In 2014, photojournalist Sergey Korovayny watched Russian forces take his home town, Khartsyzsk in Donetsk region. Eight years later, with the next invasion by Russia, he and his family fled their new home in Kyiv. The situation prompted Korovayny to track down others from Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine who also had to flee for a second time.
“Is it harder to lose their home again? Or do they already have these survival skills?” he asked. “Did they have the full tank of gas and luggage ready? And where are those homes now?”
“I think it’s easier for me than for those that experience it for the first time. I know that life doesn’t end there. It will go on. War is a test that shows what you’re capable of and how much faith and willingness to fight you have in you,” says journalist Daria Kurinna. She jokes she can now pack the entire house in 30 minutes. “I immediately realised that I was going to leave Kyiv,” she said. “I didn’t want to put myself in harm’s way again”.
In 2014, Andriy Shchekun, an activist from Crimea, organised a resistance movement on the peninsula. He was soon captured and held for 11 days before he and other prisoners were exchanged for a high-ranking Russian official. He had been living in Kyiv and calling himself a forcibly deported Crimean citizen. This February, when the invasion began, he and his family immediately went to Lviv. Shchekun had to use multiple trains and buses to get there. However, he had every aspect of the route planned beforehand.
Serhii Kolesnikov compares abandoning your life during war to a parachute jump. “When I first jumped, I was told that it was scary only for the first-timers. This is not true at all,” says the 32-year-old, who runs a media company. At the time of the occupation of Luhansk, Kolesnikov was 24. He had nothing to lose. Everything that happened was seen as an adventure and a challenge. Sleeping on the floor seemed sort of romantic then. Now, in Lviv with his family, it feels like a month of nights on a train. “We are renting an apartment here, but my house is in Kyiv.” Kolesnikov expected war for eight years. “I advised all my acquaintances not to buy any real estate. They looked at me like I was an idiot. It would be better, of course, if they were right, not me. I recently read a book about Holocaust survivors who advised their kids to only have the property that fits in a small bag. I understand them very well now.”
Diana Berg, an artist, moved to Mariupol from occupied Donetsk in 2014. She wanted to turn Mariupol into the cultural capital of Donbas and created an art platform called TIU. Now she helps people in Mariupol to escape the occupied and destroyed city. “Just like other migrants, we put a lot of love into rebuilding our life in a new place. Our entire lives were left back at home, including close ones who did not have phone service. We were grateful for the Donetsk that we used to have. That’s why we put all our love into the new home in Mariupol. We had to furnish it from scratch, so we got cats and we bought string lights to put in our apartment overlooking the theatre. Now my loss of home hurts even deeper. Back then, we were still able to go to Donetsk on occasion, but as for Mariupol, there’s nowhere to return to.”
Sisters Ksenia and Tetiana Ivanov work for a charity in Ivano-Frankivsk whose work revolves around those affected by war – shelters for victims of domestic violence are being repurposed for the needs of internally displaced people. In Donetsk in 2014, they didn’t even consider “waiting the fighting out”. Their pro-Ukrainian parents quickly realised they didn’t want to live there any more and moved to Kyiv. But this time their parents refused to flee on principle. Tetiana says it is as painful to experience war now as it was the first time around, eight years ago. “You can’t ever be ready for such a tragedy even if you’ve experienced it before. You have dreams, make plans, build your life from scratch – and all this makes it even worse. Russians are once again taking these most precious things from us.”
Danylo Pavlov, a documentary photographer and photo editor at Reporters magazine, did not expect war in 2014. A month before it started, he spent all his savings on building materials. He dreamed of creating the ideal family space in his home in Donetsk. When the war began, he left the city with his wife and two young children, little to no luggage and no plan B. Like most acquaintances, they left for “for two weeks, tops”. At first, they went to relatives in Uzhhorod, and later to Kyiv after an invitation from a magazine. It took years to settle in a new place and buy things to do up a new apartment in Kyiv. As soon as he partly completed the repairs, war returned. “When we discussed the possible invasion at home, it piqued the children’s interest. I went too far with my stories and realised it when my son cried.” What hasn’t changed since 2014, Pavlov says, is the painful issue of the relationship between those fleeing the war to peaceful regions and those living there. “I did not expect Kyivites to face the same thing that the easterners faced previously. There are issues with regard to renting apartments, gossip about rude migrants and language issues – all of this had already happened to Donetsk residents when they came to Kyiv eight years ago. It hurts that people are not ready to accept each other. But I still feel like we are more united now than ever.”
Lyubov Zavhorodnya, 71, says that it is easy to tell whether a person is a refugee. “I came to the market, and a woman stall owner offered me shoes at a discount. She saw that I wore clothes the same size as her. The next day she brought me two trunks of clothes. She said that if I didn’t need them, I could give them to others. I was so grateful.” This time Zavhorodnya fled the war from Dnipro. Eight years ago, she fled Debaltseve. One day, she was waiting for the shelling to end in the basement of her home. “Our yard has always been green and bushy. There were so many tall trees. And when they came out of the basement after the shelling, it was so light that my eyes hurt. They fired so hard that not a single leaf on a tree was left.” Now Zavhorodnya does not know where her house is located geographically. She only knows that home is where her son, daughter-in-law and four-year-old granddaughter are.
“My daughter Natasha was 18 months old when we had to flee from the shelling in Luhansk. We went to relatives in Severodonetsk to wait until it was over,” says Anastasiia. Eight years later, war has found them there. They spent the first nine days in a bomb shelter. Anastasiia has achieved a lot in this time. She worked at a local university, completed higher education, got a job as an editor at a radio station and bought an apartment where she lived with her daughter and mother. But the feeling of anxious anticipation has never left. “In 2018, my father died; he couldn’t take all this. He was such a patriot. He was even buried with a flag. He has always told me to be alert. The Russian world, he said, will expand sooner or later. And I was always afraid of that.” Anastasiia is now in Drohobych, western Ukraine, thinking about what to do next.
“I’ve moved to so many places. This time it was devastating emotionally. I only reached the point in my life when anxiety went away and I felt happy for a week or two. Then Putin did this. I lost my home in Makiivka in 2014, when I was 18. It took me years to rebuild my life, to get into the prewar state I was in before 2014. It’s like one little building block after the other. First, you look for a new dwelling. Then you need to find a place to finish your BA, then MA. I’ve only been able to find friends and properly socialise after five years in Kyiv. Recently I became financially independent, rented a flat on my own. This time I didn’t even want to leave. How old will I be when I get my life back again – 35? 40? I have been waiting for eight years for Putin to go farther into the country. I kept thinking – tomorrow, tomorrow, he’ll do it. I won’t be able to finish my studies – he will come. I won’t have time to find a job – he will come. I did what I planned. So did he.”
It was easier for 29-year-old Artem Bakanov to leave Donetsk in 2014 than Kyiv now. Back then, he didn’t have much. It was difficult to find a place to stay in Odesa, where he moved with his girlfriend – people from Donbas often faced prejudice. The couple worked as waiters and tempered their spirits. They participated in pro-Ukrainian rallies. Then they moved to Kyiv, found work and made their first attempts to open a business. Finally, they felt the sky was the limit. Bakanov has managed to enter the restaurant business, develop his own company and taxi services as well as start a project to ship vehicles from the US. The possibility of an attack on Kyiv sounded ridiculous. “I tried to calm my wife down. I was telling her that everything was going to be OK. Everyone kept withdrawing cash from their accounts, and I kept reloading mine as normal. It took one morning to lose everything you’ve been working on for the last eight years.” After the next move – to Lviv – they asked themselves what was next. Bakanov’s partner decided to start a self-defence school; every day, volunteers from Kharkiv, Odesa, Kyiv and Lviv teach 120-150 people. Medical and military instructors offer their knowledge and help. They are building a shooting range so that any visitor can learn how to fire guns safely.
Public official Artur Stadnik is 26 now. When there were battles for Donetsk, he was a student going through the work and travel programme in the US. He hasn’t returned to his parents’ home. As soon as he finished his studies in Kharkiv, he moved to the capital with his parents. “I could always sense their sadness in the background, but I was holding up well. Yes, the house was taken away from my family, but that couldn’t be repeated, not again. And then the Russians expanded their military presence, and I wasn’t so sure any more. I arranged my documents, had a medical screening at a draft board and, since December, have been packing and unpacking my things.” When asked where his home is, Stadnik answers: “Ukraine.”
Marina Shulzhenko, with her parents and daughter Masha, moved from the town of Khartsyzsk in the Donetsk region to Bila Tserkva near Kyiv in 2014. In 2022, they were once again forced to move. This time to the village of Bohorodchany in western Ukraine. Shulzhenko says that both times it was hard to leave her house. “It feels like the war is following us. There’s nowhere to hide from it. Nowhere is safe. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. It would reach us even across the border. Fear and grief. That’s probably what all of us refugees feel. We became very attached to Bila Tserkva throughout these eight years. I want to return there as soon as possible, once it’s safe to go.”
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