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‘There’s a Fear of Not Knowing’: Watching Your Homeland’s Invasion From 6,000 Miles Away

In the early morning hours of Thursday, Feb. 24, Russia began a coordinated invasion into Ukraine. First, it was airstrikes — rockets raining down on all the country’s major cities — later, the ground troops began to move in. Many Ukrainians hadn’t believed Russian President Vladimir Putin would actually start this war, and hadn’t evacuated. Many tried to escape into Poland and nearby countries, jamming up major highways. Others have been forced to hide in bomb shelters, witnessing their homeland’s destruction around them. 

As for the Ukrainians who weren’t in the country, they are forced to watch from afar as the tanks roll in. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ukraine-born photographer Yana Yatsuk — who emigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1997, when she was four years old — details how she’s grappling with the feelings of guilt and uncertainty as she sees the horrifying situation affect her entire extended family back home. 

When news broke, I was in a car and I kept getting text messages from people asking if my family was OK. For us, this has been going on since 2014. I called my grandmother right away, and her line was busy. And I tried a few more times and couldn’t get through to her. I called my aunt and she was in a state of panic as she was gathering her things. They left to a nearby village when they heard the explosions. That’s all I got from them.

My cousin and his wife and kids live just a kilometer away from the military airport that was blown up right as Putin made the announcement. The entire family woke up to the windows and walls shaking. His kids started screaming. You can’t really explain the feeling, my cousin said. You’re just so scared and don’t know what to do. He just grabbed his kids and wife and went to a nearby village. They couldn’t get gas. They couldn’t get bread. The grocery stores were all empty.

My aunt, uncle, and grandma are home in Ivano-Frankivsk. They could see the explosion of a nearby factory from where they live. For my family that’s still there, a lot of buildings have underground bunkers. Whenever the sirens go off, that’s where my family goes with the rest of the people that live in their buildings until the sirens stop. We have another family member who’s a doctor in Kyiv who has continued to work. And a family friend who just had a baby in Kyiv who has been underground hiding ever since. She went straight from the hospital to being underground. They haven’t come out.

When I called my family, I wanted to ask a million questions, but I knew that they just need to get into survival mode. They’re in a panic, and they have to get out as fast as they can. That’s all they’re thinking of. You want to know what’s going on because you want to know that they’re safe, but at the same time, you have to let them take the action they need to take. 

I have a great uncle who, at 57, joined the army yesterday. We’re proud of him. There was a line of hundreds of people waiting to join the military, which is incredible. People want to defend. They want to protect their land and fight what’s for what’s theirs. It’s a beautiful thing. The Ukrainian people are strong and those on the ground fighting are heroes. There’s a feeling of fear mixed with pride. They’ve been so brave. That’s the main word that comes to mind. I can’t even imagine being in the position that they’re in. I feel the pain that I feel because I’m so far, but the pain that they’re feeling is beyond. I’m worried most about their safety — not just my family, but all the other Ukrainian families. We all just hope for peace. 

With everything happening, you think you’re doing better and it all sneaks back up on you. I think it’s an inherent feeling of guilt of not being able to be there to stand by their side in solidarity. Maybe that sounds insane, but it’s true. With being an immigrant, there’s always a level of guilt knowing that we’re so lucky to be here. We didn’t grow up with much but even the little that we have here is still a lot more than what they have there. With it, comes guilt. It’s a hard feeling to shake. My mom has been experiencing the same. She has literally no one here. Her entire family is there. I feel helpless in a lot of ways. But I also feel proud to be Ukrainian. It’s a combination of pain, fear, and exhaustion. There’s a fear of not knowing and being afraid that at any moment they could lose internet or power. 

I don’t know if there’s a way to cope, really. They’re not really feelings that you can escape. I’ve been going to protests. I’ve been talking to family and watching Ukrainian news 24/7. That’s the only place my mind has been.

I was not at all surprised that Putin invaded. He already took Crimea. This situation has been going on for eight years now. And I don’t think he stops anything. He’s evil. Ruthless.

I hope things get resolved. I’m just one person and it’s much bigger than me, but a lot of countries are helping and Ukrainians are really grateful for that. I believe in the soldiers fighting. It’s one thing when you have tools and machinery and all of these things that the Russians have, but Ukrainians have so much pride in their country and are fighting with more than just the tools they’re given. The Ukrainian people are fighting with a lot of integrity, pride, will, and strength on so many levels. And they’re fighting for something that they truly believe in. Ukrainians want peace and I think that in a fight like this, that’s keeping me the most hopeful.

I don’t think that people realize how far he would take this if he could. It’s not just gonna be Ukraine. That’s just the first step. Ukrainians see this as a much bigger issue. Though this might not be affecting you directly now, ignoring a person like Putin and not making it harder for them to do what they’re trying to do is only going to give him more strength. That person isn’t going to stop in Ukraine. 

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