- Writer Sofia Sukach fled her home in Kyiv during the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- She recently returned to collect her belongings – clothes, diaries and photos – and see the new reality of the city.
- “The greatest traces of war I noticed were not in the infrastructure, but in the eyes of Ukrainians,” she writes.
I had been waiting for this moment for as long as I had feared. Coming home is supposed to be warm and comforting, and for me, it’s always been that way. But not this time.
In the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I fled Kyiv to my parents in Warsaw. Later, I had the opportunity to become a visiting student at the University of Zurich, and although it might seem like a big, big adventure, it was not. During these months of wandering around the world, I dreamed of only one thing: to return to a peaceful Kyiv, a place where, with most of my clothes, journals and photographs, I left my soul.
I have to study in Zürich for one more semester, so when the summer holidays started I decided to go home and pick up everything listed above. I planned a two-week trip, where I would visit my friends and family members who remained in Ukraine, I would have long conversations with them about something other than the war, and perhaps find the soul I left there months ago.
Flee the war and return home
The double decker bus from Warsaw to Kyiv was full of people. From my front seat above the driver, I could see everything on the road ahead of me, but I found it much more interesting to observe the people behind me instead.
A young mother was calming her bored and tired children, who were asking over and over again how much time was left until they could see their father. A slightly older woman was trying to hide her tears as she spoke on the phone with her son, who was on the front line. A woman shared a story about how long it took her husband to build their house and how quickly it was destroyed during the war. Two men were discussing why they both decided to leave their jobs abroad and return to Ukraine to join the army.
“So this is the reality,” I thought. “We are all coming back to our country, a country that is still at war.”
As soon as we crossed the Ukrainian border, silence reigned in the bus. It was an early morning, and each of us was busy looking out the window, afraid to see the traces of war. And there were many of them.
We drove past bombed-out schools in the Zhytomyr region, saw how military vehicles full of young men were heading towards eastern or southern Ukraine, and heard an airborne alarm for the first time in a long time. I held back tears through these visions, but when I saw a child’s drawing at a bus stop that said, “Please save my home,” I snapped.
My beloved Kyiv – the city I had dreamed of since childhood and had finally made my second home – was now an hour away. I only knew this from looking at google maps, as all the road signs had been changed with messages for Russian occupiers. Then I started to get really nervous.
Kyiv’s suburb was one of my favorite places to drive by, see all the colorful houses, green parks and happy locals who lived there. But after the nightmare of the Russian invasion, all I came home to were crosses and burnt-out cars, fences bombed like a sieve and brutally damaged houses with demolished roofs and shattered windows.
Despite these terrible reminders of the war, life here went on. In places where hundreds of people were killed months ago, young couples walked quietly with strollers and construction workers restored buildings with groups of volunteers.
The illusion of normality in Kyiv
As soon as I arrived in Kyiv, I quickly realized that people had already gotten used to their new realities.
The trenches and dugouts around the city had become a natural part of the landscape. The same goes for sandbags that have replaced famous landmarks and huge barricades, known as “metal hedgehogs”. Located on Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk, the barricades didn’t seem abnormal to anyone in the city – except for me and a few foreign journalists with their cameras.
After spending several more days in the city, I also got used to the new Kyiv. Neither the people in military uniforms at every turn nor the exhibits of burnt out tanks the kids play on surprised me anymore or brought tears to my eyes. Like the others, I tried to see normalcy in the abnormal world around me.
Saw some friends doing yoga in Shevchenko Park. I observed how an elderly man bought a bouquet of sunflowers for his partner. I joined those sipping their morning coffee on a beautiful flower-lined café terrace, trying to forget their last sleepless night.
After so many months of war, Ukrainians are trying to create the illusion of a normal life. But no matter how hard they try to combine the shadow of the happy past with the dark present, there is always fear of the unknown future nearby. With the shrill siren of an overhead alarm, the illusion is ruined.
The traces of war
When the siren began to wail at 3 a.m. on my return to Ukraine, most neighbors in my student residence did not run for shelter as they had in the early months of the invasion. They were tired of those night marathons and leaving their warm blankets for the cold basements. In solidarity with them, I lay there and thought, “What if this is the end?”
When this happens, you hopefully wake up the next morning, read the news about those who haven’t been as lucky as you, and then continue living the fantasy of a normal life until a new siren sounds and ruins everything again.
Since I last saw Ukraine months ago, the country has changed dramatically. The greatest traces of war that I noticed were not in the infrastructure, but in the eyes of the Ukrainians.
I saw eyes that had wept over the occupation and the loss of loved ones. Empty, sad, happy, mature and tired eyes. Eyes tired of tragedy, but not of a fight. But, no matter how deep the scars the Russian forces leave on our souls, they will never take our love for freedom.