When the war started, we were getting ready to move into a new house.

I’m from Mariupol. I was born and raised in Mariupol and I moved on to Kyiv in two years after the start of the first Russian invasion in 2014. From the start of the invasion in 2014 until 2016 we lived in Mariupol, but then I thought it was not safe anymore. So we moved to Kyiv in 2016. We gave up our jobs at the university, our apartment, we left behind the rest of the family who continued to live there. We thought we would be safe in the capital.

Then came the night of 24th of February.

I remember my husband waking me up and saying, “Nina, the war has started!” 

It had started a little earlier, at 4 or 5 in the morning. But I was fast asleep and didn’t hear the explosions. He let me sleep for a few more hours, then he woke me up and told me the news. At first, I didn’t understand what was happening. We hoped the Russians only wanted to scare us with those troops at the border. Nobody thought there was going to be another war.

It was like a surreal dream, we didn’t even understand the situation. He said, “we have to go”. I feared this might happen. We had moved to Kiev to avoid it, but there it was, happening again…

After the first Russian invasion in 2014, we lived in Mariupol for two years. The city had been occupied, but not for long, just two months. Not many people remember that, because the city was quickly liberated. We lived in the city centre, near the City Hall, and all those events happened right before our eyes. Separatists occupied the Town Hall, broke into the mayor’s office, set fire to the stairs. And I don’t know why, but on the street near our house there were army vehicles, not tanks, but something similar. They set fire to one of those vehicles, and the missiles that were inside exploded. It was terrifying. It was right across the street from our house. We could see everything from the window. It caught fire and exploded.

Then Mariupol was liberated by the Ukrainian army, and it became a very beautiful city. It was by the sea. It received a lot of money from the government for reconstruction, for hospitals, for schools, and it became one of the most important cities in Ukraine. More beautiful, more innovative, cleaner than before. Wages in Mariupol were second or third highest after Kiev. So life was very good. 

Then something happened that made us realize that we were not safe there. In 2015, the Russians sent missiles to Mariupol. They’re called MLRS (multiple launch rocket system). We figured this could happen again in a year or so. From that point on we started to consider leaving.

In 2016, we moved to Kiev. It’s quite far from Mariupol and we thought it was a safe region. We found work, rented an apartment and our daughter started school. Little by little, we started to live a normal life, like everyone else. 

We also bought a plot of land and started building a house. We were excited about moving in.

Then came the 24th of February.

It was like a surreal dream. My first impulse was to go to the office, as usual. I couldn’t believe the Russians were attacking.

Initially, we rented a room for one night somewhere near Lvov. We were waiting for a sign from my sister, who was looking for accommodation further away. As far away as possible…

She found an apartment in Hust, near the Romanian border. I knew nothing about that town. We simply went there. We took the highway. It’s 5 or 6 lanes, and all the cars on all the lanes were going in the same directions. If someone had wanted to change direction, they’d have crashed into you. It was terrifying. There were traffic jams, there were accidents. People were panicking.

I spent a month in Hust. We had a very small apartment. In fact, I don’t even know if I’d call it an apartment. It was a former warehouse, I think, where I lived with my sister and our children. I was still working, but I needed a very good internet connection for my job. And there was almost no internet in Hust. I was trying to find wi-fi in cafes, but it was very difficult. So we decided to look for another place to live. Then my sister’s friends helped us, and we moved to Timisoara.

But my husband stayed in Ukraine.

He drove us to Hust, because he was afraid for us, he didn’t want to leave us alone on the road. But a few days after we got there, he went to the army enlistment office and joined the army. He drove us to Hust and then went off to fight. 

He had always been a civilian, never a soldier. What’s more, he has a sort of “blank ticket”, an exemption, which means he is unfit for military service because he has an eyesight problem.

He had eye surgery, they fixed the problem, now everything is ok. But in any case, he had this exemption that allowed him not to go to war. Most people were trying to get out of the war and get this exemption. He had it and yet he decided to join the army. He said, “I’m ready.”

After the first attacks, after the first missile explosions, he told me he wanted to go and fight. I told him: “Don’t go to war, maybe we can help more by making donations to the Ukrainian army. You have a job, that’s important too”. He said, “Okay.” 

Now I understand that he lied to me. He had already made up his mind and he didn’t want to argue with me at that point. He wanted to take us to a safe place, then go to war. Now he’s in the Donetsk region. I don’t know exactly which village, maybe it’s classified information. 

We talk on Signal. It’s safer. Most people communicate on Signal – phone calls, messages – that’s how we communicate. We text each other, and once a day, in the evening, we call each other. Video doesn’t work because of the poor internet connection in his area. So we hear each other, but we don’t see each other.

When he doesn’t answer, I get really scared. I told him: when you go on a mission, please tell me in advance that you won’t be able to answer. So that I know, and I’ll wait. I get scared when I don’t know what’s going on. He’s in the artillery division, so it’s not as bad as the infantry. In infantry it’s more dangerous and there are more casualties. Artillery has less casualties, but it’s still very scary.

I know people in Mariupol who lost their lives. 

My parents were lucky. They were in Egypt when the war started. Flights were cancelled because the airspace was closed. At first, they waited in Egypt, at the hotel. Then their travel agency decided to charter a plane and fly them out of Egypt, because they had to vacate the hotel. They flew to Leipzig in Germany. That’s where they are now. It was a lucky occurrence, because they escaped with their lives, but they have no place to return to in Mariupol. Their house was destroyed by missiles. 

I was most shocked by our relatives in Russia. 

Almost all the people in the Donbas region have relatives in Russia. I don’t even know how to say this – they didn’t care about us. My cousin lives in Russia and her husband is a soldier in the Russian army. I wrote to her on Instagram, “Nastya, how is this possible? Maybe we can do something.” And she replied: “I wish you peace! I wish you all the best!” I said, “Your husband is a soldier in the Russian army that invaded Ukraine and you wish me peace?” And she said, “It`s only your opinion that Russia is guilty.”

Russian soldiers in the professional army, so not the people who have been mobilised, but the professionals, get a very high salary. So maybe it’s the money. Maybe they are under the influence of propaganda. Maybe they are afraid of authorities. But in their particular case, it’s the money.

We have other relatives in Russia. I don’t communicate with them. I don’t have enough mental strength. But my mother talked to them and…

They said, “We hope you will survive. We hope you won’t suffer because of the war.” All the relatives wish each other well, but I don’t understand how that works. Even the relatives in Russia said, “We hope you will survive”. But if you want your Ukrainian relatives to survive, maybe you shouldn’t have started this war. 

They show their support, but it’s just empty words. They said something like: “This is good for you. War is good for you. We will bring you freedom. We will set you free!” It’s surreal. We tell them that the Russians have destroyed our parents’ homes, and they tell us that the war will set us free…

We have been living in Timișoara for over half a year now.

We knew nothing about the city. We only knew a little about Romania. Some friends of my sister’s found an apartment in Timișoara and we said, “let’s go!” We didn’t even Google it. We said “ok” and we drove here.

For Easter we went to the Ukrainian church. The bishop gave a sermon, we bought candles. We’re trying to have a social life…

My name is Nina Tkachenko. I’m 40 years old, I have a husband and a daughter, and when the war started, we were just getting ready to move into our new house.

Interview by Ionuț Suciu with Nina Tkachenko
Video from Mariupol received from Nina Tkachenko
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu