On the morning of February 24th, the world woke to the news that after weeks of sabre rattling, Russia had invaded Ukraine. Since then, some four million people have fled the country, while others have opted to stay—to fight, to volunteer assistance, or to document the war. We spoke to three of the Ukrainian women who reluctantly fled their country for safety in Iceland, as well as an Icelandic photographer who chose to stay in Kyiv, about what this war has meant for them, and where it could lead.
Olena Jadallah, a former deputy mayor for the city of Irpin and associate professor of Economics, couldn’t have imagined that a full-scale war was possible. “Everyone in my family believed in the strength of diplomacy, dialogue, and the wisdom of politicians and world leaders. We thought this could be negotiated.”
As such, Olena didn’t make any arrangements before the war broke out—but her parents had.
“My parents bought enough water, medicine, candles, matches, just in case,” she says. “They have a heated basement, so we were planning to stay together should the situation get worse. When at five in the morning, we woke up to explosions in Iprin, we couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe that this is happening to us, in the 21st century.”
Like many other families in Ukraine, Olena’s family was confident that this was some kind of misunderstanding that would resolve in a day or two; a week at most. Her family stayed home for two days before deciding to stay with her parents in the town of Bucha.
“We felt a bit calmer with my parents, but on the third day we realized that the whole region—Hostomel, Bucha, Irpin—was becoming more and more occupied by Russian troops,” she says. “There was active fighting all around. We realized that our kids can’t be locked in the basement all the time, especially our 1-year-old. We decided to leave.”
Nataliia Baburina, an account manager at a software development company from Kharkiv, left the city one day after the shelling began. Prior to the invasion, her company had prepared a business continuity plan which meant they would relocate to another office of the company, located in Chernivtsi.
On the morning of the invasion, it took Nataliia some time to gather her thoughts and wake up her husband and son to tell them that the war had started.
“I was in shock,” she says. “They also didn’t realize it right away. I knew that, should things get worse, they would fire artillery at military targets. We live not far from such a target, so my husband and I discussed the possibility of relocating even earlier. We decided not to panic and stay in the city. But seeing residential infrastructure being bombed was an absolute shock. There are no military targets there!”
Nataliia and her family didn’t rush to flee. Instead, they sat and thought about what they should do. Then they talked to their neighbours and decided to clear out their basement, and make it a shelter.
Olga Druyanova, a freelancer from Kharkiv, found herself in the midst of war just three days after she returned home from a trip in Iceland.
“A month before the war, there were lots of rumours already,” she says. “My Icelandic friends would ask what’s the situation like in Ukraine as they’d heard that troops were lining up at the border. I didn’t believe the rumours at all. I think a normal person with common sense can’t imagine that in the 21st century a war like that could begin.”
Despite local friends suggesting she wait until the threat of invasion is over, Olga returned to Ukraine. On February 24, her son woke her up telling her that the war had begun.
“I didn’t panic,” she says. “I managed to keep peace of mind and concentrate on what I can do and what needs to be done. I didn’t pack an anxiety suitcase, I didn’t even plan it. I didn’t rush straight to a bomb shelter. One of the main bomb shelters in Kharkiv is inside the subway, and I lived really far from the subway, my house also didn’t have a basement that would be suitable to use as a bomb shelter.”
Olga would just stay home, using elementary safety rules when she heard air raid sirens, like not staying close to the windows, choosing a room with load-bearing walls.
To leave, or not to leave
When asked whether there was a turning point that prompted Olga to decide to leave Kharkiv five days after the war began, she shares a personal story about her family:
“I have Jewish relatives on one side of my family,” Olga says. “In 1942, my great grandma’s family was shot dead by fascists in Kharkiv. She was 40 years old. All of them were shot and buried in Drobytsky Yar. Before the war, their relatives encouraged them to leave and go to the USA or elsewhere, but the family didn’t want to leave. Kharkiv was their home, they spent their whole lives there. They stayed. And they died. I sat there and thought that maybe I should do something different than my ancestors. I’ve been to Iceland many times, I had some connections. I thought that maybe I could be of more help if I didn’t stay in Kharkiv.”
“I understood that if they already attacked us, they would try to create a ‘Kharkiv People’s Republic’ here,” shares Nataliia. “Eight years ago we managed to avoid this, but it seemed like the threat was there again. So my husband and I agreed that we have to leave the city. We sat in our car and left. It was terrible, the city was so empty, it looked like an apocalypse. There were burnt cars along the road. When we were driving we saw missile strikes. We drove non-stop. As we didn’t find a place to stay overnight, the ride to Chernivtsi took us 22 hours. In Chernivtsi, we found an apartment, and, initially, we planned to just stay there. The situation changed on the night when the Russian troops attacked Enerhodar and Zaporizhzhia nuclear stations. We saw a real nuclear threat and understood that Russia has zero rationality at this point. No one could predict what would happen next. My husband decided to contact his colleagues from Iceland who offered us temporary accommodation earlier. My mom and my brother remain in Kharkiv. They decided to stay in the city no matter how the situation will unfold. Right now, my brother helps to transport humanitarian aid and medicine, but his district is being bombed from time to time. It’s very dangerous.”
Sanity bites the dust
The journey to Iceland went smooth for Nataliia and Olga, but it wasn’t as carefree for Olena, who was traveling with a sick one-year-old.
“I spent around ten hours at the Ukraine-Poland border with my kids,” she says. “It was cold. My kid developed a high fever and I had to call an ambulance to get him an injection. Maybe it was because of stress, but it was truly horrible. Lots of people, huge lines of mostly women and small kids, everyone’s arguing.” After passing border control, Olena and her kids received a warm welcome from the Polish volunteers. “They met us, offered us food, gave us a ride to Warsaw, and helped us find accommodation.”
Olena’s parents, who had been evacuated from Bucha ten days later, however, received a different treatment.
“A group of Kadyrovites [a Chechen paramilitary group supporting the Russian army], who are known for their cruelty, broke into my parents’ house,” Olena says. “They broke into the house with machine guns and shot absolutely everything, including windows and furniture. Thank god, my parents weren’t home at that time—they were hiding in the basement. They tried to stay as silent as possible and prayed for their lives. The Kadyrovites discovered that there were four cars in the garage so just for fun they shot the cars too. Of course, they stole some things from the house, things like alcohol, some clothes…and gloves. My mom also told me they took some perfumes probably as trophies for their wives. When leaving, the group of soldiers saw our neighbour, badly beat him up, and said they will be back in an hour and won’t spare anyone.”
Olena’s parents decided to flee as fast as possible. They were shocked and scared. It turned out later that they only brought national IDs with them and forgot the passports.
“When they were in Poland, Wizz Air denied them boarding without passports,” she recounts. “They went to the Ukrainian embassy the next day, got an extra identification document, but were denied boarding again. Wizz Air requires a biometric passport even from families with one-month-old children. On the third try, my parents got lucky as they met someone who called Polish authorities and influenced Wizz Air’s decision, so they finally got on the plane. But I heard that 16 Ukrainians were denied boarding because of the same issue that day.”
New beginnings in Iceland
As of March 23rd, 377 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Iceland. According to forecasts of the Ministry of Justice, up to 2,000 refugees could apply for international protection in Iceland, which would allow them to reside, work and access benefits in Iceland for up to one year.
None of the women I spoke with wanted to leave Ukraine. It was a last resort, a desire to take their kids as far from war as possible.
“We are really grateful to the Icelandic government and volunteers,” Olena emphasises. “The immigration department has provided us with free accommodation at a hotel. We receive three meals a day, volunteers provide us with medicine, and bring toys and clothes for our kids. There are so many volunteer organisations involved, people who aren’t indifferent.”
“My kids were absolutely shocked,” Olena continues. “They were not ready for this war. We haven’t discussed such things with them. We weren’t ready either. It’s easier for the younger kid as he doesn’t really understand much. His mom is with him, so that’s the most important thing. But my older one understands a lot, he watches the news and roots for our president and the Ukrainian army. Of course, we want to go home as soon as possible, we miss our city, our house, friends, relatives…but we are happy to be safe and together here.”
After a few really hard weeks, Nataliia jokes that her stay in Iceland feels like a vacation now.
“For the first few days, we stayed with a family of one of my husband’s colleagues,” she says. “They’ve treated us with sympathy and have been very helpful. We receive a lot of attention, people invite us over so that my son could also play with other kids. He has made some Icelandic friends already.”
Unlike others, Olga didn’t have relatives or colleagues in Iceland. She came here as a tourist a few times and felt good from the very beginning.
“Iceland is a place of unconditional happiness,” Olga says. “I like Icelandic culture, Icelandic people, I’ve recently started to learn the language. I knew that if I were to leave Ukraine, that it would be for Iceland.”
When Olga made the decision to flee from Kharkiv, taking an evacuation train to Lviv and then a bus to Warsaw, she was preparing her son for a new, different life.
“I told my son that our lives would change,” she says. “Now we’re refugees. But so far, we have received a heartfelt welcome and unmatched support anywhere we would go.”
Unable to find housing on the night they arrived, Olga and her son ended up spending the night at the Minister of Justice’s house. “Iceland really does a lot for those arriving here,” assures Olga.
Things need to change
The war in Ukraine began in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. During this period of time, Nataliia lived in a city just 100 km from the occupied areas.
“It all started eight years ago,” she shares. “We’ve welcomed so many refugees back then, helping them in every possible way. There had been many young mothers among them and it was especially traumatic for me as I was a new mom too. I felt really sorry for them. And now…everyone heard this news, and the kids, too. I saw my son playing ‘war’ with other kids. Once my son told me ‘I’m scared to go to school, because it’s just 20 km from Russia’. On days when we were told an attack is possible, I didn’t drive him to school. How can I bring my child to school, when there’s a threat of Russia starting a war?”
Nataliia is grateful for the support coming from other countries and people. “I have never seen such care. What we experienced was just incredible. And everything was organized by simple people, cities, and politicians. I’m very grateful, and I think everyone in Ukraine is grateful for such help.” But she hopes that the world will realise that the problem is not only with Putin.
“The problem lies deep in Russia and its society,” Nataliia says. “What we see now, is, in fact, the fascism and Nazism that they accuse us of. My family has relatives in Russia and in Crimea, and every time we talk to them, they just repeat the propaganda broadcasted on their television. They tell us that we deserve all of this. They tell us that they couldn’t force us in any other way. They tell us that no one needs us in Europe. They tell us that it is all the USA’s fault. They tell us that the only reason why our children, our women are now being killed is the fact that we resist. If we didn’t resist, and they managed to conquer Kyiv as they planned, everything would be different. It’s victim-blaming coming from an entire country.”
Olga has experienced a similar reaction from her family in Russia.
“I also have absolutely irrational relatives and friends in Russia, who are completely brainwashed by Putin’s propaganda,” Olga agrees. “They’re trying to assure us that it’s the Ukrainian army that bombs civilians, or that it’s the mythical nationalists bombing us. This war is the cruellest lesson possible, but it will make us stronger.”
Olena concludes the interview with a message for other European powers.
“I want to say that every world leader and every citizen of any European country, including Iceland, has to understand that Ukraine and Ukrainians not only stand for their own country today,” she says. “They stand for the sake of security everywhere in Europe and probably everywhere in the world. Our lives will never be the same as they were before February 24th.”
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