‘Not my life’: An apartment block reflects the new Ukraine

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Olya Shlapak and her husband Sasha Olexandre tell their story after fleeing their home in Kharkiv, in an apartment they sheltered and rented in Lviv, western Ukraine, on Sunday, April 3, 2022. The family remained homeless for seven days. as they sought shelter in a subway, along with hundreds of other residents. Olya remembers the “greatest fear of my life”, waking up her daughter to tell her that the war had begun. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

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Soviet-era apartment blocks at the end of a tram line in this western Ukrainian city show an indifferent face to the world, in white and grey. But behind every lighted window there is a story.

There is the couple who regrets that they will never be able to live in the house that is being built for them in damned Bucha. There is the family who spent hours in their underground shelter in Irpin, caught between armies. There is the woman who fled Kharkiv, being displaced for the second time in a decade.

They all fled to Lviv, along with 500,000 others, a tiny fraction of the 10 million Ukrainians who have been driven by the war from their homes and resettled in other parts of the country.

Many sleep on mats in cultural centers and schools, sheltering in crowded rooms with family and friends. Some plan to move on, perhaps crossing the border into nearby Poland and beyond. Others have put down the first fragile roots. The rest have little idea what to do.

Most just want to go home, if home is still standing.

As many as 50 have found shelter in a nine-story building on Trylovskoho Boulevard. It’s calm; they can look through their windows and see a school, a playground, not a tank or rockets fired. It is a world away from the danger that made them flee their homes, although in recent days Lviv has also been the target of Russian missiles.

Families live steps away. They don’t know each other, but they recognize the displaced like them on sight, without exchanging a word. Take the noisy little elevator, walk through the dark corridors and visit them in their temporary apartments, and you will find limbo.

“It’s not my flat. It is not my life”, says Marta Kopan. “But now I’m here.”

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Marta is 40 weeks pregnant; the baby, a girl, kicks her hard as she goes through bags of children’s clothing in the fourth-floor apartment the family lent to a cousin. Her birth plan, like so much else, has been abandoned: the place where she expected to give birth was bombed.

“On February 24, our happy life stopped,” says 36-year-old Marta. She remembers looking out the window of the family’s apartment in kyiv and seeing lines of cars heading to safety. Within days, the Kopans, Marta, her husband, and her two children, joined them.

Now, some 300 miles away, sometimes he doesn’t feel a thing. Sometimes everything is too much.

“I don’t need to read the news,” he says, and starts to cry. “I just got the news from my friends.” They tell him of destroyed houses and bodies found in pieces. A friend now works to give birth in an underground shelter. She sent him photos of nearly 200 pregnant women waiting to give birth.

Marta knows it could have been her.

kyiv is not the whole family left behind. A new house, designed by Marta’s mother, had been waiting for the family in Bucha, on the outskirts of the capital. There are forests nearby, with hiking trails and opportunities to pick mushrooms and berries. Now the Russian occupiers have retreated, leaving some of the worst horrors of the war in their wake, and the family doesn’t know if their dream home was left intact.

They want to stay in Ukraine, but they don’t have a long-term plan. Marta and her husband are doctors and want to stay and help. For now, they live from day to day. The eldest son, Nazar, 6, continues his education online.

Although he knows better, he sometimes asks to return home to kyiv. “I want my normal life,” she says.

Martha too. “I want my kids to have their own rooms with their Legos, with their different pencils,” she says.

The boy snuggles up and kisses his mother’s belly, a comfort to her and a greeting to his sister. “I hope he likes it when he’s crying,” Marta says.

Hours later, just after sunset, the air raid siren sounds. The family, like many others here, does not go to the shelter. Marta sits in a puffy coat on the swings, alone in the dark, while Nazar plays.

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Iryna Sanina, 33, speaks in a stairwell on a concrete landing between floors. She leans on her husband, Volodymyr, and wears the only sweater she took with her when they fled Irpin. She has fluffy slippers and her ankles are bare, even when she goes out for a smoke in the freezing weather.

Her eyes fill with tears as she tells her story. She and her husband were trapped for days between Ukrainian and Russian forces, quickly learning to distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire. The bridge to safety was destroyed by the Ukrainian side to stop the Russian advance. Although her husband insisted that she leave her, she wanted to stay.

They hid in an underground shelter in the courtyard. Every time the shelling died down, they would go out and shout at their neighbors, checking to see if they were alive.

Volodymyr stayed on Irpin longer than she did, helping with the evacuations, but it was a struggle; the tires were quickly shredded by shrapnel on the ground. Without communications, Iryna could only communicate with him via text message. “I could see that he got the messages, but he couldn’t reply,” she says. “I didn’t know for days about his fate, and it was terrifying.”

Eventually, elderly neighbors persuaded him to leave for the sake of his 14-year-old son. The boy now takes refuge three hours from Lviv with his grandmother, in a safer place without anti-aircraft sirens.

Iryna and Volodymyr share their apartment on the sixth floor with four other adults from Irpin, all of them colleagues from the pharmaceutical company where the couple works. It is very difficult to live with others, Iryna says, but “we know that many people have lost everything.”

The couple does not want others to know that they come from Irpin. They don’t want to look like victims. They want to go home, no matter how devastated it is, and rebuild.

More than anything, Iryna says, “I want to go back and wake up on February 24,” before it all started. She is crying again.

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The kitchen ceiling is peeling. The bed is an air mattress. The rooms are mostly empty. But Zlata, Olya Shlapak’s 8-year-old daughter, is doing somersaults in her room with a new friend, telling her parents, “Let’s stay in Lviv.”

Olya, 28, and her husband, Sasha, are worried there is little to return to in Kharkiv and in the house they bought just six months ago. On the first day of the Russian invasion, he was abandoned to seek safety in the subway, along with hundreds of other residents.

Olya remembers the “greatest fear of my life”, waking up her daughter to tell her that the war had begun. Fortunately, she says, Zlata didn’t see many fights, but “when she hears loud noises, she tries to hide.”

A week later, they drove to Lviv, thinking they would stay a day or two. They live with their cocker spaniel, Letti, in an eighth-floor apartment found by “a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.” Securing a place in crowded Lviv was difficult; some owners objected to the dog, or even to Sasha. “Many people say that the husband should be in the front,” fighting, says Olya.

Sasha continues to work in information technology. Olya does not dare to look for work. That would mean accepting that they could be in Lviv forever. “I’m waiting,” she says. “This is no life for me now.”

Years ago, Olya fled the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine amid the fighting there. That experience taught him not to panic. But she has been shaken by the effects of Russia’s war propaganda on the people she loves. She can barely talk to her parents in Donetsk, for years under Russian rule, about the war. It is difficult to convince them that Ukraine is not attacking its own people.

Friends in Russia sent similar messages, or worse. “You Ukrainians deserve to die,” wrote one. Olya told her to give up drugs and alcohol. It seemed like the best answer at the time.

For years, he had avoided watching the news. Now he watches it for hours and hours. She cooks. She plays with her daughter. She is a volunteer, helping other displaced people.

To help fill the time, the family is putting together a puzzle on the floor. But the dog has eaten some of the pieces and it may never be complete.

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Olha Salivonchuk is not a displaced person, although she has been preparing to be one for a long time.

Unlike many Ukrainians, he took talk in the West of a Russian invasion seriously, and in November he packed a “travel bag” with clothes, medicine, food and documents. On February 24, her husband woke her up: “It’s already started.” Remembering that moment, she is crying.

Olha, leader of the local apartment owners’ association, saw the building empty out at the start of the war. “The people who lived here, especially with children, just disappeared in a moment,” she says. “It was like an empty building. There is no light at night. There are no cars in the parking lot. It was very scary.”

But then, realizing that Lviv was not at the front, the people returned. And in the days and weeks that followed, Olha, 41, watched Ukrainians arrive from places like Chernihiv and Kharkiv, squeezing into apartments with friends, family and co-workers.

Olha herself hosted a dear friend from kyiv in her ninth-floor apartment for several days before helping her move on. On the eighth floor, a family from kyiv moved in and asked what they could do to help. They collaborated to make the camouflage nets that cover the city’s checkpoints, using leftover fabric.

Olha has never considered leaving, even when a Russian airstrike shook her building. Her family has lived in the city for generations and she has been in the apartment for a dozen years.

Every time the air-raid siren sounds, she, her husband and their 13-year-old daughter Solomiya carry their bags to their makeshift shelter in the hallway. She has duct-taped her windows after seeing people who had fled eastern Ukraine do so. “Maybe they know something,” she says.

Olha is aware of the tender nerves of the newly displaced around her. “I just say ‘you’re new,’” she says. “I don’t want to ask questions. I’m not sure they’re eager to talk about the war. But if you start this conversation, I will listen to you.”

It takes little to make a new home, he says: tea, blankets, photos and conversation. Newcomers are learning that now.

“They are the same now, they are Ukrainians,” says Olha. They speak longingly of the communities that were left behind, but “they understand that they also have a home here.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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