Returning to a city in ruins

Afraid to leave the city she grew up in and loved, Anastasia remained in Kharkiv for almost three months after the war in Ukraine erupted, watching her friends and family flee. But the risks got too high.

UNICEF
Anastasia, 22, from Kharkiv, Ukraine, stands in front of a bus in Przemyśl, Poland.
UNICEF/UN0644126/Le Lijour
20 June 2022

Anastasia, 22, speaks decisively, without giving away emotion, her dark eyes looking straight ahead. She lived the nearly three months caught in the middle of a war. “When the war started,” she says, “I thought it would last for two, three weeks maximum.”

Anastasia wanted to remain in Ukraine. She loves Kharkiv – her home, and where she always felt she belonged. Even after her father enrolled in the military and other family members started to leave, she stayed on with relatives in a village outside the city.

Then the bombs descended. Kharkiv became one of the first areas that saw intense and sustained fighting. Anastasia watched from afar as her city burned. The risks seemed to increase with every passing day. “The village was calm until the small town right next to it got bombed.” That strike strengthened her resolve to leave.  “The village I stayed in could have been next,” Anastasia said.

Anastasia stands in front of a bus shortly after her arrival in Przemyśl, Poland.
UNICEF/UN0644123/Le Lijour
Anastasia stands in front of a bus shortly after her arrival in Przemyśl, Poland.

Back to home

Before leaving, Anastasia went back to Kharkiv to get some of her belongings, knowing she would be away from home for a long time. “I had heard that the city was safe enough to venture in, so I took a bus that brought me back home.”

She first went to her parents’ house, which had been partly destroyed. Their neighbourhood had undergone intense shelling, severely damaging homes and infrastructure. Yet despite the broken windows, roads full of holes, burned cars, buildings in ruins, life seemed to be slowly going back to normal.

A scene of devastation in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on 18 April 2022.
UNICEF/UN0634264/Gilbertson VII Photo
A scene of devastation in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on 18 April 2022.

Her own neighborhood remained virtually untouched and in her apartment, everything was pretty much as she had left it. But Anastasia couldn’t help feeling empty and sad. The state of the city where she had played as a child, where she had grown into a young adult, where she had gone to school and gotten her first job, left her speechless.

Despite the pause in hostilities, she knew that she wasn’t safe in Kharkiv, just as she wasn’t safe in the village. She rushed to the railway station and spent 10 long hours on a train, terrorized that she would find herself in the line of fire. From relatively safer Lviv, she boarded a bus and crossed the border to Medyka, Poland.

Anastasia talks to Olga, UNICEF social worker, in front of a bus in Przemyśl, Poland, on the day of her arrival in the country.
UNICEF/UN0644124/Le Lijour
Anastasia talks to Olga, UNICEF social worker, in front of a bus in Przemyśl, Poland, on the day of her arrival in the country.

Today in Poland, tomorrow in Estonia. Then, hopefully soon, home.

At the refugee accommodation centre in Przemyśl, a major reception center for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine into Poland, Anastasia was welcomed with food, something to drink, and a safe place to rest and spend the night. At the Blue Dot,  a social worker gave her crucial information on how to continue her journey, how to protect herself while traveling alone, and how to access critical services.

Anastasia Talks to Olga inside the Blue Dot in Przemyśl, Poland.
UNICEF/UN0644127/Le Lijour
Through the Blue Dots, thousands of Ukrainian refugees like Anastasia have received crucial information and support.

“I am thankful for all the help I received during my journey, both inside Ukraine and in Poland,” says Anastasia. “Seeing all this solidarity, the amount and enthusiasm of the volunteers, and the mutual support among us Ukrainians really kept me going.”

Anastasia misses her country, her city, family, and friends, and there is much uncertainty with being in new country, but she is glad she left. “There are so many people still in Ukraine now, even in areas of active fighting, who decide to stay because they are alone and afraid. I took the leap, and I am happy I did. Others should not be afraid to run away – you will not be alone; others will support you along the way.”

Anastasia looks down as she received information inside the Blue Dot in in Przemyśl, Poland.
UNICEF/UN0644117/Le Lijour
Despite wanting to continue her journey, Anastasia wishes to return to Ukraine as soon as the situation allows it.

Anastasia wants to travel onwards to Estonia, a place where she feels she can catch her breath and think through her next steps. Before the war broke out, she had been a graphic designer with dreams of becoming a cartoonist. For now, she hopes to find a job in hospitality in a restaurant or hotel, to provide for herself until she can return to her beloved city.