My family history is full of tragedies caused by Russian rule over centuries

family tragedy

Last summer, a few weeks before the full-scale Russian invasion, I read multiple news features about an “imminent invasion” and I was in agony.

Yes, the war in Ukraine started when Russia invaded Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine in 2014, but most of the Ukrainians I know did not believe there would be a full-scale war until a few weeks prior to it all starting.

I am a medical doctor, and I am Ukrainian living in South Africa for the past 12 years.

After doing my PhD in medicine in Ukraine, I continued my studies in Sweden and Australia. In 2007, I started my work in a public hospital, Cecilia Makiwane Hospital, in the Eastern Cape to gather additional experience in my field of medical training.

Like many others, who came for a short visit, I fell in love with this country, its people, the weather, its proximity to my home country Ukraine and, at the time, with the future father of my three children.

How could Russia occupy Ukraine? 

I visit Ukraine regularly, at least once or twice a year, and during my last visit, in February 2021, I went skiing with kids, my best friends and cousins in the Carpathian Mountains. It was a wonderful trip full of great memories.

Thus, reading the news in February 2022, I knew there are no justifiable reasons for Russia to attack Ukraine, and I struggled to understand why it would want to start something it could not successfully complete.

I believed it was impossible to occupy Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe with 44 million people, even if the occupier is the largest country with 146 million people. One literally has to kill millions of people to accomplish this mission, which was unimaginable in January 2022.

I woke up on 24 February 2022 to numerous messages from my friends and colleagues from overseas. Most of them saying “it started”. My close friend from Russia living in Australia for many years, called to tell me, “I am relieved I gave up my Russian citizenship six years ago”.

A few days before the war, I tried to convince family and friends to apply for South African visas so that they could come and stay with me for as long as necessary. I sent invitations and organised the paperwork.

But nothing works as planned when a war starts.

My best friend, who lived in central Kyiv, promised me her bag was packed, and she was ready to leave any time, if there was any risk to her safety. She insisted she loved Kyiv and did not want to reside in another country.

A few days after this conversation, when missiles were falling and Russian tanks were rolling outside of Kyiv, she ended up in the underground parking of her apartment building for days, unable to return to her flat to get her emergency bag.

Everything in a night

In one night, everything changed: the transport system was no longer working, the air sirens were going constantly, as bombs fell on Kyiv. Suddenly, all work-related worries, personal challenges and complicated situations dissolved. All one could think of was how to move your loved ones to safety and to escape death.

Men between the age of 18 to 65 were not allowed to leave the country. So, now millions of women and children landed in the same situation.

It took days to get to the border – a trip usually taking a few hours. My friend left Ukraine in the first week of the war to neighbouring Romania, but moved back as her work does not allow her to work remotely any longer. Similarly, my mom, sister-in-law and niece left Ukraine last year for Warsaw, Poland. The whole country stopped working and was running away.

My cousin’s wife and twin boys, age 13, followed my advice and applied for a South African visa in January 2022. But when the war started, their passports were still at the South African embassy.

When missiles landed on the first night of the war, the embassy personnel followed the millions of panicking locals and fled the country. Being unable to travel without documents, my cousin’s family looked for safety at our family’s rural house outside the capital, close to Bucha, for a few weeks, until one day, a neighbour ordered them to “leave now”!

Russian military forces were just outside our village, and the stories of people tortured, raped, and just killed for fun carried the names of people that we closely knew. My cousin’s wife ran away again, looking for another place to stay.

In May, the occupiers were pushed away from around Kyiv, and the war slowly started to sink in, being called “our new reality”.

Some state institutions reopened, and my trapped family managed to acquire new passports. To come to South Africa, they had to apply for visa in neighbouring Warsaw, Poland, in person and then wait three weeks for their documents to be processed.

For someone who lives in Kyiv, it means taking the risk of travelling throughout the country and crossing the border twice. But now, my cousin’s kids and wife are finally safe in South Africa.

Studying online

The 13-year-old twin boys are studying online in their Ukrainian school when there are no sirens, and when there is electricity in Ukraine and in South Africa. They don’t have study visas, as the processing of these visas is long and costly. But they have joined a local football club and continue training following their passion. They have not seen their dad in nine months, and we are not sure what the future holds.

As the full Russian invasion of Ukraine began, I entered an unknown state of mind that I still cannot describe. I only felt some relief when I managed to organise a trip to work for Sauveteurs Sans Frountiers (Rescuers without Borders) on the Polish-Ukrainian border in March 2022.

My knowledge of Ukrainian was a bigger asset than all my medical knowledge. I looked after people crossing the border on foot. I provided medical care, dispensed chronic medications that refugees could not access for weeks back at home in Ukraine and assisted with the logistics of connecting family members lost while fleeing and crossing the border.

When the queues to cross the border got longer, we saw more people needing medical assistance. They were standing for many hours in line, while dealing with arthritis, diabetes, and other medical conditions. This will lead to deterioration as the illnesses become chronic and sometimes create emergencies.

I remember meeting an elderly couple, beautifully dressed from the Donetsk region. They had travelled for three days in a minibus taxi, leaving their home and relying on other people’s assistance, at their children’s request. The Russian-speaking couple tried to explain their town was on Ukrainian side of the Donetsk region, so they were safe. They were used to the war situation in their region since 2014.

When I look at the photos of completely destroyed villages, flattened, without a single house still standing, I think how lucky that their children got out. I wonder about the rest of people who used to live there peacefully and who figured they could remain safely on their land.

Working on the Polish-Ukrainian border was medically challenging, but it was necessary for my soul. Both times I went on a mission. I travelled with suitcases full of medication that overnight became inaccessible in Ukraine.

People’s goodness gives me hope

I sent a few bulletproof vests via the Ukrainian post office to my friends, who had now volunteered to join the army. I met amazing people from all over the world who couldn’t just watch the disaster of the war on their TV screens and took time off from their jobs, families, kids, and other commitments to help my country.

Seeing so much goodness gave me hope when the whole world seemed to collapse. I was grateful to have the opportunity to do something.

I am also grateful to all South Africans who contributed their time and resources to help Ukrainians. After working for seven years in a public hospital in the Eastern Cape, I am well aware of the challenges South Africa is facing and I am deeply touched by the generosity of this country.

Last week on the way home from school, my son saw a Russian warship in Cape Town Harbour. It was a disturbing sight as similar ships are used to carry and dispatch missiles onto Ukraine’s civil infrastructure.

When 11-year-old Sango saw the Russian warship he enquired if the boys from his school would have to go to war and fight together with the Russian army against Ukraine. I was shocked by his question and didn’t know how to answer, as we know what history tells us.

A history of tragedy

My son suggested that we must leave South Africa immediately. Every day since then, he asked about the situation between the South African and Russian militaries and contemplated where we would be moving. He decided we should move to Poland as his cousin is already there, and so is his granny.

I doubt Poland can take more Ukrainian refugees in addition to the over seven million they are already blessed with. At least I would hopefully bring much-needed skills and pay taxes diligently. I hope my son’s concerns won’t become a reality.

What does the future holds? I wish for a Ukrainian victory. We cannot have Russian peace. We know what Russian peace means.

My family history is full of tragedies caused by Russian rule over centuries. It’s been said many times in the past week, “If Russia stops fighting the war will end. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukrainians will disappear”.

– Dr Natalia Novikova is a member of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa.

This article was originally published on News24, read it here.

Error: Contact form not found.