On the 7th day of the full-scale invasion Olha evacuated from Kharkiv to Poland. One month later, she moved further to Portugal.
Could you describe the first days of Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine?
On February 24, Apocalypsis began: constant artillery shelling and bomb attacks, your neighbours getting wounded and killed. We equipped a makeshift bomb shelter in our bathroom. We were living in survival mode, with the only thoughts about the need to make water supplies, do groceries, and try to return home alive and unwounded. On the very first day, my colleagues launched a chat where we were sharing information about people’s needs and looking for solutions. And I thought that I could cope with managing my life that way. But bomb attacks were getting more and more intense. During one of those air raid alarms we went down to the basement of our apartment building which served us as a bomb shelter. It was when I saw my 15-year-old son cry. And I realised that it was my duty to take care of him.
Was it the day when you decided to leave?
It happened a bit later. My friend and I decided to help volunteers cook dinners for the Territory Defence Forces. The kitchen was located in the Kharkiv Regional State Administration building. But then, I had a sudden sinking feeling and stayed home. The following day, I saw a missile rushing over the windows of my apartment in the direction of the Administration building. Then I heard an explosion. I instantly messaged my friend. The missile hit the building where the kitchen was located.
Luckily, a few minutes before the explosion, my friend had left the room where she’d been staying to go to the bathroom. That saved her life. When the missile hit the building, that room turned into debris. There was nothing left of her things and documents she had taken with her. But she stayed alive - by chance. And it was when I understood that I had to take my son and leave the city.
Where did you stay and what did you do when you arrived in Poland?
A friend of mine offered me a job. I worked as a carpenter in his workshop in a small village in Poland. That was where I found my first shelter as a refugee for about a month. I was absolutely fine with the job and the accommodation, and I felt good about being not so far from home. But there was one thing that didn’t allow me to stay longer. The village I was staying in is situated right on the border with Belarus. And I could clearly hear sounds of missiles being launched from Belarus, apparently to Ukraine. And it was very hard to endure - to be a witness of attacks aimed at your country, your family and friends. There was no way for me to bear it, to overcome that devastating feeling, being safe but witnessing terror just a few kilometers away, unable to do anything to prevent it.
Why did you opt for Portugal?
I remember that day. My son and I went for a walk. It was the first time I dared to raise my head and look at the sky. It was blue, with birds flying above our heads. I said to myself, “Well, now I can breathe out and relax.” Ironically, at that very moment I heard massive artillery explosions coming from Belarus. Blood curdled in my veins again. I thought that if Belarus decided to attack Poland, we would appear to be on the frontline. There is a river at the border between Poland and Belarus. On our arrival in Poland, we saw people boating there. When we went there later, we saw no people, no boats, but a barbed wire fence and a military patrol.
It was when I understood that war would not end tomorrow. So, I started contemplating my future and the future of my 15-year-old son. I started searching for job opportunities. And I came across an announcement posted by the National Union of Theatre People of Ukraine. The first reason to take that offer was the fact that Portugal is very far from Russia.
Could you tell us about the project in Portugal?
The project is called ‘Stage. Home of the World’. It was initiated by a local real estate development company and is run by Companhia de Teatro de Braga, with seven theatre people from Ukraine taking part in it. The curator of the project is Rui Madeira, the Artistic Director of Companhia de Teatro de Braga.
Currently, we are working on two productions. The one I’m working on is directed by Rui Madeira. It is ‘Birds’ by Aristophanes adapted to modern reality, with Ukrainians as Birds. We are working with non-actors from Ukraine that have moved to Portugal due to the war. My job in this project is to conduct trainings on stage movement techniques. The show is planned to be premiered at the ancient amphitheatre that was excavated several years ago in Braga. Our show will be the first event the new venue will host. And then, we are planning to go on tour across Portugal.
Would you like to stay in Portugal and develop your career there?
I want to return home. Starting everything from scratch in a new country when it wasn’t your choice is very hard. I am longing for home. I loved my life there and I cannot imagine living in any other country than Ukraine. So, I am waiting for the victory. There’s no other possible scenario for us. ‘Cause in case we do not win, we will keep fighting as guerillas. We won’t stop fighting back. Let them erase us from the map? No, we won’t.
What helps you keep your chin up being away from home? Is there anything or anyone that inspires and encourages you?
I’m looking at my friends who are volunteering in Kharkiv, delivering food and medicines to people in need under artillery shelling. And I wonder where they are drawing strength from. I regret not being so brave as they are to take weapon and defend my land. I have contemplated it many times. But I’m scared of the mere thought of returning to Ukraine now, let alone joining the army. This war has revealed a lot about ourselves. I didn’t know before that I am such a coward.
The strongest moral support I receive comes from my parents who are staying in Ukraine. And when I feel low, I donate to the Ukrainian army. It makes me feel needed. I'm convinced that as long as everyone is contributing their bits to the common cause, we won’t be defeated.
And you know, when we hear the words “the mighty Ukrainian army”, we picture strong and battle-hardened military men. But to me, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are my brother, my girlfriend and my friend. Professional military men and women? Yes. But also: a former cameraman, a former actress and a former actor. They are the army. And now, a part of the mighty Ukrainian army is in almost every Ukrainian family.
ВОЛЯ / The Free Will: Ukrainian Theatre People in War is a Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles project, conducted by Yulia Ostrohliad.