The air raid sirens wailed before sunrise on Feb. 24, 2022, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, marking the first time the alarm had sounded outside of planned drills since World War II.
Twenty-four-year-old Halia Didula and her sister frantically packed a few essential items from the home they shared before heading to take shelter at their parents’ house in a nearby suburb, along with several other family friends who fled from the capital, Kyiv, and other cities. Each time the air raid siren screamed, the entire household would run downstairs and take cover in the home’s unfinished basement, which suddenly became a makeshift bomb shelter.
The nation was under attack. In the early hours of the morning, Russia launched an unprecedented full-scale invasion of Ukraine, raining missiles on targets across the country. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fled their homes that day, many traveling west to Lviv, and the roads were jammed with the cars of evacuees, Didula recalled.
While there were signs the invasion was imminent in the days leading up to the attack, Moscow’s assault still caught her and many others off guard.
“The war was in the air, but no one wanted to believe it,” she said.
One year later, Didula is safe and living in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago. She arrived in mid-August on a two-year scholarship to study social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a plan that had been in the works since 2020, long before the war began.
Yet Didula remains torn between her new life in Chicago and the one she left behind in Ukraine: While it has always been her dream to study in the United States, she longs to return home to help her nation as it fights for sovereignty.
“It is really hard to study here while my friends are in the war and my family is in Ukraine,” she said. “I think I’m the person who likes to … be present when I am needed. And here, I don’t feel that I am needed that much.”
Initially, she thought the fighting might last a week or so, perhaps stretching into the summer; she never imagined the war would continue more than a year, with no indications that Russian terror will abate any time soon.
On the one-year anniversary of Moscow’s invasion, Ukrainian forces prepared for potential Russian airstrikes and schools were advised to hold classes online, as a precaution. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday announced that Moscow was pulling back from the last major nuclear control arms pact with the United States, raising global tensions.
President Joe Biden affirmed support for Ukraine on an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Monday, the first time in recent history that a U.S. president traveled to a war zone without an American military presence.
“One year later, Kyiv stands,” Biden said, after a recent meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you. And the world stands with you.”
Across Chicago, supporters of Ukraine are planning to commemorate the war’s anniversary this weekend with services, prayers and protests.
Demonstrators gathered Friday evening on the steps of Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village for a rally Following the rally, Cardinal Blase Cupich and various other clergy members held a memorial prayer service at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral.
Demonstrators protested Russian atrocities on Saturday at Water Tower Place, followed by a march along Michigan Avenue to shine light on the brutal Russian invasion and “the suffering of the Ukrainian people,” according to an event statement.
A group of anti-war Russian diaspora hosted a rally on Saturday at Daley Plaza, to condemn Putin’s regime and urge withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. That demonstration was held in connection with similar events organized by protesters of Russian descent in dozens of cities around the world.
As for Didula, she said she finds some consolation in taking part in local protests to help inform Americans about the war as well as Ukrainian history.
In November, she wore a white blindfold at a local demonstration in memory of the Holodomor, an intentional Soviet-induced famine that killed millions of Ukrainians nine decades ago. Her blindfold symbolized the world’s need to open its eyes to these historical atrocities as well as ongoing Russian terror in Ukraine.
“I love my country and I miss it so much,” she told the Tribune at the time.
More recently, Didula co-organized protests of the Joffrey Ballet’s presentation of “Anna Karenina” at the Lyric Opera House, where demonstrators chanted “Russia is a terrorist state,” and “Stop supporting Russian culture.”
“I think as long as war will be, we will not be able to just get used to life,” she said. “You always feel some guilt, some grief.”
Changing priorities, values
While the war directly threatens Ukrainian freedom, much is also at stake for the United States, Europe and the globe, said DePaul University political science professor Richard Farkas.
“What’s being challenged here is not just the credibility of the Ukrainian government,” he said. “What we have being challenged are, at the very least, the international standards of sovereignty and the viability of international boundaries and the covenants that have been established, especially about killing civilians. So, at the global level, there is a very strong argument that what the Russians are doing is undermining any credibility they have. The bottom line is the United States needs to be clearly positioned behind those standards.”
He added that the war has given the international community a glimpse at some of the weaknesses of the Russian military, particularly after Ukrainian forces were able to retake Kyiv.
“There’s just no question that conventional wisdom was that Russian forces were massive enough to be effective against the Ukrainians,” he said. “So I think it surprised everyone that the Ukrainians were able to so effectively, first and foremost, put down the assault of Kyiv.”
Yet he said it’s hard to predict how and when the war might end. Farkas said he’s also worried about the future of Ukraine and how it will rebuild postwar, with so many Ukrainian youths upending their lives and educations amid the fighting, many fleeing to other European nations or the United States.
The dilemma of whether to continue her education abroad or return to Ukraine often plagues Didula, who plans to travel back to Lviv in early March. The trip was originally scheduled so she could attend her sister’s wedding before returning to Chicago. Her sister’s fiance, though, is fighting in the war and they haven’t been able to communicate recently.
“We’re not even sure the wedding will be,” Didula said.
She said the war has reframed her values, particularly about worldly goods and money, which seem far less important. When the invasion began, she was often worried about homes being destroyed by rockets. Her city, which is near the Polish border, initially felt much safer than other parts of Ukraine that were in the thick of fighting and bombing campaigns.
Then in March, Russia launched airstrikes at Yavoriv military base, about 30 kilometers from her home. The bombs were so loud they sounded as if they were next door. Everything from furniture to glasses to the floor of the house trembled, she recalled.
Even after moving to Chicago, the sound of an ambulance siren terrified her for weeks and she would even hide on occasion, though she has since become more accustomed to these kinds of noises.
“I realized that houses were not important at all,” she said. “Even if my house would be destroyed, the most important (thing) is people. The value of things, during the war, changed.”
Even in the United States, she said, she often refrains from buying things for herself because that money might be better spent on donations to help Ukraine.
“Maybe they can buy some medical stuff or a car and that can save people,” she said. “I feel like I don’t need a lot of stuff because one day it could be destroyed.”
In Ukraine, Didula worked as a social worker, helping to place orphans with foster families. Through her work, she was often struck by the trauma children endured amid the fighting. Some children as young as 6 would talk matter-of-factly of encountering dead bodies during their escape.
“They are telling this not as a very sad story but as a story, just as an experience,” she said. “I realized that our psychology … is like, if you can’t change something, you just start to accept things.”
She plans to eventually return to Ukraine and continue her work with orphanages. In her free time, she hopes to coordinate volunteer projects to help soldiers and veterans recover from the trauma of war.
For now, she describes her life as very much in flux.
“I don’t have any plan for the future because I don’t know what will happen in Ukraine,” she said. “We all say we will win, but we don’t know when that will happen.”
‘Valor and bravery’
John Hewko recalled witnessing Ukraine declare independence in August 1991, when the son of Ukrainian immigrants served as an adviser to the Ukrainian parliament and later helped the burgeoning democracy draft its original constitution. He still keeps a copy of that document in his Evanston home.
His parents came to the United States as refugees in 1949, after four years in displaced persons camps in Germany following World War II. For his mother, father and grandparents, Ukrainian independence seemed like an unattainable dream.
“For centuries, Ukraine has been struggling to create a nation, to create a national identity and to become independent — and then it happened,” he said. “It was just a feeling of euphoria, a feeling of elation. Being there for that historic moment was just incredible.”
He likened the experience to being in Philadelphia in 1776, around the time the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.
The fall of the Soviet Union happened stunningly fast, in a matter of days, he recounted. Ukraine’s declaration of independence was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. In a December 1991 referendum, an overwhelming majority of the nation of more than 50 million voted in favor of independence.
“That was really the end of the Soviet Union,” he said. “So not only Ukraine becoming independent, this miracle that my parents and grandparents and everyone had fought for, but it also brought an end to the last European empire.”
Yet on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Zelenskyy warned the international community that the missile blasts and rumbling of aircraft marked the sound of “a new iron curtain,” alluding to the Soviet Union’s post-World War II efforts to seal itself off from the West and other non-communist nations.
Hewko, a Harvard University-educated lawyer who is the general secretary and chief executive officer of the global nonprofit Rotary International, praised the United States for its “tremendous amount” of help for Ukraine. The Rotary Foundation, along with Rotary clubs around the world, has raised millions of dollars to help support Ukraine and Ukrainians displaced by war.
The U.S. has so far provided around $113 billion in aid to Ukraine in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion, according to The Associated Press.
“When you think about how Russia is a much larger country, a much larger armed forces … it’s just an absolutely extraordinary demonstration of valor and bravery by the Ukrainians, that they have been able to hold this behemoth off and take back territory that Russia has conquered,” he said. “I feel that if we give Ukrainians the weapons they need, they will win.”
He added that the U.S. must “do whatever it takes to allow Ukraine to win this war.”
“That’s needed not only for Ukraine, I think that’s needed not only for Europe, but I think it’s (also) for Russia,” he said. “It’s going to take a significant defeat … to create change in Russia. And that’s what we really need in Russia. Change in Russia. Change in attitude and change in perception.”
This kind of revolution will never come “unless Ukraine has a significant victory on the battlefield to force that self-reflection on the Russian population,” he added.
Source: Chicago Tribune