It’s easy to forget how much Ukraine has endured. During WW2, millions were lost to fighting, being captured, and the horrors committed against Jewish populations. Almost 100,000 lives were lost near Kharkiv alone in one battle, with thousands more lost in the years prior. Kharkiv, though some 450 kilometers away, even felt the impact of the Chernobyl disaster, as many evacuees escaped to it far outside the contaminated areas. Surprising how easy it is to forget these events, though they happened not even a lifetime ago. Surprising how far they have come since, and how much beauty could be managed after so much loss.
It was mostly overcast during my time in Kharkiv. While there, I got to meet senior base scientists who had worked on the Soviet lunar program – a difficult meeting, due to having no translator. I saw many other reminders of Ukraine’s past membership in the former Soviet Union during my stay; much of Soviet architecture is cookie-cutter – the same style of building built throughout, many bearing shadows of the past. Looking back though, it’s not the architecture I find myself returning to; instead, my mind goes to playgrounds I saw near the center of town. With everything happening, I can’t help wondering what will become of them.
I heard from my colleague from Kharkiv again. She had been under bombardment for 14 days – 11 days more since I last heard from her. Somehow though, that is the least of what she had to share. To start, she and her family evacuated. They safely reached Warsaw, Poland, though they were under bombardment throughout the trip. They spent 18 hours on the train – twice as slow as the trip normally is. Many people were trying to get out: three people would share two seats, four would share three, people seated in the aisles, and men standing. She said there were many trains leaving Kharkiv, but so many more people.
Before she got out, time was mostly spent hiding; under constant bombardment, there is little else that makes sense to do. As of the 11th, her first day safe, Kharkiv’s mayor announced that more than 400 multistory buildings had been destroyed, along with infrastructure throughout the city. With a temperature of -18℃ that night, it was a hard one to spend without a roof or heat.
Taxis delivered people to the station, between clearing rubble and delivering humanitarian aid. Her taxi driver took them for free – he took everyone under shelling for free, as he said money didn’t matter. Though my friend and her family are now safe, it’s clear that despite the best efforts of kind people, many aren’t. After hearing all she had to share, I found my mind returning to those playgrounds again. I hope somehow after all of this that they are still there. I pray that they will be able to safely be used again.
Austin Mardon is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Alberta, a member of the Order of Canada and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Jonathan Wiebe is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology at Yorkville University.