“I am hopeful, but I am also cynical,” Nika half-smiled at me, “I don’t know how you combine these two feelings, but that’s how I am now.”
Nika is not her real name. She prefers to stay anonymous due to her professional affiliation. Nika is a former journalist, and now she investigates and collects information on Russian crimes in Ukraine. She says she does not want her job to intervene with her personal story.
“My job has always kept me very busy. Even before Febuary 24, there were many things to map and connect because Russian influence is so vast in Ukraine and Europe as a whole,” the woman explained, “Now, it is just like Armageddon in all of the senses.”
THE OCCUPATION OF CRIMEA
Nika is thirty. She has long brown hair, delicate fingers, and a very specific accent in Ukrainian, the accent that many native Russian speakers have.
“Gosh, I have forgotten Russian already, but I still sound like a Russian in Ukrainian,” she laughed.
“My parents got Russian passports because they could not leave,” Nika explained, “It is mostly because of my grandparents because they don’t want to go anywhere else. My brother and I had to leave.”
The Russian authorities also persecute dissent. Russian authorities launched a crackdown on Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian activists, jailing many on fake charges for decades.
Crimea is an ethnically diverse region. Its population consists of Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars, with the majority speaking Russian as the common language. People also learned and spoke Ukrainian as well as Tatar before the occupation. Now, both languages are persecuted, and any support or affiliation with Ukraine can land you a prison sentence.
“The last time I was in Crimea, I ended up in the police station. I had a Ukrainian flag in my car, and that is considered a terrorist symbol by the Russians,” Nika recalled, “They told me if they see the flag again, I will not get off with a mere warning.”
Someone reported Nika for the flag, and that is how she was detained. While she was at the police station talking to the officers, someone also pierced all the tires in her car, and the police said that they could not check the cameras to see what happened. The car was in the police station parking lot.
“We were actually lucky nobody killed us,” Nika reasoned, “This is how the justice system works in Crimea now. I could not stay there after that.”
The Russian authorities also persecute dissent. Russian authorities launched a crackdown on Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian activists, jailing many on fake charges for decades. About 140,000 Crimean residents have left the peninsula since 2014 and resettled in mainland Ukraine because of the persecution. Below is a picture of an old mosaic of Vladimir Lenin, where someone wrote “Glory to Ukraine” in Ukrainian. You can be jailed or fined for saying that in Crimea.
“I have not been home for a few years, and I don’t think I will come back there as long as Russians are in control,” Nika said.
She moved out in 2014, right after the annexation, and settled in Lviv, Western Ukraine, later moving to Kyiv, the capital. Together with her husband, the woman later purchased a house a 30-minute car ride North from Kyiv. Nika also got a job as a journalist, and later, as a human rights researcher. She is now collecting data on Russian crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
“It is hard. It hits so close because everything literally happened at home,” Nika said, her voice stern, “My new home.”
THE OCCUPATION OF KYIV
“Russians stole everything. They took everything they could take from our home,” she continued.
“I heard explosions on February 24, when the new invasion started,” Nika said, “I was still in my house as I was planning to get ready for work. I used to drive to Kyiv a few times per week back then, but on that day, I was unsure where to go or what to do.”
Nika’s husband suggested that they stay home on Feb. 24, and then follow the unfolding to decide how to act.
“In our garage, we had three cars. My husband used to be a trader; he was selling used cars as well as doing a lot of online trading before the war, so our home was always kind of like a storage space,” Nika explained. The husband would buy the cars abroad and resell them in Ukraine, so there were always new vehicles around.
During the first three days of the full-scale invasion, the couple stayed where they were, but soon they decided it was too dangerous.
“We gave one of our cars to the local territorial defense forces. We used the other car to flee,” Nika said. The third vehicle remained in the garage — the couple hoped to get it back when they would return home.
They packed the car with Nika’s pet chinchilla, a pet cage and food, and some clothes, snacks, and documents.
“We picked up my husband’s parents who also lived on the outskirts of Kyiv, and we drove to Western Ukraine,” Nika recalled, “It was a freakishly long car ride, and it took us almost three days, but it was worth it. We would all be dead if we didn’t leave.”
Her face grew solemn as she finished saying this, and she showed me photos of her second home after the Russian occupation: everything was destroyed, there were cars and rubble on the streets and houses without roofs. Her voice, usually robust and strong, grew suddenly low and quiet.
“My neighbor was killed,” she finally said, “His body was torn into pieces by homeless dogs because it was lying on the streets for a week. They only found a carcass.”
A BROKEN HOME
Nika’s neighbor lived next door, his house is now nearly destroyed. Nika learned about his death in May when she visited her home for the first time after the Russians left the area.
“I remember driving back there and seeing what I saw, and I was getting emotional. All this time, I tried to keep my distance and stay as calm as possible, and I block all emotions, good and bad, but back then, I just could not,” the woman recounted.
She saw the destruction of the region that had welcomed her and became her second home in 2014.
“Our house is one of the few that survived on the street,” Nika said, “Russians took everything valuable and even things which didn’t make any sense. The third car we left was gone, the TV, the washing machine, all the electronics, they even took clothes and some trinkets.”
“My husband says that we now have to start from scratch because we’re basically at a square one. But we’re much better off than most of our neighbors because at least, we still have a house,” Nika sighed.
“I was unsure if I wanted to come back at first, after all that happened,” the woman reflected, “Every street has seen so many deaths, there were corpses everywhere. I was worried about how to live with all this trauma and pain because it will definitely stay with people in the long run.”
“But I decided that as long as Ukraine is here, I am here,” Nika continued, “My husband agrees. We will restore our home and our country.”
Now, Nika is collecting evidence of the Russian war crimes in Ukraine. She is interviewing people and helping preserve the testimonies of survivors. She is also working on identifying the names of the Russian soldiers who are accused of committing those crimes.
“It is a terrible task to hear and think of those crimes again and again when talking to people. I cry, and people cry as we recollect those stories and those memories,” Nika says, “But it has to be done.”
“I just think what will happen after the war. For now, people are still holding on because they have to; they don’t have the luxury to break down and cry and just do nothing,” the woman said, “But we are talking about a 40-million nation where nearly everyone is traumatized, and where we are facing about a huge collective pain that will take decades to address.”
“I share this pain, and I fear for my people. It is so unjust what is happening to us, so inhumane,” she sighed.
“But like everyone else, I pile up my emotions somewhere far so I can work, and I hope that I will have the strength to address these feelings sooner or later,” Nika concluded.
I ask her if she believes Crimea will be liberated.
“Soon,” she says, “I believe in the army.”
Photos in the text are by Nika. She took them in 2017, which was the last time she was in Crimea.
Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine.
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