Victoria Dudka, a 27-year-old teacher from Ivano-Frankivsk, is just one of an estimated two million Ukrainians who have sought refuge in neighbouring Poland since war broke out in her country. Helped by The Salvation Army on arrival in Warsaw, Victoria shares her experiences with David Giles.
Thank you for agreeing to tell your story. Firstly, could you describe your life in Ukraine a month ago?
I was happy living in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk. I was trained as a teacher (of informatics and graphic design), and looking for new work. I had a boyfriend and it was a peaceful and restful time for me, because I was able to have a lot of free time. So I was riding my bicycle, going shopping and doing just daily stuff. I lived in a very high building on the edge of the city, so I was actually able to see the whole city from my window! It was good.
How and when did you first become aware of the hostilities?
Nobody actually expected something would happen. We heard gossips that probably war would start, but we thought that it was only propaganda trying to make people panic, you know, not real. Then on February 24 at 6 a.m., somebody called me and she said, "Did you know the war has started? You need to think what you will do now, what is your plan?" Then we heard an emergency alarm in the city.
When I got the call I felt like "OK, fine" and went to the kitchen to cook breakfast. I turned on the TV news, and they were saying "don’t be panicked, don’t be panicked … yes, something has happened, but don’t be panicked." But then my boyfriend started to scream: "Look! They’re shouting, they’re shouting!" he said. We looked out of the window, and saw in two places a rocket – like bombs falling down. There were explosions in two places. It was a really strange feeling because we heard on the TV at the same moment "don’t panic, everything will be fine," but with our own eyes we saw that something already was wrong, something was happening.
How did that make you feel, with the TV saying "be calm," but seeing rockets hit your neighbourhood?
So, in general, I’m a very positive person, and very calm. So at the beginning I was very calm and thinking, It’s still not a big problem, it’s probably only them trying to make us feel afraid. And I thought it will not be forever, it will not be for the whole country. But my boyfriend was panicking, and later when I was alone in the apartment, I did start to realize that something was wrong, and I was really afraid.
And I had to think what to do, because the next day I had some surgery planned. I’d been waiting a long time for this procedure and it cost a lot of money at a private clinic. I was thinking: "Should I leave the country? Should I leave the city? Should I go somewhere else? What should I do?" In the end, I decided to travel to the clinic to get the surgery done. I’d been waiting two months already – I felt I couldn’t miss it.
How did daily life change in your city?
The situation was that alarms went off frequently during the day, indicating that we needed to go and hide, to shelter. But there was a big difference in the way people responded. A lot of refugees who had arrived from Kyiv and from eastern cities just dropped everything quickly when they heard the sirens to go to shelters but local people still didn’t feel real danger because this had not really happened before in this city.
Did you know where to go for the bomb shelter, where you had to go and be safe?
Government and City Hall told people that in this situation you need to go and hide in your basement. But not all people actually have a basement, or don’t have access to one. So we are in the situation where people really feel unsafe that they will prefer to take their car and go to the mountains for a few days. Then they are going back to the city because they need to work and live a normal life.
What specifically prompted you to leave Ukraine?
First of all, I called my mom and sister who live in Warsaw. I asked them what I should do. At the moment I talked to them, I heard a really, really loud sound. I looked out the window and saw that above our house was a lot of military planes flying. I thought, This is dangerous, but stayed until the next day when my boyfriend came to take me for my surgery. My mom and sister recommended that I pack bags with my most-needed stuff, because they didn’t know if she will be able to come back to the city or not.
After the operation, I spent one hour in the hospital. There was no opportunity to stay there longer, even though they told me that I need to rest for 10 days! But I was not able to stay there for the day – they gave me one hour. Then my boyfriend took me back in the car, but when I called my mom again in the same moment I saw that bombs were falling down on the airport and four other places in the city. I heard shouting. I saw fires. It was really scary to go back into the city. My family called again and told me my cousin was travelling to Warsaw at that moment, and maybe I should join her and her children. And for me, that was it. I needed to go right now. Because of the surgery I was finding it difficult to breathe.
Can you tell us about the journey?
I took my bags and my boyfriend helped me to get to Lviv, where I was to meet with my cousin. We tried to get to the border, but didn’t have money for the internet on our phone so we had to try to find our own route to the border just by following street signs. We got lost!
We went to one village at night, and the local people were so afraid that they had encircled the village. They were asking all the time: "Who are you? Show your documents! Why are you here?" They were checking if people were Ukrainian or Russian.
When we got close to the border, it took five days to get from the end of the queue of cars to the border crossing. In this line [of vehicles], there were so many different situations – local people gave us food, tea, coffee; they tried to support us. But other people in the line – there was a lot of conflict, with people trying to jump the queue and get a better position. People were fighting, people were beaten. Some were so rude to us – the children in our car were so afraid, because they thought people would kill them. They couldn’t understand why people were screaming. It was a really tough experience to be waiting there in the car.
How did you cope emotionally? What helped to sustain you on that journey?
What helped was the fact we were travelling with children. We needed to be an example for them. If we were to panic, it would be even more difficult for the children. So we tried to show that everything was fine, that we would survive. But I was thinking to myself, maybe ten times an hour, that maybe we should go back. All the time I was doubting – should I stay or should I go?
It was still very difficult to breathe, so when we eventually got to the border they took me to the hospital – but there were no doctors there to help! They took me on to a clinic, where finally a medic was able to ease my breathing.
What did it feel like to finally cross into Poland, with that stamp in your passport and being away from the immediate danger?
Of course I am worried about my boyfriend and relatives who are still in Ukraine. In general, I feel calmer, but when I hear the sound of a plane now it makes me feel anxious again. It comes on very quickly: What do I do now?
Who is helping you in Poland now?
My mom (Ludmila, who is a soldier in The Salvation Army) and my sisters.
I imagine they were very relieved to see you!
[laughs] Yes, they were very pleased! The Salvation Army has also helped by providing a bed. When I arrived in Poland we only had a one-person bed, so I was sharing with my sister or sleeping on the floor. But The Salvation Army supported me by finding a bed, and it feels so nice!
What happens next are your hopes for the future?
I am a Christian, so I believe that God will provide for me … he will show me the way. I trust that he will protect me. I have already found a job here, as a kitchen assistant, so I have some money to live on. It’s hard work, but I’m not searching for other options because I hope this is just temporary. My plan, to be honest, is to return to Ukraine when it is possible. It is my home, I am used to the life there. So I think it will be my plan to return.
How can we pray for Ukraine and Ukrainians?
God knows better! And I think God would help us, actually, in the decisions that need to be [made] in defending our country. We are not a big country and it is a huge problem for us, but I see even in a few funny moments that God is helping us. I heard that [paratroopers] had jumped from a plane, but a strong wind blew them back to Russia! Even this lighter moment shows that God protects us.
A few months before the war started, I had a dream that I was escaping with my mom and my sisters to the shelter. Looking back, I think God told me something that I was not ready to understand [at the time].
Today, I’m in regular contact with my boyfriend, who is now a [humanitarian] volunteer, helping to deliver aid across the country. One testimony to share is that he was travelling with a friend to the east of Ukraine but the car broke down on the way . They were so upset. After a two-hour delay, when they got to the city, they found that if they had arrived "on time," they would have been in the direct line of enemy fire. God saved them! Even in this situation, we can give thanks that God is at work.
Story and photos courtesy of The Salvation Army Denmark and Greenland Territory.