“One year ago, I was woken up by explosions,” Alina Shapoval recalled, echoing the memories of countless Ukrainians from the morning that Russia launched its assault on the country exactly one year ago.
My little daughter was sleeping next to me and the first question I had was — how is it possible?”
Shapoval, 36, lived in Nova Kakhovka, a city in the Kherson region which is now occupied by Russian forces. Her first hours of war resembled those of millions of her compatriots — frantically ringing family members, grabbing a travel bag, leaving home.
At first, Shapoval didn’t go far. She stayed with a relative and volunteered to help supply the armed forces with clothing and equipment, just as she had done after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
“Full of adrenalin we’ve spent (the) first weeks helping our guys, with almost no sleep,” she told CNN. “I wanted to stay in Ukraine but it was dangerous and almost impossible.”
Shapoval eventually joined the millions who have fled west, staying with a friend in Switzerland for nine months, then moving on to Wroclaw in Poland.
She felt her life was “torn into pieces.”
“I didn’t see my relatives for such a long time, I didn’t know if I’ll see them again,” she said.
Olexander Atamas, 35, was living in Irpin when Russia invaded. “I was prepared, but even (still) it was unexpected when it happened,” he said. “I felt fear, I was stressed, psychologically it unsettled me.”
Atamas is now serving with Ukraine’s Naval Forces. “Currently there is no fear at all, there is a confidence that everything will develop in a right way, we’ll go through this modern liberation struggle, our state will withstand, will win, will get back our territories.”
Fear quickly turned to defiance for millions of Ukrainians.
“I remember February 24th very clearly; that day I opened YouTube with my sweaty palms and started to learn how to use a gun,” Yegor Firsov, a combat paramedic in the Ukrainian military on eastern frontline, and a former lawmaker, told CNN.
“Morally and psychologically, no one was ready for war. But we overcame our fear, we gathered our strength,” he said.
“We are ready to fight as long as will be needed – day, month or years.”