Home can’t be packed up. Correspondence from Kharkiv

Paweł Pieniążek from Kharkiv – 04/04/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

At least 10 million Ukrainians had to leave their places of residence. They dream of seeing them again.

Two days before the Russian attack, Maria and Dmytro nervously paced the apartment, smoking cigarettes one after another and changing their minds about every half hour: to leave Kharkiv or stay.

They bought tickets for a train to Lviv just in case. They chaotically slipped things into suitcases and cartons. Maria, 27, packed two of her favorite dresses. She chose her most broken-in shoes because they’re the most comfortable. She forgot — regrettably — her boxes of photos. In the back of her head, she had a feeling that she might not return to her apartment or even to Kharkiv at all. “I felt a bit cowardly because I left everything I care about and everyone I love,” she admits.

Although even two days before the Russian offensive many still thought that the invasion was not a foregone conclusion, a warning light went off in Dmytro’s head after Vladimir Putin announced that he would recognize two puppet republics in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Maria and Dmytro expected an escalation of the conflict in Donbas, which had been going on since 2014. Kharkiv, with a population of 1.5 million, neighbors Donbas, so they thought that it could also become a target.

Half an hour before the train departed, Maria’s parents came to the couple’s apartment. She handed them the key and cried in front of them for the first time in many years. They quickly ran to the station, got on the train and departed without telling anyone else. After more than a month, they still have not returned to Kharkiv, which is regularly under fire.

Between 10 and 15 million Ukrainians had to leave their homes due to the Russian invasion. Over 3 million went abroad, most of them to Poland. They left their homes, personal belongings and memories behind. They don’t know if they will see their homes again.

Make someone else’s apartment yours

Back in 2018, Maria and Dmytro lived elsewhere. They were once walking through the neighborhood where their home is now. Maria doesn’t want to reveal the location. They looked at one of the balconies and one of them said, “How great would it be to live here!” Maria liked the neighborhood and the fact that many friends lived nearby.

Soon they rented the apartment they were looking at from the street. It was in terrible condition, but the owner wanted little for the rent and agreed to any renovations. They gradually renovated it with their own money. In the second half of last year, Dmytro fixed up the balcony. It was already chilly, but the couple were glad that when spring came they would be able to hang out on it.

“Renovating an apartment that is not yours can be tiring. As long as you are enthusiastic, it’s great. But doubts arise when you start to think that it is not yours and you don’t know how long you will live in it,” says Maria.

Nevertheless, they were still wondering what else to change. Maybe aside from the furniture that they had been moving around for a long time to find the optimal placement. Out of someone else’s apartment, they created their own. Maria spent most of her time in a room arranged as a modest study. She set up a desk there and sat at it for hours. She worked remotely for an IT company. “Your place is where you spend most of your time. It is your home. Although I’d call all of Kharkiv home” she admits. For her, home is made up of the people close to her.

After their departure, there are still some things left in their apartment: a bicycle mounted on a wall, hanging laundry, posters, plants that were watered from time to time by a friend, and boxes of things that might eventually be forwarded to them. One friend who had keys to the apartment removed and hid under the bed some work by the Kharkiv artist Hamlet, which Maria received from him for her birthday. It reads: “I am a salesman with nothing to sell.”

Searching for a place

There were times when Maria went on a spontaneous journey. A few years ago she went to the USA. She was going into the unknown with no plan, some money, needing to stay with people.

“It’s similar this time, but I’m not sure if I have anywhere to go back to,” says Maria. “I want to believe that everything will be fine, but who knows how the situation will develop.”

Maria left Lviv after four days and went to Poland (Dmytro stayed in the capital of Galicia). She did not want to leave the country, but in recent months her health has deteriorated due to an autoimmune disease. She was afraid that she would be a burden on others, so she left. She spent the first three weeks in Warsaw. She stayed at her brother’s apartment. She waited for her parents, who later also left Kharkiv, and left for Berlin, where she has friends. Because Poland is too close to Ukraine for her, she often thought about returning.

She found peace in Berlin. She would like to cool down a bit and then take care of the necessary bureaucracy to be able to stay longer in the Schengen zone than the 90-day visa-free allowance. If everything works out and she finds a job, she will stay in Berlin.    Otherwise, she will move on. She can only stay in the apartment that she lives in for a little while longer, so she is looking for something to rent. “I need to find a place where I can stay for the long term,” says Maria.

Will this be her home? “No, I only have one home,” she replies.

Beloved four corners

33-year-old Tetiana Dehterova has been living in a bright apartment with a beautiful panorama of Kharkiv for over two decades. First with my parents and then with my husband Denys. After her father and mother moved out, the couple undertook a major renovation. Only the bathroom remains to be finished, and they were to get to it in the near future. Now Tetiana is glad that they did not have time to renovate it.

They chose decorations at flea markets in Kharkiv and other cities they visited. They brought them from places like Poland, Germany and Cyprus. She can’t pick one favorite object.

“Everything from the furniture to the candlesticks, I chose together with my husband,” admits Tetiana. “Maybe if we rented this apartment, we wouldn’t love it so much.”

There is order in the spacious apartment. The fact that something has changed is evidenced by taped windows, plants hidden away in a safe corner, and mirrors removed from their places.

Order is important for Tetiana. A clear plan for the day in concert with orderly surroundings were the pillars of her daily life. She worked from home, so she had to keep everything organized for the passing days to not slip through her fingers. She wanted her surroundings to inspire her. During breaks, she liked to look out of the windows at Kharkiv, and five churches that stood out among the sprawl caught here eye.

Tetiana worked in the support center for the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster; among other things, her organization collected the stories of the victims. In 2014, when the war in Donbas broke out, many refugees from the areas affected by the fighting came to Kharkiv. It was then that the center started to serve them as well.

Tetiana admits that it is ironic that she has gone from caring for refugees to being one of them.

Me or the city

Air raids have thundered over Kharkiv since dawn broke on February 24. The city became one of the targets of the Russian offensive. Later that day on the outskirts there was fighting with the use of tanks and artillery. Nevertheless, Tetiana and her husband remained at home that night. However, as the fighting intensified, Tetiana and Denys packed a change of clothes and underwear, toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap, and then went to a basement not far from their building.

“When I felt danger in a place where I should feel safest, it was cognitive dissonance. The ground moved from under my feet,” says Tetiana. “There are things in this new reality that do not depend on us.”

Nobody in Kharkiv has a say in what happens to their home, no matter how active they are. They could act, organize networks of volunteers, humanitarian aid, or support others, but they could not influence where a bomb from a plane or a rocket would hit.

In the first days, you had the opposite impression. The more determined the people in the city remained, the more bitterly it seemed to be under attack. In early March, bombs fell on the center. There was so much pounding and shaking in the basement where Tetiana and Denys were staying that it was hard to tell if there was anything left standing outside. He didn’t want to leave. She was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She set an ultimatum: either her or the city.

We hang by a thread

They gathered the essentials and left. It was difficult for them. “I took medication, a change of shoes, personal hygiene items, but you can’t take the whole house. Everything in it is loved, every detail. Therefore, when I left my apartment, I felt as if a part of me was taken away. I can pack before a trip, but I don’t know how to pack my house and myself into a suitcase,” says Tetiana.

She especially wishes that she had taken her old embroidered shirts. She admits that it was her family pride. If she could take anything else, she would take the plates they always ate from because then she’d feel closer to home.

Tetiana and Denys arrived — with stops along the way — in the city of Khmelnytskyi in central Ukraine where they rented comfortable accommodation. The situation here is incomparably calmer than in Kharkiv. Despite this, Tetiana often thinks of her hometown and her apartment. She would like to return. She wakes up and doesn’t comprehend where she is. It takes a moment to realize that she isn’t in her bed or her bedroom.

“We all feel as if we are hanging by a thread in Ukraine. We can be left with nothing at any time. We don’t know when we will be able to lie down on our own pillow, cover ourselves with our own duvet in our own bed,” states Tetiana.

Couldn’t wrap my mind around the war

About the same time as Tetiana, Natalia left Kharkiv with her boyfriend Serhiy and cat Cirilla. The 27-year-old is a PhD student at the local polytechnic university, as well as an aerial acrobat and personal trainer.

On February 24, like everyone in town, she was awakened by explosions at 5 in the morning. She couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that this war had come. She called friends and asked if they heard what she was hearing. Everyone answered affirmatively. After President Zelensky’s address, there was no longer any shadow of a doubt. That day she apologized to her mother, with whom she had argued the day before because she was fed up with constantly being told to get supplies and leave. Natalia had angrily replied that everything would be fine and Russia would not attack.

Now Serhiy and her quickly got some things together. They packed essentials into two backpacks: computers, medicine, food for themselves and the cat, some clothes. They packed the suitcase with items that were useful, but could be left behind in the worst case if they had no way of taking it. The basement in their building was uninhabitable. They hid in the bathroom the first night, then decided it would be safer in the hallway. They set up mats and blankets there.

After six days and an exceptionally loud explosion, Natalia got a bad feeling. She told Serhi that they should move to friends who lived in a building nearby and were now taking refuge in an underground parking lot. Their friends were ambivalent about leaving. They had two cars, so they could also take Natalia, Serhiy and their cat.

They were finally convinced to leave when they entered their friends’ apartment on the seventeenth floor. A plane flew by so low while they were inside that the walls of the house trembled. Shortly thereafter the sounds of exploding bombs reverberated. The friends got scared and everyone ran down to the basement. They collected their belongings and, in two cars, started out toward Lviv together. Everyone convinced themselves that they were only leaving for a moment. But Natalia had a feeling that it would be longer.

A chat message

They got stuck in terrible traffic jams every now and then along the way. In addition, every evening there was a curfew when it was not permitted to be on the road. As a result, it took them five and a half days to drive to Lviv.

On the third day, as evening approached and they were nearing Vinnytsa, Natalia’s phone screen displayed messages from a group chat of residents in her building. They showed broken and torn out windows, destroyed balconies, facades, and even the roof. She unleashed a stream of expletives. The courtyards are very similar to each other, and she thought that their windows were still in good condition. Serhiy immediately recognized their blue bedroom and the hole in which previously there had been a window. But they decided not to worry in advance and wait until morning for more information. Natalia convinced herself that it was not their building that had been fired upon. She fell asleep.

After waking up, she saw more videos and photos sent by neighbors. She could no longer deceive herself. She could see her blue bedroom clearly. The rocket hit the yard and the shock wave smashed into their windows and pushed the entire frame in so far that it blocked the entrance to the room. Debris and glass poured onto the window-facing bed on which Natalia and Serhiy had slept until recently. The dressing table next to it was scratched, but whole, including the mirror and bulbs, which better illuminated the room while she put on makeup. She got it as a gift from Serhiy for new year’s. The only thing that made her happy was that no one was killed and there was no fire in their building. It will probably be possible to rebuild it.

“In a way, I was calm about it. Maybe because home is where those dear to me are and they are next to me. I don’t deny that if I saw it in person, it would elicit more emotion,” says Natalia.

They moved into the apartment in October 2020. It is the first one they’ve owned. It wasn’t finished then. They installed the last element, bedroom window sills in the bedroom, just before the new year.

No sirens or explosions

They spent two weeks in Lviv. They thought that the situation would calm down in the meantime and they would return to Kharkiv. The days passed with Kharkiv under fire. In addition, alarm sirens sounded constantly in Lviv, and rockets fell on military facilities on the outskirts of the city a couple of times. Natalia felt bad again. So they set off for Budapest. There, the company where Serhiy works provided them with a hotel. They want to stay there and calm down for now. Then they’ll think about what to do next.

The generic decor of the hotel is a contradiction to the cozy home in which Natalia would like to spend time. There is no kitchen or space for everyday life. She appreciates, however, that there are no sirens or explosions jolting her from bed.

She hopes that the same calm will soon reign in Kharkiv. Then she will return to her home.