s husband stayed behind in Kherson with some of her aging relatives. Ukrainian men have been barred by the government from leaving the country so they may stay and fight.
“We are afraid for our husbands. They are not soldiers. They are just ordinary people and they can’t do this,” she said. “I’m very afraid for my husband because I feel safe only when we are together. We would like to stay together.”
Though Olena’s home was not destroyed in the devastating attack, others were not so lucky.
“Buildings are destroyed. Just any buildings. This is not the army, these aren’t military buildings. These are just buildings where… ordinary people live.”
She hangs on to every difficult phone call.
“We can’t call our relatives because (when) we are speaking, our call is interrupting and that’s awful because we don’t know what is happening. Why is it interrupting? Probably some bomb is falling there. It’s just horrible.”
The Russian invasion is confounding for Olena, who says many Ukrainians have relatives in Russia.
“(Russians and Ukrainians) are just the same… we are similar. It was never such a problem. We never had quarrels,” she said. “The people speak the same language… It’s not people from another world… I can’t put it in my head.”
But though the countries are neighbors, close in both culture and language, Ukraine’s past political connection to Russia feels distant to her.
“We’re Ukrainians and moreover, we’re Ukrainians for more than 30 years. Ukraine is an independent country,” she said. “So we don’t remember that some time (ago), our grannies and granddads were a part of the Soviet Union. We don’t remember this.”
But while she holds no ill-will towards the Russian people, her feelings do not extend to their leader.
“I believe in humankind but at this moment, I don’t believe in human (kindness) from Russia. I don’t believe their leader has even a little humanity in his soul,” she said. “These things that they do to our people… they’re just so violent. They’re just so terrible that (it’s beyond imagination).”
“It seems to me this personality (Putin) is not worth being among people. I’m sorry but it’s not normal… Probably he has some problems… I don’t know what’s wrong (with him to show) such aggression to ordinary people. We haven’t done anything bad to him. We don’t do anything bad for anybody. We don’t deserve this.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.