Anna Chyryvoko and her boys after being evacuated from Chernihiv to Kyiv, Ukraine. (Joti Heir photo)

Anna Chyryvoko and her boys after being evacuated from Chernihiv to Kyiv, Ukraine. (Joti Heir photo)

Dispatch from Ukraine: War brain – through the eyes of a former B.C. journalist

Harsh, confusing realities of war

By Joti Heir

Is it silly to worry about filling a sour cream container with water in the middle of a war?

What if the water lines are cut like in Mariupol and I reach the end of my water stocks?

I fill the container and add it to my water collection of pots and pans, bottles, a vase, and plastic containers. There are at least 20 liters there. The water kettle is also full.

Wartime Kyiv feels about as far away from the peaceful mountains and rivers of the Similkameen and Okanagan Valleys as you can get. There I wrote about town council meetings, winery openings, school sports, festivals, and those invasive pests affecting crops.

The croplands here are being invaded by tanks.

The afternoon before Russia began raining bombs on Ukraine, I boarded the metro to go to a meeting at a local language school. It was around 4 p.m so the underground was filled with students, parents with young children, and ladies with grocery bags on wheels. The meeting went well, my first lesson was to be the next day.

The nippy walk home was lit up with fairy lights from restaurant patios. The sounds of goblets and tumblers clinking made it seem festive although it was just a regular Thursday. I had some salmon and broccoli for dinner, packed my backpack for class, and went to bed.

The sun was still sleeping when I awoke and grabbed my laptop to check my emails. Reality changed. The world wound back more than 80 years to when Germany invaded Poland. The actors were different though, this time it was Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who wanted to swallow a country.

The quietness of the morning made the whole thing seem like a lie. A few hours later the roads were jammed with cars carrying people, pets and whatever else fit. Those who couldn’t get out filed into basements, bomb shelters, or the metro with blankets and sleeping mats. The air raid sirens started ringing that day and have not stopped.

I meet Semur near the Ploshcha Lva Tolstoho Station. He’s there with a man and woman who leave when I approach. Semur’s gravelly voice cuts through the awkwardness, “I know little English,” he says smiling.

Joti Heir is a Canadian writer and journalist. She has reported from the Similkameen and Okanagan, B.C.’s North Coast, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Joti is currently based in Kyiv reporting on the war in Ukraine.

Joti Heir is a Canadian writer and journalist. She has reported from the Similkameen and Okanagan, B.C.’s North Coast, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Joti is currently based in Kyiv reporting on the war in Ukraine.

I ask him if he’s worried about what’s next. He strokes his grey stubble.

“I think it’s just money, money, money, this. I not interested in politics. Politics is politics peoples job because every politics peoples have money. I see three times Nagorno-Karabakh, Donbas, now here. You don’t worry more than this,” Semur adds.

I say OK, but there is definitely more to worry about. While the city center in Kyiv has been protected so far, the number of dead and injured climbs in the suburbs. Many of the residents there have been living on their properties for decades and can’t or don’t want to leave.

Many markets are closed now, but I find one open, and buy some crackers and a tin of fish. The air raid siren cries. Walking out in the open seems like a stupid shade of bold, but walking too close to buildings seems like a bad idea too. Earlier in March, 10 people were killed in Chernihiv, north of Kyiv, while waiting outside a shop for bread.

I meet Anna Chyryvoko as she gets off of an evacuation bus from Chernihiv with her boys. Her 10-year old is gripping her elbow, the four-year old has his arms wrapped tightly around her right knee. Chernihiv is without electricity and water. Anna tries to explain what’s happened by slicing the air up and down, left and right.

“Air, bombs, stadiums, hospital, university, hotel, no, none,” she says.

The kids are silent, she tucks strands of her hair behind one ear, then the other, her eyes dart back and forth.

“Our father remain there, my mother remain there, I [come] for they,” she says pointing to her kids.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked NATO for a no-fly zone or planes and tanks. The justification for not providing the help appears to be fear of provoking Putin into killing beyond Ukraine’s borders.

I wave goodbye to Anna and the kids, and walk back to my apartment. Lorries filled with young soldiers trundle down the road. They’re followed by other trucks piled high with camo netting. This is two days after the latest Russia-Ukraine negotiations where Russia announced it would be pulling troops out of Kyiv.

The past two nights the explosions have been more frequent and fierce.

About a half-hour drive from where I am, in the suburb of Bucha, images of corpses with hands tied behind their backs are surfacing. When something is too big to comprehend, you move to do something. I purchased a few bottles of mineral water, no one here wants it, it is expensive and does not quench thirst. But you do what you do to make it feel like you are doing something, so the images can fade a little before sleep.

Joti Heir is a Canadian writer and journalist. She has reported from the Similkameen and Okanagan, B.C.’s North Coast, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Joti is currently based in Kyiv reporting on the war in Ukraine. You can reach her on Twitter @jotiheir.

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