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Ukrainians who fled homeland face 1st anniversary of invasion

From left, Nikita Lyman, 2; Valeriia Lyman, 8; Ivan Tkachenko, 15; Yehor Tkachenko, 10; Illia Kisel, 11; and Matvey Kisel, 13, on Thursday, Feb. 23, hold Ukrainian flags as they prepare for a Ukrainian rally on Friday, Feb. 24, in Pittsburgh. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle
‘A war for nothing’

Every morning Irena Tkachenko starts her day the same way: by telephoning her relatives and friends in Ukraine to see if they are still OK.

Tkachenko, her husband, and two school-aged sons, along with Anna Kisel and her two sons, fled their war-torn hometown of Kharkiv in June for the safety of Cranberry Township.

The families arrived with no money and one suitcase per family.

They were sponsored by their friends, Maksym and Yana Yarmatsevych, who were able to bring the two families to the United States through President Joe Biden’s Uniting for Ukraine program.

The families are from Kharkiv, a larger city in the eastern half of the country near the Russian border to the north.

Stories from Ukraine

Tkachenko said her parents, in-laws, entire extended family and many friends continue to live in Kharkiv, where bombs and missiles have become the norm.

She said her parents and in-laws live in the same homes they occupied in peacetime, but electric service is sporadic.

Tkachenko said she can hardly believe it has been one year since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded her peaceful country on a frigid afternoon on Feb. 24, 2022.

“We talk every day. Sometimes more,” Tkachenko said of her Ukrainian family through the English skills of Lyudmyla Martin, who is Maksym Yarmatsevych’s mother.

Kisel’s in-laws live in a city in Ukraine that has been occupied by Russia.

Russian soldiers come every day to search their houses and phones and interrogate the older couple about the whereabouts of their sons.

Kisel explained one son is fighting on the Ukrainian side, and the Russians could decide to kill her in-laws if they found out.

“They are destroying families,” Martin said.

Also, her in-laws cannot leave the occupied area except to go into Russia.

Martin said she has seen reports that Russian soldiers are kidnapping Ukrainian children and bringing them to Russia to be indoctrinated into Russian culture.

She said photos of conditions in the subterranean living quarters endured by the children show “they live like pigs.”

The grandmother of Kisel’s husband, Anatolyy, died in the occupied home, and Russian soldiers refused to allow the family to give her a dignified burial in a nearby graveyard or even provide a coffin, Martin said.

She said Anatolyy’s father cobbled together a makeshift coffin from wood scraps, and she finally was buried after days of repose in the home.

In another instance in the occupied area, Martin said her niece’s husband broke his shoulder fighting with Russian soldiers in an effort to protect his wife.

“It’s still very painful for us after one year because it’s a war for nothing,” Martin said. “Putin wants to eliminate Ukraine. He says Ukrainian people are Russian people.”

From left, Ivan Tkachenko, 15; Matvey Kisel, 13; Yehor Tkachenko, 10; Illia Kisel, 11; Valeriia Lyman, 8; and Nikita Lyman, 2, all of Cranberry Township, proudly hold Ukrainian flags as they prepare Thursday, Feb. 23, for a rally with their countrymen on Friday, Feb. 24, in Pittsburgh. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle
Building a life in Cranberry Township

On Tuesday, the three women wore a smile due to Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine.

“Our spirits are up because Biden was there (Monday),” Martin said. “People are truly thankful for the support of the U.S.”

She said Biden’s speech from Poland greatly lifted the spirits of Ukrainians in their home country and around the world.

“Everybody believes Ukraine will win this war,” Martin said.

Martin, Kisel and their husbands have finally received Social Security numbers, which allows them to work in this country.

They take English classes at Butler County Community College’s Cranberry Township campus.

“I love English classes, but we need them every day. Now, they are only two days a week,” Kisel said.

They hope they will be able to remain in the U.S. after their status with the Uniting for Ukraine program expires next year, as they doubt Kharkiv will be livable.

“They would like to build new lives here, because if they go back to Ukraine, life will not be the same,” Martin said.

Both women would like to return to their homeland and families there, but doubt that such a plan will be feasible in the foreseeable future.

Tkachenko said a survey of Ukrainian refugees worldwide showed that 80% would like to return home.

She said watching bombs fall and missiles streak into Kharkiv on the news is very upsetting.

“It was a beautiful city before the war,” Tkachenko said. “You cannot adjust to watching this.”

Reflecting on the anniversary

Martin said the terrified voice of her crying daughter-in-law in a video sent one year ago from Kharkiv will never leave her.

“I hear this voice constantly. She says ‘I’m so scared, mom,’” Martin said, tearing up even a year later. “She is now safe in the Czech Republic with her 5-year-old son.”

The women, and likely the majority of Ukrainians, have the same feelings about Putin as the cruelties of war rage on in their homeland.

“Putin should go die like an animal, not a human,” Martin said.

“Everyone’s life has to end sometime,” Kisel said. “His should end now. All Ukrainians wish him dead.”

Martin and the four families sponsored by she and her son will gather Friday with other Ukrainians in Pittsburgh to commemorate the first anniversary of the war.

Traditional Ukraine clothing, music, icons, flags, banners, flyers and posters will celebrate the country’s rich and peaceful culture, while prayers and hymns will be offered for those fighting for and living in Ukraine.

“We wish for only victory and freedom,” Martin said.

Ukrainian servicemen of the 3rd Separate Tank Iron Brigade take part in an exercise in the Kharkiv area, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 23, the day before the one-year mark since the war began. Russia invaded its neighbor on Feb. 24, 2022. Two families from Kharkiv are taking refuge from the war and making their home in Cranberry Township under the Biden administration’s Uniting for Ukraine program. Associated Press
Ukrainian servicemen of the 3rd Separate Tank Iron Brigade take part in an exercise in the Kharkiv area, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 23, the day before the one-year mark since the war began. Two families from Kharkiv are taking refuge from the war and making their home in Cranberry Township under the Biden administration’s Uniting for Ukraine program. Associated Press
Firefighters extinguish flames outside an apartment house after a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Ukraine, Monday, March 14, 2022. Two families from Kharkiv are taking refuge from the war and making their home in Cranberry Township under the Biden administration’s Uniting for Ukraine program. Associated Press File Photo

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