Written by Daly Unger
The city of Izyum, Ukraine, is divided in half by the Donets river. The city is renowned in the surrounding countryside as a river trade hub. Izyum is home to many significant historical sites and a beautiful cathedral. The geography surrounding the city is a rolling highland dotted with coniferous groves. At the base of one of the nearby hills, in the heart of a dark forest grove, is a shallow mass grave being excavated by Ukrainian soldiers. This grave contains the bodies of at least four hundred Ukrainian men, women, and children. All of them were civilians, some were tortured, and others were hung. The mass grave was marked by the Russian soldiers who filled it with a crooked wooden cross devoid of names or any identification beyond a hastily scrawled tally (Harding, 2022).
This is one of the countless mass graves hidden in forest groves, muddy riverbeds, and in the blown-out buildings of decimated Ukrainian cities. The death toll of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war continues to rise at an alarming rate, and the effects of the invasion are touching every corner of the world in shocking and unprecedented ways.
On the University of Lethbridge campus and in the surrounding city, over eight thousand kilometres from Kyiv, the war can feel distant and abstract. Although the gunfire, rocket launches, cries, and sirens cannot be heard from here, it is essential to remember that the conflict is real and is touching the lives of so many people.
In an interview with Canadian journalists, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the energy he and his people have comes from a desire to continue to be humans. Not a statistic, not a martyr, or a historical footnote. “I want to remain human,” Zelenskyy said (Brewster, 2022). So, in a conflict wrought with statistics, take a moment to meet some individuals it has impacted:
Andrew Chernevych is the archivist at the Galt Museum in Lethbridge. He is a familiar face on campus and a regular guest speaker in eastern European history lectures. Andrew grew up in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, and he remembers the collapse and the first days of Ukrainian independence. “I was in high school when the events of ‘91 happened. The schools changed to the Ukrainian language from Russian.” The curriculum changed overnight, and in an instant, the version of history that the Soviet Union was teaching was no longer the fact. “They told us many things, that the Soviet Union saved humanity from the Nazis, but then the narrative changed. The party didn’t control the discourse anymore. There was freedom of the press.”
Andrew remembers the political atmosphere at the time. “There was major development in awareness and sovereignty. Political parties were emerging and pushing for Ukraine’s independence.” Ukraine had long battled Russia and other neighbouring powers for its sovereignty, and finally, it had it for the first time in seventy-two years.
“My dad is still there,” Andrew told me. “He gets an alert on the radio [of a potential missile strike nearby] and goes to his neighbours’ basement and spends several hours there until it’s over. It’s becoming normal; it’s been going on for so long.”
Mykhailo “Misha” Pereverza moved to Lethbridge in 2016 and is the chair of the Project Sunflower Aid Society, a non-profit organization based in southern Alberta that has emerged in response to the war. Project Sunflower works tirelessly to obtain visas, secure safe passage, and obtain work permits for Ukrainian refugees. “When the war broke out, I just wasn’t able to sit. If I’m not in the army, I have to create my own from here. On February 24th [the first day of the Russian invasion], I went to city hall and organized a rally. I was shocked, to be honest with you.” Over three hundred people came to city hall to show their support for Ukraine.
Misha maintains a strong connection with his former homeland. “Most of my friends and family are still in Ukraine. At least, they were before the war.” His sister and two nieces were able to safely cross the Polish border, though not everyone was so lucky. He has little contact with some of his friends, especially those in the military. He is not able to enlist and fight in Ukraine as his friends have, but Misha is waging his own important battle, securing safe passage and the promise of a safe life for families and survivors.
Devon Hargreaves is the Liberal Parties Southern Alberta Regional Chair and the media liaison for Project Sunflower. The same day that Misha began organizing the Ukrainian support rally at Lethbridge city hall, Devon reached out to lend his help wherever possible. “I knew the city couldn’t give me [Misha’s] contact info, so I said, “give my name to whoever is organizing this.” Misha reached out to Devon, and the two of them began organizing what would become Project Sunflower. “We expected ten or fifteen people to hopefully show up to city hall, so I sent out a press release.” Of course, over three hundred people showed their support, and the members of Project Sunflower knew that more could be done. “Misha called me and said: “I’ve got some people coming [from Ukraine], can you put ’em’ up?” I said sure, and they moved in with me on May 8th. The last two just moved out.”
Vira Syrotin arrived in Canada recently with her husband, Yevhenii, and their two children, Boghdan and Sofiia. Vira and her family are just four of over one hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees who have safely arrived in Canada since the war. One hundred thousand is another statistic which brings no image to a reader’s mind. It is a figure often seen in news highlights and casualty reports, although is never truly quantified to the reader.
I met the Syrotin family on November 6th and talked to them with the help of Anna and Vlada, Ukrainian translators and students from the University of Lethbridge. Vira and Yevhenii (who adopted the name Eugene since arriving in Canada), and their young daughter Sofiia, met me at the town office in Coaldale, which served as a middle ground between the University of Lethbridge campus and the Syrotin’s new home in Taber. Mayor Jack Van Rijn of Coaldale and the town’s municipal clerk, Lana Antony, generously gave us access to the town council chamber to facilitate this interview.
Vira and her family lived in a village ten kilometres outside Mariupol, a city in the Donetsk region that was once home to over four hundred thousand residents. Mariupol has been under constant siege and shelling since the first day of the invasion. Since the city surrendered in late May, it has been occupied by Russian forces. Little remains of the original infrastructure of the city. Many of the large buildings have been destroyed entirely, the streets are blocked with rubble, and less than a quarter of the city’s former population remain (Sullivan, 2022).
Ten months ago, before the first shots of the invasion were fired, Mariupol was a bustling metropolitan centre with a state university, thriving theatre district, and a new sports complex. That is how the city looked on February 24th when Vira arrived at work for the last time. She was the head of human resources for the City of Mariupol and worked out of their downtown city hall. By the time Vira arrived at her office, the sounds of distant artillery explosions could be heard. “I collected all of my important things and left,” she recollected, “I knew that if something went wrong, it would be better to be in the village.”
When Vira arrived back at her village, she found her home empty, with no sign of her husband or children. Vira later learned that her family had taken everything they could carry and fled away from Mariupol to her husband Yevhenii’s parents’ house in a village half an hour down the road. Vira met them there, and that house became her family’s shelter during the horrors of the invasion’s first month.
“We didn’t believe that this war could happen in the twenty-first century. A couple days is all I thought, we had enough soldiers and our international relationships were strong… We waited for a peaceful conversation between Russia and Ukraine, but it never came.” The Syrotin family lived like that from the first day of the invasion on February 24th until March 1st, waiting for the war to end and for the peace talks to begin. But instead of a peaceful resolution, the conflict began to escalate.
On March 1st Russian tanks arrived at their village. Until that point, they thought they were safe because there were no military buildings or Ukrainian soldiers nearby, but once the tanks arrived they realized that their quiet, out-of-the-way village did not guarantee an exception from the fighting. “They destroyed everything. The school, the hospital, they took out the electricity and then began destroying the houses.” The Syrotin family moved into the house’s cellar with Yevhenii’s parents. The village had little to no actual basements, so they had to shelter in that windowless, dirt-floored storage room while their village was being destroyed overhead.
On March 2nd, their house was fired at by the Russian tanks, and although they were hiding in the cellar, shrapnel from the shell fired at their home came through the ceiling and hit Yevhenii’s father. Vira showed me a picture of the two-inch circular piece of steel shrapnel that was embedded in grandfather’s back, with the artillery shell’s olive drab military paint still visible on its warped steel surface. The hospital was destroyed, and it was deadly to go outside, so they had no way to take care of his wounds. A Ukrainian paramedic who was sheltering nearby managed to visit them and perform first aid on grandfather’s shrapnel wounds.
After five days, the Russian soldiers moved on from their village, and they came out of the cellar to find food and to clean their clothes, though they were far from safe. “The villages don’t have an early warning system like the cities,” Yevhenii told me, “you just have to listen for the bombs, then run to the cellar when you hear them coming.”
The Syrotin family explained to me the horrifying systematic method that the Russian military had developed for keeping the towns and villages of the Ukrainian countryside suppressed: “They bomb the village, then wait two days. After two days, people are less scared so they go back outside, then once everyone is outside and calm, the soldiers attack the village.” Fear and hiding became their everyday norm. Vira’s family never went far from their cellar and could hear the sounds of the war at all hours. “They go from village to village, destroying everything, then going to the next one.”
On March 23rd, nearly a month after the invasion began, the Russian military police arrived at their village and began rounding up anyone who was deemed “too Ukrainian.” That included anyone with a military background, government officials, and people who were the desired age to be conscripted into the Russian army. These people were taken from the village and sent to “filtration camps” where they could be separated from the Ukrainian people and processed. Vira was a government official, and her family feared she would be sent to one of the camps. They decided that this was their time to try to leave Ukraine and find safety as far from the fighting as they could.
The city of Zaporizhzhia was still unoccupied by Russian forces, but was a three-hour drive from the village they had been sheltering in. They set out for the safety of Zaporizhzhia on the 23rd, but what would normally have taken Yevhenii three hours to drive turned into a painstaking trek. The road to Zaporizhzhia had been littered with deadly minefields and military checkpoints, which the family had to navigate carefully. It was over forty-eight hours before they finally arrived at Zaporizhzhia, once again in Ukrainian territory.
“I just drove,” Yevhenii told me with a very serious look, “I didn’t know where we were going. I just drove away from Russia.” Yevhenii didn’t stop driving until he and his family safely crossed the Polish border. They got in touch with Misha and Project Sunflower from Poland, Misha organized visas and transport for their family to Calgary and then later to Taber, where they stayed at the Taber Christian Church until they found jobs and a home to support their family. The chaos and fear of the war ended for them as quickly as it had begun, with a trip to a new country where few people spoke their language, and nobody knew their story.
Talking to the Syrotin family, one would never imagine what they had endured. As we shared coffee after the interview and they laughed about the challenges of learning the English language, I could almost forget the story they had just told me. Crossing minefields and avoiding military checkpoints, taking shelter from enemy tanks in a dark cellar, and fleeing the chaos of a city under siege are experiences most people will mercifully never endure. The casual comradery of this family who had survived the unimaginable and less than a handful of the one hundred thousand Ukrainians now calling this country home after theirs was taken from them. Even after everything they had experienced, and after their old lives were destroyed, they would not let me go without expressing gratitude for the people who had got them here and for the country that embraced them.
“We just appreciate the opportunity to stay here in Canada,” Vira said. “We’ve found jobs and so many people who can help us. We work hard every day and study English because we don’t ever want to take from anything like the food bank. There are enough people who need help more than us, so we will take care of ourselves. We just appreciate the opportunity here.”
Brewster, M. (2022, October 20). ‘I want to remain human’: Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the price of war and the future of Ukraine. CBC https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/volodymyr-zelenskyy-ukraine-russia-1.6622576
Harding, L. (2022, September 18). Izium: after Russian retreat, horrors of Russian occupation are revealed. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/17/izium-russian-occupation-ukraine-horrors-donbas-bucha
Sullivan, B. (2022, March 31). Ukrainians navigate a perilous route to safety out of besieged Mariupol. NPR https://www.npr.org/2022/03/31/1089705434/ukraine-russia-war-mariupol-zaporizhzhia