I’m standing on a dusty path flanked by a medic, a volunteer fighter, and another journalist. It’s early May and we are traversing through a recently liberated town on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, attempting to document a glimpse of the front line. We are surrounded by the destruction left in the wake of Russian forces and by the Ukrainians affected by a terrible and unjust war. Vehicles are strewn about as hollow shells of what they used to be, homes that still stand are decimated, and massive holes from shelling line the streets leading towards the front line; everywhere you look, your eyes seem to land upon military equipment or a solider with a solemn, cold, and nervous look adorned upon their face.
We are stopped by a radiant older woman outside of her home. She proceeds to tell us stories about her family, how her daughter is a doctor, how her son was fighting in the war but was wounded, how she has many grandchildren, and how proud she is of them. We begin to walk away when she shouts for us; we turn around and she begins to make the sign of the cross and give us a blessing that we will be just as her own children, her sons and her daughters.
I’d been in the country some six weeks, after arriving in Kyiv on April 5—more than a month after the Russian invasion began on February 24, and shortly after they were subsequently repelled from the capital. I’d arrived via train, starting at a Polish station on the border with Ukraine, where I witnessed dreary-eyed families who had fled from their homes and whose children were using their luggage as makeshift beds. Once the train crossed over into Ukraine, it was boarded by military personnel, passports and IDs were scrutinized, and my bags were searched.
After I crossed, I became a witness to the war crimes of Bucha, the bombings of civilian homes in Saltivka, and the heavy artillery in the Donbas region, as well as the makeshift living quarters of soldiers and the charred dwellings of residents on the front lines, all of them defending their homes.
One day, I was with two other journalists in Kharkiv and we came to an apartment complex where residents had been living in a dusty and moldy basement below the Soviet-era structure. I’ll never forget the woman that came over to me, gleaming about her children and how proud she was that they had worked so hard to make it to America. She showed me pictures of them and her grandchildren, their houses, and their degrees. There was something about her that tugged at my heartstrings. It hit me later that this woman reminded me of my own mother.
Later, in Severodonetsk, while working alongside Road to Relief, a non-governmental organization specializing in extractions from war-torn towns, we came across many elderly citizens and their families who were survivors of the Holodomor famine of 1932, the Nazi occupation, and the repression of their nation under the USSR. Mothers, children, grandmothers, and men alike are now forced to live in the depths of the ground, being stripped of the peace and identity that they had worked so hard to obtain and preserve.
Their stories, and the stories of many who have answered the call to defend Ukraine, have set the tone of the war and shown displays of unimaginable bravery; they have now become a part of the fabric of Ukrainian identity and woven into the very texture of their sovereign state.
Yet while Kharkiv in the northeast has been liberated, the war is far from over. Bombings and shelling are a daily occurrence in the east and sporadic in the west. Almost three months in, the scars of war are beginning to show as the largest war on European soil since World War II continues to unfold.
These scars will be deep. From children born in war, to civilians permanently maimed, to the erasure of cultural artifacts, to people who are forcibly deported, to the thousands of innocent lives lost due to the ideology of another nation—these are now the tones and textures of every Ukrainian who has been forced to suffer through loss and whose resilience and love for their home will help overcome the Russian forces.