Olena woke up to the sound of an explosion and the strange sensation of her bed shuddering. It was 5 oclock in the morning when the first missile hit. At first, she did not know what was happening, only that the walls of her apartment were shaking and the windows were vibrating so much that she thought they’d shatter at any moment.
Olena, her mother Olena and her grandmother Tatiana lived together in an apartment close to the Luhansk airport. It was one of the very first attacks by the Russian forces in Ukraine. There were no sirens warning civilians of a missile attack at this point but this would quickly change.
Day broke and after the first explosion, the missiles kept on coming. It was Spring and the usual blue skies that come after a long and cold winter, promising weekends in the park, music, summer picnics and gatherings with friends were grey with plumes of black smoke. The birds that usually sing were quiet, taking refuge from the skies. And tenants poured out of their apartments into the corridors, not to go to work but to seek answers from equally confused and frightened neighbors.
The city of Luhansk was under attack.
Olena and her mother Olena needed to make a decision. Should they stay or go? Should they take the risk and stay by continuing to work and to make a much-needed living, seeking shelter from the bombs at their work place? Or should they do as their neighbours are doing and leave Luhansk by train and head west of the country.
It didn’t take them long to decide. Their elderly mother Tatiana could not be left alone in the apartment building at a time like this. She has a hearing problem and cannot hear any sirens and she would not be able to move fast enough to the bomb shelter should there be a siren ‘warning’ them of an approaching missile. A siren is a ‘warning’ that there is a missile making its way in your direction and that it could hit its target any time between 5 and 20 minutes from the time it goes off.
With this in mind, they felt they did not have much choice but to pack a small bag with their important documents and take the train west. The three of them were fortunate in that a group of volunteers were operating in their area and could assist them with getting Tatiana to the train station and onto the train. This has been a big problem in Ukraine in that many of the people who have stayed in the targeted areas have stayed not because they want to, but because they simply do not have the ability to leave. Many of these vulnerable people who have stayed are either staying to continue earning a living because they do not have the financial means to leave, or they are the ‘elderly or disabled’ and do not have the ability to move. And sometimes, it’s simply that the thought of ‘upping and leaving’ what they know, is equally frightening as the missiles streaking across the skies.
When I asked Olena about her journey and what her experience has been up until ‘now,’ her eyes filled up with tears. She spoke about the immense gratitude she has felt during this time, how they have been given a room for the three of them to live in with mattresses, blankets, clothing, toiletries, food and even access to a therapist – everything they could possibly need in a crisis like this. She told me how deeply moved they have been by the abundant flow of kindness and thoughtfulness shown by strangers in their time of need and when their future feels so uncertain. How this ‘kindness’ they have experienced is food for the soul and is passed on from one person to another; a chain reaction that connects, sustains and builds unity and strength for a population of people in crisis.
For me, this has been one of the most powerful lessons I have learned so far while being in Ukraine. There is a culture of kindness and respect here. It runs through the veins of Ukrainians, of volunteers, of people on the other side of the world who care and who have donated everything from clothes, to wheel chairs, to nappies and to food, to the stranger at the train station taking Tatiana’s hand and helping her on board. This kindness is the life blood that flows and that keeps Ukrainians strong and alive.
I’m learning that despite the worst of humanity being in the spotlight, it is also a time when we see humanity at its best and how powerful it is, how it prevails. How what we give out, counts. How our actions are a ‘ripple’ that go on and on, that feeds into a culture and that becomes our experience.
I looked around at the three women’s new living space and how they have made a small home away from home with the few things they brought with them and with the generous donations they have received from the global community. I notice a family picture frame and a bowl of apples on the table – a picture of normality in a very unusual setting. I notice a plastic blue toy cow placed on the shelf, taking its position next to the family photo frame and a religious picture that they had cut out from a magazine. These 3 objects represent everything that truly matters to them right now. Their family, their beliefs and ‘love’ shown in the way of kindness and giving.
I asked Olena about the toy cow and she took it from the shelf and explained that it was a gift from a stranger. That a volunteer had given it to her to cheer her up. And then she passed it to me and insisted I take it with me to remember this time. She then picked up all the apples in the apple bowl and a chocolate croissant and gave that to me too.
This was my first experience with the Ukrainians and I was deeply moved. Initially I felt uncomfortable about receiving this gift as I felt they needed it more than I did. But my interpreter thankfully insisted I take it, and I did. She explained to me that this is what the Ukrainians do, they show their appreciation by ‘gifting’ you however they can. How ‘gifting’ is their way of saying, ‘you matter’ and a way for them to connect with you.
Right now, the blue cow sits on my desk in front of me and I think about ‘giving and receiving.’ How it is the simple but powerful act of saying ‘you matter,’ and how receiving is also the ‘act’ of giving someone a voice, of accepting and receiving what they want to say or how they want you to feel. I have learned how the act of ‘giving and receiving’ goes hand in hand and creates an intangible ‘ripple’ that goes from one person to the next, until it becomes a torrent – unstoppable and stronger than what is unfolding on the ground. The beauty of ‘giving and receiving’ is not about the gift itself, but rather the love and intention behind it. How ‘giving and receiving’ is a mutual exchange of love.
I see this in Ukraine; how a culture starts with you and me and how an act of kindness goes from one person to another, rippling further than we will ever get to see. I see how this culture of ‘giving and receiving’ brings people together, creating strength and unity – how an intangible act of kindness is more powerful than any ‘missile’ can be ever be.
Lianne Ashton is the author and photographer for Rosie Goes. She is a freelance photographer and writer currently based in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.