Since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, the eyes of the world have been on Ukraine; none more so than those of Kateryna Sran.
Sran has been living in Salmon Arm since 2017, but her mother, sister, stepfather and grandmother remain in Ukraine.
On the day of the invasion, Sran’s sister, Sofia, called from the University of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s largest post-secondary institution.
She had been wakened by explosions, blasts that Sran was able to hear over the phone.
Her mother and stepfather were longtime residents of Mariupol, but have since been able to flee the city.
Her grandmother, however, remains in a small village on the outskirts of the city the Russians surrounded on Feb. 28, cutting power, gas and water.
While she is able to connect with her mother fairly frequently, Sran had no communication with her beloved grandmother between March 26 and April 14.
“We cannot call the Ukrainian provider, but neighbours in Ukraine have a Russian SIM card,” she said, noting phone and Internet connections have been greatly reduced.
People are trying to keep in touch through various platforms. Sran uses a phone app called Telegram to get up-to-date information and photos posted by people in Ukraine.
She already had 88 posts to review by noon last Thursday morning.
“We are going through weeks of either very little or no information. I’m lucky if I heard once a week,” she said, noting how fearful she feels when she places a call and nobody answers.
“This is common and the stories of people trying to get out are scarier than the scariest movie you could imagine.”
As of March 2, Russian forces began non-stop bombing of Mariupol.
One of their targets was a theatre where people were sheltering, despite the word children being written in large letters on the ground in front of the building.
Another airstrike destroyed a maternity and children’s hospital and damaged apartment buildings across the street where Sran’s mother and stepfather lived.
A missile attack on a residential area killed a 94-year-old family member.
“This is exactly in heart of city. There was no military base, it’s residential,” said Sran. “At this point if feels like punishment, retribution for not joining (Russia) in 2014 when they took over Crimea.”
She says Russia also deployed a chemical bomb in Mariupol but nobody can get a sample to reveal which chemicals were used. Even if they could, there is no longer access to labs in which to perform tests.
While the world has been horrified by the atrocities in Bucha, Sran says she does not believe they were part of a military operation, but rather acts performed by soldiers filled with anger and hatred toward Ukrainian children and women.
Whatever the case, Sran says Ukrainians are convinced the situation in Mariupol will prove to be worse than Bucha.
“But who can say if we will ever see the true information based on evidence the Russians are trying to hide,” she said, pointing out the city has faced a stronger assault from the air, water and land. “There is speculation that the Russians are using truck crematoriums to hide the bodies of the victims.”
Along with the horrific loss of life, Sran is heartbroken 90 per cent of the buildings in her birthplace have been damaged or destroyed.
She describes Mariupol as a once-beautiful, developing and multicultural city. Now, she says, people entering the city must do so through Russian “filtration camps” where they are forced to undress to see if they bear some sort of tattoo.
“I’m not sure why,” she said, noting families are being separated, with some being sent to Russian territories. “Nobody knows the full picture. It’s hell on earth, but people are holding up to the tragedy.”
Hearing family members cry on the phone adds to Sran’s feelings of helplessness. But she is doing her best to assist family and friends by translating information and advising those who are interested in coming to Canada on how to submit applications.
She is amazed by the countries that have opened their borders and people all over the world who are opening their hearts and their homes.
She is grateful to Canada for offering three years asylum plus a work visa and is hoping her mother and sister will be here within a month. Her stepfather will not be with them.
Men are not allowed to leave the military state, so, families are being split up and those who leave their beautiful country do not know if it will be for a while or forever.
“Immigration is never an easy journey, with language and cultural changes, and when you haven’t been prepared for this financially or emotionally,” Sran said. “So starting over is not by choice.”
Sran says that back in her homeland, Ukrainians continue to fight for freedom with everything they have.
“They will win, but the point is, how many people will pay the price for their freedom and how many innocent lives will be lost?”
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