Ukraine professor shares her first year of war with Russia

Oksana Kovtun is an associate professor of translation at the Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University, living in Vinnytsia in west-central Ukraine with her husband and two children. After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Kovtun, 39, began working as a volunteer procuring supplies for Ukrainian refugees as well as the military. She tells The Post’s Matthew Sedacca of her family’s and nation’s struggle during a year of war.

I clearly remember the beginning of the war.

Cash machines don’t work. Everything closes very early. No food in the shops because people bought everything. Just empty streets, darkness, coldness, and wind.

I’m a teacher at the university, and even on the 24th, we were still conducting the lessons. Because we had COVID and online lectures, we kept on teaching. 

Oksana Kovtun, an associate professor at the Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University
Kovtun is an associate professor at the Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University who lives in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, with her family.
Facebook Oksana Kovtun

A lot of people started running away from the cities. We decided to stay at home.

As many buildings were bombarded, and people killed … we decided to use this “rule of two walls” — occupying a space in a building where two walls will separate you from an explosion outside.

We relocated into our bathroom. I could sleep on the carpet with my little one, he’s 6, and my older one — he’s 14 — had to sleep in the bath. 

Buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine, damaged by Russian forces
Kovtun and her family stayed in their home in Vinnytsia after the Russian invasion began.

A Ukrainian teacher instructing students in his living room.
Kovtun and her children slept in their bathroom for months as a makeshift bomb shelter.
AFP via Getty Images

My husband still had to sleep in the bedroom because there was no place for him. I was really scared. I even had a panic attack. 

Maybe two weeks from the beginning of the war, the refugees from other regions started coming here. One of my friends at the university told me, “Children who are refugees asked for help. Can we organize something for them?” We bought diapers and children’s food. I wrote on Facebook to my friends. One of my neighbors is a fruit seller so he helped.

Then it started like a snowfall. I didn’t have enough money and people were coming and coming, hundreds and thousands of them, so I started connecting with different organizations

Volunteer keeping out styrofoam containers filled with food.
“One of my friends at the university told me, ‘Children who are refugees asked for help. Can we organize something for them?’”
AFP via Getty Images

People in gridlock traffic standing outside their cars.
When the war began, it was very to get food or cash in Vinnytsia.

Then I realized I don’t have any panic attacks anymore because I have something that I’m concentrating on. 

We got used to the war, to bombarding, to the missiles, to everything. It’s not normal, but if we were to take it very close to our heart, I suppose we would get crazy. 

I remember the van came with some humanitarian aid, and we were offloading it. And there was this missile alert, and very, very loud, booming. We heard it, just picked our head up, it’s not here, and we went on working. 

A girl wrapped up in a scarf with a tear streaming down her face.
“We got used to the war, to bombarding, to the missiles, to everything.”

In my city, there is a very big hospital [where] the soldiers are treated, cured, so our doctors are performing very complicated surgeries. Now I can see a lot of wounded soldiers on the streets without legs, without arms. I also know that guys are staying there, absolutely disabled, and it’s just very terrifying.

That’s what makes me feel very depressed and despaired. 

I work very closely with the army. This week, I sent a very big parcel to one of the guys in the Donetsk region. And this morning, I was informed that some of these guys were killed.

A woman crying over a man in an open casket, draped with a Ukrainian flag and flowers, surrounded by people.
After sending a package to soldiers in the Donetsk, Kovtun learned that some of the men had been killed.

A Ukrainian woman holding flowers.
Kovtun says she regularly sees disabled soldiers missing limbs around her city.

When dead soldiers are brought here to our city, people who don’t know the soldier … come with flowers and they create corridors all the way through the city, to the cemetery. And they stay on their knees, they pray. 

We are waiting for the 24th because it will be the year anniversary of the war. There are a lot of rumors that Russians are preparing a very big attack on our country. But I can’t say that I’m as scared as I was previously.

I absolutely believe in our victory. I’m full of hope.

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