'Like a Bad Dream': Stories of Life Inside Ukraine amid the Russian Invasion

Travel into Ukraine amid the Russian attacks with these stories shared with PEOPLE in the early days of fighting 

01 of 18

What's Happening Now

ukraine flag
Ukraine flag. Aleksandr Gusev/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Following Russia's devastating invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 18 individuals spoke with PEOPLE on how the evolving conflict has upended their daily lives and how they're navigating through the chaos now. From local moms to military chaplains and more, read on for their first-person accounts amid the quickly shifting situation.

Editor's note: Text has been edited for length and clarity.

02 of 18

'I Think War Has Begun'

Ukraine voices gallery

"[After Russia invaded on Feb. 24], watching government channels was pointless, not exactly trustworthy. I watched 48-hour-old video that said Russia is to invade Ukraine soon. There were several announcements like that, but the explosions were proof of one certain thing – the war has begun. I went to the bathroom and then woke up my significant other.

" 'I think war has begun,' I said. She started scrolling through social feeds, while I started packing and figuring what to do next. We were ready to go by 6 a.m. At 6:45 a.m. we got a call from our friends; they were taking [their] children west. Outbound traffic in that direction was over an hour."

– Kostyantyn, 45, business owner, from Kyiv

"At 7 [a.m.] we sat down for a quick tea. I recalled Sept. 11, 2001, and ran to the ATM to get cash out, while it was still possible. For the next few hours, I got varying messages about coming to work. Most of my coworkers said they were not coming in; remote work was allowed."

Svetlana Fioshkina, a banking professional, from Kyiv

03 of 18

'My Luck Ran Out'

Ukraine voices gallery

"We live within the government district in the heart of the city, the streets were mostly empty. People were helping elderly to get money out. It was quickly becoming obvious cash would run out pretty quickly. I managed to get 8000 UAH [hryvnia, the currency of Ukraine] before my luck ran out. I went food shopping immediately after to a nearby store. Lines were not long but food essentials [bread, rice, barley] were already running low.

"I came back home, and we sat down for breakfast. We discussed leaving Kyiv tomorrow [Feb. 25] for our residence south of the city. By noon, it was becoming more obvious that we were at war, and we needed to leave as soon as possible. Some people were saying that our part of the city would get leveled, or there would be heavy street fighting.

"By 3 p.m., we finished preparations and were ready to head out. In the meantime, I was baffled by the lack of response from the government. It seems like they could not believe what was happening either.

"Heading out of the city took a long time due to traffic. No one was panicking, driving carefully. Abiding speed limits, using proper traffic lanes. We arrived at our country house by 7 p.m."

Kostyantyn Kurganskyy, a business owner from Kyiv

04 of 18

'We Heard a Massive Explosion'

Ukraine voices gallery

"[On Feb. 26], more military planes were flying overhead around 8 a.m. We heard a massive explosion soon after. We spent some of the day communicating with friends and family, catching up on news from Kyiv. Later, we went to a local village store – food is scarce. Although we were told some shipments were coming in, payments are cash only.

"It was also it was interesting for us that nothing they said about Kyiv was actually happening. There is fighting on the streets and damage to the city, but the city holds strong despite the Russians pushing strong from the north."

– Kostyantyn Kurganskyy, a business owner from Kyiv

05 of 18

'I'm Stuck Here'

Ukraine voices gallery

"I saw first signs of invasion on the very first day [Feb. 24]. Distant explosions and Russian helicopters flying overhead. Heard that anti-aircraft shot them down. The only bridge out of the village has been blown up and the village is surrounded by rivers.

"I'm stuck here for the foreseeable future; it seems like nobody is getting in or out. The upside is that because we're isolated, we're not a target. Which is good because there are families with kids here."

– Tatiana Fioshkina from Kyiv

06 of 18

'Food in the Stores Is Gone'

Ukraine voices gallery

"Communication was down for a short while, but was quickly restored. Unfortunately, food in the stores is gone and there are no supplies expected. It seems like random artillery shells are hitting the village and one house was destroyed by a direct hit.

"What pisses me off is that there isn't anything I can do to help. I wanted to join the subversion search and elimination team in Kyiv. Any kind of volunteer work is basically impossible, which is very frustrating. Especially given a lot of my friends are helping defend Kyiv. My entire family, except Mom, stayed in Kyiv due to sickness, or for ideological reasons."

– Tatiana from Kyiv

07 of 18

'My Gut Was Just Telling Me Something Will Happen'

ukraine conflict

"The night before the invasion began was very unsettling for me. My gut was just telling something will happen. Next thing I know I'm starting up my car and heading out to my grandparents.

"On [the] way there, several military jets zipped by, heading south. I figured there're probably Russian, given that Russians were stationed right across the border in Belarus. Some aircraft flew so low, I thought they would hit the tree line. This might sound comical, but for a moment I thought I was in a video game with insanely good graphics. It was a momentary thought, probably some kind of denial of reality.

"I reached my grandparents within a few hours, as the traffic out of the city was really bad. Unfortunately, they were not willing to leave, and said they will hold their ground no matter what. No amount of crying or convincing worked and I had to leave them. [Editor's note: This village northwest of Kyiv is currently considered occupied by Russian forces.]

"Since then, I have been shuttling people out of Kyiv to western parts of the country. Some of them are staying with friends in western Ukraine or going across the border, I'm not quite sure.

"I'm in western Ukraine right now, as getting close to, in or out of Kyiv is basically impossible. I'm also very concerned for my grandparents. Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do and don't have any way to communicate with them. That's about it, just trying to figure out what to do next."

– Oleksiy Melnyk, 30, contractor from Kyiv

08 of 18

'This Is My City'

ukraine conflict

"I was born in a small village in central Ukraine in 1941 and remember real Nazis who occupied our country. I remember the atrocities they committed. So, what Putin as saying about us being so-called Nazis is simply sickening to me.

"I thought I wouldn't have to live through something like that ever again. Here I'm in my 80s seeing something Russia tried to do to us in the '30s.

"My daughter has repeatedly tried to convince me to leave when it was still possible. I decided to stay in the city. This is my city and my apartment – I'm not abandoning this. We have been forced to stay in a bomb shelter [in the basement level of the apartment building] since the night of the Feb. 25.

"This shelter was not exactly designed as a shelter, it's cramped, and the low food supplies are becoming more noticeable. I am kind of slapping myself for not leaving as we only have a few days of food supplies left. We are hearing gunfire and explosions, but my street looks okay. We are allowed to go back to our apartments during the day, as there isn't much action then.

"Another thing I'm more worried about radiation. I have a Geiger counter from the Chernobyl times [given by USSR government]. The radiation levels started spiking, and that concerns me significantly. I was informed recently by one of my neighbors that Chernobyl was taken by Russian forces."

– Borys Yatsenko, 80, a professor at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv

09 of 18

'I Keep Asking What I Can Do'

Ukraine voices gallery

"I keep asking them what I can do to help and there really isn't much. I was lucky I was able to send them a couple hundred dollars on Tuesday of last week. They were able to pick it up on Wednesday, the war started on Thursday. Right now, they can't leave their homes.

"My sister starts to get irritated when I try to ask her [why she won't leave.] Basically, I think, they have nowhere to really go, there aren't any relatives or friends or anyone outside of Ukraine that they know that can take them in, so that prospect of leaving your home is scary. To go where? Also the solidarity that they have with their neighbors, and their country, they don't feel right just trying to escape. In their particular neighborhood, no one has left.

"I considered myself disconnected from the country [Ukraine] and really felt American, but when this [invasion] happened my heart just broke. I'm very proud of the people and the way they are handling it. How strong they are and how resilient they've been.

"I'm so proud of the president [Volodymyr Zelenskyy] who hasn't given up and who continues to stay and is trying to keep up the morale among all the citizens. I'm really proud of the country and all the Ukrainians and how they're dealing with it."

— Liz Tursi, 36, a New Jersey woman who emigrated from Ukraine as a child, and whose sister lives in Ukraine with her family

10 of 18

'My Family Is Hiding'

SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

"My family is hiding in a basement not far from the city of Kharkiv. We never thought something like could even happen. Yesterday we woke up and had to pack and hide. It's fortune that we still have electricity and Internet.

"Our grandparents told us stories about that war back to 1941-1945, terrifying stories. Genocide. I listened and thought 'What a great and happy life my generation has' – until yesterday.

"[Our] whole our lives are in this country: family, friends, cars, homes, future we were building. And now everything is under the highest risk."

– An anonymous family

11 of 18

'I'm Not Worried ... I'm Focused'

American soldiers
Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

"I am a paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. I've been stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy. I had a girlfriend back home, but I told her before I left, 'Don't wait around for me.' She's worried about me.

"My parents are worried about me. I'm not worried. It's more like, I'm focused. We didn't come here planning to go to war, but we've been aware of Russia. They've been doing a lot of troop movements. We do the same thing. NATO does a lot of exercises where we bring in a lot of troops and do war scenarios. The difference is, we announce what we're doing.

"We knew things could change up very fast inside Ukraine. We had poker night last week, and everyone talked about Ukraine. We took the Ace of Spades out of the deck. That card is bad luck. We kind of joked around, but we were serious, too – 'When does this turn into a bad hand for Ukraine?' That's the kind of talk it was. When the invasion happened, the sense was, 'He really went through with it.' We weren't shocked, but it was more like a wakeup.

"Do I think we're going to war? Honestly, no. But if things get crazy, we're here."

– "J," an American paratrooper, 25

12 of 18

'I Wasn't Surprised'

Semen Kabakaev
Courtesy: Semen Kabakaev

"My wife fought with me in 2014 [in the Revolution of Dignity], and we understand the enemy will target people like me. That is why my wife and my 6-year-old daughter go to Western Ukraine to hide.

"When I woke up, I wasn't surprised [Putin] attacked. I called the general staff of the Ukrainian army and asked how I could help. I left my wife and child at home and went to the headquarters.

"I feel proud and I defend my country. I am worried about the safety of my family. We don't let the enemy's plan succeed. We fight very hard for this not to happen. If Ukraine falls, everybody will fall."

– Semen Kabakaev, 32, an adviser to the commander in chief of armed forces of Ukraine

13 of 18

'I Was So Proud'

Smoke rises from behind residential buidlings in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine. (Photo credit should read Yurii Rylchuk/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images). Yurii Rylchuk/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

"We hope that everything is going to turn for better. But what we have seen, it's getting worse and worse. My city, Ivano-Frankivsk, was hit by the bomb. They destroyed the airport. What is happening all over Ukraine, I can't even tell you. This is like a bad dream.

"From my window, I saw dark clouds, the explosion and sirens. I couldn't actually understand what was going on until [I watched] the local news. You don't know where to go, where to run, who to call. I can't even imagine that in 2022, this may happen in the center of Europe.

"I was so proud of our civil men, old and young, who go and try to help. Civilian volunteers, and those who are willing to stand and fight.

"Right now they didn't call for him [my son, 22, to fight], but they might ... on one hand, I'm worried because he's my child, and I want him to be safe. But on the other hand, I understand that if every mother will think like that, there will be no people to protect us.

"The most important [thing] now is that people in the world to hear us Ukrainians crying for help."

– Liliya Marynchak, 45, an assistant professor of finance

14 of 18

'The Situation Can Change Really Fast'

Ukrainian service members

"The majority of the population in Ukraine did not believe in the intentions of Russia to invade. I did not believe Russia would attack. But I knew that the situation can change really fast.

"In May 2014, it was hard to predict that in June, there would be military operations. In May of that year, we did not predict that we would have artillery fights, jets and helicopters every day."

– Yaroslav Vasylyuk, 27, reactivated Ukraine infantry

15 of 18

'Something Beyond Imagination'

Kyiv, Ukraine

"Everyone understood there was a risk of attack, but I guess 95 percent of Ukrainians never believed this would be real. It was something beyond imagination. We thought it was a geo-political game and there would be a political solution. Russians are quite friendly to Ukrainians. Russians can enter Ukraine without visas. Many people have family ties with Russian people.

"There was no expectation that our lives would change in such a significant way just overnight. Everyone is afraid because there is so much to lose if this escalation continues."

– Vitaly Vavryshchuk, 41

16 of 18

'It's Been Completely Insane'

St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church
Aleksandr Gusev/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

"There has been a great response from Ukrainian armed forces that the Russians didn't expect. Ukrainians are ready to fight for our freedom, for our lives. The war began eight years ago for us. During the last two days, it's been completely insane. We haven't seen this since WWII. We are still in shock.

"Right now, there are 200 sleeping in the church basement. Families and pets. You can't be calm when you hear the bombs blast. It will change us forever.

"I speak Russian. It's insane [because] there are always the stupidest [reasons given for this war]. Sixty percent of the Ukrainian armed forces speak Russian. It's propaganda to legitimize the invasion. People speak freely. At university, you can study Russian. Classes are taught in Ukrainian, but classes at regional universities are taught in Russian. They created this propaganda, artificial from reality. These lies cost lives."

– Andriy Zelinskyy, 42, military chaplain of the Ukrainian Catholic Church

17 of 18

'We Woke Up to the Air Alarm'

Oleksandra Zubal

"We woke up to the air alarm yesterday. I opened my messenger, and the first message I read was from my daughter's school that we should not bring the children to school. They said that Ukraine is at war, and it was a shock for me, for my husband, for my daughter.

"When I made it to this shelter [with my family] I was in panic, I was crying. And then children saw that, and the older ones started crying too. My daughter was trying to hug me actually and I told myself 'Children are watching. You got to be brave.'

"[President] Zelenskyy is a former comic without any political experience. So when he started his presidential campaign, we were utterly shocked. He's great with media and that is how he won the elections. Right now, Zelenskyy turned into a leader. We can see that he is being advised to by competent people, he has not fled the country even though he was offered to, he stands in front of the Ukrainian people and speaks publicly multiple times a day.

"Right now, we see his decisions as correct and strong. His popularity will no doubt increase significantly after this is over."

Oleksandra Zubal, 36, an IT professional and co-founder of MyDone, from Lviv

18 of 18

'I am Heartbroken'

Ukraine voices gallery

"My husband is with the 101st Airborne. I have been thinking not so much about us, [but] about the wives and families of people in Ukraine. The men are staying back to fight, and they don't know if they will see their families ever again. I am heartbroken. I can't even imagine.

"My own family is safe. My husband will be safe. He will be in a dangerous part of the world, but he will be safe. God will bring him home to me. What about those families who might never see each other again?"

– Allison

"I've come across several people who talk about [the invasion] like World War III like it's a video game with unlimited lives. And that really hits me. My son's life isn't cheap. It's the most precious piece of me. I have a barely 18-year-old out there in the Marines, but his younger brother is on the same path. It's very emotional for me, because I'm so proud of both of my boys. They're not nameless numbers."

– Kristina

"I am so incredibly proud of my son, who has the ability to help the world. I read an article the other day about a father pulled into the Ukranian Army because he's of age. He gave his children over to a stranger in his village to try to get them to his wife in Italy. The grief on his face, knowing that he may never see his children again, was incredibly heartbreaking to me.

"The fact that I have a son who can do something about that fills me with a lot of pride."

– Dbie

"My husband is air assault, part of the 101st Airborne. Some of our soldiers already deployed. Mine has not. But I expect him to go to Europe. I don't know that for sure, but I expect it to happen.

"We're not going to get too hung up about it. We're not going to get scared. But we also know that we have to be realistic and that things could change. We're going over on a support mission. Our soldiers are not going into war. They're not going into Ukraine to fight Russian soldiers. They're going to support NATO, or NATO partners."

– Melanie

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