“What’s that?” Daria ducks down and her eyes widen. It’s 12.00, the first Monday of the month. The air raid siren is being tested. This is the 21-year-old ’s fourth year studying in the Netherlands, so she should remember. But it’s the first time that she’s heard the siren since fleeing from Ukraine. Daria immediately calls her mother, who is now staying in a hotel in Rotterdam, to explain. This siren brings back a lot of memories.
The first (and not the last) air raid siren
The first time that Daria heard the air raid siren in Ukraine was on 22 February. She can remember the moment exactly. It was tested two days before the war started. She should have been back in the Netherlands already. After six months of studying in Newcastle, at the end of January she flew to her parents in Zaporizhzhya, around 230 kilometres from Mariupol. On the way, she got Covid. She and her parents subsequently spent three weeks inside. On 25 February she was going to fly back to the Netherlands, at least that was the plan.
At 5.30 on 24 February, Daria’s mother woke her up. She could hear explosions in the distance. The war had started. This was the last time that Daria slept in her bed. Fearing a night-time bombing, she and her parents spent the next few weeks sleeping in the hall, the safest place in the house. “It was the last night in a long time that I’d slept anyway,” she says. “When I wake up in a panic, I freeze; I’ve had that for a while. So I kept watch during the night and slept a bit during the day.”
Three weeks in the war
Packing emergency bags, buying from stores, calling family to check on them, charging powerbanks, filling everything possible with water – yes, even the bath. During the first two days of the war, Daria mainly thought in practical terms. “You need to do something, to calm yourself down. You can’t sit and wait till they come and kill you.”
This is the start of what Daria describes as ‘the worst days’. The days when you sit indoors and wait for news. In the second week, the family suddenly heard a noise. “It must be tanks. But from which side? My father went to look. He wouldn’t let me go with him. He saw the tracks of tanks that had driven through the centre.”
The family guessed that they were Ukrainian soldiers on their way to the dam of the hydroelectric power plant. They also thought that the military aircraft that later flew over the house were Ukrainian too. “No bombs fell, and we were still alive.”
Her mother certainly felt the stress and panic of the situation. Daria tried to make jokes and lighten the mood. “Not about the war itself, but about her behaviour. Or about how my father ran to the window when the aircraft was over our heads. My mother crawled towards me. I was holding the dog and she bent over us. It really wasn’t funny; in fact it was very scary. But a joke makes things easier.”
One day, Daria’s father gives her 30 euros to buy food that they could donate. On social media, she posted how much that can buy in Ukraine. She received lots of reactions from friends and people transferred money to her to help refugees. In total, Daria raised 2500 euros. Via Instagram, she continued posting what she bought and how she brought it to the refugees. “My old secondary school was sheltering people from Mariupol. On the first days that I did shopping, I spent five hours walking there and back. Until a friend came to help with a car.”
If you need to flee your country
The situation in the country was becoming increasingly unsafe. Her father wanted Daria to go back to Rotterdam. For her safety and her studies, the International Bachelor Communication and Media. Both are essential for her future, he said. Her father took Daria, her mother and some friends and family to the train station one and a half hours from Zaporizhzhya. He was not allowed to leave the country.
The journey to Rotterdam took four days. It took them twenty hours in a train to reach Lviv. “That day, 18 March, Lviv was bombed. The man who picked us up from the station told us that he’d seen it.” They got out just before the border. They had to walk the last bit to Poland. “There we saw a mother trying to convince the border guards that her 18-year-old son was allowed out of the country. ‘He’s studying abroad,’ she kept saying. But he wasn’t allowed to leave. They both turned round. We were allowed through.”
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After three weeks of war, back in lectures
Daria is determined to finish her bachelor this year. Being a student from outside the European Union, she pays more tuition fees. She doesn’t want her parents to pay for another academic year, and certainly not in war time. And she doesn’t want the war to delay her studies. In Ukraine, she tried to do one online lecture, but she couldn’t concentrate.
After three weeks of war, four days of travelling and one day in Rotterdam, Daria wanted to go to lectures. “Everyone looked at me when I came in. My best friend had come with me and held my hand the whole time.” The transition from war and fleeing to ‘normal life’ feels very abrupt and unreal to Daria. “It didn’t feel right. I didn’t say anything the whole time.” From Ukraine, Daria had seen posts on social media showing life in Rotterdam continuing. On Instagram, she saw people talking about their support for those caught up in the war as well as stories about parties. The contrast already
felt unreal then, she says. Now that she’s back, it feels even stranger. “I’m not ready yet for normal life. I’ve seen a few friends, but I’m now concentrating on my studies, my mother and looking for a job so that we can move on.”